The Cable

SitRep: Allies Launch Major Flyover of Korean Peninsula; Pentagon Comes Clean on Deployments

  With Adam Rawnsley Overflight. The U.S. Air Force and Marines teamed with the South Korean and Japanese air forces Thursday to conduct an unprecedented show of force and live fire exercise over the Korean peninsula. And the timing was no coincidence. The mission “was conducted in direct response to North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile ...

AAASKorea

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Overflight. The U.S. Air Force and Marines teamed with the South Korean and Japanese air forces Thursday to conduct an unprecedented show of force and live fire exercise over the Korean peninsula. And the timing was no coincidence.

The mission “was conducted in direct response to North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile launch,” which flew over Japan earlier this week, the U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement. “North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” said Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Pacific Air Forces. The Corps sent four F-35B’s to join two USAF B-1B bombers, two Japanese F-15s and four South Korean F-15s “for the first time in a sequenced bilateral mission with Japan and Republic of Korea air forces in Northeast Asia,” Pacom said.

Afghanistan. The U.S. military command in Afghanistan has opened an investigation into an airstrike that allegedly killed as many as 11 civilians in eastern Logar province, the second incident this week involving civilian casualties. The other incident occurred Monday, and residents and officials in Herat Province in western Afghanistan claimed airstrikes there had killed more than a dozen civilians. The Afghan Ministry of Defense said that the later strike had been carried out by the Afghan Air Force and that 18 Taliban fighters had also been killed.

The strikes come as Defense Secretary James Mattis weighs sending thousands more Americans to advise Afghan forces in the thick of the fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State, and increasing airstrikes and artillery support to blunt the Taliban’s recent momentum.

Real troop numbers. The Defense Department admitted Wednesday that there are already 11,000 American troops in Afghanistan, a number vastly higher than the 8,400 they had claimed for months were deployed. So, why the deception?

FP’s Paul McLeary writes that there are thousands of troops deployed both to Afghanistan (and Iraq) on a “temporary” basis, often for just weeks at a time, that the Pentagon didn’t count as deployed since they are not part of a scheduled, longer rotation. The practice, the military claims, was made necessary due to the Obama administration’s cap of 8,400 troops in the country, which forced the military to split up units and only deploy them piecemeal.

The Trump administration accepted the policy, and “the new accounting practices will still only represent an approximation of how many troops are on the ground, and could be off by hundreds as some units overlap during rotations in and out of the country.” Still, there hasn’t been a great explanation for hiding the truth. Next up is an explanation for how many Americans are in Iraq, where there are officially 5,200 troops. Reports indicate the number is actually closer to about 7,000.

The Washington Post reports that of the 4,000 or so troops Mattis is considering sending to Afghanistan, many appear to be coming from the 82nd Airborne and 25th Infantry divisions, with Marine Corps artillery units filling in some of the gaps.

The dead and the wounded. The fallout continues from a raid last week in Somalia by government troops supported by U.S. special operations forces that the Somali government said killed 10 men and boys. The tribe that was hit is looking for restitution, which the government is considering. Reuters met with some of the victims’ families, and reports that “the clan have already been angered by a U.S. airstrike that killed at least 10 members of their pro-government militia last year, and by a death sentence for another clan member who killed a minister that he mistook for a militant.”

You. Shall. Not. Pass. After a deal was reached between the Islamic State, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah to move hundreds of ISIS fighters away from the Lebanese border and into ISIS-held areas of eastern Syria, the U.S. military said, “nope.”

The U.S.-led coalition issued a statement Wednesday saying it “was not a party to any agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS. Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control.” As a result, American planes dropped a bridge and cratered a road where the estimated 600 fighters were traveling, bringing the whole op to a halt. But Syrian-backed militias who are helping the convoy said Thursday they’re looking for a new route to get to Deir al-Zor province.

Exodus at State continues. A senior State Department lawyer, Todd Buchwald, is stepping down in the coming weeks, “joining scores of career civil and foreign service officers fleeing an administration that critics say has diminished the standing of U.S. diplomacy,” FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report first.

Jordan ambassador pushed out. Soon after taking office, president Trump pushed out the U.S. ambassador to Jordan after complaints from the country’s king, even though there was no evidence the diplomat had misrepresented Washington’s policies, reports FPs Dan De Luce and Ruby Mellen.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Question marks. The White House tells reporters that President Trump has “absolutely” has confidence in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after reports that Tillerson was on the outs with Trump.

Gulag archipelago. The State Department released a new report this week on half a dozen North Korean prison camps for political prisoners and their families, piecing together a grim picture from defector accounts and satellite imagery. The prisons are believed to house tens of thousands of inmates believed to be insufficiently loyal to the North Korean government as well as family members detained under the North’s “three generations” policy, which imprisons the family members of those convicted of political crimes.

Myanmar. Sectarian tensions in Myanmar are rising after growing calls from members of the country’s Buddhist majority call for a harder military crackdown on insurgents from the Rohingya Muslim minority. Fighting in Rakhine state has thus far prompted around 18,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh as refugees.

Mark as read. The Kremlin says it ignored an email sent by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pitching a real estate project for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had seen the email, since uncovered by the Washington Post, but didn’t respond “Because we do not react to such (questions about) business themes, and this is not our job,” according to Reuters.

Opening gambit. Russia’s new ambassador Anatoly Antonov says the U.S. and Russia should try to rebuild relations with a new set of high-level meetings, proposing “joint meetings of Russia’s and the United States’ foreign and defence ministers in a ’two plus two’ format.”

Island lair. Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny released a new video containing drone footage of a large 125 acre property and island home allegedly owned by President Vladimir Putin. Navalny claims the property, located near the city of Vyborg close to the Finnish border, is nominally owned by Oleg Rudnov, a close friend of Putin.

Hacking. Cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab issued a new report on what it says is a cyberespionage group that leverages tools and tactics similar to hacking groups like Sofacy and Turla, widely believed to be run by Russian intelligence. The report details the hacking activities of a group Kaspersky labels “WhiteBear,”  which is “narrowly focused on embassies and consular operations around the world,” particularly in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Rashomon effect. An Egyptian director is making a spin-off of the box office hit American Sniper about the life of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. The film, Iraqi Sniper, will tell the story from the original movie from the perspective of a mythical Iraqi insurgent sniper dubbed “Juba,” who was the subject of several propaganda videos released during the occupation of Iraq.

Lebanon. The U.N. Security Council has tweaked the mandate of its peacekeeping force in Lebanon, settling on compromise language that calls on UNIFIL to be more vigilant in cracking down on Hezbollah arms buildups in southern Lebanon. The move follows Israel’s allegations that Iran has built rocket factories for the terrorist group in Lebanese territory, and comes after U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized UNIFIL for “an embarrassing lack of understanding” for its apparent inability to locate Hezbollah weapons caches.

Drones. It seems like every militant group in the Middle East is getting on board the commercial drone bomber trend. The latest entrant is the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group, which reportedly lost a hexarotor drone bomber after Turkish troops downed southeastern Turkey.

Drone hunter. Russia says its Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems in Syria have shot down two Israeli drones in Syria near the port city of Tartus, as well as an RQ-21A Blackjack, and Turkish Bayraktar drone.

Garage sale. Soldiers and civilians near Fort Campbell Kentucky made over a million dollars by selling stolen military weapons and equipment to buyers as far away as Russia, China, and Hong Kong through eBay auctions, according to federal prosecutors. Prosecutors are currently trying John Roberts, alleging that he helped lead the sales ring which hawked rifle parts, a machine gun, body armor, and helmets online.

Days of bugs past. CNN recounts some newly declassified details on the detection of a Russian listening device in the State Department in 1999.

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Pacific Command

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