The Cable

Situation Report: Trump actually shares stage in big debate; Islamic State growing in Afghanistan; Air Force money problems; Hillary drops her own security plan; Carter in the Middle East; Russian military build-up; Iranian missile tests; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Bad to worse. Fourteen years and about $700 billion into the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the security situation there is only getting worse. A grim new report from the Defense Department says that over the second half of 2015, the “security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Bad to worse. Fourteen years and about $700 billion into the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the security situation there is only getting worse. A grim new report from the Defense Department says that over the second half of 2015, the “security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks,” including a growing threat for the Islamic State, which has become “operationally active.”

What’s worse, the Islamic State’s “recruitment of experienced fighters and commanders could increase its capability” to carry out more attacks over “at least the next year,” U.S. analysts believe.

The continued heavy fighting following the end of NATO’s combat operations in January forced President Barack Obama to change his plans to end U.S. involvement in the war. Instead of pulling out all but 1,000 troops by the start of 2016, 9,800 US forces will remain there until the end of 2016.

Even with fewer U.S. troops, the war isn’t cheap. Washington shelled out $4.1 billion to pay for the Afghan army and police in 2015, with the cash-starved Afghan government only managing to put up $411 million. The U.S. is slated to pay $3.8 billion to keep Afghan troops in the field in 2016.

Matter of debate. Watch the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night? FP’s John Hudson, David Francis, and Elias Groll did, and offer their six top moments from the marathon session, which they write, “had plenty of moments of machismo, from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz threatening to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie boasting about the cyber weapons he was prepared to unleash against China, and businessman Donald Trump standing behind his threats to kill the families of terrorists and openly mocking former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as lacking “toughness.””

Pre-buttal. Just hours before the debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton delivered an hour-long speech outlining her own plans for protecting the United States from terrorists. FP’s John Hudson reports that Clinton emphasized the importance of shutting down Islamic State recruitment at home by “cracking down on cyber-jihadists, tightening the U.S. visa waiver program, disrupting potential terrorist plots by ramping up surveillance and reconnaissance efforts, and forging closer ties with Muslim American communities.”

Watch the throne. With an estimated annual income of almost $3 billion, the Islamic State is hardly hurting for money, but Washington and its allies are trying to change that. FP’s Colum Lynch and David Francis drop a must-read a deep dive into efforts to dent the group’s bottom line, which is surprisingly diversified, including revenue generated by taxation and simple extortion, to the smuggling of antiques and oil.

U.S. officials are hoping that a significant turning point in the effort to curb the group’s lucrative black market oil operation came in May, when a U.S. Army Delta Force team raided the home of ISIS leader Abu Sayyef in Syria, scooping up a wealth of intelligence on the group’s finances. A senior U.S. official says the raid produced an “enormous amount of information that was very detailed about how they operated the energy sector,” and the raid “was a critical point for us to be able to understand this better.”

Budget caps. The U.S. Air Force is in trouble. And this time, it won’t be able to spend its way out of it. A new report by the Congressional Research Service flags a long foreseen — and long ignored — spending crunch, as the service tries to find the cash to buy three next-generation aircraft over the next several years: the F-35A strike fighter, the KC-46A tanker, and the Long-Range Strike Bomber. The three programs, along with plans to buy more cargo aircraft and drones, would eat up 99 percent of the service’s total aircraft acquisition budget. The solution? More money, of course, or buying fewer new toys. It’s up to you to guess which course of action is more likely.

The service also announced this week that in order to keep its force of increasingly exhausted drone pilots in their seats, it will begin offering bonuses of up to $125,000 if they agree to fly for five more years.

Telling the wrong people? Defense Secretary Ash Carter is in the Middle East this week to visit troops deployed overseas. But he has also been directed by President Barack Obama to press allies in the region to step up their involvement in the fight against the Islamic State.

Speaking with troops stationed at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on Tuesday, he said Washington is “looking for the rest of the world to step up.” Specifically, he told reporters that “we would like the Gulf countries to do more,” since some of those oil-rich nations “could make very important contributions to encouraging and assisting Sunni communities subjected to ISIL rule to resist ISIL rule.” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has announced the formation of a coalition of 34 Muslim countries to combat terrorism, but aside for the announcement, no real plans have been made public.

Welcome back as we’re well into another week here from deep inside the bunker at SitRep Central. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Iraq

Baghdad is not satisfied with Turkey’s recent gesture of removing some of its troops from a training facility near Mosul. Reuters reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is demanding Turkey remove all troops from the country, labeling their presence a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Turkey sent the troops to northern Iraq earlier this month in order to assist in training fighters to take on the Islamic State, but removed some after Iraqi officials complained and Iranian-backed Shia militias threatened to attack Turkish interests.

Turkey

Turkish officials arrested a man on Tuesday who they say was plotting to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on behalf of the Islamic State. Hurriyet Daily News reports that Turkish intelligence singled out Muhammed Raghil al-Hardani, a Syrian citizen, as part of an Islamic State cell based in southeastern Turkey. The State Department closed the U.S. consulate in Istanbul last week and conducted limited operations at the embassy in Ankara on Tuesday, citing threats to U.S. facilities.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Tolo News reports that the Taliban may still have a presence in the northern city of Kunduz a month after U.S. and Afghan troops fought a bitter battle to take the city back after the Taliban briefly seized it in October. Kunduz city residents told Tolo News that the Taliban was still quietly active in the city. Local businessmen complain that investment has fled the city following the October siege but Afghan police told the paper that they believe it’s safe for people and business to return to Kunduz.

After 13 years and billions of dollars in U.S. and international aid, Afghanistan is still one of the world’s least developed countries, according to the United Nations’ Human Development Office. The office compiles a human development index using basic metrics of development such as infant mortality, adolescent mortality, general equality, education levels and labor participation rates. Taken together, Afghanistan ranks 171st out of 188 countries on the human development index — a fact that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman says reflects Afghanistan’s failure to expand the economy beyond the wax and wane of international aid and troop presence.

Pakistan

Pakistan carried out a ballistic missile test on Tuesday, its second in the past few days. Defense News reports that the Pakistani military tested a Shaheen1A ballistic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Russia

Look out below. Russia’s Tass news agency reports that a Russian cruise missile went off course and crash landed — clobbered, in cruise missile parlance — in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. The missile crashed during a test at a Russian navy test range. The missile hit a residential building but no one was hurt.

Russia’s defense ministry has announced some of its procurement plans. UPI reports that Russia plans to make annual purchases of 200 planes and helicopters, 30 naval vessels and 600 armored vehicles. The ministry cited an increased threat from NATO, which it said was “unfriendly towards Russia” and expanding its presence and activity near Russia’s borders.

Iran

Reuters reports that Iran’s October ballistic missile test violated U.N. sanctions on Iran, according to U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts, which monitors sanctions on Iran. Iran tested the Emad medium range ballistic missile, which the Panel said was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Western diplomats reportedly favor blacklisting Iranian officials and companies tied to the missile program as a result of the test, but Russia and China would have to clear any new sanctions, and neither has proven especially eager to hold Iran accountable on such issues.

Iran’s Fars News Agency reports that Qassem Soleimani, the general in charge of Iran’s covert action arm, traveled to Moscow last week for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior military commanders. Reuters reported in October that Soleimani had visited Moscow in July, in apparent violation of U.N. sanctions on him, to plot the joint Iranian and Russian offensive in Syria this fall. The often selfie-happy Soleimani has not been seen in recent weeks and rumors have circulated that the Qods Force general was injured in the fighting in Syria.

South China Sea

The BBC reports that Australia is following in the U.S.’s footsteps and carrying out air patrols with P-3 Orion surveillance planes near disputed islands in the South China Sea where China claims exclusive sovereignty. A BBC reporter flying on a civilian airplane from the Philippines picked up radio broadcasts from an Australian military plane to its Chinese counterparts declaring that it is “exercising international freedom of navigation rights” in accordance with international law. The U.S. carried out similar patrols last month with B-52s to challenge China’s claims over the nearby airspace.

Finally…

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