The Cable

SitRep: Obama Confirms Taliban Chief Death; U.S. Arms to Flow to Vietnam

Fallujah next; East China Sea in the crosshairs; and lots more

This photograph taken on May 21, 2016 shows Pakistani local residents gathering around a destroyed vehicle hit by a drone strike in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be travelling in the remote town of Ahmad Wal in Balochistan, around 160 kilometres west of Quetta.
Afghan authorities scrambled May 22 to confirm the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour after US officials said he was likely killed in drone strikes -- a potential blow to the resurgent militant movement.
 / AFP / -        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photograph taken on May 21, 2016 shows Pakistani local residents gathering around a destroyed vehicle hit by a drone strike in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be travelling in the remote town of Ahmad Wal in Balochistan, around 160 kilometres west of Quetta. Afghan authorities scrambled May 22 to confirm the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour after US officials said he was likely killed in drone strikes -- a potential blow to the resurgent militant movement. / AFP / - (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

 

And now it’s official. Speaking in Hanoi on Monday, President Barack Obama confirmed the death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a U.S. drone strike in the Pakistan. Significantly, it was the first ever U.S. drone strike in Baluchistan province, despite years of American bombing runs on al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, and brings to end the Mansour’s brief run as head of the group.

At a news conference with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam on Monday, Obama insisted that the strike does not signal a change in U.S. military posture in the region. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations,” in Afghanistan, he said. But Mansour “was specifically targeting” the 9,800 U.S. troops in the country, and he had refused to enter into peace negotiations the Afghan government.

What next? FP’s Paul McLeary writes that The Taliban’s expanding operations in Afghanistan’s south has posed a vexing problem for Obama, who faces a hard choice: Keep the relatively strict rules limiting the numbers of US. airstrikes in place, “or allow American pilots to bomb a broader array of targets at the risk of deepening Washington’s role in Afghanistan and causing more civilian casualties on the ground.”

More on the debate over U.S. airstrikes from FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary here.

Pakistan’s role. It’s unclear how Pakistan will react to the strike, as it comes after months of failed Pakistani efforts to broker peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Just last week, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s foreign minister, told diplomats from Afghanistan, the U.S., and China that the revelation last August that Taliban founder Mullah Omar had been dead for more than two years “not only scuttled the Afghan peace process, it also let to the splintering of the Taliban.” And despite Pakistan’s influence on the group, they had been unable to get things back on track.

The New York Times reports that Pakistani officials were alerted to the strike only after it happened, and the operation is “seen as a signal that the Obama administration was growing less patient with Pakistan’s failure to move strongly against the Taliban insurgency. While Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has quietly cooperated with the C.I.A.’s campaign of drone strikes against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern tribal areas, it has refused past requests from the spy agency to expand the drone flights into Baluchistan.”

East China Sea, the new South China Sea. With all of the attention being focused on Chinese land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, the region’s sleeper conflict, over fishing rights further east, is only now beginning to receive some attention.

FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson are on it, however, and in a brand-new story, note that Beijing has begun sailing bigger ships — old navy vessels nominally now serving in the Coast Guard, “near islands that Beijing and Tokyo both claim, as well as carrying out provocative flights with advanced jets overhead. Those aggressive tactics have alarmed Japan and raised the risk of a potentially violent incident between the two — and unlike in the South China Sea, where the United States has been vague about its readiness to help the Philippines in a dispute with Beijing, Washington has made clear it will honor its treaty obligations to come to Japan’s rescue.”

Arming Hanoi. Tossing out 40 years of American policy, the Obama administration on Monday announced it was lifting an arms embargo on the communist government. “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said Monday while in Hanoi. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.” FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson recently laid out what’s at stake in the policy change, and what might be on Vietnam’s shopping list.

In a note emailed Monday, IHS Jane’s defense analysts Jon Grevatt and Paul Burton write that “with the ban lifted in full, Vietnam is finally shedding Moscow’s influence and will be able to purchase land systems and a wider spectrum of military aerospace platforms and systems from the US that will support Vietnam’s efforts to modernise its military and to secure its territory.”

Fallujah next. Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went on TV Sunday night to announce the start of operations to finally push the Islamic State out of the city of Fallujah, which the group has held for over two years. The city sits just 30 miles west of Baghdad, and has been used as a launching point for some of the deadly car bomb attacks which have killed scores of mostly Shiite civilians in the capital over the past two weeks.

But the fight will be tough. And complicated. There are still tens of thousands of Sunni civilians trapped in the city, and the assault will be conducted by the mostly Shiite army, police, counterterrorism forces, along with local tribal fighters and a coalition of mostly Shiite militias, some with some pretty series Iranian backing.

A note: SitRep will be posting from the annual SOFIC Special Operations conference in sunny Tampa, Fla. this week. We’ll be attending a series of panels by the Pentagon’s top snake-eating generals and admirals and will have some exclusive one-on-one chats and updates over the next several days. We’re going to tweet out as much as possible as it happens over at @paulmcleary, and if you have any suggestions, or requests, the line is always open: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com.

Thanks for clicking on through as we kick off 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

Vietnam

President Obama has touched down in Vietnam. China is sure to be high on the agenda as Obama meets with the Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc. Like many of China’s neighbors, Vietnam has clashed with Beijing over disputed maritime territories and is looking for American diplomatic support for its maritime claims.

China isn’t the only country using its fishermen as the tip of the spear in maritime territorial policy. CNN reports that Vietnam is now encouraging its fishermen to trawl the waters near the Paracel Islands, claimed by both China and Vietnam, in order to maintain the country’s assertions of ownership. Officials say Chinese fishermen attacked 17 Vietnamese vessels trying to fish in the area last year. China has trained, armed, and directed its fishermen, organizing them into militias to call dibs on contested waters and report on foreign ships.

Kosovo

The New York Times takes a deep look at Kosovo’s transformation into a hotbed of support for the Islamic State, encouraged in large part by Saudi-funded proselytization. The tiny European country has now produced an estimated 314 foreign fighters for the Islamic State, a figure which includes two suicide bombers. At the end of the Kosovo War, Islam in Kosovo had a largely moderate character, but officials say Saudi funding, and preachers that came in after the end of the conflict have sowed a message of intolerance and incitement to violence that has made the Islamic State’s message a disturbingly popular one.

Russia

An Australian law firm has filed the first lawsuit on behalf of families who lost loved ones on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 against Russia and President Vladimir Putin for their alleged role in downing the plane. The plane was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014 by a Buk missile, which American and German intelligence, as well as media investigations, say was carried out by Russian-backed separatists in the country. The firm, LHD Lawyers, filed the suit in the European Court of Human Rights and is asking for compensation in the amount of $10 million for every one of the 298 passengers lost aboard the flight.

The Islamic State

A social media campaign carried out by Islamic State fanboys has become a spectacular failure, allowing amateur sleuths to track down some of the group’s online supporters. In anticipation of Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s audiotape this weekend, a number of the group’s European followers posted pictures of their hands holding up written messages of support. Eliot Higgins, founder of the open source investigative outlet Bellingcat, spent the weekend crowdsourcing a geolocation campaign which used clues in the photographs to pinpoint the location where the pictures were taken and, potentially, the posters behind the photographs.

Libya

The European Union (EU) is expected to grant a request from the internationally-recognized Libyan Prime Minister Faiez Serraj for help training Libyan security forces to fight the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal reports. EU foreign ministers will meet on Monday to discuss the request. Serraj, however, has blocked the EU’s Operation Sophia, a naval missions to stop human trafficking in the Mediterranean, from entering Libyan waters. Diplomats tell the Journal that the Libyan leader “doesn’t want any boots or any boats on the ground.”

Political problems continue to complicate the international push for unity in Libya as a top general from the Libyan National Army is laying down preconditions for engagement with a rogue governing faction. Reuters reports that General Khalifa Haftar said political leaders in the country’s east can’t join up with the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli unless it shut downs the many armed militias that have proliferated there. Both factions are now maneuvering towards Sirte, where the Islamic State has a stronghold, raising the possibility of a military confrontation between the two.

Money talks

The Treasury Department sanctioned six individuals over the weekend for their alleged involvement in jihadist terrorism. Five of the individuals were sanctioned for their involvement with al Qaeda and one for his facilitation of the Islamic State in Libya. The five sanctioned al Qaeda supporters include three supporters of the group’s Nusra Front Syrian affiliate, two based in Kuwait and one, Mostafa Mahamed, a senior leader for Nusra within Syria. The fifth al Qaeda member designated by Treasury, Salih Salim al-Qaysi, is described as a “senior [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] official and a financial supporter” of the affiliate based in Yemen.

 

Photo Credit: /AFP/Getty Images

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