The Cable

Situation Report: Battle for Mosul kicks off; Carter hacks the Pentagon; no snowmobiles for Kim Jong Un; Afghan handover; Syria trouble; deadly days for doctors in war zones; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley War plan. The bombs have been falling in and around Mosul for a year and a half, but the pieces may finally be coming together for Iraqi troops to move on the city. Over the past several weeks, U.S. military officials have been speaking openly about the coming assault, ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

War plan. The bombs have been falling in and around Mosul for a year and a half, but the pieces may finally be coming together for Iraqi troops to move on the city. Over the past several weeks, U.S. military officials have been speaking openly about the coming assault, and Iraqi troops are moving into place. But ISIS remains deeply dug into the city of over a million residents, and questions remain over how this will all go down. The news this week that U.S. commandos are now conducting raids in Iraq has thrown a spotlight on the issue, and FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary survey the plans as we know them.

No sale. The U.N. Security Council has slapped a new round of sanctions on North Korea meant to limit Pyongyang’s ability to secure revenues for its nuclear program, FP’s Colum Lynch writes. The 15-nation council unanimously passed the resolution that imposes mandatory inspections of all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, while tightening financial restrictions on North Korean entities, “and requiring states to expel North Korean diplomats or other agents if they engage in activities banned by the United Nations,” Lynch tells us. “The council also slapped a highly symbolic ban on luxury items, prohibiting North Korea from buying luxury watches, recreational sports equipment, leisure boats, and snowmobiles that cost more than $2,000.”

Targets. Attacks against hospitals and clinics from Afghanistan to South Sudan and Yemen “have grown distressingly common in recent years,” writes FP’s Colum Lynch in a smart new piece. The strikes have killed hundreds, forcing the shuttering of numerous medical facilities, only adding to the misery of hundreds of thousands in already war-torn nations. What’s happening? Part of the reason is the diffuse nature of insurgencies, which makes targeting that much harder, and part is by design. In Syria, which is “by far the worst, most egregious assault on health care we have ever seen,” according to Elise Baker, who tracks Syria with Physicians for Human Rights, Syrian and Russian planes have deliberately targeted health care facilities as part of a tactic to destroy civilian institutions in rebel-held areas.

Pentagon dreaming of electric sheep? Defense Secretary Ash Carter just wants to be friends. And he keeps flying to Silicon Valley to prove how friendly his Defense Department is (or wants to be) with the tech sector. Carter is on the West Coast again this week, bringing a real desire to woo techies into helping the Pentagon become more innovative, something he rightly sees as critical to the U.S. maintaining its military edge in the coming years.

FP’s Elias Groll happened to be in San Francisco at a tech conference where Carter kicked off two new programs Wednesday. The first, “Hack the Pentagon,” invites vetted hackers who have passed Pentagon background checks (good luck with that) to penetrate the Defense Department’s public web pages. The second establishes the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, which will advise the department on areas already deeply familiar to Silicon Valley, such as rapid prototyping, data analysis, and the use of mobile and cloud applications. The whole thing will be led by Alphabet — née Google — Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Groll’s writeup is here.

Posted. A group of 60 conservative foreign policy analysts and former government officials have come out swinging against Donald Trump, publishing an open letter loudly proclaiming that they’re “united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.” Posted to the War on the Rocks website Tuesday night, the letter goes all out, calling Trump’s ideas of American power “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” while his “embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable.” One wonders what effect the views of a group of mostly Washington-based establishment conservatives will have on folks who love Trump precisely because he snubs his nose at the GOP establishment.

Coming home. After 18 months on the job, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell handed over command of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to Gen. John Nicholson on Wednesday, but not before offering a sobering warning about the road ahead. “I know there are some very, very tough times ahead for the country of Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “But I do see a resilient people, resilient security forces and they’re going to get through these challenges.” Campbell is headed for retirement after a 37-year career that saw multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and during which he managed to forge a pretty strong relationship with the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. Still, since the end of NATO combat operations on Jan. 1, 2015, the Taliban have embarked on a major offensive that has drawn US commandos back into the fight in Kunduz in the north, and Helmand in the south, and the Islamic State has established itself in the country’s east.

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of 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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.


With Iraqi forces taking back swaths of territory from ISIS, what role will Shia militias play in the country’s future? Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy runs down the tensions playing out between the militias and the central government. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his allies are trying to reassert the authority of the state and limit Iranian influence by pushing to cut the budget for militias and thwart their ability to detain citizens and foreigners. But the leaders of Iranian-backed militias like Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis are pushing to make their organizations a permanent arm of the state.


Top U.S. officials are floating the idea of restarting a naval coalition made up of Japan, Australia, India and the United States, a coupling that fell apart a decade ago after Beijing raised objections. But in a speech in the Indian capital of New Delhi Wednesday, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, said getting the band back together might not be a terrible idea. “Exercising together will lead to operating together,” he said. “By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia and the United States and so many like-minded nations can aspire to operate anywhere in the high seas and the airspace above it.” His remarks come amid rising tensions in the South China Sea over Chinese land reclamation projects. Despite the happy talk however, there are no indications that India wants to start poking its northern neighbor with joint patrols with the Americans.


Israel is starting to deliver the David’s Sling Weapon System, or DSWS, it has been jointly developing with the U.S., Defense News reports. DSWS is designed to fill the donut hole in Israeli missile defense that exists between missile defense systems like Iron Dome, designed to take out smaller rockets and the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3, used to knock out ballistic missiles. DSWS would be used against short range rockets and missiles in the arsenals of Israeli neighbors like Syria and Hezbollah, like the Scud B and Fateh-110 missiles. The system, already through live fire testing, will be rolled out piece by piece for use by the Israeli Air Force before initial operational capability is declared.

Hamas has started to rebuild the network of smuggling and infiltration tunnels destroyed during the 2014 war in Gaza. But Israel, backed by the U.S., is working on a new system to take them out again. The Wall Street Journal reports that Israel, with $40 million of U.S. backing, is working on acoustic sensors dubbed “The Obstacle” that can hear the faint sound of underground digging in order to detect tunnels under construction. Israeli forces are coupling the detection research with new training to teach troops how to fight inside tunnels and teach engineers how to blow up the underground shafts.

Look out below, eh?

Add Canada to the list of countries shopping around for an armed drone capability. Canada’s Royal Canadian Air Force has been stating its desire for armed drones since at least 2013, but the process of actually buying one might start to speed up under the government of recently-elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The government is anticipating armed drone producers to start pitching the air force in April, according to the National Post.


The Islamic State is expanding into Pakistan, and is looking for recruits with handy skills and backgrounds to compete with other, more established terrorist brands like the Pakistani Taliban for market share in the jihadist labor market. Thus far, ISIS’s game is strongest in Karachi, where sectarian tension with Pakistan’s minority Shiite community is helping the rabidly anti-Shia group to expand. The group has been recruiting from within the ranks of the educated, pitching students and professors at universities on membership and using networks of women’s groups to fundraise.

South Sudan

Fifty thousand dead is the estimated toll from South Sudan’s conflict, according to an anonymous senior United Nations official who spoke to Reuters. The loss is dramatically larger than the estimates of casualties initially offered by humanitarian groups. In addition to those lost, many more have had their lives disrupted as roughly 2.2 million people have been displaced since the fighting began. The newly-born country slid into civil conflict following a clash between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his now Vice President Riek Machar.


The Chinese military is none too pleased with their comrades in Pyongyang, and in a rare move, leaders are speaking out. “For the last half-century all China did to influence North Korea was to provide unconditional aid, with no strings attached,” Maj. Gen. Qiao Liang told Hong Kong-based magazine, Zijing. “North Korea used to concern itself with China’s reactions but now they don’t accept our demands, and our influences seem to be diminishing.” Kids these days.


The U.S. Army is looking for teeny tiny drones weighing just 150 grams, according to a broad agency announcement posted by the service. While the Army’s posting is light on details about how the drones are going to be used and in what context, there a few clues that the minibots are intended for combat. Respondents to the service’s post must make sure their drone has “sufficient resolution for a trained operator to recognize a man-sized target and determine if armed with a rifle or not with a 90% probability.” Given the small size, the systems are understandably intended to be short range and endurance, with just a 500 meter operating radius and 15 minutes of flight time.

Finally, we would like to offer our sincere apologies to DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar. In Wednesday’s SitRep, while writing about a new initiative her office is spearheading, we used the wrong pronoun to refer to her.

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