The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Situation Report: U.S. airstrikes erase 10 ISIS leaders; Washington spies on Israeli leader; General wants more troops in Afghanistan; milestone in Iranian nuke program; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Look out. U.S. spy agencies never stopped keeping tabs on the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a potentially explosive new report from the Wall Street Journal. While President Barack Obama announced two years ago he was putting curbs on American efforts to eavesdrop on foreign ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Look out. U.S. spy agencies never stopped keeping tabs on the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a potentially explosive new report from the Wall Street Journal. While President Barack Obama announced two years ago he was putting curbs on American efforts to eavesdrop on foreign heads of state after Edward Snowden exposed the long reach of  secret U.S. surveillance programs, a few countries were exempted, including Israel and Turkey.

Meet the new, old counterinsurgency. While the Iraqi army and associated Shiite and Sunni militias conduct a scorched earth campaign in Ramadi, and Kurdish peshmerga forces overrun Islamic State holdouts in northern Iraq with overwhelming numbers, the U.S. is waging a very different kind of war against ISIS. Instead of mounting huge ground assaults, American and coalition aircraft are running a pinprick air campaign against the hackers, mid-level planners, and money movers who make the ISIS machine run.

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Look out. U.S. spy agencies never stopped keeping tabs on the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a potentially explosive new report from the Wall Street Journal. While President Barack Obama announced two years ago he was putting curbs on American efforts to eavesdrop on foreign heads of state after Edward Snowden exposed the long reach of  secret U.S. surveillance programs, a few countries were exempted, including Israel and Turkey.

Meet the new, old counterinsurgency. While the Iraqi army and associated Shiite and Sunni militias conduct a scorched earth campaign in Ramadi, and Kurdish peshmerga forces overrun Islamic State holdouts in northern Iraq with overwhelming numbers, the U.S. is waging a very different kind of war against ISIS. Instead of mounting huge ground assaults, American and coalition aircraft are running a pinprick air campaign against the hackers, mid-level planners, and money movers who make the ISIS machine run.

In a wave of airstrikes since Dec. 7, U.S. and coalition aircraft have killed 10 Islamic State leaders across Iraq and Syria, including two who had links to the brutal Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, a U.S. military spokesman says. Other militants killed include a U.K.-trained computer specialist originally from Bangladesh who worked as a hacker for the group, an “IED cell facilitator,” a “deputy financial emir in Mosul,” and the deputy emir in Kirkuk province. Some of those killed were also actively planning attacks on western targets, according to Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S. military.

While none of those killed appear to have been a high-level leader, the ISIS campaign follows a strategy similar to the one U.S. forces conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep al Qaeda and Taliban leadership off balance.

Did the U.S. train the Iraqi army for the wrong fight? The United States spent about $25 billion training and equipping an Iraqi army that fell apart in the face of a vastly smaller Islamic State force in 2014, leading to real questions about what that investment was worth. Turns out, however, that the Americans may have just trained the wrong army. The Iraqi army that collapsed “was a counterinsurgency army,” Col. Warren said Tuesday. “They were not prepared and they were not trained and they were not ready for a conventional fight, the conventional assault that ISIL brought to Mosul and beyond.” Good to know. Something to think about before Washington drops the next $25 billion.

Speaking of training the wrong army. In another sign of how bad the security situation in Afghanistan has become, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops there wants to put the brakes on plans to reduce the American troop presence over the next year. The request is a familiar one, as every U.S. commander in Afghanistan for the past 14 years has said that more troops, or more time, are crucial to stabilizing the country.

It’s actually Gen. John Campbell’s second request to extend the mission there since October. At the time, President Barack Obama reversed his decision to pull out all but 1,000 embassy security personnel by the end of 2016. Instead, 9,800 U.S. troops will remain through most of 2016 before drawing down to about 5,500. Now, Campbell wants to keep as many of those 9,800 troops for as long as possible.

But with a grim new report from the Defense Department finding that over the second half of 2015, the “security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated,” with a resurgent Taliban and a growing Islamic State presence — even al Qaeda appears to be back — plenty of questions remain over what several thousand trainers and a small handful of commandos can accomplish.

More Iran. “For the first time in almost a decade, Iran does not have enough low-enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon,” a senior administration official told FP’s John Hudson. “That is a remarkable accomplishment.” Still, critics charge that the administration’s lack of firm response to recent Iranian ballistic missile tests give Tehran a green light to develop its missile program while staying in compliance with its nuclear-related commitments. Still, officials in Washington tout the news that Iran has shipped more than 25,000 pounds of nuclear material to Russia, a major milestone that leaves the Islamic Republic without enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture a nuke.

Only two more days to the start of a new year, folks. 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

Vladimir Putin is putting his money on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying on as president for quite a while. Bloomberg reports that Putin told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Assad will run and win a proposed national election in 2017. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that Assad must leave power in light of the atrocities carried out by his regime but that position has reportedly all but crumbled in the face of Russian involvement in the conflict.

Iraq

Iraqi security forces have managed to kick the Islamic State out of Ramadi, leaving the recapture of Mosul as the next big objective. But if Baghdad is going to take back Mosul, it’s going to need help from Kurdish forces. Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said this week that “you cannot do Mosul without peshmerga.” The scale of the military challenge to liberate Mosul is bigger and demands a larger force than the one that took back Ramadi, necessitating significant Kurdish involvement.

Iran

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy carried out a live fire rocket test in the Persian Gulf right next to the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, NBC News reports. An Iranian fastboat fired the rockets near but not at the Truman as the carrier was exiting the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian forces have long used the implicit and at times explicit threat of closing the Strait to U.S. ships to try to intimidate the U.S. Navy. More recently, it has fired warning shots at a Singapore-flagged commercial ship in the Gulf and seized the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris over an alleged business dispute there.

Belgium

Belgian law enforcement says it disrupted a plan by would-be jihadists to carry out a Paris-style mass shooting attack in the country over the holidays, the AP reports. Authorities arrested two suspects earlier this week whom they accuse of planning the attacks. The plot allegedly included attacks against soldiers and policeman — widely deployed in the country since the Brussels-connected attackers carried out the Paris attacks — set to take place in Belgium’s iconic Grand Place.

Russia

Russia might be able to start producing aircraft carriers and helicopter carriers by 2019, Tass reports. The president of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation told Russian TV that, assuming modernization programs stay on track, the company will know by 2019 whether it can embark on a carrier construction project. At the moment, Russia has only one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

China

How do you say “wild weasel” in Mandarin? China has shown off a new variant of its Shenyang J-16, the J-16D, designed to knock out enemy air defenses — referred to in the U.S. as “wild weasel” missions. PopSci reports that China military watchers got their first glimpse at pictures of the J-16D this month. The aircraft has been configured to electronic intelligence and jamming pods to identify as well as anti-radiation missiles.

Tech

Northrop is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research to develop a new naval drone demonstrator dubbed the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node or TERN, Defense News reports. The drone comes in an unusual tailsitter configuration — a flying wing shape which takes off at a 90 degree angle to its launch surface. The TERN, which resembles the XFY-1 Pogo from the 1950s, would be able to take off from the deck of a destroyer.

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