The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

SitRep: General Says U.S. Likely Involved in Deadly Mosul Airstrike; NATO Changes Posture; Record Number of Airstrikes in Iraq, Syria

Loyalty Tests in the Pentagon; North Korea Making Drones; Tillerson Heading for NATO, Turkey

The new Pentagon chief and US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis (L), is welcomed by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend? upon his arrival in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on February 20, 2017.
The United States is not about to plunder Iraq's petroleum reserves, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who arrived in Baghdad, said as he sought to soothe partners rattled by President Donald Trump.
 / AFP / Thomas WATKINS        (Photo credit should read THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images)
The new Pentagon chief and US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis (L), is welcomed by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend? upon his arrival in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on February 20, 2017. The United States is not about to plunder Iraq's petroleum reserves, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who arrived in Baghdad, said as he sought to soothe partners rattled by President Donald Trump. / AFP / Thomas WATKINS (Photo credit should read THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images)
The new Pentagon chief and US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis (L), is welcomed by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend? upon his arrival in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on February 20, 2017. The United States is not about to plunder Iraq's petroleum reserves, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who arrived in Baghdad, said as he sought to soothe partners rattled by President Donald Trump. / AFP / Thomas WATKINS (Photo credit should read THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley and Dan De Luce

Deadly strike. The top U.S. officer in Iraq said on Tuesday there was a ‘fair chance” American aircraft were involved in the March 17 airstrike that brought down a building in Mosul, killing as many as 200 civilians.

 

With Adam Rawnsley and Dan De Luce

Deadly strike. The top U.S. officer in Iraq said on Tuesday there was a ‘fair chance” American aircraft were involved in the March 17 airstrike that brought down a building in Mosul, killing as many as 200 civilians.

But the commander, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, also said that investigators are looking into what role Islamic State militants might have played in the incident, since the munitions carried by U.S. planes hitting Mosul likely wouldn’t bring down an entire building by themselves.

“We know ISIS were fighting from that position in that building,” the general said. “And there were people that you really can’t account for in any other way why they would all be there unless they were forced there. So that’s my initial impression, the enemy had a hand in this, and there’s also a fair chance our strike had some role in it,” Townsend said, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via audio feed from Baghdad.

“I think it’s probably going to play out to be some sort of combination,” of U.S. mistake and Islamic State involvement, Townsend said. “But you know what, I can’t really say for sure, and we’ve just got to let the investigation play out.”.

Ground story. Human rights groups are concerned about the recent surge in civilian deaths in Mosul and in Syria said to be caused by American airstrikes. “The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought,” Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.

Interviews with survivors conducted by the group indicate that dozens of families had taken refuge inside the building in the days before the strike, driven from other areas of the city by the fighting, and nearby witnesses describe a large airstrike in the area at about 8:30 a.m. on March 17. If the United States is found to have brought the building down, and the number of deaths continues to climb toward 200, the incident would be the worst civilian casualty event since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Changes in strike policy. There is talk about how changes made in the way the U.S.-led coalition decides on targets — allowing ground commanders to sign off on targets as opposed to generals hundreds, or thousands of miles away — may be causing more civilian casualties. But Townsend says that isn’t the case. The nature of the fight, which he called “the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 years of service,” is pushing civilians closer to the front lines.

Speaking at an event at Harvard University Tuesday night, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he hasn’t seen a big change to how the war is being conducted under the Trump administration. “I don’t see overall major changes and I certainly hope they stay on the path that we set because I think that’s the right path,” he said.

Bombs away. “According to Air Force statistics, military aircraft from the U.S. and other coalition nations released more than 7,000 weapons against ISIS in January and February — the most of any two-month stretch since the ISIS war began more than two and a half years ago,” the Air Forces Times reports. At the same time, civilian casualties are hitting record numbers, the Washington Post adds.

View from the top. Speaking Tuesday night, President Trump made some brief, general remarks about the campaign, saying, “our soldiers are fighting, and fighting like never before, and the results are very, very good.” It’s not clear how much combat he believes American ground forces are involved in, as U.S. commanders stress the noncombat role for the roughly 6,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. The remarks are also a sharp turnaround from the presidential campaign, where Trump continuously described the war effort as disastrous.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday praised Trump for allowing the military to fight the war without too much input from the White House. “President Trump says, ‘I’ve got good generals.’ He’s going to let them be generals. The generals trust their lower commanders. There’s still accountability in the system,” Graham said on Fox & Friends. “I’m very happy; from a war fighter’s point of view, this is great news,” he said.

Coalition death. The U.S. coalition in Baghdad announced Wednesday morning that “a U.S. service member died from suspected natural causes in Northern Syria, March 29, 2017.” No cause of death, or identification of the servicemember, was available.

Litmus test? It seems loyalty tests can extend even to civil service posts in the Defense Department. Patrick Cronin is a well-established Asia policy expert who was chosen to lead a Defense Department think tank in Honolulu. A three-member panel at the Pentagon chose him before the new administration entered office. However, that did not matter to some vigilant Trump supporters, who managed to chase Cronin — a Republican — out of the job by calling attention to his signature on a letter opposing Trump’s candidacy last year.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work had supported Cronin’s appointment initially, hoping Cronin could inject some fresh energy to the Pentagon think tank, which is usually led by a general officer, former officials told Foreign Policy. But some opponents of Cronin complained to the White House while the right-leaning Washington Times reported that Cronin had been part of the “never Trump” camp during the campaign.

The whole case threatened to turn into another turf war between Defense Secretary Mattis and the White House, which has repeatedly rejected some of his personnel choices. But in the end, Cronin took one for the team, former officials said. “I think his calculation was if he refused to step aside, the person who would really be hurt in this would be Mattis,” one source familiar with the case told FP. Critics of the administration say the whole episode smacked of a witch hunt and that it reinforced concerns that the Trump team values political loyalty over experience and expertise.

Talking points. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is NATO-bound, as a meeting with the alliance is back on his schedule. Reuters reports that Tillerson will reiterate the Trump administration’s case that NATO countries need to live up to their spending commitments and invest more in their defense budgets. An anonymous senior diplomat tells the wire service that the Trump administration will be “pushing allies to do more, faster, absolutely no apology for that.”

Russia makes NATO make changes. Russian action in Ukraine, Crimea, and around the Baltics is forcing NATO to make some changes, the head of U.S. and NATO forces told a Congressional panel Tuesday. “We’ve returned to our historic role as a warfighting command,” Army Gen. Curtis Scaparotti told lawmakers, adding that the U.S. European Command has made a “shift to deterrence and defense” in response to Russian aggression.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Work stoppage. The work of the House Intelligence Committee has ground to a halt as controversy swirls around Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his conduct in the committee’s probe of President Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Tuesday that the committee is now in “suspended animation” with all scheduled hearings and meetings cancelled for the moment. The panel’s top Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has called on Nunes to recuse himself into the committee’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia after Nunes claimed to have a secret source — shared with the White House before the Intelligence Committee — proving that the the intelligence community incidentally collected communications from members of the Trump campaign before the election.

Getting closer. North Korea appears to be working hard to prepare for another nuclear test. The Wall Street Journal reports that analysts reviewing the latest commercial satellite imagery of the test site at Punggye-ri have noted that workers there are putting the finishing touches on the site in the leadup to what’s expected to be another test. Joseph Bermudez and Jack Liu of 38 North, however, caution that the preparations could also be an elaborate fake-out from the North, which is well aware that its test site is under heavy scrutiny.

Drones. North Korea is beefing up its drone arsenal, building up a fleet of 1,000 aircraft, some of which could be used to deploy chemical weapons. A new report from the Korea Institute for National Unification, run by the South Korean government, claims that North Korea is building drones that could spread chemical or biological weapons in the South. But the Institute says that drones are becoming attractive to Pyongyang because it has no spy satellites and drone reconnaissance can help provide it with important intelligence on the location of South Korean forces.

Next big things. Strategic Capabilities Office chief William Roper wants the Pentagon to start putting money into expendable, remotely-operated platforms to deal with increasing risks to military personnel, National Defense magazine reports. The low cost, disposable systems would include things like drone swarms launched by aircraft — a concept the office has already tried out with fighter jets. Roper says that ditching the human-operated platforms and making them expendable could allow the Pentagon to save on the cost of maintenance, refueling, and building survivability into its systems.

Aside from Dixie cup weapons, Roper also told reporters at an Air Force Association event that artificial intelligence is going to be crucial in the next conflict. Defense One reports that Roper believes aircraft and other systems will use machine learning to adapt and improve their performance throughout the course of a war — so much so that aircraft pilots may spend the early hours of a conflict just collecting data in order to train up an aircraft on the peculiarities of the battlefield.

Model. Just how big a deal was the 2011 special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden? China’s special operations troops were so impressed by it, they’re using it to train their own commandos. The New York Times reports that China recently broadcast footage of a special operations exercise where Chinese troops assault a compound that’s a dead ringer for bin Laden’s home in Pakistan. The exercise took place in Xinjiang, home to an Islamist extremist movement that China has sought to crack down on.

Photo credit: THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.