The Cable

Situation Report: Should Obama bomb the Taliban?; Argentina sinks Chinese boat; no relief for Moscow; State Dept. numbers game; what did Jordan know, and when did it know it; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley More bombs, or hope for the best? With the so-called “fighting season” coming up in Afghanistan and the Taliban surging in the country’s south, north, and east, President Barack Obama faces a choice he’d rather not make in the waning days of his administration: turn his bombers loose on ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

More bombs, or hope for the best? With the so-called “fighting season” coming up in Afghanistan and the Taliban surging in the country’s south, north, and east, President Barack Obama faces a choice he’d rather not make in the waning days of his administration: turn his bombers loose on Taliban targets, or keep faith that the Afghan army can hold.

Current rules of engagement ban strikes on the Taliban unless U.S. or Afghan forces are in life or death situations, but as  FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report, “senior Pentagon officials believe it’s time for those rules to change. They’re pushing for revising the rules of engagement so they would be free to fire on Taliban forces massing to seize territory and directly target their leadership.”

Sorry, Vlad. Two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was pulling some of his forces out of Syria, FP’s John Hudson writes that Moscow shouldn’t expect any relief from U.S. sanctions, at least according to America’s top diplomat to Europe. Washington will maintain economic pressure on the Kremlin until it fully withdraws weapons and troops close to the Ukrainian border, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Senate panel on Tuesday. “We continue to look at the Syria theater and at the Ukraine theater as two separate places,” she said. “We will judge the Ukraine action based on what is done in Ukraine, and as you know, the sanctions are linked to Ukraine. So from our perspective, what is done in Syria should not impact choices about Ukraine.”

Sunk. Argentina’s coast guard sank a Chinese fishing vessel as it chased the boat out of Argentinian waters on Tuesday, sparking a diplomatic spat between the two countries on the eve of President Obama’s trip there later this month. The incident, which was monitored by another Chinese ship shadowing the confrontation, calls to mind one of the U.S. Navy’s big concerns in the Pacific: the aggressiveness of what some call the Chinese maritime militia.

FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary covered the issue late last year, writing that the “fishing boats have been employed as a sort of picket line, staked hundreds of miles out at sea, providing the Chinese navy with an extra set of eyes and ears in disputed waters far from the mainland.” The fishing boats have already played a key role in several incidents in recent years, including a 2012 standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and a 2009 incident in which a group of Chinese fishing trawlers also trailed and harassed the USNS Impeccable, an American surveillance ship, for days in the same area.

“Might makes right.” In related news, the head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, said Wednesday that Chinese actions in the South China Sea are creating a “climate of uncertainty [that] not only threatens freedom of the seas and chips away at the rules-based system, it encourages nations to transfer ever-larger shares of national wealth to purchase naval weapons beyond what is needed merely for self-defense.”

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that his country would declare victory and withdraw some of the country’s military assets from Syria surprised many people, but not the Jordanian government. Allegedly. A Jordanian official tells Defense News that the country got a heads up on the impending move during Jordanian chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Mishal Al Zaben’s talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Syrian Defense Minister. In a statement posted to its website, Hezbollah also claims to have pulled several fighters back from the front lines in Syria.

The State Department’s latest effort to take on the Islamic State’s messaging has a fresh new executive order aimed at turning around the historically troubled U.S. counter jihadi propaganda efforts. The Daily Beast reports that the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement and its chief, former Navy SEAL Michael Lumpkin, are looking for a new, data-driven approach to counter the Islamic State’s online propaganda. The goal will be to partner with private sector companies to use algorithms to identify those social media users most at risk from extremist propaganda based on their public postings and intervene privately with counter messaging.

The Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) top spy, a man known only as “M,” granted an interview to France’s Le Monde newspaper in which he slams the CIA for failing to follow up on intelligence provided by the FSA on the Islamic State. “M” told the paper that the FSA provided photographs and GPS coordinates of an Islamic State training camp to the CIA as well as the phone numbers and IP addresses of senior leaders in the jihadist group — allegedly all without receiving a response from the agency.

Iran

Iran is trolling the U.S. Navy yet again with more claims about the detention of U.S. sailors after their boat drifted into Iranian waters back in January, according to the AP. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) Gen. Ali Razmjou claimed that Iran got its hands on 13,000 pages worth of intelligence from the various devices carried by the sailors, including laptops and GPS devices. Lest you think the trolling will end here, Razmjou also added that the IRGC is hard at work on a book about the incident, which will be published soon.

An anonymous “senior official” tells CNN that Iran could launch a satellite-bearing rocket “at any minute.” Iran has been teasing the prospect of a launch from its three stage Simorgh rocket for some time, but an official launch date has yet to be announced. Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, however, notes that a sand and dust storm moving through the region over the next 72 hours could possibly interfere with plans for an imminent launch.

France

Monday was National Reservist Day in France and to mark the occasion, France’s defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced plans to increase the size of the country’s national reserve to 40,000 over the next two years, up from its current size of 28,000. The increase is in the size of the reserves is part of the increase in French security measures following the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State in Paris.

Army

Senior Army officials are painting a pretty dire portrait of the state of the service, fretting over decreasing end strength, improving enemy weapons, and a declining budget, National Defense magazine reports. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, deputy commanding general of Army Training and Doctrine Command, worried Tuesday that the Army may be “outnumbered” in future conflicts, adding that its vehicles are insufficiently armored relative to enemy capabilities. Officials said “disruptive capabilities” were key to turning around the Army’s fortunes, citing robotics, cyber capabilities, and electronic warfare technologies, among others, as particularly important.

Army Materiel Command would like to start stashing gear around the world. Just in case. The command’s boss Gen. Dennis Via, says he wants to pre-position eight activity sets in places like Europe, Asia, and Africa, with each set designed to support a particular combatant command. Via also noted other initiatives currently underway, including an effort to lighten the gear soldiers carry by doing away with extra batteries and letting soldiers’ by body heat charge devices instead.

Congress

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) has proposed a new bill dubbed the Acquisition Agility Act in order to streamline the acquisition process for the Defense Department, the Hill reports. With the estimated 10 years it takes to field weapons systems, the goal is to speed up the weapons delivery pipeline and keep up with changes in technology. The bill divides acquisition into platforms and components, encouraging open platforms that allow for add-on components and aiming to field the former before the latter. Thornberry hopes to to attach the bill to this year’s Defense Authorization Act.

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