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SitRep: U.S. Releases Civilian Death Toll in ISIS Fight; Marines Back in Afghanistan; Trump’s Defense Increase Fizzles

Controversial WH Aide Likely Out; North Korea Says More Tests Coming; Chinese Navy Making New Friends; Turkey Buys Russian Missile Defense System; And Lots More




With Adam Rawnsley

Margin walker. Over the weekend, a top White House official was forced to clean up and clarify President Donald Trump’s remarks in an attempt to soothe relations with a critical ally.

In the wake of Trump’s comment last week that South Korea should pay the U.S. for the deployment of an American air defense system, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster called his South Korean counterpart to explain things. He told Fox News on Sunday that his message to Kim Kwan-jin, South Korea’s national-security adviser, was that all’s well — for the moment at least. “Until any renegotiation, that the deal’s in place, we’ll adhere to our word,” McMaster said. “But what the president’s asked us to do is to look across all of our alliances and to have appropriate burden-sharing, responsibility-sharing.”

The president on North Korea. Appearing on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, the president said he would “rather not discuss” his plans to confront North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. The recent failed missile tests could be because Kim Jong Un might not have the technology yet, he said, “but eventually, he’ll have good missiles.”

Path forward? McMaster said the president “has made clear that he is going to resolve this issue one way or the other, and what we prefer to do is to work with others, China included, to resolve this situation short of military action.” Washington is also considering “ratcheting up” economic sanctions. “And it also means being prepared for military operations if necessary,” McMaster said.

Trump also complemented North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a speech in Pennsylvania over the weekend, calling him a “a pretty smart cookie” for holding on to power by wiping out his rivals. The president’s comments come days after North Korea attempted another missile test, which exploded minutes after launch.

Civilian toll. At least 352 civilians have been killed in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the Pentagon said Sunday. That number is far below several other tallies by outside monitoring groups, the largest of which is Airwars, which estimates over 3,100 civilians have died during the same time frame.

The U.S. Central Command’s monthly assessment of civilian casualties reported that officials are still assessing 42 reports of civilian deaths. Several recent incidents in which large number of civilians have died — including one strike in Mosul that reportedly killed over 150 people — have brought attention to the increased pace and ferocity of the air campaign. One top U.S. general recently warned that the number of civilian casualties will likely rise as ISIS wages a desperate battle for survival in Iraq and Syria.

Budget battles. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill avoided a government shutdown by passing a $1 trillion federal budget Sunday night (details here) which will keep the government funded through the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept 30. The package includes an additional $12.5 billion for the Pentagon, less than half of the $30 billion the White House was seeking.

The budget also obligated about $1.5 billion for border security which will be spent on new surveillance technologies and improvements to existing fencing and infrastructure, but stopped short of funding work on a border wall. A full vote on the compromise plan will need to happen this week before a temporary funding measure runs out Friday.  

Boots. Ground. Again. The U.S. Marine Corps is back in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, almost three years after having left. At the height of the fighting in 2010, about 20,000 Marines flooded the province, waging a bloody campaign against Taliban insurgents and pushing them from most key districts.

Those fighters have since returned, overrunning Afghan army outposts and government centers and forcing government forces to take shelter in a few isolated strongholds. The 300 Marines taking over the training and advising mission in the province from the U.S. Army will be based at Camp Shorab just north of the town of Marja — scene of vicious battles during the Marine’s’ last deployment — which is again in Taliban hands.

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

Tests. North Korea is promising to keep testing nuclear weapons, tweaking observers who suspect that the country is on the verge of its sixth nuclear weapons test any day now. Reuters reports that the state-run mouthpiece KCNA threatened to “speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence” in response to American-led calls for more sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. The comments follow yet another North Korean missile test that took place on Saturday which both U.S. and South Korean officials say failed shortly after launching.

Visits. China’s navy showed up for a port call in the Philippines this weekend, marking another step in the warming relations between the two countries. The South China Morning Post reports that the visit involved a People’s Liberation Army Navy guided missile destroyer, frigate, and supply ship. Not so long ago, Chinese naval activity had been a sore subject for Manila, which lodged an international legal suit against China’s territorial claims in the region. But President Rodrigo Duterte has pulled a 180 on relations with China, shunning what was a burgeoning defense relationship with the U.S. for closer ties with Beijing.

Invitation. President Trump has invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, provoking outrage among human rights defenders who point to Duterte’s call for the vigilante murder of drug addicts and journalists. The invitation came in a “very friendly” call between the two leaders on Saturday, according to a White House statement. On ABC News’s This Week, Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus defended the invitation, saying “it doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter,” but rather that the meeting was a necessary step in the White House’s North Korea diplomacy.

Departures. Sebastian Gorka, one of the Trump White House’s most controversial staffers, is headed out the door for a new job at a yet-to-be-named federal agency. The Washington Examiner reports that Gorka’s new gig will involve the “war of ideas” against Islamist extremism. Gorka’s responsibilities in the Trump administration have been something of a mystery. The former Breitbart columnist was supposed to be a member of the Strategic Initiatives Group, an organization outside the National Security Council whose existence fizzled in recent weeks. One White House staffer tells the Examiner that Gorka’s portfolio is unclear even within the administration, thus far consisting of “giving White House tours and peeling out in his Mustang.” Gorka has attracted controversy for his contested academic pedigree, alleged ties to extremist right-wing groups in Hungary, and his harsh views on Islam and Muslims.

Valor. Defense Secretary James Mattis is expediting the process for recognizing battlefield valor, according to a scoop from Military Times. In a February 28 memo, Mattis ordered that personnel at every level in the valor award approval process act within 10 days of a nomination. Many within the military have criticized what they see as a hesitance to recognize the valor of troops in the post 9/11 wars with medals for their heroism relative to other periods of conflict.
Agreements. Turkey’s air defense soap opera continues with an agreement in principle to purchase a Russian air defense missile system. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says that his country has agreed to purchase Russia’s S-400 system and that remaining talks are just about pricing and whether Turkey can carry out joint production of the missiles. Turkey’s efforts to purchase a Russian-made air defense system for use in a NATO country has not gone down well in Brussels, but it’s not the first time that Ankara has flirted with the idea of integrating air defense technology from rivals of the West. Before the S-400 talks, Turkey had been negotiating the purchase of a Chinese air defense missile system.   



Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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