Situation Report: The coming cost of the Afghan plan; mapping Iranian losses in Syria; intel problems in Europe; more cash for Syrian rebels; China’s naval exercises; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Paid in full. How much will the U.S. taxpayer have to pay to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan housed, fed, and supplied in the coming years, now that their deployment has been extended in perpetuity? As the numbers stand right now, it looks like an extra $13 billion in 2017, according to FP contributor Kate Brannen. A good chunk of that money will of course go to a host of contractors who have been keeping the lights on and the food hot for the past 14 years.
Last month, President Barack Obama announced he had decided to reverse course in his long-held plan to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, keeping 9,800 troops there through most of next year before drawing down to 5,500 for 2017 and beyond. (Under Obama’s original 2014 proposal, only 1,000 troops, all based at the U.S. embassy at Kabul, were scheduled to stay in the country beyond 2016.)
Flying blind. In case anyone missed it — the announcement that the White House is deploying Special Operations forces to Syria sucked up all the oxygen on Friday — the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe admitted Friday that U.S. intelligence gathering in Russia needs some serious help. Gen. Philip Breedlove said that the U.S. intel community has demonstrated a “lack of ability to see into Russia, especially at the operational and tactical level,” and that after two decades of trying to view Moscow as a partner, things are changing. More than a year after the invasion of Crimea, Breedlove said, “now we see that, possibly, we didn’t have the partner we thought we had, and we’re having to readjust. And the [intelligence community] is doing that.” Washington’s intelligence community “has made some fairly dramatic changes in the last several months,” in that regard, he said.
Mapping the loss. October was the bloodiest month yet for soldiers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria. The losses — which likely mean the Iranians are closer to the fight, appears to mark an escalation in a conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 156 Iranian military personnel, 29 of them just this last month. FP’s Henry Johnson maps where the Iranian troops have died.
It’s over. After nearly a year of being investigated by the Army in retaliation for criticizing the U.S. government’s hostage rescue abilities to congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.), decorated U.S. Army Green Beret Lt. Col. Jason Amerine quietly retired on Friday, where he was presented the Legion of Merit. Amerine’s troubles began after he spoke with Hunter about how bureaucratic infighting scrapped a deal he had worked out with the Taliban for the release of Bowe Bergdahl. Stung by his criticism, the FBI complained to the Army’s chief of staff for intelligence, Gen. Mary Legere, who opened an investigation that led to Amerine being booked and fingerprinted, his pay being halted, and his retirement held up.
“Bergdahl, meanwhile, was released on far worse terms than Amerine worked out,” Jeff Stein writes. Amerine has since been cleared of any wrongdoing, and as one participant in his retirement ceremony said, “intentionally or not,” the Legion of Merit award “was an admission of guilt” by the Army for dragging the Afghanistan war hero’s name through the mud.
More money, more allies. Just a day after the White House made a big splash by announcing the deployment of about 50 commandos to Syria, on Saturday, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a much quieter announcement — pledging another $100 million in U.S. support to Syrian rebel groups. The cash brings to nearly $500 million the amount it has offered to the opposition since 2012, and comes as the U.S. advisors will start advising the rebels in preparation for an expected push on the Islamic State’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.
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The Israeli Air Force (IAF) reportedly struck a Syrian arms shipment in the Qalamoun mountains on Monday that was en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Arutz Sheva, citing a report by Israel’s Channel 10, reports that the shipment included Scud ballistic missiles. In a separate incident, the IAF reportedly bombed Hezbollah and Syrian army positions on Friday in the town of Ras al-Ain and Al-Qutayfah.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has appeared in a new recording in which he calls on jihadist groups to unite in the face of what he labels a conspiracy of the “Americans, Russians, Iranians, Alawites, and Hezbollah” fighting the in Syria, according to Reuters. Zawahiri’s plea for unity echoes themes struck by the al-Qaeda chief in September, when he called for unity among jihadist groups in the face of a longstanding feud with its former affiliate the Islamic State.
A Russian airliner crashed in Egypt’s Sinai province on Saturday and a claim of responsibility by the Islamic State has set off a wave of speculation about the cause of the crash, although officials and experts have cast doubt on the idea that the jet could have been hit with a missile. The Islamic State released a statement claiming that their fighters downed the plane without offering more detail, but many followers of the group online suggested it hit the Russian jet with a man-portable air defense system (MANPADS). Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov ruled out the possibility of a MANPADS strike and experts say the plane was out of range of a MANPADS missile at the time it fell out of the sky.
The Daily Beast‘s Shane Harris reports that GTT Communications Inc, a company which has provided Internet services to the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies, has quietly begun providing Internet services for Iran. In May, the company announced that it had struck a deal with Gulf Bridge International to begin providing bandwidth to Iran. The move is apparently square by U.S. sanctions law thanks to a Treasury Department ruling last year blessing the sale of certain Internet services to Iran.
They’re back. The U.K. has struck a deal to build its first permanent military base in the Middle East since 1971. It helps that the government of Bahrain paid most of the $23 million it cost to build the naval base, but British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that “the presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain is guaranteed into the future, ensuring Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez. The new facility will enable Britain to work with our allies to reinforce stability in the Gulf and beyond.”
With sanctions biting into Russia’s access to western arms markets, the country’s defense industry is looking east to bolster its fortunes. But the markets there offer little hope of offsetting the damage. Defense News reports that Russia is increasingly looking to Asia to make up for its lost revenue. While customers in Asia have traditionally made up a large chunk of Russian arms sales — India and China accounted for half between 2010-2014 — arms customers there are likelier to shop around and Russia’s normally reliable customers are more and more looking to produce weapons at home rather than buy them from abroad.
The Navy is pushing for more investment in the development of underwater drones in the wake of reports that Russian submarines looming by underwater data cables could cut them in the event of a conflict, the Navy Times reports. The Navy’s director of naval nuclear propulsion Adm. Frank Caldwell Jr. recently cited the threat of Russian submarines cutting data cables, in addition to a dip in sub building after the Cold War, as reason to “move forward more swiftly” in developing unmanned underwater vehicles. Experts say the underwater drones could be useful in monitoring vulnerable points in the thousands of miles of undersea data cables.
Almost exactly a week after a U.S. Navy ship conducted a freedom-of-navigation cruise near several artificial islands that Beijing has constructed in the South China Sea, the Chinese navy has started running live-fire naval exercises in the area, along with their friends from the Australian Navy. What? The Aussies are playing down the significance of the long-planned exercise, and some in Australia are saying that the whole thing should be called off since the Chinese may use it to poke a stick in Washington’s eye. But everyone needs to just stop sweating it so much, says Aussie Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin. “It’s part of the relationship we have with a lot of the regional navies in the development between the defence forces. So, we shouldn’t make it more than what it actually is,” he said.
The Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) contract has been awarded, so now begins the infighting over how — and who — will pay for it, Defense News reports. The bills for LRS-B will be coming due just as the Air Force is purchasing a number of other big ticket modernization projects. Unless Congress sets aside a dedicated fund for the bomber, the Air Force have a few intraservice budget fights on its hands as the bomber competes for funding with other projects.
Carnegie’s Middle East Center has an interesting piece by visiting scholar Kheder Khaddour looking at how the Syrian military has maintained the loyalty of its officer corps. In short, the glue that is keeping the whole thing together is a benefits package that ties all aspects of an army officer’s professional and personal life to the regime. Despite four years of grinding war, there have been few defections from the officer corps, and Khaddour writes, “protecting a beneficial system, rather than adhering to strict ideological loyalty, is what has kept the Syrian officer corps largely intact.”
In particular, the neighborhood of Dahiet al-Assad in Damascus, “the suburb of Assad,” has “morphed from a residential area into something more akin to a fortified military base—one that officers perceive as defending them collectively, and by extension the entire army and Syrian regime.”