The Cable

SitRep: More Airstrikes, More Dead Civilians; Syria Train and Equip Numbers

Fragile States Index; Aussies Allegedly Pushing Around Neighbors; And Lots More

MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: A member of a Kurdish special forces regiment watches from a hilltop as US-led coalition airstrike targets a Islamic State position while a large convoy of Kurdish peshmerga forces drives to Sinjar city during a major offensive to expel Islamic State militants. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12: A member of a Kurdish special forces regiment watches from a hilltop as US-led coalition airstrike targets a Islamic State position while a large convoy of Kurdish peshmerga forces drives to Sinjar city during a major offensive to expel Islamic State militants. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 

A screaming comes across the sky. While we wait for the White House’s report on how many civilians it estimates American drones have accidently killed, new cases are emerging that point to a vast undercount of how many have died in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon has just reopened an investigation into a 2015 airstrike near the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed at least 11 civilians, including nine women and children.

Of the 12,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, the U.S. military has acknowledged only 41 civilian deaths. But Chris Woods, director of Airwars, an independent organization that tracks civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, tells the Washington Post that during a recent meeting with U.S. military officials, “they admitted that they had only assessed 40 percent of all 430 known alleged coalition civilian casualty events — an omission we hope they are tackling.”

Numbers game. Reports have emerged that the White House’s report will tally only around 100 civilians who have died in nearly 500 U.S. drone strikes since 2009, far lower than numbers usually published by independent groups, some of which put the number at close to 1,000. The report counts only those strikes that have taken place outside of official combat zones, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, ignoring hits in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

In a related note, American military officials in Afghanistan have opened an investigation into an airstrike near Kunduz over the weekend that may have killed six Taliban prisoners along with a Taliban commander. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have recently started targeting the Taliban again after President Barack Obama renewed their authority to do so earlier this month.

Top level talks. For more on Afghanistan, the New Yorker’s George Packer is out with a long profile of the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani. Money quote: “Ghani is a visionary technocrat who thinks twenty years ahead, with a deep understanding of what has destroyed his country and what might yet save it,” Packer writes. But one of Ghani’s advisors adds, “he wants to transform the country. And he can do it. But it seems as if everything is arrayed against him.” Another advisor said that the Taliban’s gains in the south and east of the country make 2016 “the year of living dangerously.” Many don’t expect Ghani to make it to the end of his term in 2019.

The state of the states. For the past 12 years, the Fragile States Index, created by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy, has used social, economic, and political indicators to analyze how wars, peace deals, environmental disasters, and politics have pushed states toward instability, or pulled them from the depths of chaos. The latest index, complete with maps and charts, is now live.

Making waves. We regularly flag the back and forth between China and its unhappy neighbors in the South China Sea, but there’s another heavyweight antagonizing smaller countries in the region. FP’s Dan DeLuce writes that the tiny nation of Timor-Leste is upset with Australia for steadfastly rejecting attempts to negotiate a permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea, home to plentiful oil and gas fields. “If we could not resolve these issues following the principles of international law,” the country’s prime minister, Rui Maria de Araujo told De Luce recently, “how can you expect one of your big allies to stand up to China and tell them to follow international law?”

Good morning again from the Sitrep crew, thanks for clicking on through for the summer 2016 edition 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

Syria

The Defense Department’s attempt to reboot its ill-fated anti-Islamic State fighter training program has yielded 100 Syrian leaders so far, Stars and Stripes reports. Anonymous senior defense officials tell the paper that the Pentagon is “not necessarily training large units to maneuver in fire,” hence the seemingly small number of recruits the program has turned out. Instead, they’re teaching recruits to call out potential Islamic State targets for American airpower and spread those skills to others on the battlefield in a “train the trainer”-style program.

The last time the U.S. tried to launch an anti-Islamic State force in Syria, the troops ended up handing over their American-provided weapons to fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. This time, the Washington Post reports, the Pentagon is being a bit stingier with the arms it provides. Sources tell the paper that the U.S, is involved in “transactional relationships” to equip fighters on a mission-by-mission basis.

China

It’s not all dicey intercepts and maritime territorial chess games between the U.S. Navy and its Chinese counterparts. USNI News reports that a flotilla of five People’s Liberation Army Navy ships are currently training with the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group near Guam. The two navies are sailing together towards Hawaii to await the 2016 Rim of the Pacific exercises, a move aimed at improving military-to-military relations between the U.S. and China, announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Shangri-La dialogue held earlier this month.

India

India is now officially a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary organization of mostly advanced, western countries dedicated to controlling the proliferation of missile technology. The move will open up a range of weapons technologies to India and some in the country hope it will help pave the way to membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India developed its nuclear program outside the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has been hoping to joint the nuclear export club despite not being an NPT signatory.

As India joins the MTCR, it’s now seeking to buy American Predator drones, according to Defense News. India’s defense ministry has sent a letter of request asking to buy 22 unarmed Predators for the Indian navy to use in maritime surveillance missions. India is already warming to a closer military relationship with the U.S., looking to co-produce a series of weapons technologies with American companies, ranging from aircraft carrier systems to fighter jets.

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has issued an apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin for Turkey’s November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 which it claimed violated the Turkish airspace near Syria, resulting in the death of the pilot. Russo-Turkish relations took a dramatic downturn following the incident, resulting in Russian sanctions. The apology, sent in letter form, offered “sympathy and deep condolences” to the family of the downed pilot and, according to the Kremlin, expressed Erdogan’s regret over the incident.

Iran-Iraq

If you’re having trouble keeping up with all the conflicts in the Middle East, bad news — there’s one more to keep track of. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is now shelling fighters from Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) along the border with Iraq. The KDPI has long been pushing for an independent Kurdish state broken off from Iranian territory and has periodically fought with Iranian forces.

Africa

The African Union has been stiffing its frontline troops tackling Islamist militants across the continent. The BBC reports that the European Union, which provides funding for the African Union force fighting the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia, has failed to hand over money to the African Union to pay its soldiers. A source tells the Beeb that the funding holdup, used to pay troops’ thousand dollar a month salaries, is over “accounting issues.” African Union officials say they’ve sent the proper accounting paperwork back to the EU and hope the funding issue will be cleared up soon.

Awards

Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl D. Plumlee has given his first interview to the Washington Post after a Defense Department Inspector General’s report into the Army’s decision to deny him the Medal of Honor. Plumlee’s commanders in Afghanistan has recommended him for the award after he helped fight off a complex Taliban attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni in August 2013. Army brass in Washington, however, ultimately downgraded his award to a Silver Star because he had previous combat experience, and was doing what the Army expected him to do — fight the enemy. Plumlee told the Post he has “mixed emotions” about the experience and that he has “a lot of trust in the system, but if somebody says it’s broken, maybe it is.”

Bots o’ war

The Army is looking to an existing technology to take on the new threat of small unmanned aircraft. Breaking Defense reports that the service wants to use it’s AN/TPQ-53 counter-battery radar system, designed to spot incoming artillery fire, to pinpoint small airborne drones for weapons systems to shoot down. The Army has been testing the radar in counter-drone exercises at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and has already shipped a handful to Ukraine for use in the more conventional counter-battery role.

Think tanked

For those looking to keep track of the latest developments in the Navy’s new high tech weapons systems, the latest edition of the Congressional Research Service’s report, “Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress” is liberated from Congressional clutches and online.

Finally…

The Pentagon spends $437 million on instruments and uniforms for military bands each year, a number that lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to see vastly reduced. But band supporters are pushing back, big time. Without bands like the U.S. Air Force’s “rock band” Max Impact — yes, it’s a real thing — troop morale will suffer, supporters insist. And just because we love to point this out, don’t forget that your tax dollars pay for things like this.

 

Photo Credit: Alice Martins/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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