The Cable

SitRep: Afghanistan in trouble as big decisions loom, ISIS nabs more tanks

Two top U.S. military leaders forced to retire; North Korea at it again; Hill wants new counter-propaganda office; and lots more

An Afghan Local Police (ALP) personnel keeps watch during an ongoing battle with Taliban militants in the Marjah district of Helmand Province on December 23, 2015. Military planes have dropped food and ammunition to besieged Afghan forces battling to push Taliban insurgents out of Sangin, officials said December 22, two days after the emboldened militants stormed the opium-growing district. Islamists have captured large swathes of the district in the southern province of Helmand which British and US forces struggled for years to defend.Fleeing local residents reported bloody gunfights as the Taliban advanced on the district centre, highlighting a worsening security situation across Afghanistan a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations. AFP PHOTO / Noor Mohammad / AFP / NOOR MOHAMMAD        (Photo credit should read NOOR MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan Local Police (ALP) personnel keeps watch during an ongoing battle with Taliban militants in the Marjah district of Helmand Province on December 23, 2015. Military planes have dropped food and ammunition to besieged Afghan forces battling to push Taliban insurgents out of Sangin, officials said December 22, two days after the emboldened militants stormed the opium-growing district. Islamists have captured large swathes of the district in the southern province of Helmand which British and US forces struggled for years to defend.Fleeing local residents reported bloody gunfights as the Taliban advanced on the district centre, highlighting a worsening security situation across Afghanistan a year after NATO formally ended its combat operations. AFP PHOTO / Noor Mohammad / AFP / NOOR MOHAMMAD (Photo credit should read NOOR MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Accountability. Human rights advocates have denounced the U.S. military’s decision not to file criminal charges against troops responsible for a disastrous airstrike on a Doctor Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last year, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report. U.S. Defense officials said Thursday that more than 12 service members involved in the airstrike which left 42 people dead will face various disciplinary measures for their roles in the raid, including administrative penalties that will effectively end some of their military careers.

What fighting season? The announcement comes at a critical time for Afghanistan, as security forces battle it out with a resurgent Taliban and the government in Kabul tries to set to conditions for overdue parliamentary elections. The U.S. military command in Kabul has even sent one if its generals to Helmand province in the south to coordinate the fight, as Taliban forces continue to push the Afghan army and police out of key districts. Several hundred U.S. troops were rushed to Helmand earlier this year to help advise Afghan forces, following a surge of American commandos late last year.

Earlier this week, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Andrew Rohling was dispatched to Helmand to help coordinate the fight and direct the rebuilding of the Afghan army’s battered 215th Corps, which has been torn up by months of constant fighting and a corrupt and incompetent leadership structure. This all comes against the backdrop of a planned reduction of U.S. forces by the end of this year, drawing down from 9,800 to about 5,500.

No one is happy. That drawdown has plenty of critics, however. Chief among them is recently departed commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, who throughout his tenure made the case for slowing troop drawdown plans and expanding the role of U.S. advisers on the ground.

If U.S. forces drop to 5,500, the Afghan security forces “will be in the toughest position they’ve been in since their inception. With no American forces in the field training and advising them,” Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the RAND Corporation told SitRep. Campbell also sent a plea to the White House to allow U.S. warplanes to start hitting Taliban targets, something they’ve been precluded from doing for the past year. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently pointed out that this presents a stark choice for President Barack Obama in the waning days of his administration: open up the air war and keep more troops in the country, or put his faith in the Afghan forces to be able to hold the line.

On March 15, five influential Republican leaders in the House of Representatives sent a letter to Obama encouraging him to let the bombs fly against the Taliban.

Quote of the day. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday: “We’re in the process of making recommendations to the president for changes that might be made to make us more effective in supporting Afghan forces in 2016 and making them more successful.”

State Dept. calls it. Secretary of State John Kerry declared Thursday that the Islamic State has carried out acts of genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria, says FP’s John Hudson. Kerry said the finding is meant to demonstrate that the U.S. recognizes “the despicable nature of crimes” carried out by the group.

Punch and counterpunch. President Obama signed an executive order Tuesday slapping a host of new penalties on North Korea, banning the export of goods there and threatening to sanction anyone who does business with large sectors of North Korea’s economy — including its financial, mining, and transport sectors. But FP’s David Francis reports that Beijing isn’t happy about the move. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China was opposed to any unilateral punishments against its ally in Pyongyang. “As I’ve said many times before, China always opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions,” Lu said during a news briefing in Beijing. “Any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests,” Lu warned.

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.

Deleted

The U.S. Air Force’s assistant vice chief of staff has been removed — and has submitted his retirement papers — after an Inspector General investigation found he exchanged inappropriate emails with a female lieutenant colonel in 2010 and 2011. The emails between Lt. Gen. John Hesterman and the unnamed officer had revealed an “unprofessional relationship,” according to an Air Force statement. Hesterman’s boss, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has also kicked off a process to strip Hesterman of one of his stars.

The career of the U.S. Navy’s top SEAL, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, has also been scuttled now that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has decided to reject Losey’s pending promotion to become a two-star admiral. The move effectively ends Losey’s career, and the Washington Post reports he has filed his retirement papers. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had been blocking the nomination of Janine Davidson to become the Navy’s second-ranking civilian leader until the Navy took another look at their plans to promote Losey after Pentagon investigators found Losey had illegally punished three subordinates during a fruitless hunt for an anonymous staffer who accused Losey of violating travel policy rules.

Syria

The Islamic State seized what may be its largest single haul of weapons to date, after raiding  an ammo dump belonging to the Syrian military’s 137th Brigade. The sharp eyes at Oryx Blog combed through a recent video release by the jihadist group which details the haul from its seizure of the Ayyash weapons depot near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The Islamic State scored thousands of round of ammunition, hundreds of artillery rounds, dozens of armored vehicles, and three tanks.

Vladimir Putin would like you to know that, though Russia has recently reduced the size of its presence in Syria, it can be back in a flash if it wants to. Speaking at a military ceremony, Putin told the audience Russia could beef up its military presence there “literally within a few hours” if things go south once again. Reuters estimates that Russia has pulled out 18 of the 36 warplanes it initially deployed to Syria starting in September. Putin also set the bill for Russia’s intervention in Syria at a relatively modest $481 million.

Iraq

Kurdish media in Iraq has broadcast interview with Mohamad Jamal Khweis, the 26 year-old American who allegedly traveled to Iraq to join the Islamic State. In an interview with Kurdistan24, Khweis claims to have ended up in the Islamic State-held city of Mosul by chasing after the affections of a woman he met in Turkey. He described life in Mosul as harsh and unpleasant, leading to his short, one month stay there and attempt to flee. “It is not like Western countries. It is very strict and no smoking there,” Khweis said of the Islamic State’s governance, saying that “life in Mosul is really very bad.”

Yemen

Saudi Arabia says it’s looking to wind down its U.S.-backed war in Yemen to oust the Houthi movement from power, according to the AP. Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said a smaller training footprint of troops from the coalition would still “equip, train, and advise” local forces and carry out airstrikes in support of them. Coalition ground forces will shift from a focus on direct combat toward building up an indigenous Yemeni army to carry on the fight against the Houthis, according to al-Asiri. The announcement follows news that an earlier airstrike from coalition aircraft against a market in Yemen killed an estimated 119 civilians, including 22 children.

Who’s where when

The German Marshall Fund’s “Brussels Forum” kicks off Friday morning, with a livestream here. Friday’s session begins at 9:30 a.m. with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. The Saturday session features a Russia panel with foreign ministers from Poland and Ukraine.

Ukraine

British Defense Minister Michael Fallon inked a new defense pact with the government of Ukraine, according to the Daily Telegraph. The new 15 year agreement calls for increased joint military exercises and intelligence-sharing between the two countries as well as more training from British troops to help Ukraine take on Russian-backed rebels in the country.

North Korea

Norks fired two more ballistic missiles into the waters off its eastern coast toward Japan Thursday night, with one them blowing up in flight, Yonhap News reports. The first launch used a Nodong medium range ballistic fired from a mobile launcher on North Korea’s western coast, which later splashed down in the waters off Japan. Less is known about the second missile, but South Korean authorities lost track of it shortly after launch and believe it may have blown up mid-flight. North Korea has been carrying out a string of increasingly aggressive provocations, testing a nuclear weapon and a potential intercontinental ballistic missile as well as firing rockets into the Sea of Japan earlier this month.

Information war

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Oh.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have put forward a new bill aimed at responding to anti-American propaganda from Russia and China with a new counter-propaganda office. The Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 would create a Center for Information Analysis and Response to analyze what the bill labels as foreign propaganda and disinformation. The move to confront information warfare campaigns follows similar efforts in Europe, where the European Union has created a Strategic Communications Center of Excellence aimed at stemming an increasing tide of spin from Moscow.

 

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