The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Airstrike in Afghanistan Under Investigation

Nork spy defects south; B-52 to start hitting ISIS; and lots more

Members of the security forces walk at the site of a NATO airstrike which destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Kunduz on September 4, 2009.  A NATO airstrike destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan, igniting a fireball that an Afghan official said killed about 90 people - mostly insurgents.  AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the security forces walk at the site of a NATO airstrike which destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Kunduz on September 4, 2009. A NATO airstrike destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan, igniting a fireball that an Afghan official said killed about 90 people - mostly insurgents. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan trouble. The U.S. military command in Kabul has launched an investigation into an airstrike in southeastern Afghanistan last week that some locals claim killed as many as 17 civilians, SitRep has learned. Military officials insist that the strike targeted al Qaeda fighters and no civilians were killed.

Word of the incident first surfaced late last week, when it was reported that three airstrikes targeted a pickup truck full of men near the town of Nematabad, killing Hajji Rozuddin, a local elder, and his bodyguards. Two other strikes in quick succession killed a number people who came to collect the bodies, and who were watching from a nearby hill. Some locals said that Rozuddin was an anti-Taliban elder.

A spokesman for the U.S. military command, Brig. Gen Charles Cleveland, told SitRep that “we believe at this point that the strikes were solid,” but that “it is under investigation.” He declined to offer more specifics or provide a timeline. The strike, and the charges of civilian casualties, come just before the results of the investigation into a deadly October 2015 U.S. strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital are due to be released. The assault killed 42 civilian doctors and patients at the hospital. U.S. officials have said that at least a dozen American servicemembers involved in the incident have been recommended for punishment.

Cleveland said that between the beginning of January and the end of March, American aircraft have taken “just under” 100 counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan, “the majority” of which have taken place in Nangarhar province where as many as 3,000 Islamic State fighters have been operating. The U.S. military has the authority to target al Qaeda and ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, but can target the Taliban only if NATO or Afghan forces are under direct assault.

According to Pentagon statistics, American warplanes had 300 “weapons releases” in Afghanistan during the first three months of 2016, including 58 in March. There were 947 total weapons releases in 2015.

Navy officer charged with spying for China. In a series of explosive revelations over the weekend, we learned that a U.S. Navy pilot is under investigation for providing classified information to China. Taiwanese-born Lt. Cmdr. Edward C. Lin has been in Navy custody for eight months, accused of espionage and communicating classified information to an unspecified foreign country. Officials later confirmed the country is China. The U.S. Naval Institute blog first reported the charges on Friday, noting Lin has “served on some of the Navy’s most sensitive intelligence gathering aircraft,” and “had a career as a signals intelligence specialist on the Navy’s Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft.” The government also charged Lin with adultery, patronizing a prostitute and failing to report his foreign travel. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is currently travelling in Asia, but will not visit Beijing, promising to visit later this year.

Speaking of spies… A colonel serving in North Korea’s spy agency has defected to South Korea, the South announced Monday, making him the one of the highest-ranking North Korean military officers ever to flee south. The officer from North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance apparently arrived in South Korea last year. Not quite as significant, but the announcement comes just days after South Korea confirmed that 13 North Koreans working for a North Korean government-run restaurant abroad also defected to the South. Now, we’ll await the expected promises of destruction from the North.

Libyan blues. Can the world’s hand-picked prime minister for Libya survive long enough to put the country back together? Faiez Serraj, a former engineer and little-known parliamentarian, faces a daunting task as he tries to cobble a government together in the face of continuing chaos produced by several warring factions and the increasing influence of the Islamic State, writes FP contributor Bel Trew.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we open up another week 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.

The Islamic State

Let the carpet bombing begin? The U.S. has sent B-52 bombers to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar to participate in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The massive bomber will offer the coalition a broader range of options for targeting Islamic State fighters with greater persistence and payload capabilities, Air Force officials said. The move marks the B-52’s first deployment to the region in over a quarter century. The Air Force declined to specify how many bombers the U.S. has sent to Qatar, but Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said that the planes offer “diverse capabilities including delivery of precision weapons.”

Syria

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki says his country’s forces are planning a new offensive on rebel-held Aleppo, this time with the help of Russian airpower. Regime-aligned militias have been fighting with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which is not a party to the recently-signed cessation of hostilities. Observers say the cessation has nearly fallen apart as rebel groups which did sign onto the truce have joined in the fighting around Aleppo. Rebel groups have also accused the Assad regime of violating the terms of the cessation of hostilities since shortly after it came into effect.

Europe

The head of Germany’s top domestic spy agency says his analysts underestimated the Islamic State’s willingness to hide its fighters amidst the refugee flows headed from Syria to Europe. In an interview with a German newspaper, Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, called the risk of an Islamic State attack in Germany “very serious” and said that the group’s recruiters may target unaccompanied minors among Syrian refugees. With a fresh ISIS propaganda video threatening attacks on Berlin, Maassen worried that spy agency’s intelligence on potential attackers may not be helpful as foreign fighters return to Germany with assumed identities.

The terrorist cell that carried out the attacks on an airport and metro stop in Brussels in March had originally planned on attacking France but switched at the last minute following the arrest of fellow terrorist, Salah Abdeslam. Belgian authorities were on the hunt for Abdeslam because of his alleged involvement with the November 2015 attacks in Paris and seized a cache of assault rifles the men were planning to use in the attack on France. Prosecutors say the hasty preparations for the subsequent plot against Brussels led one of the attackers to mistakenly take the wrong subway train en route to his target and appear on security camera footage.

Iran

Iranian justice ministry spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi says he’s “heard words from here and there” concerning another possible prisoner swap with the United States but nothing has been confirmed so far, the AP reports. Ejehi made the comments in reference to a hypothetical deal for the release of Siamak Namazi, a businessman and dual Iranian-American citizen arrested in Iran in October on charges of cooperating with the U.S. government.

Yemen

The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against the Houthi movement has yielded a brief truce after a year of fighting. In the process, the conflict has allowed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to grow stronger and wealthier, according to a special report from Reuters. The wire service writes that the jihadist group has flourished in the chaos brought on by the conflict, amassing nearly $100 million stolen from local banks and taxes at the port of Mukalla, which it now controls. With newly expanded territory and weapons looted from government stocks, AQAP is now shaking down local companies for protection money in a bid to top up its revenues.

Bots o’ war

It’s no secret that President Barack Obama has presided over a dramatic increase in the number and scope of drone strikes during his time in office. With the end of his presidency in sight, the president now says he hopes to leave behind an institutional oversight regime to govern their use after he leaves office. Obama, speaking to an audience at the University of Chicago, said he’d also like to create a process where drone strikes are “consistently reported on an annualized basis” before the next president is sworn in.

 

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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