The Cable

SitRep: What’s Next in Afghanistan?; New Chinese Base in South China Sea

Obama’s troubles in Asia; Fallujah, Iran, and Shiite militias; Special Ops conference; and lots more

CEVIZCAN, AFGHANISTAN - MAY 23: A group of Taliban members are seen as they surrender to the authorities in Cevizcan, Afghanistan on May 23, 2016. 16 Taliban members laid their arms down and surrendered. (Photo by Farida Amini/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CEVIZCAN, AFGHANISTAN - MAY 23: A group of Taliban members are seen as they surrender to the authorities in Cevizcan, Afghanistan on May 23, 2016. 16 Taliban members laid their arms down and surrendered. (Photo by Farida Amini/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

Taliban strike fallout. Has the White House given up on peace talks with the Taliban? The decision to kill Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar ­Mohammad Mansour in his Pakistani sanctuary signals, at the very least, that the Obama administration didn’t think talks — which have been stalled since last July — were going anywhere, anyway.

FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson write that the stakes for the administration’s gamble in killing Mansour are high. “The White House hopes the strike will inflict a lasting blow on the Taliban, undercutting the group’s capacity to carry out attacks, sapping morale and disrupting long-term planning, akin to the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, which had a debilitating effect on the terrorist group’s ability to carry out overseas attacks. But it could wind up prolonging the war by permanently fracturing the insurgency and complicating any attempt at a political settlement.”

Meanwhile, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the Pentagon wants more authority to strike the Taliban during their upcoming summer offensives.

Quotable, Pt. I: A good summation of the strike, and its potential effect on U.S./Pakistani relations: “The administration is no longer worried about blowing up anything,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official. “This is literally carrying out an operation, not against an Arab terrorist leader, but against a Pashtun ally of Pakistan, inside Pakistani territory.”

Obama in Asia. President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam this week is the president’s last chance to convince allies old and new that the U.S. has their back in disputes with China. But trouble lies ahead. As Obama’s time in office winds down, “Asian nations are deeply skeptical about how much they can rely on Washington’s commitment and staying power in the region. They sense that for the first time in memory, Americans are questioning whether their economic and defense interests in Asia are really that vital.”

Fallujah, Take 3. Or, where in the world is Qassem Soleimani? The Long War Journal flags a pic of the well-traveled Iranian military leader conferring with Iraqi Shiite leaders near Fallujah. As these things happen, the picture was posted on the Facebook page of Iraqi Shiite militia Harakat al-Nujaba. Washington has designated the militia’s leader, Akram al-Kaabi, a terrorist. Also making appearances in the photo are Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, another U.S. designated terrorist who leads Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units, a collection of mostly Shiite militia groups fighting alongside the Iraqi army. And of course there’s Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Iran-backed Badr Organization and member of the Iraqi parliament.

The fight for Fallujah. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces continue to bombard the Sunni city, which ISIS has held since January 2014. The Pentagon says, however, that U.S. military advisors won’t be joining them on the ground, even if American aircraft will support the offensive through airstrikes.

Don’t forget: SitRep is in sunny Tampa, Fla. this week for the annual SOFIC Special Operations conference. We’ll be attending a series of panels and meetings with the Pentagon’s top generals and admirals running Washington’s secretive wars and advising missions around the globe. Tuesday’s schedule kicks off with remarks by Gen. Raymond Thomas III, the newly installed commander of the Special Operations Command. We’re going to tweet out as much as possible over at @paulmcleary, and if you have any suggestions, or requests, the line is always open: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com.

Quotable, Pt. II: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald probably wishes he could take another shot at comments he made Monday morning at a media breakfast where he downplayed the wait times for vets at clinics — by comparing it to Disneyland. “The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veteran’s satisfaction,” he said. “When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What’s important is what’s your satisfaction with the experience.”

Thanks for clicking on through as we work through 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

Who’s where when

2:30 p.m. Former Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale speaks at The Stimson Center at the rollout of their new report, “Defense Divided: Overcoming the Challenges of Overseas Contingency Operations.” The event comes just days after the House voted to shift $18 billion from OCO – a budgetary move that Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, “raids war funds in a time of war.” The Senate considers its version of the defense policy bill this week.

South China Sea

China is working on a new base in the South China Sea that will act as the home port for an advanced new rescue ship capable of carrying drones and underwater robots, which will deploy later this year. The base is being built under the guidance of the South China Sea Rescue Bureau, which gives the base some civilian pedigree, but that will probably matter little to China’s neighbors who also have staked out claims in the region. No word yet exactly where ship will be based, but China has carried out land reclamation and construction on several islands in the Spratly Archipelago, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Russia

Russia has summoned a U.S. official to complain about what it says was a risky move by an Air Force spy plane. The incident in question involved a U.S. Air Force RC-135 flying in the Sea of Japan on Sunday, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Russia’s defense ministry claims that the plane switched off its transponder while flying at a height used by civilian airlines, risking a potential collision. The alleged incident follows a tense encounter over the Baltics in April involving a Russian fighter jet and another Air Force RC-135 spy plane. The Pentagon accused the Russian jet of performing a dangerous barrel roll over top of the aircraft.

Canada

Canada’s military wants to carry out more operations in the Arctic and build out a logistics infrastructure to support them, Defense News reports. The military wants to expand an existing training facility in Resolute Bay to stash enough extra equipment so that it can support operations all year long. Canadian Forces also want to establish northern operations hubs throughout the Arctic that would provide on-demand support for operations for up to a month. Canada’s interest in the Arctic has grown as climate change has opened up access to new waterways and mineral and energy deposits.

Islamic State

The stats on the Islamic State’s declining territorial control, foreign fighters, and finances may look good to the U.S.-backed coalition, but don’t count the jihadist group out just yet, warns Rand analyst Colin P. Clarke. Clarke writes that the group has withstood lean years before, such as when the U.S.-backed Anbar Awakening deprived it of allies and territory back in the group’s al Qaeda days. In the event of further losses, he argues, ISIS could carry on its mission either by telling would-be foreign fighters to stay home at carry out attacks there, or send its current ranks already in the caliphate abroad to stir up trouble around the world.

Afghanistan

Who, if anyone, will take over the leadership of the Taliban in the after the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour? NBC News takes a look at the candidates and finds four potential emirs in waiting. The candidates include two famous sons: Sarjuddin Haqqani, scion of the powerful Haqqani clan and the son of famed 1980s Afghanistan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the deceased former Taliban emir, Mullah Omar. Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir and Mullah Sherin could also ascend to the group’s top spot.

Syria

Four bombs struck in the heart of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s support base in Tartus and Latakia provinces on Monday, with state news citing the tally of the dead at 78. A car bomb and suicide bomber hit a bus station in Tartus, and the Amaq News Agency, a jihadist media outlet affiliated with the Islamic State, said the group claimed credit for the attack. According to Amaq, the Islamic State targeted members of the minority Alawite sect, to which President Assad belongs.

The visit of U.S. Central Command boss General Joseph Votel with Kurdish anti-Islamic State fighters isn’t going down well with Arab Syrian rebels, according to Voice of America (VOA). Votel made a brief, secret trip to Syria on Saturday to speak with the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. has supported as a proxy against the Islamic State. Rebels VOA spoke to interpreted Votel’s visit as a snub to the U.S.-backed Arab groups looking to topple the Assad regime. Over the past few months, they’ve clashed with Kurdish groups supported by the U.S. and they say they’re concerned about deepening ethnic conflict and what they say is anemic U.S. support.

Defense Department

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has released a report highly critical of the U.S. military’s handling of sexual assault cases, in spite of a push to change how the services approaches such crimes. According to the Hill, Gillibrand’s report says sexual assault remains “pervasive” within the military, and that more reform is needed to ensure that survivors receive justice and perpetrators are punished. The report singles out a “troubling command culture” among military brass that leads to cases being closed instead of receiving thorough investigations.

 

Photo Credit: Farida Amini/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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