SitRep: Another Week at War — U.S. Convoy Hit in Afghanistan; U.S. Losses; New Somalia Strike
Qatar Update; North Korea Financing; Cyber Spies Struggling With ISIS Fight
With Adam Rawnsley
Another bloody weekend in the Long War. Three U.S.soldiers were killed in Eastern Afghanistan over the weekend, and a convoy of U.S. troops was struck by a roadside bomb Monday morning in Nangarhar province, a hotbed of Islamic State activity along the Pakistani border.
Saturday’s attack, which early indications are was carried out of an Afghan army commando who turned his weapon on the Americans before being killed by U.S. forces, brings the American death toll in Afghanistan this year to six, all killed in Nangarhar while fighting the Islamic State. Five of those six may have been killed by their own side, as the New York Times’ Rod Nordland points out.
New attack. The Taliban is claiming credit for Monday’s attack on the American convoy. According to a statement issued by the U.S. military command in Kabul, U.S. and Afghan soldiers were “struck by a roadside bomb and attacked with small arms fire in Nangarhar Province. The convoy returned fire in self-defense and there were no U.S. casualties. We have not received any official allegations of civilian casualties.”
There are allegations that several Afghan civilians were wounded when the Americans opened fire after the attack. Defense officials say they’re investigating the report.
Somalia strike. In Somalia, U.S. warplanes hit what the U.S. Africa Command said was “an al-Shabaab command and logistics node,” at a camp about 185 miles south of Mogadishu. The strike killed an estimated eight militants. It was the first strike carried out by U.S. forces under new authorities granted in March by president Trump, which declared parts of Somalia an “Area of Active Hostility,” allowing local U.S. commanders more authority to strike the al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Just last month, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed and two other troops wounded in a firefight with al Shabab, the first U.S. casualties in that country since the 1990s. While U.S. Defense officials insist the new authorities are not the start of a U.S. offensive against the group — all strikes are taken to defend U.S. and Somali forces in the field — the
Qatar and Al Udeid. Operations for the U.S.-led coalition nerve center ay Al Udeid air base in Qatar are continuing as normal despite the economic and diplomatic isolation slapped on the country by other Gulf Arab states last week, according to several U.S. officials.
One Defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told SitRep that the shunning of Qatar is “testing our ability to work bilaterally and with the coalition,” on the ISIS fight, since military officers from all of the Gulf nations work together in Al Udeid’s command center. The blockade “can’t stand for long” before they starts to have a real effect on how operations are conducted, the official said.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was traveling in the region when the Saudis and their Gulf allies cut Qatar off last Monday, and he spent several days shuttling between regional partners trying to work though the issues. Officials wouldn’t go into detail about who he met with, citing the sensitivity of the issue and concerns over offending some allies.
Several military officials also confirmed that there are several dozen family members of U.S. military personnel living in Qatar, and they are working with the State Department to determine if they would leave the country.
To the Hill! Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford are heading to Capitol Hill Monday night, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee in an unusual 7 p.m. appearance to talk about the 2018 defense budget. It’s the first stop in a week of hearings for the two top military officials, who hit the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on Wednesday, and the House Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday morning.
Expect lots of non-budgetary questions, including an update on the strategy for the war in Iraq and Syria, the potential to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the threat Russia presents in Europe, North Korea, the situation in Qatar, and what effect climate change has on their operations. Mattis has remained mostly silent during his tenure as SecDef, giving few press conferences and interacting with the press as little as possible, as the New York Times notes in their look at how Mattis is navigating Washington’s perilous political waters.
North Korea. A forthcoming report from C4ADS — due to be released Monday afternoon — takes a deep dive on North Korean overseas financing, and finds that the country’s overseas proliferation financing system is “highly centralized and limited, and thereby vulnerable to large-scale disruption,” according to a pre-release email from the firm. If an adversary were to target just a few key individuals, C4ADS’ research suggests. it would be possible to disrupt the entire system.
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Round three. The Philippine military’s efforts to take back Marawi City from Islamic State-affiliated terrorists is grinding on into its third week, Reuters reports. The uprising, triggered by an attempt by to capture militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, has killed nearly 60 Philippine troops so far. Philippine Foreign Affairs Minister Allan Peter Cayetano, however, claims that the effort to capture Hapilon prevented the group from seizing more cities.
Tag team. U.S. Special Forces are helping with battle in Marawi. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Philippines is so far only admitting to receiving “non-combatant assistance” from the U.S., which reportedly includes surveillance by P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. The U.S. embassy says American special operations troops are helping with the fight but officials stress that American troops aren’t involved in actual combat. President Rodridgo Duterte previously threatened to end U.S. military deployments to the country following a fallout with the U.S. over human rights.
Swing and a miss. The Islamic State’s online recruitment efforts are proving all too resilient against America’s secret arsenal of cyber weapons. The New York Times reports that a joint effort by the NSA and Cyber Command to disrupt the distribution of online propaganda by the group, dubbed Operation Glowing Symphony, met with only mixed success, as Islamic State terrorists quickly rebuilt their online propaganda networks. But there have been some successes. The Times learned that Israeli cyberspies found out about the Islamic State’s attempts to build exploding laptops by hacking a bomb-making unit working for the group.
Willy Pete. U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria are using white phosphorous, according to imagery released on social media. The use of white phosphorous, in and of itself, is not prohibited in war, but it is subject to restrictions on how and where it can be used. White phosphorous rounds can be used to provide smoke or illumination, but international law prohibits their use as incendiary weapons or on densely populated areas. A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition wouldn’t address the specifics of white phosphorus use in Syria except to say that the U.S. uses it in accordance with international law.
Inner circles. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is staffing up his inner circle with veterans of Palantir, the tech company that makes intelligence software for the Pentagon. Politico reports that three former Palantir employees, Anthony DeMartino, Sally Donnelly, and Justin Mikolay, now work as advisors and assistants to Mattis. Palantir software, which allows users to sift through vast troves of data to find patterns and connections, proved a popular alternative to the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System, setting up a clash between the service and the Silicon Valley company over contract awards. Palantir founder Peter Thiel has served as an advisor and outspoken supporter of President Trump, dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign.
Buyer’s remorse. Congressional Democrats are no longer so fond of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) saying “He’s not the person who I thought I was voting for.” Politico reports that Democrats initially warmed to the idea of Kelly, who came highly recommended by the likes of former Obama administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as a possible moderating force against Trump. Instead, Kelly has proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of President Trump’s controversial immigration policies, ranging from the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries to deportations of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
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