The Cable

SitRep: Afghan Surge Coming; All Sorts of Action on North Korea

  By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Afghanistan, again. The magic number for Afghanistan appears to be 3,500. That’s the number of U.S. troops that President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed to send to bolster the struggling effort to beat back the Taliban and Islamic State, several outlets report. The number is generally in line ...

In this photograph taken on August 28, 2017, a US Marine looks on as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan National flag on an armed vehicle during a training exercise to deal with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.
Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand say Donald Trump's decision to keep boots on the ground indefinitely gives them "all the time in the world" to retake the province, once the symbol of US intervention but now a Taliban stronghold. They may need it. At the hot, dusty Camp Shorab, where many of the recently deployed Marines train their Afghan counterparts in flat, desert terrain, the Afghans admit their army still cannot fight alone.

 / AFP PHOTO / WAKIL KOHSAR        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on August 28, 2017, a US Marine looks on as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan National flag on an armed vehicle during a training exercise to deal with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand say Donald Trump's decision to keep boots on the ground indefinitely gives them "all the time in the world" to retake the province, once the symbol of US intervention but now a Taliban stronghold. They may need it. At the hot, dusty Camp Shorab, where many of the recently deployed Marines train their Afghan counterparts in flat, desert terrain, the Afghans admit their army still cannot fight alone. / AFP PHOTO / WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Afghanistan, again. The magic number for Afghanistan appears to be 3,500. That’s the number of U.S. troops that President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed to send to bolster the struggling effort to beat back the Taliban and Islamic State, several outlets report. The number is generally in line with the 4,000 troops that the Pentagon began recommending in May, but Trump only agreed to late last month. The deployments will mark the third time in 16 years that Washington has surged troops to the country to battle the Taliban.

U.S. prepares for Irma. The U.S. Navy has evacuated about 5,000 personnel from Naval Air Station Key West, leaving a few dozen behind to keep the base running, and has staged four ships off the Florida coast to help with disaster response, in case they’re needed as Florida braces for the impact of the largest hurricane ever to hit the Caribbean.

Washington wants to stop North Korean ships. FP’s Colum Lynch reports that the U.S. is seeking United Nations authorization “to use military force to board and seize North Korean smuggling vessels on the high seas, dramatically escalating the Trump administration’s nuclear standoff with the Hermit Kingdom, according to a draft resolution” obtained by Foreign Policy.

The push for military action was included in a sweeping U.S. draft Security Council resolution that would ban Pyongyang’s export of oil, liquid gas, and textiles, and forbid the employment of North Korean laborers. China is saying it agrees more direct action must be taken to curb the North’s nuclear program, but hasn’t endorsed the Trump approach.

Pin down a North Korean strategy? “President Trump’s approach to the rapidly rising threat from North Korea has veered from empathy for the country’s bellicose leader to finger-pointing at China to quick-tempered threats of possible military action,” writes the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan.

“While Trump has accused his predecessors of not being tough on North Korea, the zigzagging U.S. response and the president’s willingness to talk openly about a military attack could be creating its own set of problems by raising the price of an eventual deal and probably making negotiations impossible for now, Asia security analysts said.”

Point person. President Trump has pushed Beijing to take the lead in the North Korean standoff, but the NYT’s Mark Landler notes that unlike previous administrations, the White House doesn’t have any one official empowered by the president to take the lead with China, leading to a scattershot approach to diplomacy with the economic and military giant.

Who needs Russian intel, anyway? President Donald Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, Tom Bossert, has advocated turning away from the intelligence community’s traditional “Russia and China desks” in favor of focusing on specific threats reports FP’s Jenna McLaughlin. The intel community should “determine ways to better mission integrate by function as opposed to mission integrate by geography,” Bossert said at conference Wednesday in Washington. “That’s a world we’ve lived in since World War II.”

Speaking of Russian intel…Donald Trump Jr. is scheduled to meet privately Thursday with the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hotly anticipated interview to discuss a 2016 meeting he arranged with a Kremlin-linked lawyer who promised to provide him damaging information about Hillary Clinton during last last year’s presidential campaign.

Trump dossier. In another bit of private Senate testimony last month, Glenn Simpson, the former journalist whose company was involved in the production of the now infamous “Trump Dossier,” invoked his First Amendment rights during testimony last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee and refused to reveal the sources for the document’s explosive claims, according to recently released court documents chased down by FP’s Elias Groll.

Pay to play. FP’s Elias Groll writes that Russian propagandists purchased approximately $100,000 in political ads on Facebook between 2015 and 2017, the company revealed on Wednesday. The ads mostly did not favor any particular candidate but spread what Facebook described as “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” Speaking to the Washington Post, Facebook officials tied the ad buys to a Kremlin-linked firm, the Internet Research Agency, which was profiled by the New York Times Magazine in 2015 for its pioneering use of digital disinformation campaigns.

Hurricane Vs. Spy Plane: FP’s Sharon Weinberger notes that SpaceX is still scheduled to launch the Air Force’s secret space spy plane, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, weather permitting. SpaceX announced there is about a five-hour window for the launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and warned residents in surrounding counties that they may hear a “sonic boom.” If the launch is scrubbed because of weather or other problems, it may be face even more delays, as Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida. This is the fifth launch of the X-37B, whose exact mission is classified, though experts believe it is being used for surveillance. The last launch of the X-37B completed 718 days in orbit. Today’s scheduled launch will be the first using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

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

Hedging. China is keeping its troops sharp to guard against the possibility of an unspecified “surprise attack” by putting its troops through exercises on the coast of the Bohai Sea in the wake of North Korea’s recent nuclear test. People’s Liberation Army troops practiced firing air defense systems against fictional low-flying aircraft, although officials stressed the drills “do not target any particular goal or country.”

Study abroad. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are benefiting from a wealth of knowledge brought back to the country from scientists and researchers sent abroad, according to the Wall Street Journal. Students sent to universities primarily in China to to study sensitive subjects — in apparent violation of United Nations sanctions — have given Pyongyang the indigenous human capital to continue its weapons development without having to rely on expertise from abroad.

Take it back. Anonymous White House officials are trying to walk back President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will scrap a free trade deal with South Korea, telling Reuters “It’s not dead. It could come back. It might not.” Trump’s comments prompted a backlash among observers who feared that walking away from a U.S. commitment would lead Seoul to doubt U.S. security guarantees as North Korea rolls out more powerful missiles and nuclear warheads.

Responsibility. United Nations investigators have concluded that the Assad regime carried out the chemical weapons attack that killed 83 civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. In the past, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has identified the Assad regime as the perpetrator of a number of attacks employing chlorine gas, but the latest report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry marks the first time the United Nations has assigned blame to the Assad regime for its use of nerve agents.  

Bring back our boys. Russians aren’t enthusiastic about having their military stay in Syria. In a poll conducted by the Levada Center, 49 percent of Russians said they wanted to see Russia pull out now compared to 30 percent who wanted to see them stay.

Hackers. Cybersecurity firm Symantec says it uncovered a hacking campaign targeted at U.S. and European energy companies and linked to Russian intelligence. The campaign, dubbed “Dragonfly 2.0” by company researchers, appears to be targeted at gaining access to control systems at energy firms in the U.S., Turkey, and Switzerland, leaving open the possibility of sabotage.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are apologizing after American forces dropped leaflets depicting a lion chasing a dog with the Taliban’s flag painted on its side. The problem, as the commanders quickly learned, is that the Taliban’s flag contains a Koranic verse, making the Taliban flag on its side — emblazoned with a Koranic verse — potentially offensive to Afghans.

Back again. U.S. Marines sent back to Afghanistan have reopened an old firebase dubbed “Fiddler’s Green,” reopening the facility in Helmand Province originally established in 2009.

Sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on South Sudanese army deputy chief of staff Gen. Malek Reuben Riak Rengu and information minister Michael Makuei Lueth, accusing them of “enriching themselves at the expense of the South Sudanese people.”

Myanmar. A spokesman for the U.N. World Food Problem says the agency is expecting as many as 300,000 Rohingya refugees to flee into Bangladesh as the Myanmar military’s crackdown in Rakhine State continues, demanding an additional $13 million in funding to help Rohingya who are “coming in nutritionally deprived, they have been cut off from a normal flow of food for possibly more than a month.”

History. The CIA dumped a new tranche of declassified Cold War documents detailing the Agency’s analysis of the Soviet Navy.

 

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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