The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. general says more needed against ISIS, Afghanistan in trouble; three more B-52s to Pacific; al Shabab rises; ISIS names being named; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley New commander, new war plans. As U.S. Special Operations forces begin their long-awaited kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the nation’s wars in the Middle East appears to be laying the groundwork for more troops, and a longer stay in Afghanistan. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

New commander, new war plans. As U.S. Special Operations forces begin their long-awaited kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the nation’s wars in the Middle East appears to be laying the groundwork for more troops, and a longer stay in Afghanistan.

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Senate panel Wednesday that pushing ISIS out of the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian capital of Raqqa “will take additional resources.” On a larger level, the general — Obama’s nominee to lead the U.S. Central Command — also voiced “concerns about our broader strategy” for defeating ISIS, but stopped short of recommending any concrete changes to the current plan. Votel’s remarks that the U.S. might have to do more in Iraq and Syria points to a Pentagon ready to strike as the militant group loses ground in Iraq, and stalls out in Syria.

Training day, again. One of the things Votel wants to do is kickstart a failed training program for Syrian rebels, which flamed out late last year after training only a handful of fighters. The initial plan called for fielding thousands of local fighters, but Votel said a smaller program might be more effective, and if the Syrians were equipped with “communications to link back to our firepower,” they would presumably be able to guide US. airstrikes against ISIS targets. That plan would place a high degree of trust in locally-recruited Syrians, and is a step beyond anything the Obama administration has authorized to date.

Don’t forget Afghanistan. When it comes to America’s longest war, Votel said he’s prepared to keep the current force level of 9,800 troops — 3,000 of which are U.S. commandos — if the Afghan army continues its “uneven performance similar to the 2015 fighting season.” Unless Afghan forces pull it together, “it will be difficult” to fight off a resurgent Taliban under the current plan to downsize the U.S. mission to about 5,500 troops by early 2017.

Two down, and a new start for an old war. The recent killing of an Islamic State leader in Syria and the capture of another by American forces in Iraq “mark the first steps forward in a long-discussed shift to defeat the extremist group: the targeting of specific terrorist leaders instead of exclusively striking assets and training local troops,” writes FP’s Paul McLeary.

Last week, Pentagon officials announced that a team from the U.S. Army’s Delta Force captured an Islamic State leader in northern Iraq. On Wednesday, Iraqi security officials identified the man as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, a chemical weapons expert who once worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime. He’s the first ISIS leader to be nabbed by a task force of about 200 U.S. commandos which has operating out of Iraq since late last year.

Real talk. U.S. military officials say al-Afari is spilling the beans on the group’s chemical weapons activities, and has already provided info for two U.S. airstrikes on chemical weapons sites, the New York Times reports.

Syria talks. A spokesman for Syria’s leading opposition group tells FP’s John Hudson that his organization is likely to attend U.N.-brokered peace talks on Monday after walking away from earlier negotiations, building momentum behind the most promising, albeit distant, diplomatic push in years to end the civil war.

SOF in Somalia. Amid all of this Taliban and ISIS talk, let’s not forget that American special operators are pretty active in Somalia, as well. Their deployment was thrown into the spotlight Wednesday when the Americans accompanied Somali forces on a raid against al Shabab in which 19 of the al Qaeda fighters were killed. The Americans, U.S. military officials say, were only there in an advisory role, and didn’t take part in the fighting. FP’s Ty McCormick writes from Nairobi that the raid and the recent U.S. airstrike that killed 150 al Shabab fighters don’t point to a reversal in the group’s fortunes, however. Rather, more than anything, the strikes illustrate “just how dramatically the group has rebounded in recent years,” which has caught the attention of Washington.

Bombers ahoy! The U.S. Air Force shipped three B-52 bombers to the U.S. Pacific Command on March 8, flexing a little more muscle in the region. While military officials won’t say where the bombers will be based, a spokesman for Pacific Command tells SitRep that “we maintain a continuous bomber presence of an unspecified number” of B-52s at Andersen Air Base, Guam. Gen. Lori Robinson, Pacific Air Forces commander said in a statement that these bomber deployments “ensure our ability to project power at a time and place of our choosing,” adding, “recent events demonstrate the continued need to provide consistent and credible air power” throughout the region. The deployment comes as China continues to build new islands in disputed territory in the South China Sea, and North Korea continues to fire off new missile tests.

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.

The Islamic State

An alleged defector from within the Islamic State has handed over a thumb drive to Sky News with what he claims are the names and registration files of 22,000 members of the terror group. The defector, Abu Hamed, had been a member of the Free Syrian Army but switched over to the Islamic State. After becoming disillusioned with the group, he stole the thumb drive with the biographical data from the group’s chief of internal security. The files detail the backgrounds of fighters based on a 23 question form, listing contact information and other demographic information.

Syrian news outlet Zaman al-Wasl appears to have received a similar leak of 1,736 Islamic State’s registration files, some of which it has published. Their data includes information gleaned from a similar 23 question form, which asks recruits basic questions about their identity, travel and professional history, and whether they wish to volunteer for suicide operations. According to Zaman al-Wasl, Turkish citizens make up the majority of ISIS foreign fighters in its registration form data set, followed by French citizens. Taken together, Saudi, Egyptian, Tunisian, and Moroccan citizens make up the bulk of the group’s membership, accounting for two thirds of those identified in the forms.


U.S. officials are increasingly sounding alarm bells about the Mosul Dam and the possibility that it could collapse and cause catastrophic flooding all the way down to Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted on Wednesday that she had just attended a chilling briefing on the dam, warning that “failure could leave Mosul City under 15m of water in only hours” and that all of Baghdad would “face choice to flee or risk being stranded by flood.” The dam was built on an unstable foundation and requires constant infusions of concrete — infusions which have been interrupted by the Islamic State’s brief takeover of the facility. Iraq signed a contract with an Italian firm last week to provide maintenance and repair work on the dam.


The U.S. Army in Europe (USAREUR) is living out loud when it comes to news about ammunition shipments and support to its NATO partners there, much to the consternation of opsec worrywarts. Stars and Stripes reports that USAREUR has been talking up exercises, equipment transfers and deployments in ways that would’ve raised eyebrows about security during the Cold War, all in a bid to send a message of reassurance to U.S. allies there that America has their back. The U.S. shipment of 5,000 tons of ammo to Germany last month, the biggest such shipment in ten years, prompted an outcry among Stripes readers when it was publicized, but a USAREUR spokesman told the paper that news about the shipment “sends a message that we’re able to coordinate with host nations.”


Cry a high pitched squeak and unleash the dolphins of war. The Russian defense ministry is shopping for five dolphins — two ladies and three males — for unspecified uses, the Guardian reports. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union’s militaries used dolphins during the Cold War in order to keep tabs on ships and submarines in port and spot suspicious activity. The Soviet Union’s old dolphin training facility is in Crimea, which Russia took control of following its annexation of Crimea.

Air Force

The price tag for rebidding the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 bomber contract could be $300 million, and the process could take as long as another two and half years to complete, Flight Global reports. Talk of rebidding the contract has picked up in recent days as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has threatened to hold up funding for the B-21 over the Air Force’s use of a cost plus contract design with Northrop Grumman. Critics say cost plus contracts, such as the one for the F-35 fighter jet, are risky and can lead contractors to receive unwarranted bonuses despite poor performance. Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told members of Congress in a hearing Tuesday that the service nonetheless believes “it’s the best choice for the contract type with the risks associated.”


The Army’s controversial Human Terrain System lives again. USA Today reports that the Army misled Congress, saying falsely that it had killed the program back in 2014 when it was still alive. The program, which tried to provide social science to commanders in places like Afghanistan, was the subject of numerous scandals for everything ranging from the poor quality of its analysis to sexual harassment within its ranks. Today, the Human Terrain System lingers on with a budget of $1.2 million and a grand total of two staffers and is now known as the Global Cultural Knowledge Network.


Former New York City Mayor, hater of large sodas, and overall billionaire Michael Bloomberg scrapped his bid for the republican nomination for president before it could really start, but he did have a team working on it. Things got so far along that his staff had been engaged in talks with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to be his VP. Mullen has already been vetted, and all that remained was a formal offer.

And finally…

If you’re going to stand near the launch portal when an Iranian ballistic missile takes off, be prepared to run very, very fast.

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

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