SitRep: Mattis’ War; U.S. To Ship $12B Worth of Fighter Planes to Qatar; American Commandos Targeted By ISIS Drones
North Korea Hacks; Civilian Losses in U.S. Air Campaign; Iran targets U.S. Ships, Helos in Persian Gulf; ISIS Grabs Tora Bora
With Adam Rawnsley
Afghanistan surge. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to temper expectations he was about to embark on a large — or rapid — troop buildup in Afghanistan in congressional testimony on Wednesday, a day after reports emerged that president Trump delegated authority for determining the size of the U.S. commitment in the war to the Pentagon.
“I’ve been given some carte blanche to — to draw up a strategy or a number that’s out of step with the strategy,” Mattis said. “I think right now what we have to look at is what kind of capabilities do we bring to them because the Afghans have proven they will fight.”
Air power. Mattis said that adding more U.S. air power to the fight in the short term would “restore the high ground” by supporting Afghan forces in the field, since “right now, I believe the enemy is surging.”
The secretary also vowed not to “repeat the mistakes of the past” in Afghanistan, but what went unstated — at least explicitly — was that this is very much Mattis’ war now. Sen. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took a swipe at Trump while putting the ball squarely in the SecDef’s court however, telling him during a Congressional hearing, “I’m glad that Trump is smart enough to understand that you know more than he does and he’s empowering you to make us safe. What a novel idea for the commander in chief to turn to his commanders and say, ‘what you need to win?’”
Not so fast. Whatever Mattis does in the coming weeks will occur without the benefit of a new strategy approved by the president, as Trump won’t be briefed on the plan forward until early next month. And it is unclear what diplomatic efforts will go along with increased air strikes and more military advisors. “We have no ambassador In Afghanistan, no ambassador in Pakistan, no assistant secretary of state for South Asia, and no special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. People are leaving that office and not being replaced,” Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official with long experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan told SitRep.
Jets to Qatar. Late Wednesday, the embattled government of Qatar announced that it had signed a $12 billion contract with the U.S. government for several dozen Boeing-made F-15 fighter planes, following a meeting at the Pentagon between Defense Secretary Mattis and Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Dr. Khalid al-Attiyah. In a statement, Qatar said the deal would create 60,000 American jobs in 42 states.
A U.S. State Department official, speaking to SitRep on the condition of anonymity, said the deal — originally reached under the Obama administration — has full U.S. support despite several Gulf allies having recently cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar due to its ties to Iran and support for groups like Hamas. Just last week, president Trump weighed in to support the Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar. The official added that since “the production of complex fighter jets will take a period of years,” Washington is “confident that Qatar can address its remaining issues within this timeframe, prior to delivery.”
Ship to shore. Around the time that details of the F-15 deal were dribbling out, reports emerged that two U.S. Navy ships had arrived in Qatar to conduct training exercises with local forces. The Navy was quick to push back on the idea that this was something new, and Cmdr. Bill Urban, U.S. Fifth Fleet spokesman, told SitRep that the USS Chinook, a patrol craft with a crew of about 30 sailors, and US Coast Guard Cutter Baranof “are making a routine port visit to Qatar. U.S. Fifth Fleet ships conduct similar port visits throughout the region as part of our normal operations.”
Trump Africa plan. The U.S. and France are “hurtling toward a potential dust-up, as the Trump administration weighs vetoing a French Security Council resolution empowering an African counterterrorism force, according to U.S. officials and U.N.-based diplomats.” That the latest scoop from FP’s Colum Lynch, who writes, that the dispute “hinges on the question of who will help fund the force of 5,000 African soldiers and police in the Sahel, a semiarid plain that stretches from Senegal to Sudan, and whether French military planners have devised a workable strategy.”
ISIS drones hit US SOF. The Islamic State has increased its drone activity around its embattled stronghold of Raqqa, targeting American Special Operations Forces who are partnering with Syrian Arabs and Kurds pressing on the city, the Washington Post reports.
US strikes. The U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria has led to a “staggering loss of life” says U.N. Commission of Inquiry chief Paulo Pinheiro. Pinheiro estimates that the coalition has killed at least 300 civilians since March 2017, and another 160,000 civilians have been displaced due to the fighting.
Who’s where when. The Qatar F-15 deal and upcoming weapons sales to Saudi Arabia will no doubt be at the top of the agenda Thursday morning at the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, as it hears from several top military and State Department officials on foreign military sales.
Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, Acting Assistant Secretary here in State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) Director VADM Joe Rixey will testify.
American hostages. Members of the Namazi family came to the White House on Tuesday to discuss the plight of Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer, who were sentenced to ten years in prison last year. (See the story by FP’s Dan De Luce.) They met with NSC officials Dina Powell and Joel Rayburn, a senior administration official told FP. State Department officials raised the issue directly with Iran at a meeting in April in Vienna to discuss the implementation of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers. Human rights groups say Siamak Namazi’s health has deteriorated due to a hunger strike and relentless interrogations.
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Aftermath…President Donald Trump has landed in the crosshairs of federal investigators. The FBI probe led by former Director Robert Mueller will interview senior intelligence officials as part of an examination of whether the president obstructed justice, according to the Washington Post.
Mueller’s investigators will now interview Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, NSA Director Michael Rogers, and his recently retired deputy, Richard Ledgett. According to earlier media reports, Trump leaned on Rogers and Coats to publicly downplay the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling and whether any Trump aides conspired with Kremlin agents. — Elias Groll
Cash rules everything around me. The NSA says North Korea was likely behind the WannaCry global ransomware pandemic that locked down computers on six continents. The Washington Post reports that the signals intelligence agency has estimates with “moderate confidence” that the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau created the malware with the intent of raising money for the heavily-sanctioned country. Despite the massive number of infections, however, the worm has thus far only netted $140,000 worth of payments in the bitcoin cryptocurrency. Experts have pointed out that some of the code in WannaCry contains snippets of code bears similarities to previous North Korean hacking tools.
Shine a light. U.S. officials say an Iranian warship in the Persian Gulf painted a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter with a laser and shined a spotlight on it, forcing the chopper to light off its flares. A Defense Department spokesman tells Fox News that the incident was “unsafe and unprofessional” and “dangerous” for pilots navigating with night vision goggles. The run-in between U.S. and Iranian troops in the Gulf is one of many that have taken place over the past few years, with U.S. Central Command complaining that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy has become more aggressive towards the U.S. presence there.
Yemen. Houthi militants fired an unspecified guided missile at a ship off the coast of Yemen on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia’s state-run news agency says that missile was aimed at a United Arab Emirates ship but did no damage other than the wounding of one crew member. The attack in the narrow Bab al-Mandab strait follows a series of attacks on ships transiting off Yemen by Houthi militants, including a remote control suicide boat attack on a Saudi frigate in January and anti-ship cruise missiles fired at U.S. Navy warship in October 2016.
Back in your old neighborhood. The Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate has taken control of part of Tora Bora once used by al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden as a shelter against U.S. bombing. The New York Times reports that Islamic State fighters managed to pry the warren of underground tunnels from rivals in the Taliban after a week of fighting. Local warlord Hazrat Ali says the Islamic State moved on the tunnel network after the group lost a previous cave shelter in Nangarhar when the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” on it.
Valor. CNN has learned new details about the careers of two U.S. Navy SEALs killed in the line of duty in Yemen and Somalia. Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed in January during a raid against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. But before that, he served in Somalia, where he earned a Silver Star for facing off against 400 Somali militants after he “repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire” in capturing a town held al-Qaeda-linked militants. Senior Chief Petty Officer Kyle Milliken was killed outside Mogadishu while serving as an advisor to local forces but before that he served in 48 missions in Iraq, where he helped save three wounded comrades under fire.
Fine print. Burned by international criticism about the civilian death toll in its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is embarking on a $750 million a year training program to improve its targeting procedures. The New York Times also reports that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also wrote a private letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promising to do more to avoid civilian casualties. The moves appear aimed at easing the passage of a proposed $110 billion package of arms sales with the U.S., which narrowly passed the Senate this week in the face of vocal opposition from a handful of legislators.