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The Cable

Situation Report: New Afghan plans; Kunduz continues to roil; Syrian mission creep for Moscow; new FP podcast ready; Russia targeting CIA-trained rebels; Iraq would welcome Russian planes; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The war remains the same. After 14 years of war in Afghanistan, top generals at the Pentagon continue to craft options for the White House to keep thousands of U.S. troops committed to the fight past President Barack Obama’s 2016 withdrawal date. Before stepping down as Chairman of the ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The war remains the same. After 14 years of war in Afghanistan, top generals at the Pentagon continue to craft options for the White House to keep thousands of U.S. troops committed to the fight past President Barack Obama’s 2016 withdrawal date.

Before stepping down as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey presented a plan to Obama to keep as many as 5,000 U.S. troops focused mainly on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after 2016, the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe report. The proposal comes in addition to the options Gen. John  Campbell — who leads the war effort — sent to the White House earlier this fall, which range from an embassy-based force of about 1,000 troops to as many as 8,000 troops to to help train Afghan forces. There are currently 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with several thousand more from NATO countries deployed to train the Afghan army and police.

The news of Dempsey’s plan — which the White House appears to favor — comes as Campbell prepares to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday morning. It also comes as the fight for the northern city of Kunduz rages on amid international outrage over the U.S. airstrike there that killed 22 at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is traveling in Europe this week, wrapping things up at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where Afghanistan should manage to break through the concerns about Russia.

No agreement. What happened in the skies over that hospital in Kunduz remains a matter of debate. The U.S. military on Monday offered a new account of the lethal airstrike, saying the raid was requested by Afghan troops under fire and not American troops. But that new explanation drew an immediate and angry response from Doctors Without Borders. The organization’s General Director Christopher Stokes, demanded an independent investigation into the case, saying, “the reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff.”

Not our army. Keeps your eyes peeled for Russian “volunteers” in Syria. Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, chief of Russia’s State Duma Defense Committee, said this week that “it is likely that groups of Russian volunteers will appear in the ranks of the Syrian army as combat participants,” raising the possibility that Russia is preparing an unacknowledged ground force to participate in the defense of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The move would of course echo the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where Russia refuses to acknowledge its participation in the conflict. But considering the risks involved, the pay isn’t exactly great. Russian news service Interfax quoted experts saying troops could receive $50 a day for their efforts. On Tuesday, Komoyedov again insisted that Russia will not commit ground troops to the fight in Syria, adding Moscow is doing everything it can to prevent its citizens to fight in the Syrian conflict.

Good morning from the crew over here at SitRep. As always, your voices are welcome. 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.

NEW Editor’s Roundtable (The E.R.) podcast is up and ready for a listen. David Rothkopf, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake and David Sanger look ahead and discuss what’s in store for the Iran deal, for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, and the new president to come. Listen to their lively debate – more to come next week. Subscribe and download on iTunes or Stitcher: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI

Syria

U.S. officials are convinced that Russian jets are deliberately targeting CIA-trained rebels in Syria. “On day one, you can say it was a one-time mistake,” a senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous. “But on day three and day four, there’s no question it’s intentional. They know what they’re hitting.” One of the first groups targeted by Russian bombs was a CIA-backed group known as Tajamu al-Ezzeh, which has been hit at least 18 times by Russian planes. Others, like the First Coastal Division in Latakia province have also been targeted.

While Russia maintains that its ground forces or private “volunteers” won’t participate in the war in Syria, Russian TV is giving citizens nightly updates on the weather in the skies over northern Syria where Russian planes are bombing. One newscaster on the state-owned Rossiya 24 news channel told viewers over the weekend that October in Syria is “ideal for carrying out operational sorties.” The usual light cloud cover in the region this time of year “will not make flying more difficult and will not influence the systems for aiming weapons,” she said, adding, “experts note the time for the start of the air operation (in Syria) is chosen very well.” Of course it was.

MANPADS, please. As Russian jets pound rebel groups in Syria, those on the receiving end are complaining that their relationship with America has painted a target on their backs. As a result, the Washington Post reports that the rebels are now asking the U.S. to give them anti-aircraft missiles in the form of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to hold off Russian airstrikes. A number of the shoulder-fire missiles have been seen Syria already, with Chinese and Russian models as the most common. Rebels say a failure by the U.S. to deliver will limit U.S. influence and push rebel groups closer to the harder core of Islamist groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. American officials have previously rebuffed requests for MANPADS, given the risk they pose to civilian aircraft and the chances of diversion to Syria’s anti-western terrorist groups.

Turkey

NATO continues to react strongly to the two incursions on Turkish airspace made by Russian fighter jets over the weekend, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rejecting Moscow’s claim that it as an accident Tuesday morning, calling the incidents “very serious,” adding, “it doesn’t look like an accident.” On Monday, NATO ambassadors met in special session, issuing a statement condemning Russia’s “irresponsible behavior.”

Iraq

The Air Force Times’ Jeff Schogol got a hold of an Iraqi diplomat who said that Baghdad would welcome Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, but the country had not yet requested Russian help. Iraqi officials wouldn’t have far to go to ask for that help, since Russian military officials are already in Baghdad to help staff a joint Iraqi/Iranian/Syrian/Russian command center.

A series of deadly car bombs rocked Iraq on Monday, killing more than 50 people in three separate attacks, ranging from Diyala province north of Baghdad, to the town of Al-Zubayr, southwest of Basra. The Islamic State took to social media to claim responsibility for the AL-Zubayr bombing.

The House is not in order

Just as foreign policy debates loom large over the GOP presidential race, the contest to replace John Boehner (R-Oh.) as Speaker of the House has its own national security element, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. The race pits House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) against Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) — two men with different priorities in the national security arena. McCarthy recently pledged to make defense his “top” priority if elected speaker, and has pushed to shore up his foreign policy cred by slamming the Obama administration’s current approach to Iran, Syria, and more.

As Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, however, Chaffetz has been more concerned with homeland security issues than events overseas. He’s been one of the most vocal critics of the Transportation Security Administration and also recently expressed concern over terrorists hiding among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East.

Iran

Reuters took a look back at the U.S. enforcement of sanctions against Iran in the year leading up to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal forged this summer. As part of its investigation, the news service found that “the U.S. government has pursued far fewer violations of a long-standing arms embargo against Iran in the past year compared to recent years, according to a review of court records and interviews with two senior officials involved in sanctions enforcement.”

Who’s where when

9:00 a.m. Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and Magnus Nordenman of the Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, discuss NATO’s Role at Sea. Webcast here.

9:30 a.m. The Senate Armed Services Committee will receive testimony on the situation in Afghanistan from Gen. John Campbell, Commander, Resolute Support Mission and Commander, United States Forces – Afghanistan.

Think tanked

The Wilson Center’s Maxim Trudolyubov studies the reaction of Russian domestic news media to the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, writing, “the Kremlin does not feel it owes an explanation to its domestic audience as to why Russia is suddenly at war in the Middle East. The conflict is presented as a media event that should not bother the population in any real way.”

 

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