The Cable

Situation Report: EXCLUSIVE: Chuck Hagel speaks; U.S. commandos operating in Syria and show up in Libya; Canadian Special Ops fight off ISIS; Aussies not backing down to China; Afghan desertions hit hard; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Hagel, in his own words. For the first time since leaving office, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opens up to FP’s Dan De Luce in a wide-ranging interview in which he decries White House micromanagement, says National Security Council Adviser Susan Rice and her staff held rambling policy meetings ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Hagel, in his own words. For the first time since leaving office, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opens up to FP’s Dan De Luce in a wide-ranging interview in which he decries White House micromanagement, says National Security Council Adviser Susan Rice and her staff held rambling policy meetings that failed to arrive at a decision, complains that officials stabbed him in the back on the way out, and points out that President Barack Obama still has no strategy for fixing Syria.

Hagel’s final days in office, when anonymous administration officials ripped him to shreds in the press, remain a painful memory. “They already had my resignation,” he told FP, “so what was the point of just continuing to try to destroy me?”

Hagel also backed up complaints from former secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates that the White House’s politically motivated micromanagement of the Pentagon, combined with a mushrooming bureaucracy at the National Security Council, muddies the policy waters. “There is a danger in all of this,” he said. “This is about governance; this isn’t about political optics. It’s about making the country run and function, and trying to stay ahead of the dangers and the threats you see coming.”

But some of Hagel’s most revealing comments come when discussing the early days of the Obama administration’s half-hearted response to the civil war in Syria. Too many times, he said, hours-long meetings would grind to a halt with no decision on critical issues. “I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”

He also said that despite promises when he took the job that he would get one-on-one facetime with the president, that rarely happened, and in his meetings with the president there were always other people in the room, making him hesitant to be totally frank, fearing media leaks from staffers. Still, Hagel said he still holds Obama “in high regard.”

On the ground. U.S. Special Operations forces have been running missions into northern Syria to make contact with Syrian Arab rebel groups there, Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed Thursday. Speaking in Irbil after meeting with Kurdish officials, Carter said the missions are meant to “identify and link up with local forces, in this case especially Syrian-Arab forces, that were willing to fight ISIL, but needed our help.” The idea is to eventually “embed” a handful of American forces wit these anti-ISIS militias to call in airstrikes, plan logistics, and gather intelligence.

The confirmation of the Special Ops forays into Syria comes on the heels of another planned deployment of up to 200 commandos to Iraq, who defense officials say will launch raids to target ISIS leadership, FP’s Paul McLeary writes. Carter also said that Washington is increasing its support for Iraqi Kurdish fighters, in order to get them ready for an eventual assault on Mosul. The new aid will provide enough guns, vehicles, and radios to equip 4,000 troops.

Bro down. They look like a group of post-collegiate bros getting together to help a buddy move into a nice little two-bedroom condo with his finance. With automatic weapons. But the guys in this picture somewhat awkwardly standing around in flannel shirts, jeans, and worn ballcaps are actually American Special Operations forces who — much to the surprise of everyone involved — landed at a Libyan air force base earlier this week. Or something. No one is exactly sure what happened when roughly 20 special ops troops touched down at Wattiya airbase in Libya on Dec. 14. But there’s one thing everyone can agree on. They weren’t welcome.

American defense officials have said the mixup, which only came to light Thursday, was meant to “foster relationships” with the Libyan army, who were expecting the Americans. No one was injured in the mess, and the Americans got right back in their plane and left, but not before the Libyans took some pics and posted them to Facebook. Not exactly how Clausewitz drew it up, but modern warfare is a fluid thing.

Canadian combat. Canadian Special Forces mixed it up with ISIS during a day-long battle in northern Iraq on Wednesday, when the jihadists tried to overrun a base housing peshmerga and Canadian forces. Reports say a series of coordinated attacks using car bombs, mortars, and dozens of ISIS fighters tried to storm the base, but the Canadians — along with airstrikes from Canadian American, British, and French fighter planes beat back the attacks.

“They came under effective fire and our guys were close enough and able to respond with fire on to those ISIL positions,” said Maj.-Gen. Charles Lamarre in a briefing Thursday night. There are 69 Canadian special ops troops in Iraq, training and advising the Kurds.

Harjit S. Sajjan, the newly-installed Minister of National Defence in Ottawa, said in a statement that “although the attackers were able briefly to penetrate [Kurd] defensive positions,” his guys were able to “successfully launch a counter attack and re-establish defensive lines.” The fight comes as new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau considers when to withdraw his six CF-18 jets from combat, while possibly adding to the ground training effort.

Top Tweet: RT @brett_mcgurk: US, UK, French airstrikes killed 180 #ISIL terrorists in a futile assault on #Peshmerga units yesterday near #Mosul. #ISIS #Daesh

In other words, body counts matter. And so do hashtags.

We’re closing out the week over here at SitRep. 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

Syria

Russia has been threatening American aircraft carrying out operations in Syria with a newly-deployed air defense missile system, according to a new Bloomberg column by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake. Russia sent SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Syria in early December and has since been using their radar to “paint” U.S. warplanes in an implicit threat to fire them. The acts have taken place in parts of Syria where U.S.-backed rebels are fighting the Islamic State, curbing U.S. air support for the groups according to Rogin and Lake.

Russia is floating the notion that it’s open to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down from power, but only after a political transition period, Reuters reports. Western diplomats say that in private, Russian officials are willing to agree to a deal where Assad leaves at the end of a political transition, but have yet to allow for the possibility in their public statements. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are set to meet in New York on Friday for further talks on Syria.

Afghanistan

The U.S. has been trying to help Afghanistan stand up an air force of its own, but is running into problems caused by the constant trickle of Afghan desertions from the force, the New York Times reports. In one recent case, two Afghan airmen receiving training at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia disappeared from the base, prompting a search by immigration officials. Estimates of desertions over the past three years vary, placing the number between five and 30, but the losses aren’t helping the U.S. wean Afghan troops off American airpower to support combat operations.

Afghan officials are trying to hunt down the Voice of the Caliphate, a pirate radio station broadcasting propaganda on behalf of the Islamic State in Nangarhar Province where members of the group have been active in fighting the Taliban, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. The radio station has been broadcasting propaganda and recruitment calls for the Islamic State. Some, including the governor of Nangarhar, suspect that the station is broadcasting from neighboring Pakistan.

Libya

The Huffington Post has a handy explainer on the international dimension to the conflict in Libya, and how two Gulf states, the UAE and Qatar, have been waging a quiet proxy war in there, supporting rival factions for power in the country and exacerbating the country’s bloody civil war. The UAE and Qatar have responded differently to the Arab spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the UAE fearful of the rise of the Islamist political party while Qatar has embraced them. As a result, the two have backed different horses in Libya, with Qatar sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood faction in Tripoli and the UAE backing its Tobruk-based rival.

China

Unlike the hesitant American efforts to sail a Naval vessel near a group of artificial islands built by the Chinese in the South China Sea, Australia insists that it won’t bend to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over disputed islands. Defense Minister Marise Payne said Thursday that one of her aircraft flew “a routine maritime patrol” over the South China Sea earlier this month, and more are coming.

More quiet signaling in the tense waters of the South China Sea as China announced on Friday that it had carried out more naval exercises this week. The exercises, according to Chinese state media, divided a fleet of surface and subsurface vessels, aircraft and missiles into two mock teams responding to a series of hypothetical scenarios, including responding to an accidental cruise missile strike against a civilian ship, according to Reuters.

The Intertubes & Cybersecurity

A website allegedly run from Ukraine is posting details about Russian soldiers supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and Russia wants Canada to do something about it. The site is hosted in Canada and allows volunteers to collect evidence, including social media posts and geotagged imagery, to locate and identify members of Russia’s military deployment to Syria. Russian officials have reportedly asked Canada to shut down the site. Canadian officials would say only that they’ve received the request from Russia, declining to offer specifics on whether or what they’ll do about it.

The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris reports on a Defense Department memo warning that it doesn’t have enough of the necessary personnel to protect its networks and the software used in U.S. weapons, which are vulnerable to hackers. Officials in Congress are particularly concerned about the shortfall in “red team” personnel, who can carry out mock cyber attacks against U.S. software and networks in order to learn more about their vulnerabilities.

Finally…

File this under “things we assumed had already happened.” The McCain Institute announced Thursday that Senator Joseph Lieberman and Gen. David Petraeus, have joined the Institute’s Board of Trustees.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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