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SitRep: Exclusive: Joint Chiefs Chairman on Afghanistan’s Aviation ‘Gap’

The guns of Aleppo silent for now; details on fight that killed U.S. Navy SEAL; Army officer sues Obama; AQ in Syria; and lots more

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JANUARY 15: Army personnel stand next to A-29 Super Tucano attack aircrafts as U.S officials formally delivers four Brazil-made Super Tucano attack aircraft to the Afghan Defense Ministry, in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 15, 2016. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JANUARY 15: Army personnel stand next to A-29 Super Tucano attack aircrafts as U.S officials formally delivers four Brazil-made Super Tucano attack aircraft to the Afghan Defense Ministry, in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 15, 2016. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JANUARY 15: Army personnel stand next to A-29 Super Tucano attack aircrafts as U.S officials formally delivers four Brazil-made Super Tucano attack aircraft to the Afghan Defense Ministry, in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 15, 2016. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

Quiet in Aleppo. It’s hard to say how long it will last, or if it may be a first a step toward eventually ending the bloodletting, but relative clam appears to have fallen over the beleaguered Syrian city of Aleppo. Washington and Moscow reached an agreement for a ceasefire between the Syrian government and rebel fighters in the city Wednesday, and so far, it has held. But reports emerged Thursday that Syrian government planes continued to drop barrel bombs in the countryside near the city.

If successful, the new truce “would close a glaring hole in U.S. efforts to reduce violence in Syria after another, partial, ceasefire was announced last Friday in the northwestern region of Latakia and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta,” FP’s John Hudson and Colum Lynch report. “The most intense violence has been happening in Aleppo, where a combination of regime airstrikes and rebel attacks on pro-government neighborhoods killed 300 people over the last two weeks.”

 

Quiet in Aleppo. It’s hard to say how long it will last, or if it may be a first a step toward eventually ending the bloodletting, but relative clam appears to have fallen over the beleaguered Syrian city of Aleppo. Washington and Moscow reached an agreement for a ceasefire between the Syrian government and rebel fighters in the city Wednesday, and so far, it has held. But reports emerged Thursday that Syrian government planes continued to drop barrel bombs in the countryside near the city.

If successful, the new truce “would close a glaring hole in U.S. efforts to reduce violence in Syria after another, partial, ceasefire was announced last Friday in the northwestern region of Latakia and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta,” FP’s John Hudson and Colum Lynch report. “The most intense violence has been happening in Aleppo, where a combination of regime airstrikes and rebel attacks on pro-government neighborhoods killed 300 people over the last two weeks.”

Details on SEALs death. The battle started just after dawn with a bulldozer, then a truck bomb. And it ended with a U.S. Navy SEAL dying at a Kurdish Peshmerga outpost on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. On Wednesday, the Pentagon released new details of the firefight that led to the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating earlier this week, and the fight shows just how close U.S. forces are to the front lines, and how quickly things can go bad.

“About 125 Islamic State fighters surprised a handful of U.S. military advisors meeting with the Peshmerga a few miles outside the Islamic State-held city,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes,  “touching off a daylong fight that included U.S. helicopters, a commando quick reaction force, and warplanes — including a B-52 — dropping dozens of bombs to push the insurgents back.”

Other reports from the field maintain that at least 10 Pesh were killed and 30 wounded in the day-long battle, while pretty much all of the ISIS attackers perished. The Peshmerga even managed to capture several U.S.-made Humvees the militants had previously snatched from the Iraqi army.

Ground truth. A short video taken by a Kurdish commando obtained by The Guardian shows part of the firefight, complete with U.S. helicopters buzzing overhead.

Afghanistan’s Air Power ‘Gap.’ FP’s Dan De Luce, having just returned from Europe where he traveled with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, writes for SitRep:

President Barack Obama will have to weigh in soon on the future of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, with decisions pending on troop numbers and the use of air power against the Taliban. When the commander-in-chief looks at his options, senior U.S. military officers likely will be reminding him of the Taliban’s potency on the battlefield and the Afghan government’s tiny air force.

Dunford told FP that the Afghan army’s lack of air power will be taken into account when recommendations are presented to the president. “I think we owe the president options to ensure that the Afghan forces are successful in 2016 and beyond. One of the challenges they had in 2015 was their relatively nascent aviation capability.“

The Afghans have made some progress building up their fledgling air force, which includes Russian-made helicopters and four A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft that arrived earlier this year, Dunford said.

But he added, “I don’t think anyone of us are satisfied that it’s sufficient for the Afghan forces to deal with the challenges they confront.” Dunford, however, did not say explicitly that he favored expanding authorities for the U.S. commander in Afghanistan to target the Taliban from the air. Dunford said the Afghan security forces had a number of shortcomings, and logistics and close air support were among them. “I recognize aviation is a gap. And we’re going take a look at it,” he said.

Full court. Well, here’s something a little different. A 28-year old U.S. Army Captain stationed in Kuwait is suing President Barack Obama over the legality of the war against the Islamic State. Capt. Nathan Michael Smith — an intelligence officer — insists he supports the effort to defeat the terrorist group, but says his “conscience” and vow to uphold the Constitution, has lead him to conclude that the war has not received the proper authorization from Congress. “To honor my oath, I am asking the court to tell the president that he must get proper authority from Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, to wage the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Smith wrote. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Here it comes. “My concern with Trump will be that he inadvertently leaks, because as he speaks extemporaneously, he’ll pull something out of his hat that he heard in a briefing and say it.” That’s what a former “senior U.S. intelligence official” told the Daily Beast’s Shane Harris after the country woke up to the fact that some time soon, presumptive Republican nominee for president Donald Trump will begin receiving daily intelligence briefings from U.S. security officials.

Don’t forget AQ. While Washington’s focus in Iraq and Syria has been on the Islamic State, al Qaeda has been putting together the pieces of a new caliphate in northern Syria, argues Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria,” he writes in FP. “For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalization of al Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep. Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.”

Thanks for clicking on through as we work through an action-packed 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

Who’s where when

11:30 a.m. On May 5, the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund will host U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who will deliver a speech on the NATO alliance in advance of the NATO 2016 Warsaw Summit this July. Livestream here.

Russia

Just days after the U.S. announced it was considering sending more troops and equipment to Eastern Europe, Russia says it plans on forming three new divisions to check the move. Russia’s Tass news agency reports that Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu pledged to set up the three divisions in the country’s Western and Southern military districts in order “to counteract the buildup of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of Russian borders.” Shoigu previously signaled Russia would create new divisions earlier this year.

Korea

An anonymous South Korean government source tells Dong-a Ilbo that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a secret visit to Seoul this week. The paper reports that Clapper held a meeting with Defense Minister Han Min-koo to discuss indicators that the North was gearing up for another nuclear test. North Korea watchers at 38 North have analyzed recent satellite imagery of the North’s test site and found little evidence of activity there, but noted that it appears Pyongyang is nonetheless now capable of testing at any time, a conclusion shared by South Korean officials.

Syria

Two United Nations officials say that starvation tactics and attacks against medical facilities in Syria amount to war crimes and those responsible must be held accountable. Agence France Presse reports that under secretary general Jeffrey Feltman and under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief Stephen O’Brien both warned that attacks on medical facilities could one day yield war crimes charges. A number of Syrian hospitals have been bombed since Russia entered the conflict in September, with some human rights groups charging that Russia has deliberately targeted the facilities. This week, rebels rocketed a hospital and maternity ward in Aleppo. In reference to the sieges that have denied Syrian civilians of access to food and medical, Feltman said that “using starvation as a weapon during conflict is a war crime.”

The Islamic State

The Islamic State has the capability to attack the U.S. at home, says Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper spoke with CNN’s Peter Bergen and said, “they do have that capacity” to pull off an active-shooter attack in America just as the group did in Paris in November of 2015. Bergen also spoke to President Obama, who was somewhat more measured in describing the threat posed by the Islamic State, telling Bergen that the U.S. faces “less of a threat than Europe.”

Iran

The deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said that Iran will close the Strait of Hormuz if it feels the U.S. is threatening Iran, according to the AP. Gen. Hossein Salami also included America’s “regional allies” in the threat. The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow waterway at the entrance to the Persian Gulf which much of the world’s oil shipping must pass through on its way to the global market. Iran has made similar threats in the past. In 2011 and 2012, Iranian officials said they’d block U.S. entrance to the Gulf only to see a U.S. aircraft carrier sail through the strait in defiance.

Cameroon

Members of a local security force in the town of Mora, Cameroon have killed a suicide bomber using a poisoned arrow shot from a bow. Cameroonian officials say the locals killed a 40-year old woman carrying explosives, one of five other suicide bombers to attack near the town recently.

Tech

Attribution — the practice of tracing hacking incidents to their culprits — can be difficult at times, particularly if you need to evidence to back up your counterattacks against a suspect person or country. Defense One reports that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is soliciting ideas for its Enhanced Attribution Program to help improve the Pentagon’s ability to fingerprint individual hackers and their organizations. The program would feed information such as biometric indicators from devices used by suspected hackers, information about the computers they’ve used to develop malware into an algorithm that creates profiles based on hackers particular idiosyncrasies to help identify those responsible for attacks.

Cool stuff

The destroyer of the U.S. Navy’s future, the USS Zumwalt, just ran through a series of “acceptance trials” and the boat’s manufacturer, General Dynamics Corp., has posted what we have to admit is a pretty cool video of the ship at sea. Once operational, the stealthy, 600-ft. long Zumwalt will be based in San Diego.

And finally…

Jordanian forces say the Islamic State is using pigeons to carry messages, claiming to have intercepted one of the birds in question.

 

Photo Credit: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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