Situation Report: Taliban No. 2 not interested in talking; U.S. aircraft finding more targets in Syria; competing narratives on anti-Islamic State air war; Israeli startup mentality; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The Taliban’s new second in command is a drug-running, ransom-extorting Islamist who one former diplomat describes as a “mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara,” writes FP’s Yochi Dreazen. Sirajuddin Haqqani, recently elevated to the No. 2 spot in the Taliban’s inner circle, cut his teeth as the head ...
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
The Taliban’s new second in command is a drug-running, ransom-extorting Islamist who one former diplomat describes as a “mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara,” writes FP’s Yochi Dreazen. Sirajuddin Haqqani, recently elevated to the No. 2 spot in the Taliban’s inner circle, cut his teeth as the head of the Haqqani network — an al Qaeda-linked group formed by his dad — which is likely responsible for killing hundreds of American troops and thousands of Afghan soldiers over the past 14 years of war in Afghanistan. The State Department calls the Haqqani network “the most lethal insurgent group targeting coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.”
No one can say for certain what Haqqani’s new position will mean for the on-again, off-again peace talks between the group and the Afghan central government. But the Haqqanis have long functioned with the support of the Pakistani intelligence services, and if it saw fit, Islamabad could likely use its ties with him to persuade the group to come to the negotiating table.
Backup? Syrian rebels long disappointed by the lack of U.S. airstrikes to support their operations are pretty worked up over Turkey’s decision to jump into the air war against the Islamic State, reports FP’s David Kenner. Kenner recently sat down with Abu Mohammed, leader of Thuwar al-Sham — an alliance of rebel brigades active in Aleppo — who told him that Turkish officials recently met with Syrian rebel groups to help them begin coordinating efforts against the jihadis.
The Turks have been pushing the rebels to set up a “joint military operations room,” which would allow the different factions “to coordinate their positions along the front lines, share intelligence, and provide a conduit to their regional allies to request airstrikes that would enable their assaults on jihadi positions.”
New targets, new war. While the rebels may be heartened by Turkey’s newfound appetite to fight, Washington has decided to dramatically increase the number of targets that American warplanes can strike in Syria. The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous reports U.S. planes hit Islamist Nusra Front fighters over the weekend for the first time. The Nusra fighters had been engaged in an attack on a group of U.S.-trained fighters in northern Syria, which brought the munitions screaming from the sky.
The strikes are part of a new U.S. policy that allows strikes on groups — including Syrian government forces – that threaten U.S.-trained fighters. It’s a dramatic shift from the previous policy of only hitting Islamic State positions. For guidance on the new rules, we turn to an anonymous senior military official quoted in the WSJ story, who explains the nuances of the new policy for American pilots: “For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them.”
Crossed signals. When it comes to talking to the press about to fight in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials are all over the map. On the one hand, the AP reported on Friday that according to one U.S. defense official, while the Islamic State may have been bloodied by airstrikes over the past year, “we’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers.” The official estimated the jihadist group’s end strength still hovers between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters — the same number American intel officials estimated at the outset of the air campaign.
But speaking to reporters at the Pentagon a bit later in the day, Marine Corps Brig. Ben. Kevin Killea, chief of staff of the U.S.-led coalition, said that the Islamic State has been hit hard, and can no longer mount the kinds of operations it did just a few months ago. The effort “continues to have success,” he said, mostly in limiting the group’s “ability to mount large offensive attacks, as well as reducing their ability to openly control towns and cities.”
Congress has left town, the lunch lines at the Pentagon food court have thinned, and tourists have taken over Washington’s subway system. It’s August, and we’re on the lookout for anything noteworthy or interesting to flag, so please pass any items along to firstname.lastname@example.org or send a shout or DM on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Islamic State’s tech startup
The Islamic State is reportedly releasing an Android news and media app for its followers, according to Syrian activists from the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently organization. Readers will recall that this is not the first Android app for the group. Last year saw the Islamic State sneak the “Dawn” propaganda app past Google’s reviewers and directly onto the Google Play Store. Jihadis from the Al Fajr Media Center Technical Committee also distributed an Android-based encrypted messaging app last year.
How’s this for a new wrinkle? Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani says that after his forces expel the Islamic State from northwestern Iraq, including the city of Sinjar, Kurds must remain in control of the territory. Meanwhile, the Islamic State appears to be making some inroads in recruiting Turkish Kurds to its cause in southern Turkey.
Nigerian troops claim to have rescued 178 hostages from the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram and killed one of its commanders in an operation on Sunday. The rescue took place in Nigeria’s Borno state, where Boko Haram is particularly strong. Nigerian authorities said 101 of the freed captives were children and 77 were adults.
The Atlantic alliance scrambled fighter jets more than 500 times last year, 85 percent of which were to intercept Russian military aircraft –more than at any time since the Cold War. For their part, the Russians claim that NATO aircraft have doubled sorties near the Russian border. In any case, the numbers highlight the increased tensions and high operational tempo that’s become the new norm in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
NATO also says that it is getting more deeply involved in Iraq. There won’t be any more warplanes involved — for now — but a new “capacity building package” will send advisers to the region to work on security sector reform, countering improvised explosive devices, cyber defense, and military training. In a statement released over the weekend, the alliance said that “NATO and Iraqi experts will now work on the details of the training programmes which will be held in Turkey and Jordan.”
Ukrainian troops’ struggle against withering electronic warfare attacks from Russian troops is proving to be a real eye-opening experience for American forces training the country’s military. Defense News notes that the training has been a learning experience for U.S. troops, since they’re gaining valuable intel from the Ukrainians as to how the Russians operate.
Russian military aviation has suffered another crash, this time it was a rotary wing aircraft. A Russian air force Mi-28 from the Berkut squadron crashed in the middle of performing stunts at an air show, killing one pilot died and leaving another crew member in “satisfactory” condition after he managed to escape the vehicle. Russia’s air force has been hit with a string of crashes over the past two months, which experts believe may be the result of an increased operational tempo and a lack of sufficient maintenance.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have put boots and armor on the ground in Yemen as the months-long campaign to wrest control of the country from Houthi rebels continues. Defense News reports that the Gulf coalition has deployed 3,000 troops to Aden. Images from social media show what appear to be Leclerc main battle tanks from the United Arab Emirates headed to Yemen as well as infantry fighting vehicles and American-made M-ATVs in Aden.
The business of defense
American defense manufacturers sold $9.1 billion worth of equipment to foreign governments in July, compared to $3.2 billion in July 2014. Unsurprisingly, the biggest chunk of those sales belongs to the largest defense contractor in the world, Lockheed Martin, who inked deals with South Korea to perform a $2.5 billion upgrade to Seoul’s F-16 fleet, and with Saudi Arabia for $5.4 billion PAC-3 missiles. Heading into the final months of fiscal year 2015, new U.S. foreign sales should exceed 2014’s total, analysts say.
Israeli defense companies are trying to be a little, uh, more fun. The Tel Aviv-based Elbit, which is best known for its drones, is trying to emulate the culture of American Silicon valley startups by offering perks to potential younger employees at its new cyber arm, Cyberbit. The company recognizes that it is competing with some pretty dynamic competition in the world of cyber and tech, and thinks that an office full of “ping-pong tables, arcade games and a big open workspace that encourages employees to collaborate,” will scratch that itch.
One New York-based company appears to be doing good business with the U.S. government in Iraq, and it has some pretty high-profile names on its board of advisers. SOS International has signed over $400 million in contracts to provide contractors to support U.S. forces training the Iraqi Army, and features former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, on its board, writes The Daily Beast.
On the move
Rexon Y. Ryu, who until recently served as chief of staff to former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has headed on over to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which will announce on Monday that Ryu will lead an initiative focused on the intersection of diplomacy, technology, and innovation at the think tank.
Think you can tell the difference between a Russian Kalashnikov and a Chinese Type 56 assault rifle? The Small Arms Survey has a handy new guide showing you how to (safely) identify common small arms found in the world’s conflict zones and in the social media imagery therefrom.
At 109 pages, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that comprises the US-Iran nuclear deal is a lengthy read. The American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project has published a companion guides and infographics breaking down the various elements of the JCPOA sanctions relief, with lists of key dates, infographics and lists of individuals and entities slated for sanctions relief under the agreement. .
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.