The Cable

SitRep: Tillerson to China; DoD Takes Heat for Hurricane Response; Mattis Under Fire (Literally)

  By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Tillerson to China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Beijing for two days of talks on Thursday, in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the increasing tension between North Korea and the United States. For weeks, U.S. military leaders have said they’re following the ...

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) speaks next to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg (L) during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 27, 2017.
US Defense Secretary Mattis and NATO chief Stoltenberg renewed their commitment to Afghanistan on September 27, as the Taliban launched a rocket attack that wounded five civilians in Kabul.  / AFP PHOTO / WAKIL KOHSAR        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) speaks next to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg (L) during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 27, 2017. US Defense Secretary Mattis and NATO chief Stoltenberg renewed their commitment to Afghanistan on September 27, as the Taliban launched a rocket attack that wounded five civilians in Kabul. / AFP PHOTO / WAKIL KOHSAR (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Tillerson to China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Beijing for two days of talks on Thursday, in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the increasing tension between North Korea and the United States.

For weeks, U.S. military leaders have said they’re following the diplomatic lead of Tillerson in trying to stem Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, but this trip is the first concrete indication that the State Department is involved at all in the issue. The Trump administration has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea.

Posture. Following North Korea’s threat to shoot down American bombers on Monday, CNN’s Barbara Starr tweets that defense officials tell her the regime “has moved small number of Migs, external fuel tanks and air to air missiles east.” Overall, though, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford says he hasn’t seen much movement, telling the Senate Armed Services on Tuesday that “we haven’t seen military activity that would be reflective of the charged political environment that we’re seeing.”

North Korea asks for help. North Korea is having trouble deciphering President Trump and it’s been asking Republican-leaning foreign policy experts for help translating the famously erratic commander-in-chief. North Korean diplomats have apparently reached out to former CIA analyst and current Heritage Foundation fellow Bruce Klinger and Republican former National Security Asia hand Douglas Paal, asking for advice on what Trump is all about.

Mattis under fire. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis landed in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday. But hours after hitting the ground, militants fired up to 40 rounds at the airport, 29 of which were rocket-propelled grenades, according to CNN. Mattis and his traveling party had already departed the airport.

Mattis met with President Ashraf Ghani, and was joined on the trip by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. ambassador to NATO, Gen. John Nicholson, head of NATO forces in the country.

The U.S. is sending about 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan, most of which are preparing to leave in the coming weeks. “A lot is riding on this of course as we look toward how do we put an end to this fighting and the threat of terrorism to the Afghan people,” Mattis said. “We are here to set the military and security conditions for that but recognize ultimately the responsibility for the Afghan leadership” to step up and fully own the war.

Iran sticking to deal. Dunford joined other members of Trump’s cabinet on Tuesday in confirming that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal that has put a temporary halt to its nuclear weapons program, FP’s Paul McLeary writes.

“The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations,” Dunford wrote in answers to questions in advance of his hearing before a senate panel, where he also warned that any move by Trump to pull out of the deal without first finding Iran in material breach would lead allies to question other American treaty obligations.

“It makes sense to me that our holding up agreements that we have signed, unless there’s a material breach, would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements,” Dunford said.

Crisis in Puerto Rico. 1.5 million — the number of people in Puerto Rico the Pentagon says now lack access to water after the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria.

In the face of increasing criticism over its response to the disaster in Puerto Rico, the Navy is preparing to send its hospital ship, U.S.N.S. Comfort, with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms, to the island. And the Pentagon also announced that U.S. Northern Command will have a commander on the ground in 24 hours while growing its presence from about 2,500 now to possibly double that number in the next several days.

The Washington Post has more on the Pentagon’s response and the complaints they have moved too slowly in responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

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

Not it. “I believe that any individual who meets the physical and mental standards … should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford telling the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he disagreed with Trump‘s order to ban transgender troops from serving in the armed forces.

Cool down. South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha says the U.S. and North Korea could accidentally spiral into war as tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise, warning that “It’s imperative for the US and South Korea to manage the situation with astuteness and steadfastness to prevent further escalation of tension or any kind of accidental military clashes in the region.”

Designation. The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died after being imprisoned by North Korea, are urging the U.S. government to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, telling an audience on Fox News that the North Korean “kidnapped Otto, tortured him, they intentionally injured him.”  

Targeted advertising. Russian operatives purchased Facebook ads promoting the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and Donald Trump according to the latest scoop on Russia’s social media mischief during the 2016 election. The diverse portfolio of political agendas pushed in the ads buttresses the claims by some that Russia’s intent in meddling, at least initially, was aimed more towards destabilizing American politics than push any particular candidate.

Kiss and make up. The passive aggressive diplomatic war between the U.S. and Russia is on ice for the moment after private talks between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. General Assembly meeting last week. Buzzfeed reports that the two diplomats agreed to try and move on a Russian proposal to set up meetings between National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis and their Russian counterparts.

Inside Raqqa. The BBC offers a stunning look inside the war-ravaged remains of the Islamic State’s now-former capital in Raqqa.

An Englishman abroad. The Islamic State’s caliphate may be crumbling but there’s still roughly 600 British foreign fighters whose whereabouts and status remain a mystery after traveling to Syria. A BBC database lists at least 82 foreign fighters known by name and believed to still be active in Iraq. Nearly a fifth of Brtis who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State are women.

InfoWars. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov is going full truther, accusing the U.S. of a conspiring with the Islamic State to kill Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov, the highest-ranking Russian to die in Russia’s war in Syria, calling his death in an artillery strike in Deir ez-Zor “the bloody price for the two-faced American policy in Syria.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert responded to the claims on Twitter, saying they had “no basis in fact.”

Drive my car. Starting in June 2018, Saudi women will no longer be arrested for driving a car. The Saudi government announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to receive driver’s license without the permission of a male guardian, often required to accompany or permit Saudi women to carry out basic activities.

Air Force One. In flight refueling, who needs it? Not the plane that carries the President of the United States, according to the White House. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Dunford says the White House made the call to skip the capability in order to shave costs off the bill for a new Air Force One, calling the decision a “limiting factor” for the aircraft.

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

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