- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
Mattis stakes out familiar ground. In an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis outlined a strategy for the future that would have felt perfectly at home in the Obama administration, even using specific wording the Pentagon devised to describe the former president’s favored way of using the U.S. military to fight terrorism.
“This is going to be a long fight,” against the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other radical groups, Mattis said, describing “an era of frequent skirmishing,” even as the Pentagon continues to move away from the counterinsurgency posture it held for much of the past decade and a half.
To do that, Mattis used the Obama-era doctrine of working “by, with, and through other nations,” and “developing their capabilities to do a lot of the fighting. We will help them with intelligence. Certainly, we can help train them for what they face,” Mattis continued.
Few clues as to what changes the Trump administration is planning to make in the military were evident in the $603 billion defense budget released recently. The budget calls for no more ships than the Obama administration projected, fewer aircraft, and was missing the big troop buildups Trump promised on the campaign trail. House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Tx.), called it “basically the Obama approach.”
Here comes the general. However the Trump administration moves forward, it’ll do so with a slew of current and former Army and Marine Corps generals dominating the Trump cabinet, at least for the time being. The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe point out that a recent cabinet meeting about the strategy for Afghanistan included four current or retired generals “who dominate just about every big national security decision Trump makes.”
Missing from the table in the Situation Room was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in New York, and would later surprise the group by dissenting from their view that thousands more troops should be sent to bolster what is already America’s longest war. The plan, which the Pentagon wrapped up weeks ago, has not yet been approved.
More on Kushner. The Post also reports that Trump likes his top intelligence officials to come to him each morning for his daily intel brief, forcing CIA Director Mike Pompeo and director of national intelligence Daniel Coats “to redesign their daily routines so that they spend many mornings at the White House.” Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, often attends the briefings as well, despite receiving his own intel brief earlier each morning. There are renewed calls from some Democrats to review Kushner’s security clearance after the Post reported Friday that he made an extraordinary attempt to set up back-channel communications with the Russian government during the presidential transition.
The New York Times pushed the story further over the weekend, reporting that Kushner was “looking for a direct line to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — a search that in mid-December found him in a room with a Russian banker whose financial institution was deeply intertwined with Russian intelligence, and remains under sanction by the United States.”
Iran making move for the Iraqi border. As FP reported last week, Iranian-backed Iraqi and Syrian militias are moving to secure vital border areas between the two countries in order to keep the crossings open and bolster Tehran’s influence on both sides of the border.
While the U.S. recently struck one of the militias who strayed too close to an American base in southern Syria, Reuters reports that their Iraqi counterparts have pushed ISIS out of several villages along the border, “potentially reopening a supply route to send Iranian weapons to President Bashar al-Assad. The maneuver could also be the prelude to a connection with the Assad’s Iranian-backed forces, although they are yet to reach the Iraqi border from the Syrian side.” The AP notes that the operation, which kicked off Monday, could reshape the nature of the fight for Iraqi government forces, who are fully committed in Mosul but plan on moving on the border when that fight wraps up. Check out this New York Times story about the Baghdad-Amman highway for another emerging friction point between Washington, Baghdad and Tehran.
Up and away. The U.S. Air Force is ready to conduct a test of its missile defense system on Tuesday, weather permitting. The long-scheduled test comes as worries are increasing over North Korean missile tests, and what kind of defense the U.S. could provide against the growing threat.
The test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) will involve a dummy ICBM target launched from the Marshall Islands, which will be intercepted by missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will be the first test since 2014 – which was a success – after two previous failures. Overall, the GMD program has just a 50 percent success record, with nine kills in 17 attempts.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
This week in North Korean launches. North Korean missile launches are becoming a weekly occurrence and this week’s launch consists of what North Korea claims is a new, more accurate missile. The North fired the missile from a mobile tracked vehicle in Wonsan, on the country’s eastern coast, raising the prospect that the missile in Sunday’s launch may be the same one shown off in an April military parade in Pyongyang. South Korea’s military identified the missile, which landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, as a Scud variant,
Surprise! Newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in was a little shocked to discover that the country’s military slipped four additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers into the country and now he’s launching an investigation. The THAAD battery deployed by the U.S. and South Korea to intercept potential North Korean ballistic missiles launches at the South has proven controversial in the Republic of Korea, straining relations with China. Moon campaigned on a pledge to conduct a parliamentary review of the deployment, which took place shortly before the election.
Slide into your DMs like. Russians hackers are now using social media instead of email in order to trick government officials into clicking on malicious links that can give Moscow access to their devices and accounts. In one instance, attackers breached a Pentagon employee by sending a spoofed vacation package offer to his wife on Twitter then moving laterally to infect the employee through their shared home network. Some research suggests that twice as many users are likely to click on malicious links sent via social media than email.
French foreign fighters. French special operations troops have been helping Iraqi counterterrorism troops target individual members of the Islamic State, including a number of French citizens who have joined the terrorist group, according to the Wall Street Journal. Concerned about the large number of French citizens in ISIS, France has provided targeting information to prevent foreign fighter from returning back home. In lieu of drone strikes, French commandos provide Iraqi forces with lists of foreign fighters and their coordinates to target with artillery and infantry. French troops then move into cleared areas disguised in Iraqi uniforms searching for documents and DNA evidence that French Islamic State members have been killed.
American foreign fighter. The American soldier who fought with Russian-backed forces in Ukraine before joining the U.S. Army is now out of the service. The Army tells the Washington Post that it discharged Pfc. Guillaume Cuvelier, a dual French and American citizen who had joined far right extremist groups in France before traveling to Ukraine to fight with Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and later with Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq in 2015. After the Post published a story on Cuvelier’s history, the Army began an investigation into his recruitment, with a spokesman noting that “in many cases a history of gang or extremist activity is disqualifying” for acceptance into the service.
Michael or Fredo? Hamza Bin Laden is joining the family business, looking to take over his dad’s job as the future leader of al-Qaeda. Experts tell the Washington Post that al-Qaeda is hoping that Hamza’s name can help al-Qaeda rebrand and inject new life into the terrorist group, which has waned and played second fiddle to the more notorious Islamic State. Hamza’s rise has coincided with a new focus on conducting attacks in the West. He has appeared in a handful of recent al-Qaeda media releases encouraging listeners to carry out a campaign of small scale homegrown attacks.
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