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SitRep: New Taliban Assault on Kabul, Dozens Killed

More U.S. troops to Iraq; China still in the game; Syria talks stumble; ISIS cash crunch; new Russian stealth bomber; and lots more

Afghan security personnel stand guard at the scene of a roadside bomb explosion at Khair Khana in Kabul on March 29, 2016.
A roadside bomb attack in a residential area of Kabul killed two civilians and wounded nine people, Sediq Sediqqi, the Spokesperson to the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, said. / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security personnel stand guard at the scene of a roadside bomb explosion at Khair Khana in Kabul on March 29, 2016. A roadside bomb attack in a residential area of Kabul killed two civilians and wounded nine people, Sediq Sediqqi, the Spokesperson to the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, said. / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security personnel stand guard at the scene of a roadside bomb explosion at Khair Khana in Kabul on March 29, 2016. A roadside bomb attack in a residential area of Kabul killed two civilians and wounded nine people, Sediq Sediqqi, the Spokesperson to the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, said. / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul rocked. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing and small arms attack on an Afghan security agency in Kabul that killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 320.

The assault followed a familiar pattern for Taliban attacks in the capital city: detonate a vehicle packed with explosives, then storm a nearby building and fight it out with Afghan security forces until the attackers are dead. It’s unclear how many fighters were involved in the assault, but it comes as the government of President Ashraf Ghani struggles to hold key districts in Helmand province in the south amid a renewed Taliban offensives there. The government in Kabul is also struggling to hold overdue parliamentary elections this fall amid the worsening security situation.

The Institute for the Study of War recently released a map of Taliban strongholds throughout the country, showing the Taliban gains in the south.

Kabul rocked. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing and small arms attack on an Afghan security agency in Kabul that killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 320.

The assault followed a familiar pattern for Taliban attacks in the capital city: detonate a vehicle packed with explosives, then storm a nearby building and fight it out with Afghan security forces until the attackers are dead. It’s unclear how many fighters were involved in the assault, but it comes as the government of President Ashraf Ghani struggles to hold key districts in Helmand province in the south amid a renewed Taliban offensives there. The government in Kabul is also struggling to hold overdue parliamentary elections this fall amid the worsening security situation.

The Institute for the Study of War recently released a map of Taliban strongholds throughout the country, showing the Taliban gains in the south.

A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul tells SitRep that no U.S. servicemembers were caught up in the attack. In a statement, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, said that the attack “shows the insurgents are unable to meet Afghan forces on the battlefield and must resort to these terrorist attacks.” Nicholson, who took command of America’s longest war last month, is still working to draw up a list of recommendations for what assets he’ll need. It’s expected he will ask that troop numbers remain at the current level of 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.

All eyes on Mosul. There are another 217 U.S. troops headed to Iraq to help security forces fight their way toward the ISIS-held city of Mosul, bringing the official number of American servicemembers there to just over 4,000. Hundreds more are in country but are not counted on the official rolls, meaning the real number is over 5,000, defense officials have said.

As part of the new aid package announced in Baghdad by Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday, the Pentagon will also start handing over $415 million to the Kurdish government to help pay their fighters, who have gone without pay amid a budget crunch due to falling oil prices.

The new troops will move out with Iraqi forces, advising local commanders at the battalion level, potentially putting them closer to the fight as the Iraqi army pushes north toward Mosul. Until this point, American advisors generally stayed at the division level or above. The new troops will also fly Apache helicopters that will strike ISIS fighters and man artillery systems, including the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which can fire multiple 200-lb. GPS-guided rockets over 40 miles. The HIMARS has already been used by U.S. forces to pound ISIS around Ramadi, and one U.S.-manned system has fired from Jordan into Syria in recent months. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the new deployment the kind of “grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars.”

Syria talks. In a major blow for United Nations-backed peace efforts, the Syrian opposition walked away from talks in Geneva as rebels launched a new offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in retaliation for government airstrikes, FP’s John Hudson reports. The Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said on Monday that talks could not proceed while the Assad regime and its partners continued bombing civilians, hitting rebel targets and refusing to discuss the formation of a transitional government in Damascus, the HNC said in a statement. As the rebel leadership walked away from the talks, their fighters launched a concerted attack against pro-government forces in Latakia province Monday and advanced farther east into Hama. At the same time, the Assad regime continued to pummel Homs province with airstrikes.

Terror cash crunch. Is ISIS out of money? Not quite, but analysts say that the group is feeling the pinch. According to a new report from IHS Inc., a consultancy that provides security advice to governments and businesses, the terror group’s monthly revenue has dropped by almost 30 percent in the last year, from $80 million in March 2015 to $56 million in March 2016. FP’s David Francis writes that 50 percent of the group’s revenue comes from confiscation and taxation, while around 43 percent comes from oil revenue. Drug smuggling, donations, and the sale of services like electricity make up the remainder.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as launch 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.

China

The United States is letting China know it doesn’t approve of a Chinese military aircraft’s recent visit to the disputed Fiery Cross Reef. A Pentagon spokesman tells CNN that the Defense Department is wondering why China opted to send a military, as opposed to civilian, plane to the reef for an emergency transfer of three sick construction workers to a hospital on nearby Hainan Island. The Pentagon released a statement asking China “to reaffirm that it has no plans to deploy or rotate military aircraft at its outposts in the Spratlys.” A handful of neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei also lay claim to the reef.

Despite all of the drama, China is still invited to this year’s Rimpac naval exercise, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this week while aboard the USS John C. Stennis in the South China Sea. Asked if China would still be allowed to attend, Carter said, “you’re right to use the word ‘allow,’ because actually we issued the invitations, and we have not taken the step of disinviting them,” Carter explained. China participated in the 2014 Rimpac exercise.

Dangerous love

Last week China observed National Security Education Day and, according to the AP, used the occasion to roll out a poster warning government employees of the dangers of attractive foreigners. The comic book, dubbed “Dangerous Love,” tells Xiao Li’s tale of woe as the young government worker arrested for passing classified documents to her foreign researcher boyfriend who later turns out to be a spy. The posters, meant to keep government employees vigilant about protecting national secrets, echo their counterparts in American national security facilities, warning about the risks of passing secrets to foreigners.

Help is on the way?

The U.S. government has struggled to manage its efforts to train and equip foreign forces, something the Obama administration has said is a key part of its efforts to beat back ISIS and al Qaeda around the world. Despite spending $2.9 billion on these programs since 2009 — and $675 million in 2015 — 13 of 54 project proposals “did not include required estimates of annual sustainment costs,” the Government Accountability Office reports.  And the Pentagon, never known for completing a project on time, has blown past deadlines to update Congress on its efforts. “Despite a legal requirement to complete and submit to Congress annual assessments within 90 days of the end of each fiscal year, DOD’s fiscal year 2013, 2014, and 2015 assessment reports were submitted up to 21 months late,” the report states.

Hotline

China and India are working on developing a hotline between the two countries just in case leaders need a quick chat in the event of a crisis, Agence France Presse reports. China’s defense minister Chang Wanquan and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar met on Monday for talks and spoke positively of the prospect for a bilateral communications channel to defuse tensions. The two countries fought a war in 1962 over their shared border, the location of which remains a subject of dispute to this day.

The Islamic State

NBC News sent out a batch of 4,000 leaked registration forms filled out by foreign fighters arriving in Islamic State-held territory for analysis by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Turns out, the docs are most likely legitimate. The tranche of recruitment forms were also leaked to Sky News and Zaman al-Wasl, but some experts questioned the authenticity of the documents after publication. The Combating Terrorism Center found that recruits ranged from their teens through their 60s, with an average age in their late 20s, better than average educations and a disinterest in carrying out suicide attacks. The dates at which the fighters arrive suggest that the Islamic State’s rapid territorial expansion after July 2014 significantly spiked recruitment for the group.

Iraq

British private security firm Aegis Defence Services is in trouble after one of its directors admitted that the contractor didn’t bother to check if the Sierra Leonean personnel it hired to provide security at British and American diplomatic facilities in Iraq were former child soldiers. James Ellery, a former director at the company, told a documentary filmmaker that the company thought it would be “quite wrong” to ask the recruits about their past and hold that past acts against them in making employment decisions. Aegis hired contractors from Sierra Leone, where Ellery served as chief of staff for the United Nations mission, paying them $16 a day to work as private security contractors in Iraq.

Russia has sent three Sukhoi Su-25 close air support planes to Iraq as part of a contract between the two countries, according to Russia’s TASS news agency, one of a number of such deliveries Russia has made to Iraq throughout its war against the Islamic State. A spokesman for Iraq’s defense ministry said the planes will be pressed into service soon.

Israel

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon says technology to find Hamas tunnels is a “top priority” and he’s looking to secure American funding in order to purchase it, Defense News reports. Israeli defense officials say they’ve spent $60 million on trying to destroy tunnels so far and are looking for around $120 million in aid for similar operations from the United States. For the past two months, Israeli forces have been involved in a classified operation to destroy a network of Hamas tunnels that extended beyond the wall surrounding Gaza and into neighboring Israeli neighborhoods. Ya’alon says Hamas has had lost a number of recruits in the tunnels due to collapses recently.

Russia

Russia says it plans to develop a new stealth PAK-DA bomber and an updated Tu-160M2 Blackjack bomber. The development plan would see Russia migrating technologies from the Tu-160M2 for inclusion on the PAK-DA. The PAK-DA is expected to adopt a flying wing design similar to that seen on the U.S. stealth B-2 bomber. While the PAK-DA would be Russia’s first stealth bomber, Russia has also been working on its first stealth aircraft, the PAK-FA fighter jet, alongside India.

And finally…

Don’t write “ISIS beer funds!!!” in the memo section of your online payments as a joke unless you enjoy awkward conversations with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Photo Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.

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