The Cable

SitRep: Trump Letting Mattis Run Afghan War; Senate Barely Approves Saudi Arms Deal; White House Watching Moscow and Pyongyang

North Korean Drone Crashes; Tillerson on the hot seat; more on military intel spending, more U.S. firepower heads to Syria

A US soldier stands guard near the site of a US bombing during an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province on April 15, 2017.
Afghan authorities April 15 reported a jump in fatalities from the American military's largest non-nuclear bomb, declaring some 90 Islamic State fighters dead, as US-led forces conducted clean-up operations over their mountain hideouts. Dubbed the "Mother Of All Bombs", the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast was unleashed in combat for the first time April 12, hitting IS positions in a remote area of eastern Nangarhar province. / AFP PHOTO / NOORULLAH SHIRZADA        (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
A US soldier stands guard near the site of a US bombing during an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province on April 15, 2017. Afghan authorities April 15 reported a jump in fatalities from the American military's largest non-nuclear bomb, declaring some 90 Islamic State fighters dead, as US-led forces conducted clean-up operations over their mountain hideouts. Dubbed the "Mother Of All Bombs", the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast was unleashed in combat for the first time April 12, hitting IS positions in a remote area of eastern Nangarhar province. / AFP PHOTO / NOORULLAH SHIRZADA (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Have it your way. President Donald Trump has given his Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, the authority to decide how many troops to commit to the fight in Afghanistan, weeks before the Pentagon will announce new strategy for the 16 year-old war. Mattis said Tuesday that he hopes to brief Congress on the new plan by mid-July.

We promise it will be different this time. It’s unclear what will be “new” in the document, given the mix of light and heavy approaches the Pentagon has taken in the country since U.S. troops first landed in October, 2001. But Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that “we are not winning” in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is surging throughout the country. Six Americans have died in combat in Afghanistan so far this year — all killed in fighting an Islamic State offshoot in the country’s mountainous eastern districts.

A clearly angry Sen. John  McCain pushed Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford for answers. “We can’t keep going like this,” the Arizona Republican said. “We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: Don’t lose. That hasn’t worked.”

Without going into detail, Mattis said that U.S. involvement in the country will be “an era of frequent skirmishing and it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years if we’re to get it to that position.” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres made a surprise visit to Kabul on Wednesday, where he said there is no military solution to the problems the country faces.

What the generals want. It’s clear that Pentagon officials and the military leadership in Kabul favor sending several thousand additional troops to the fight. Earlier this year, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, described the situation as a “stalemate,” and said he has a shortfall of several thousand troops. Other military officials have confirmed that the number is somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 troops to FP on multiple occasions. There are about 8,400 U.S. troops in the country at the moment, bolstered by about 5,000 NATO forces. Since 2002, the United States has spent $70 billion to build up the Afghan security forces.

Moscow to Pyongyang. The Trump administration and lawmakers are increasingly concerned that Russia is stepping up trade with North Korea in defiance of international sanctions, jeopardizing a U.S. effort to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs. FP’s Dan De Luce and Elias Groll point out that the White House has yet to call out Russia publicly for its dealings with North Korea. “It’s something we need to watch closely if we’re serious about turning the screws economically on North Korea,” one administration official told Foreign Policy.

Saudi deal goes through. Barely.The U.S. Senate on Tuesday narrowly defeated a measure that would have blocked the sale of over $500 million worth of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia, paving the way for a deal intended to help the country in its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen. FP’s Paul McLeary reports that the stronger-than-expected opposition to the sale comes as the 2-year-old war in Yemen exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation in the country. Saudi-led strikes are blamed for creating a humanitarian disaster, with over 120,00 cholera cases in recent weeks and 18 million of Yemen’s 27 million inhabitants in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

Intel bill. Military intelligence spending is on the rise. FP’s Jenna McLaughlin writes that in the Pentagon’s budget request for 2018, the military asked for $20.7 billion, up from the $18.5 billion that was allotted in 2017. Per Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, military and national security spending is generally “going up lately,” climbing back from the depths of lower spending during the Obama administration. “The aggregate budget request figure by itself is big enough to conceal lots of new programs and initiatives,” Aftergood wrote in an email to FP.

Tillerson on the hot seat. There were hearings all over the place on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, But while Washington focused on the fiery Attorney General hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had his own to deal with. FP’s Robbie Gramer tells us that during separate hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Appropriations Committee, Tillerson had to defend the Trump administration’s controversial budget proposal that guts State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development funding.

Senate Democrats had at it. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the foreign relations committee, told Tillerson his budget was “nothing less than a devastating assault on American interests and values.” Senate Republicans praised Tillerson for his leadership, but warned the proposed bill is dead. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, called reviewing the budget in its current state “a total waste of time.”

Other Republicans piled on. “This budget request is in many ways radical and reckless when it comes to soft power,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees State Department funding. Tillerson defended the cuts, saying he made “hard choices to reduce funding” in certain areas but was confident State could still carry out its mission with less cash.

Call your office. The top spy in Washington, Dan Coats, has been spending a lot of time in and around the White House lately — so much so that current employees and veterans of the intelligence community are wondering whether the former Indiana senator is being kept on a tight leash by the administration. FP’s Jenna McLaughlin and Elias Groll have more here.

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

A.I. The U.S. government is considering whether to make it harder for Chinese firms to invest in artificial intelligence technology being developed in the United States. Reuters got an early look at a Pentagon report expressing concern that China’s investments in Silicon Valley have flown below the regulatory radar in the U.S. and could be used to develop new Chinese military hardware. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told the wire service that he’s working on legislation that would require the federal government to specify which artificial intelligence technologies would require foreign investors to receive approval from the Feds.

Release. An American college student held prisoner in North Korea on charges of vandalizing a propaganda poster has returned to the U.S. in a coma. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. officials only learned of Otto Warmbier’s condition weeks ago, after a meeting with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations. Pyongyang claims his coma was brought on by a case of botulism and a sleeping pill, but the Trump administration has its doubts. The administration also denies that Warmbier’s release had anything to do with this week’s visit from former Chicago Bulls player and Kim Jong-un pal Dennis Rodman, saying the U.S. is not coordinating with Rodman or using him as an envoy.

THAAD spotting. Photos found on the hard drive of a North Korean drone that crashed in South Korea reveal the unmanned aircraft had secretly taken photos of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery deployed to the country, the AP reports. The drone’s double engines allowed it to fly all the way to Seongju down south, further than any previous North Korean drone, but crashed near the North Korean border after running out of fuel. The incident raises fears that North Korea could be using the aircraft to help target the U.S. missile defense battery in the future.

Hidden Cobra. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI are warning users about a campaign of hacking carried out by North Korea dubbed “Hidden Cobra.” Officials say the hackers targeted a diverse array of targets, ranging from critical infrastructure operators to the financial institutions and media outlets. The agencies released indicators of compromise for the North Korean campaign, including IP addresses and malware signatures, known to be used by the hackers, including the “DeltaCharlie” tool used to carry out distributed denial of service attacks.

Election hacking. U.S. intelligence has yet to reveal the full extent of Russian hackers’ forays into U.S. electoral systems, according to a scoop from Bloomberg. The news outlet reports that the hackers breached software used by poll workers and a campaign finance database in Illinois, and tried to alter data in the state voter database. The Obama administration, alarmed by the activity after being tipped off by the intelligence community, phoned up their Russian counterparts to warn them off further meddling using a designated “red phone” communications channel.

HIMARS. The U.S. has moved a new artillery system into southern Syria in order to protect U.S. special operations forces and their anti-Islamic State rebel allies at the al Tanf garrison from further encroachments by Assad regime and Iranian-backed forces, according to CNN. The U.S. has fired rockets from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) system into Syria before, launching the munitions from Jordan and Turkey, but the deployment represents the launcher’s first trip into Syria itself. The U.S. has clashed with Iranian-supported militias around At Tanf a number of times over the past few weeks, including shooting down an Iranian drone flying near the U.S. base last week.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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