The Cable

Situation Report: Turkish planes shoot down unidentified aircraft; longest war gets longer; U.S. support for Yemen bombing campaign under fire; what did U.S. forces know in Kunduz; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley BREAKING: There are reports that Turkish warplanes have shot down an unidentified aircraft flying in Turkish airspace near the Syrian border. Turkish military officials announced that the aircraft had been given three warnings before it was taken down, but there is no indication just yet if the aircraft was ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

BREAKING: There are reports that Turkish warplanes have shot down an unidentified aircraft flying in Turkish airspace near the Syrian border. Turkish military officials announced that the aircraft had been given three warnings before it was taken down, but there is no indication just yet if the aircraft was a drone or a manned aircraft. The Turkish military said in a statement that the aircraft was “downed by fire from our aircraft on patrol, according to the rules of engagement.”

Bad blood in Yemen. There is growing concern that American support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen may be making a dire humanitarian crisis there even worse. FP’s Colum Lynch reports that last week, a U.N. panel of experts responsible for tracking human rights violations concluded that all parties involved in the fighting in Yemen are guilty of human rights abuses, according to a copy of a confidential report.

“The panel singled out the coalition for committing “grave violations” of civilians’ rights, citing reports of indiscriminate airstrikes, as well as the targeting of markets, aid warehouses, and a camp for displaced Yemenis,” Lynch reports. “The panel cited reports that the coalition treated the entire northern cities of Sadah and Marra as military targets, raising concerns that it considered civilian neighborhoods as legitimate strike zones.”

The U.S. provides critical intelligence to the Saudi coalition, and has launched hundreds of aerial refueling sorties since April to keep jets from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. flying, according to information provided by the Pentagon.

The long(er) war. There is no real end in sight to the 14-year U.S. war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he’s changing course of the drawdown he outlined two years ago. Under the previous plan, most of the 9,800 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan were scheduled to leave by the end of 2016, save for an embassy security force in Kabul. But the 9,800 advisors and counterterrorism forces will now remain in place through most of 2016 before drawing down to about 5,500 troops by early 2017, just as a new administration moves into the White House.

FP’s Paul McLeary writes that White House spokesman Josh Earnest sought to portray the change in plans as a better deal for the next president than the situation President Obama inherited when he took office. “The scale of the challenges the next president will face are much smaller,” than what Obama faced when he entered the White House in 2009, Earnest said. And when it comes to next steps in Afghanistan in 2017 and beyond, “that question for the next commander-in-chief will be easier to answer.”

Known unknowns. There’s new information indicating that in the days leading up to the deadly Oct. 3 U.S. air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, U.S. Special Operations analysts were gathering intel that allegedly showed a Pakistani operative was using the facility to coordinate Taliban activity.

Information collected by Ken Dilanian of the Associated Press doesn’t say anything about what the air crew in the U.S. AC-130 might have known about the site, but does report that American special ops analysts had put together “a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance.” The strike killed 22 patients and hospital staff, and the aid group and other NGOs have called for an independent international inquiry into the attack.

In the aftermath of the strike which came in the midst of heavy fighting between Afghan and Taliban forces for control of the city, some U.S. analysts believed the strike had been “justified,” the AP writes, since the Pakistani operative “believed to have been working for his country’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.”

Seeing is believing. In other Afghan news, the New York Times and the Long War Journal have produced a great new map highlighting areas where the Taliban is in control, and which districts remain contested. The U.N. recently reported that the Taliban is currently in control of more areas of the country than at any point since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Good morning yet again from the SitRep team. We’ve come to the end of another week, and we’re glad to have you with us. The power of the crowd is real, so 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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Syria

Syrian ground forces backed by Russian airstrikes have kicked off a new offensive in the rebel-held areas north of Homs, according to Reuters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a non-governmental human rights watchdog, reported that the bombing had already resulted in civilian casualties and locals told the wire service they are digging in to try and withstand the bombardment in place rather than fleeing.

The U.S. and Russia aren’t the only two air powers looking to deconflict their operations over Syria. Russia’s foreign ministry announced that the country has set up a hotline with Israel in order to make sure their air operations over Syria don’t overlap. Israel hasn’t officially acknowledged flying missions in Syrian airspace but it has reportedly carried out a number of airstrikes targeting weapons transfers from Syrian military forces to Hezbollah.

Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and the point man for managing Iranian operations in Iraq and Syria, visited Syria’s side of the Golan this week to rally the morale of Hezbollah troops, according to the Times of Israel. The Times also reports that Iranian troops began pouring into Syria two weeks ago once Russian operations commenced in the country. The recently-arrived Russian and Iranian forces are apparently aiming to retake the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib as well as the highway that stretches between Aleppo and Damascus.

Iran

Iranian state TV broadcasts footage on Wednesday showing a network of underground tunnels storing ballistic missiles and their transporter erector launcher. The news agency quotes the broadcast saying the missiles are “stationed and ready under the high mountains in all the country’s provinces and cities” and ready for use in case Iran’s “enemies make a mistake.”

Libya

Just two days after the gripping conclusion to Frontline’s three part documentary investigation into the 1988 Lockerbie bombings, Scottish prosecutors announced on Thursday that they have identified two new suspects in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed all 259 passengers on board and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. For those who haven’t seen the Frontline series documentary, it follows documentary filmmaker Ken Dornstein as he searches for answers in the bombing which killed his brother. Dornstein uncovered new evidence pointing to the involvement of Abu Agela, a Libyan bombmaker, as well as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s intel chief Abdullah Senussi.

Cybersecurity

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Commerce Department’s effort to classify certain software tools used by hackers as export-restricted weapons could fall apart. The U.S. had hoped to slow the spread of hacking tools used by repressive governments, but the inherently dual use nature of many software tools and the lack of clarity on the process has irritated tech companies like Google and Cisco Systems. Banks and defense contractors have joined the push, and the companies are hoping to shelve the regulatory push.

The Associated Press looks at a new report by the London-based research group Privacy International and finds that a shadowy marketplace for hacking services is helping smaller countries become players in cyberespionage. The Privacy International report examines the case of Munich, Germany’s FinFisher, a spyware company which allegedly helped Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni eavesdrop on his political opponents in 2012.

Remember a few months ago, when the Islamic State’s supposedly top-notch hacker kingpin Junaid Hussein posted personal data on American troops and government employees? Yeah, about that. It turns out that Hussein, since killed in a British drone strike in Syria, wasn’t so skilled after all. CNN reports that authorities in Malaysia have arrested Ardit Ferizi, a Kosovar national, on a U.S. warrant charging him with providing material support to the Islamic State by passing along the data Hussein ultimately posted. Ferizi allegedly hacked a U.S. company and stole data on over 1,000 Americans, which he later passed on to the Islamic State.

Business of defense

The Defense Department announced on Thursday that it has greenlit a nearly half billion dollar sale of UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters to Saudi Arabia. As Defense News points out, the $495 million sale comes amidst Saudi Arabia’s leadership of a Gulf coalition war effort to oust the Houthi movement from power in neighboring Yemen.

Technology

How big is the threat to GPS? Well, the Navy has started teaching cadets to navigate by the stars for the first time since the 1990s just in case an adversary manages to take out the satellite navigation system. As rival military powers continue to invest in GPS jamming capabilities and satellite-busting missiles, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has signaled an interest in developing an alternative to GPS. In the meantime, the Naval Academy will begin once again teaching sailors the ancient practice of celestial navigation.

Meet DroneDefender, the anti-drone rifle which takes unmanned aerial vehicles out of the sky with the pull of a trigger. The gun, made by Battelle, is essentially a jammer in convenient rifle form. It uses radio waves to jam a drone’s communications and GPS signals, confusing it such that the aircraft reverts to landing procedures or returns to base, depending on how it’s programmed.

On the move

Ambassador Richard Olson is set to take over from Dan Feldman as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Olson will assume his duties on November 17, after wrapping up his service as the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, a post he has held for the last three years.

Think tanked

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies takes a look President Obama’s recent decision to extend the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan in a new report, “Afghanistan and “Failed State Wars”: The Need for a Realistic Transition” and finds approach wanting. The move, according to Cordesman, offers too few troops, too limited of a commitment, and not enough to address the political side of Afghanistan’s current conflict.

Finally…

War Is Boring takes a look at Tell the Spring Not to Come This Year, a new documentary just arrived on Netflix that looks at life inside the Afghan National Army. The film follows Captain Jalaluddin, a commander in Afghanistan’s army, and one of his troops, Sunnatullah, as they fight the Taliban and struggle against corruption and the problems of a still developing army.

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