The Cable

SitRep: Thousands More Headed to Afghanistan; Did Moscow Kill Baghdadi?

Record Number of Bombs Hit ISIS; Congress Skeptical of Arms Sales; Erdogan’s Thugs Charged Over DC Mele; Congress Passes Russian Sanctions; Putin Trolling So Hard

TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME

In this photograph taken on August 12, 2015, US army soldiers walk past an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFGHANISTAN-US-ARMY-CONFLICT-FOCUS BY GUILLAUME DECAMME In this photograph taken on August 12, 2015, US army soldiers walk past an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. From his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan, US army Specialist Josh Whitten doesn't have much to say about his Afghan colleagues. "They don't come up here anymore, because they used to mess around with our stuff. "Welcome to Forward Operating Base Connelly, where US troops are providing training and tactical advice to the 201st Afghan army corps as they take on the Taliban on the battlefield. AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Afghan surge, again and again. Military officials have been saying for months they need somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 more troops in Afghanistan in order to reverse some of the gains the Taliban have made over the past two years — and a new report suggests they may split the difference. An anonymous military official told the AP Thursday that the current plan calls for 4,000 U.S. troops to head to the country in the coming months, in President Donald Trump’s own Afghan surge.   

Many of those new troops — who would bolster the 8,400 American and 5,000 NATO forces already in country — would embed with Afghan army units to advise commanders on battlefield tactics and provide better intelligence. The plan hasn’t been briefed to president Trump yet, a curious delay given that Pentagon officials originally wanted to present it to him last month. A group of senators was briefed on the plan on Wednesday by Vice President Mike Pence and national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, however.

Could look familiar. The new American effort, in some instances, may resemble what U.S. forces are doing in Iraq and Syria, writes FP’s Paul McLeary, where American advisors are working with Syrian rebel commanders and Iraqi army officers to formulate battle plans and direct the fight around Mosul and Raqqa.

“The proximity to the front lines allows the Americans to call in strikes from bombers, jets, and artillery, all of which the Afghan army is sorely lacking. That is already happening to some degree. Over the past four months, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have been at their highest sustained rate since the summer of 2014, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Air Force.”  

No control. During the last in a series of hearings on Capitol Hill this week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said while president Trump has delegated authority to him to decide troop levels in Afghanistan, “he has not fully delegated all authority to me. He maintains strategic oversight,” Mattis told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “He has delegated the details of forces that will be allocated to support what he approves finally as a strategy, but I assure you this is not a carte blanche for me to come up with numbers that are going into this.”

Bombs away. In the fight against the Islamic State, U.S.-led coalition warplanes dropped more bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria last month than in any previous month of the nearly three-year war, according to Pentagon statistics released this week. Stars & Stripes crunched the numbers, and found “aircraft released 4,374 bombs and missiles in May, the first time that the coalition delivered more than 4,000 munitions against ISIS in a single month since the operation began in August 2014.” The previous high occurred in March, when 3,878 munitions were dropped.

From Russia with…Over in Syria, Russian military officials think they might have killed ISIS leader  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, in a May 28 airstrike near Raqqa. The Russians stress they’re not sure yet if they got him, but he might have been present at an ISIS meeting their planes struck. The U.S. military says it cannot confirm the Russian account.

Lawmakers skeptical of arms sales. Just days after the Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would have blocked a sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia due to concerns over Saudi actions in Yemen, members of the a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee expressed their own worries over arms sales to Saudi and other countries in the region. Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, and Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s outgoing director were on the hotseat, fielding questions over aid to Pakistan, Lebanon, and Saudi.

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

Diagnoses. American doctors treating Otto Warmbier aren’t buying the explanation for his condition offered by Warmbier’s former North Korean captors, NBC News reports. North Korea released Warmbier to the U.S. this week, claiming that he had slipped into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. But American doctors say Warmbier isn’t in a coma but “a state of unresponsive wakefulness” and is suffering from “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain,” likely because of a loss of oxygen to his brain as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest. Warmbier’s medical team says there are no obvious signs of physical abuse, beatings, or broken bones

Afghanistan. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Kabul that killed at least four people on Thursday. The Guardian reports that witnesses saw the bomber run into the kitchen of the al-Zahra mosque before detonating his bomb. The Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate has carried out previous sectarian attacks on Kabul’s Shia community, with two prior attacks on Shia mosques in October and November of 2016. The Islamic State has called on its followers to intensify attacks against those the group considers enemies during the holy month of Ramadan.

Fallout. Prosecutors in Washington, DC have filed charges against 12 Turkish security officials for assaulting protesters and American law enforcement officials during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May. In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. won’t “tolerate individuals who use intimidation and violence to stifle freedom of speech and legitimate political expression.” But it’s still unclear whether anything will come of the charges, given that some of those involved in the attack had diplomatic immunity during their visit. The State Department declined to say whether it will ask Turkey to extradite those charged but did say it’s considering unspecified “additional actions.”

You used to hack me on my sat phone. A 25 year old British man has pleaded guilty to breaking into a Defense Department satellite phone system and stealing data on hundreds of users. Vice’s Motherboard reports that Sean Caffrey admitted to accessing the Pentagon’s Enhanced Mobile Satellite System Short Burst Data System and bragging about the breach on the Pastebin code storage site.

Sanctions. The Senate has passed a new round of sanctions on Russia and Iran by a margin of 98-2, CNN reports. The Russia sanctions signal a willingness among Congressional Republicans to chart a different course than the Trump administration on relations with Moscow. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at some opposition to the bill, saying it could make Trump’s hoped-for detente with Russia more difficult to achieve. Germany and Austria voiced criticism of the bill for a provision that they say would interfere with Europe’s ability to buy Russian natural gas.

Designations. The State Department designated the head of the Islamic State’s external operations unit as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist along with two other senior members of the terrorist group. The department says Oussama Ahmad Atar was responsible for coordinating the group’s November 2015 attack in Paris which killed 130 people and the attack in Brussels in March 2016. The U.S. also designated Mohammad Shafi Armar and Mohammed Isa Yousif Saqar Al Binali, charging Armar with recruiting for the Islamic State in India and al-Banali of making propaganda videos for the group.

Troll so hard. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a marathon four hour call-in show on Russian TV, trolling the U.S. by offering political asylum to fired former FBI director James Comey when asked whether he saw any difference between Comey and NSA leaker turned-exile Edward Snowden. Putin also took issue with Comey’s leaking of a memo about Trump’s efforts to get him to drop Russia-related investigations, saying it “does sound and look odd: the director of a security service making records of his talks with the supreme commander and handing it over to the media through a friend of his.”

This is how we live now. Dennis Rodman delivers a copy of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal to his North Korean hosts while on a visit to the Hermit Kingdom.

 

 

Photo Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/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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