SitRep: White House Looking at U.N. Cuts; General Warns of Russian Ties to Taliban; North Korea Readies Nuke Tests
Hill Wants New Iran Sanctions; Mosul Air Assault Numbers; China’s Island Weapons Don’t Mean Anything; Saudi and China Get Together on Drones
With Adam Rawnsley
With Adam Rawnsley
Will it ever end? House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) appears to be backing away slightly from comments made during two hastily assembled press conferences Wednesday, where he claimed Trump transition staffers had their communications collected by the U.S. intelligence community.
The Nunes kerfuffle — in which he was forced to apologize to committee colleagues for rushing to brief the White House before speaking with lawmakers — is another in a “steady flow of leaked stories further describing alleged connections between the Kremlin and Trump associates” write FP’s Dan De Luce and Elias Groll. That’s a sign, they say, “that Trump’s war with the intelligence community may be boomeranging as lawmakers dig deeper into a scandal that threatens to derail the new administration and which portends a potential constitutional crisis.”
In fact, several congressional aides from both parties tell FP that if damaging new evidence emerges, or if public opinion reaches a major tipping point, “more Republican lawmakers could begin to distance themselves from Trump over the Kremlin allegations and support the creation of an independent commission to investigate the case.”
Flat earth society. While the questions swirl over how much influence the Kremlin may have had in the presidential election, the work of Washington grinds on. FP’s Colum Lynch again gets an exclusive, reporting that the Trump White House “is seeking to cut $1 billion in funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations and to eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars for other U.N. programs that care for needy children and seek to lift the world’s poorest out of a life of grinding poverty,” according to diplomatic sources.
The proposed U.N. cuts “show that the Trump administration is seeking far deeper cuts to the U.N. in the international affairs budget than to the State Department or USAID” Lynch writes. The $3.1 billion in security assistance to Israel will stay safe, as will funding for NATO. “That means the U.N. and other international organizations will have to absorb a far higher share of cuts. And programs that combat climate change or provide reproductive health services are likely to be cut altogether.”
Russia back in Afghanistan. The top American general in Europe warned Congress Thursday that Russia is working on its relationship with the Taliban, even hinting that the Kremlin might be pushing supplies to the insurgent group. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, wouldn’t go into detail when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but said he has “seen the influence of Russia of late,” including Moscow’s “increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.”
Russia responds. “These claims are absolutely false,” Zamir Kabulov, head of the Russian foreign ministry’s Afghanistan office said Friday. “These fabrications are designed, as we have repeatedly underlined, to justify the failure of the US military and politicians in the Afghan campaign. There is no other explanation.”
Not the first time. Just last month, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told Congress that “Russian involvement this year has become more difficult,” adding that the Russian “goal is to undermine the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.” Nicholson said he had grown frustrated by the “false narrative [Moscow] promotes that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State,” he said.
It’s notable that Scaparrotti also threw in a small plug for the State Department, slated for deep cuts under the Trump administration’s first budget, saying he “rel[ies] heavily on our relationships with the other agencies in our government.”
Sangin story. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, government forces abandoned the center of the embattled Sangin District in Helmand province this week, a move the U.S. military command there insists doesn’t mean the Taliban won. Just that months of fighting had destroyed the district center so thoroughly that government forces had to move to a new HQ.
Government forces are still in Sangin, Capt. Bill Salvin, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul, emailed SitRep. But they “repositioned the district center and [police] HQ just over two kilometers south because the enemy had destroyed so much of the infrastructure in and around the center” that it was rendered useless. U.S. forces helped in ferrying government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.
Bombs blanket Mosul. American aircraft continue to pound the Islamic State in Mosul, while flying close air support for Iraqi forces going house-to-house in the city’s Western districts. U.S. News’ Paul Shinkman asked Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, deputy commander for the U.S.led coalition’s air war, how intense that air campaign is. The general said the coalition dropped 550 precision bombs on the city, following 605 the week prior. There have already been almost 500 strikes this week, and the coalition has dropped 8,700 weapons in and around Mosul since the campaign to liberate it began.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Militarization. China is pushing back against criticism that it’s militarizing the South China Sea by deploying weapons and military equipment in disputed islands, shoals, and reefs across the region. Reuters reports that Chinese Premiere Premier Li Keqiang says the surface-to-air missiles, radar systems, and fighter jets that China has placed on islands in the South China don’t make them military facilities. Rather. Li said they are “primarily for civilian purposes and, even if there is a certain amount of defense equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation.”
Drone killers. The Pentagon wants a big increase in funding for counter drone systems in next year’s budget. Chris O’Donnell from the office of the secretary of defense tells National Defense that the increase will be “significant,” likening it to the rush to find countermeasures against improvised explosive devices during the occupation of Iraq. The Pentagon is also in the market for solutions that can stop remotely operated cars and boats because unmanned cars and boats are “advancing rapidly and they may be used against U.S. forces.”
Any day now. North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time, according to a U.S. official who spoke to Reuters. All eyes are currently on the North Korean nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, where the U.S. and South Korea have trained surveillance assets to monitor for signs of an impending test. Anonymous intelligence officials tell Fox that the North has prepped tunnels at Punggye-ri in order to prepare for the test but that the site still needs some more preparation, meaning that a test could take place in the short term.
Production. Saudi Arabia’s arms sales relationship with China is growing closer with the kingdom now set to build Chinese drones at home. Jane’s reports that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has reached an agreement with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology to build CASC drones. Just which models of drones, neither party has said. Saudi Arabia has confirmed that its military operates a Chinese drone, which imagery suggests could be an armed CASC CH-4.
Sanctions. Senators are lining up to pass a new round of sanctions against Iran. The Hill reports that Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Republican Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Tom Cotton are pushing a package of sanctions in response to Iran’s continued ballistic missiles tests, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. The legislation would sanction Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its missile industry.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
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