The Cable

Situation Report: Centcom raising red flags on the Hill; more U.S. training in Ukraine; Russia over Baghdad; Tokyo defense plans in flux; FP podcast info.; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Hill trouble. Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have written letters to Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisting the Pentagon brief the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about allegations that officials at the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) altered intelligence reports to downplay the potency of the ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Hill trouble. Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have written letters to Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisting the Pentagon brief the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about allegations that officials at the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) altered intelligence reports to downplay the potency of the Islamic State. In the letters, which were obtained by The Hill, the lawmakers say they “want to ensure that intelligence provided to key decision makers properly reflect the expert analysis produced by our Intelligence Community (IC) professionals.”

The letters come on the heels of explosive allegations, first reported in the New York Times and then in the Daily Beast, claiming several Centcom intel analysts have filed formal complaints to the Pentagon’s inspector general over the issue

FP’s Dan De Luce reports that congressional staffers and IC staffers are awaiting the next shoe to drop, but some Hill aids “suggest a toxic climate inside the intelligence team at Central Command,” over the past year.

Back to school. After several months spent training the Ukraine National Guard, soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade will start training up to five battalions of Ukrainian soldiers in November, the U.S. Army Europe confirms. “The training is part of our ongoing efforts to contribute to Ukraine’s long-term military reform and professionalism and to help improve Ukraine’s internal defense capabilities and training capacity,” Donald Wrenn, a spokesman for the Army, emails SitRep. The training will take place at the same facility in western Ukraine as previous training events, but Wrenn said the kind of training that U.S. forces will provide is still being worked out. The program will boost Washington’s security assistance to Ukraine since 2014 to more than $244 million.

Steady as she goes. A fragile cease-fire has been holding up in eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks. Fighting is at its lowest level in months, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Berlin that a deal to pull back heavy weapons from the front lines was “90 percent ready.” An estimated 8,000 people have been killed in Ukraine since Russian-backed rebels began their push to separate from Ukraine in April 2014.

Flight of the Condors. There are renewed tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russian military flights heading to Syria. Just as Bulgaria and Greece have blocked Russian military flights over their territory in response to American requests, Russian aircraft have instead taken to flying over Iran and Iraq on their way to Syria. The New York Times reports Monday morning that “at least seven giant Russian Condor transport planes had taken off from a base in southern Russia during the past week to ferry equipment to Syria, all passing through Iranian and Iraqi airspace.”

Russian news agencies have quoted Lavrov as having confirmed that the planes are chocked full of military supplies, and “they are ongoing, and they will continue.” He added, “they are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use this weaponry.”

Cell blocked. We’ve seen this before. The Taliban attacked an Afghan government-run prison in eastern Ghazni province early Monday, killing four guards and freeing an estimated 355 prisoners, about 150 of whom are militants. It was the biggest Taliban prison break since 2001, when about 500 inmates escaped a jail in Kandahar.

Good morning! Thanks for joining us. As always, please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.   

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Who’s where when

The Air Force Association is hosting its annual conference at National Harbor in Maryland this week, but if you can’t make it out there, watch this space for announcements about events with USAF leadership that will be streamed live online. Today’s slate is led by the Airs Force’s civilian chief:

10:30 a.m. USAF Secretary Deborah Lee James (Live stream here.)

On the dock

On Thursday, the U.S. Army kicks off a hearing to decide whether or not to court martial Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for walking away from his post in an Afghanistan in 2009. After being swapped for five Taliban prisoners 15 months ago on an Afghan hilltop, Bergdahl’s case has been a headache for both the the Army and the Obama administration, which has come under fire for giving away so much to get back a soldier who many consider traitorous. The 29-year-old soldier will report to a preliminary hearing in San Antonio on Thursday to face charges that he deserted his post and endangered the troops who searched for him.

Japan

Well, this is awkward. Recent polls in Japan show that a majority of the country — 54 percent according to the latest tally — are opposed to plans by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government that would allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since WWII. The AP reports that a poll published Monday by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper “showed 54 percent of respondents opposed the legislation against 29 percent who backed it.”

The push to flex Japanese military might comes as Japan’s Ministry of Defense is seeking a fourth year of increased defense spending, asking for a 2.2 percent increase in military spending to $42.3 billion for the year. The defense budget would be Japan’s biggest in 14 years, if approved. Tokyo has already committed to buying all sorts of the latest American-made military kit, including the F-35 fighter plane, the tilt-rotor Osprey transport plane, and amphibious assault vehicles.

Egypt

On Sunday, Egyptian security forces mistakenly opened fire on a caravan of Mexican tourists traveling through the country’s Western Desert region, killing 12 and injuring 10. The Egyptians claim the tourists were driving through an area “off limits to foreign tourists” and that police and military forces were looking for terrorist suspects in the area at the time of the shooting. Locals spoken to by the BBC, however, dispute the government’s account that the tour group was in a restricted area.

Syria / Russia

A coalition of rebel groups in Syria has seized territory in the mountains east of Latakia, near the hometown of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Reuters. The coalition includes al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and fighters from the Islamic State. The advance threatens the heartland of Syria’s Alawite minority, which forms a core pillar of support for Assad.

Russia is reportedly sending air defense systems to Syria as part of its military buildup in the country. At issue is the shipment of the short-to-medium range SA-22 system, comprised of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, to an air base in Latakia. A Russian military official told Reuters that the country had sent the SA-22 system to Syria in 2013 but that more are currently on the way.

With the Russian military beefing up its presence in Syria and U.S. and coalition forces still carrying out airstrikes over Syrian airspace, Russian and American militaries are not talking to each other to deconflict operations. A U.S. Central Command spokesman told reporters that “there is no military-to-military contact at this point,” between the two countries in Syria and neither country is deconflicting operations in an attempt to avoid any mishaps.

Iraq

The Iraqi government has asked Turkey to coordinate with Baghdad when it wants to carry out attacks against Kurdish militants in the country. The request comes after the Turkish military reportedly sent ground troops into Iraq in order to pursue militants from the PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey have designated as a terrorist group.

Darpa

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s defense technology research shop, has tested out new robotic landing gear for helicopters as part of its Mission Adaptive Rotor project. The goal of the program is to make it easier for military helicopters to take off and land in the often rough and unfriendly terrain of the battlefield. The system consists of four bending legs, which you can see in action in this video.

India

It’s not just the United States that’s short of drone pilots these days. India has a growing fleet of of drones and it’s looking to train up a new generation of drone pilots, according to the Times of India. The Indian Air Force is creating dedicated units for UAVs and is recruiting officers for the job of piloting the vehicles, providing 30-40 hours of flight time in the training process.

Swipe right?

Ladies, form a line. Muhammad Rahim al-Afghani, a Guantanamo Bay inmate, accused former associate of Osama Bin Laden and subject of the CIA’s torture program, has a profile on Match.com. Al Jazeera got its hands on letters written by al-Afghani in which he reveals that a Match.com profile has been set up in his name and that his lawyer is keeping him posted on its responses. In the letters, he also shares his thoughts on Donald Trump (“an idiot!!!”), Senator John McCain (“a war hero”), and the Ashley Madison cheating website hack (“terrible news”).

Think tanked

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has a new interview with Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. And one of the things he says most concern him are “lone wolf” attacks.

“The ‘flash to bang’ ratio in plotting of this sort is much quicker and allows for much less time for traditional law enforcement and intelligence tools to disrupt or mitigate potential plots. ISIL has figured this out,” he says. “Individuals connected to ISIL have understood that by motivating actors in their own locations to take action against Western countries and targets,” they can achieve their political goals with minimal investment, he said. “And that’s an innovation in the terrorist playbook that poses a great challenge.”

Just in time, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement over the weekend calling on Muslims in the West to carry out just such attacks. “I call on all Muslims who can harm the countries of the crusader coalition not to hesitate. We must now focus on moving the war to the heart of the homes and cities of the crusader West and specifically America,” he said in an audio recording posted online on Sunday.

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