SitRep: Outside the Wire, Fighting ISIS
PACOM’s drive; North Korea’s nukes; Russian moves; bureaucracy does its thing; and lots more
On the ground. Are American forces in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan? Firefights, special operations raids, bombing runs, artillery strikes, and casualties attest to the increasing amount of fighting Americans are doing. But the White House and Defense Department haven’t quite come together on how to talk about it.
Words matter, and the confusion over the U.S. mission on the ground was felt deeply last fall by a group of U.S. Army Green Berets fighting in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Leading up to the three days of heavy combat leading up to the mistaken American bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital — killing 42 civilians — the Americans had rushed to the city to bolster a faltering government force breaking apart under a relentless Taliban assault.
A Pentagon investigation into the incident released Apr. 29 sheds light on how deeply involved in the fighting the Americans were, and how little guidance they received from their superiors in Kabul. Some of the Green Berets have complained that they received no guidance at all during the fight, with one complaining, “the only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets…though those were hard to hear over the gunfire.”
Outside the wire. Despite that fight, and others in Iraq and Afghanistan that have killed four Americans over the past seven months, the talk in Washington remains confused. In the latest over how the U.S. government describes what U.S. troops are doing in Iraq, after Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed near Mosul last week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called it a “a combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, on the other hand, insisted, “they are not in a combat mission….but they are in a dangerous situation. And they are in a dangerous place.”
In the field. Late last week, Afghan special operations troops raided a Taliban prison in Helmand province, freeing 60 hostages. A defense official told SitRep that a U.S. Army Special Forces team accompanied the Afghan troops, but didn’t take part in the fighting.
No confusion. One U.S. military officer who looks pretty sure about what he’s doing is U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, whose strong voice on Chinese actions in the South China Sea have rattled some cages in Washington. “There is a natural tension between elements of the government and the chain of command, and I think it’s a healthy tension,” he told the New York Times in a short profile published this weekend. “I’ve voiced my views in private meetings with our national command authorities. Some of my views are taken in; some are not.”
Big time. FP’s Colum Lynch gets the scoop on the failures of a costly new computer system that was designed to make the United Nations more efficient, but has instead “proven so dysfunctional that it is actually hampering the world organization’s capacity to prevent conflicts and enforce a raft of international sanctions.” In a confidential email obtained by Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, wrote that the “fundamentally flawed” system known as Umoja — the Swahili word for “unity” — has “damaged both morale and staff productivity” at the world body since it came online late last year.
Sorry, boss. Four years after government employees went on a spending spree in Las Vegas — causing the feds to slash travel budgets by about 30 percent — and Pentagon scientists still have a hard time traveling to conferences. Defense Secretary Ash Carter sent a letter to the services last year begging for more travel for his scientists, and the response is classic DoD.
An Army spokesman responded to a Washington Post request for an update on Carter’s letter with this gem: “The Army is taking a holistic approach with input from Army stakeholders on how to best meet the SECDEF’s intent.” Now for the coup de grace in Pentagonese: The Army is considering Carter’s letter, but not before “balancing appropriate process controls to ensure proper review and oversight procedures are maintained over constrained resources.” Thanks.
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Turn down for what?
North Korea’s Workers Party is having its first congress in 36 years and the country’s ruling party says it’s time to “boost self-defensive nuclear force both in quality and quantity,” Reuters reports. The Workers Party congress also pinky swore that Pyongyang wouldn’t be the first to use nuclear weapons unless it felt its sovereignty was threatened. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un held out the possibility of talks with South Korea on security issues over the weekend, but officials in Seoul’s Unification Ministry said the North needs to get serious denuclearization needs before it will engage.
The Guardian snagged a lengthy interview with Tim and Alex Foley, the sons of two Russian spies arrested as part of an illegals network in the U.S. in 2010. The two say they had no idea that their parents, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, were living a lie on behalf of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service with identities stolen from two Canadians who had died years ago. Tim and Alex, now living in Asia and Europe, are petitioning Canada to return their citizenship, saying they’re innocent of the crimes committed by their parents.
Russia is mighty displeased at NATO’s plans for a joint exercise with Georgia’s military, calling it a “provocative move” that will destabilize the region according to Agence France Presse. The exercise, dubbed Noble Partner, kicks off at the Vaziani base in Georgia on Wednesday and will include U.S. and British forces. Russia is wary of Tbilisi growing closer to NATO following its 2008 war with Georgia which saw Russian forces occupy the country’s separatist province of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Syria’s opposition says Russia has created a new military base in the ancient city of Palmyra after a combined Syrian-Russian offensive ousted the Islamic State from the city in late March. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Syrian Revolution Coordinator group posted that Russia now has a base “in the archeological compound of the city.” Russia has put Palmyra front and center in its messaging on Syria, sending the Mariinskiy Theatre Orchestra to play a concert in the amphitheater the Islamic State used to stage executions.
Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a new audio tape demanding unity among the jihadist groups in Syria and calling it “a matter of life or death” for them. The Islamic State broke off from al Qaeda and established itself as an independent group with its own self-proclaimed caliph, leading to tension between its forces in Syria and al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. Despite the calls for unity, Zawahiri blasted the Islamic State as “extremists and renegades” for their extreme brutality.
Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said that getting nuclear weapons is an option that’s on the table for the kingdom if Iran makes a break for a nuclear bomb. In the meantime, however, he stressed that a nuclear program was not Saudi Arabia’s first choice, preferring instead for the region to be a nuclear-free zone. Prince Turki spoke at an event organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy alongside Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror (ret.), a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Conspiracy theories about the U.S. secretly supporting the Islamic State still dog the U.S.-led coalition there, the AP reports. The U.S. has spent $10 million on public diplomacy to try and get its message across but Iraqi media outlets, particularly Shiite news organizations backed by Iran, are still awash in conspiracies and claims of revelations about covert U.S. equipment supplies to the Islamist terror group. In the meantime, U.S. standing in the country has plummeted with America’s approval rating dropping from 38 to 18 percent from December 2014 to August 2015 and a third of Iraqis buying into the conspiracy theory about American support for the Islamic State.
Iran says it tested a ballistic missile in late March, Tasnim News reports. Iran’s deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces Brigadier General Ali Abdollah said on Monday that the country tested a missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers. Iran’s ballistic missile program has been the subject of diplomatic confrontation lately, with the U.S. trying (and failing) to get the United Nations to sanction Iran for a string of ballistic missile tests, which it argues are in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. Iran, however, has brushed aside U.S. objections and a new round of American unilateral sanctions against it, continuing to test and show off its missile capability.
Business of defense
A handful of senators are pressuring the White House to approve deals for the sale of fighter jets to Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, the Wall Street Journal reports. Sens. John McCain, (R-AZ), Bob Corker (R-TN.), Jack Reed (D-RI) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) signed a letter to President Obama telling him to speed up the approval process. The deal has been bogged down in the approval process because of export regulations designed to guarantee an Israeli qualitative military edge above other countries in the Middle East. The deal or F-16 and F/A 18 fighter jets would rack up $9 billion for U.S. companies and the senators worry it could fall through if competing producers from other countries step in
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is locked in a feud with the Pentagon over the accuracy of its cost estimates for botched U.S. reconstruction projects, according to the Project On Government Oversight. At the center of the dispute is whether a gas station in Afghanistan, originally estimated to cost just half a million dollars, ended up costing taxpayers $43 million or $10 million. Critics of SIGAR chief John Sopko have used the dueling estimates to criticize his leadership, with anonymous critics labeling him the “Donald Trump of inspectors general” in a recent Politico piece.
There were a few books written up in the New York Times Book Review over the weekend that we wanted to flag. One, is Mark Landler’s look at the relationship between HIllary Clinton and President Barack Obama, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power. And this one likely got the attention of the White House: Award-winning fiction author Don DeLillo, who we recently learned is Obama advisor Ben Rhodes’ favorite author, also has a new science fiction-style book out, Zero K.
Marine Sgt. Matthew Callahan takes some pretty cool photos of Storm and Clone Troopers in realistic-looking combat scenarios.
Photo Credit: Department of Defense
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