Security Brief

Security Brief: Reality on the Ground in Afghanistan; Senate Loses a ‘Lion’

Catch up on everything you need to know about the forever war in Afghanistan, the legacy of Sen. John McCain, North Korea’s reaction to Trump’s latest tweet, and more.

Afghan Shiite mourners offer funeral prayers for nine victims, who were killed in a suicide attack the previous day, in Kabul on August 16, 2018. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan Shiite mourners offer funeral prayers for nine victims, who were killed in a suicide attack the previous day, in Kabul on August 16, 2018. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

One year after President Trump rolled out a new strategy to finally end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has little to show for it. Meanwhile, politicians and journalists alike share stories about the late Sen. John McCain, North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper accuses the United States of “double-dealing” after Trump abruptly cancelled a planned visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, lawmakers demand classified documents on Trump’s meeting with Putin, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

This is progress? The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan told reporters last week that Trump’s new South Asia Strategy is working, but the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

The Taliban maintains its grip on much of the country, and the civilian death toll has reached a record high, according to a recent report by the Pentagon’s inspector general. Also, the Islamic State in Khorasan, the Afghan arm of the Islamic State, continues to carry out high-profile attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Some good news: The head of ISIS in Afghanistan, Abu Sayed Orakzai, also known as Sad Arhabi, and 10 other ISIS fighters were reportedly killed Saturday night in an airstrike by Afghan and coalition forces in Nangarhar province.)

But the most powerful evidence that there is no end in sight to the war is the battle earlier this month for the strategic city of Ghazni, which lies between Kabul and Kandahar. Time Magazine’s W.J. Hennigan describes the fierce five-day assault that killed at least 100 Afghan soldiers and police and more than 150 civilians. A team of Green Berets from Operational Detachment Alpha Team 1333—one of three U.S. Army Special Forces-led units that converged on Ghazni to save it from the Taliban—described to Hennigan a fight that debilitated vehicles and maimed members of their unit.

“I’ve never seen that many [rocket-propelled grenades] in my career,” the team’s sergeant told Hennigan.  

As the Taliban digs in, the Afghan government is in turmoil. Three senior officials—Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, Interior Minister Wais Barmak, as well as Masoom Stanekzai, head of the National Directorate of Security—quit over the weekend, citing policy differences with the government amid deteriorating security. (President Ashraf Ghani rejected their resignations). The news came hours after National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar quit.

Last lion. The Senate lost a giant on Saturday with the passing of John McCain to brain cancer at the age of 81. The internet was flooded with poignant and at times humorous tributes to the senator, who was a powerful voice on national security and American global leadership, as well as an outspoken critic at times of the military, defense contractors, and President Trump. Journalists, lawmakers, military brass and administration officials alike honored him.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis: “We have lost a man who steadfastly represented the best ideals of our country… His was a life well lived, one whose actions epitomized the motto of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy: non sibi, sed patriae—“not for self, but for country.”

Former President Barack Obama: “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own.”

NPR reporter Tim Mak: “Sen McCain made these terrible dad jokes all the time. If you went to his speeches on a regular basis you would hear them over and over. One of his faves: ‘Some people ask me how I felt after losing to Obama. I told em I slept like a baby… woke up every two hours and cried.’” (Read the entire thread here)

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:  “Senator McCain exemplified what it means to be a warrior and dedicated public servant.”

Sen. Susan Collins: “The lions are gone. The lions of the Senate are gone. It is very sad.”

Meanwhile, Trump expressed his condolences to McCain’s family but reportedly nixed a White House statement that called him a “hero.” The two men were often at odds: McCain was a leading member of the Never Trumpers, and Trump was reportedly disinvited to his funeral. Trump famously belittled the Arizona senator’s military record in 2015, telling a crowd that McCain was “not a war hero… I like people who weren’t captured.”

They sound unhappy. North Korean propagandists reacted furiously to President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, accusing Washington in a Rodong Sinmun editorial of “double dealing.”

“Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first,” the paper wrote.

More bad news for the CIA. The CIA’s sources close to the Kremlin operating inside Russia have largely gone quiet, the New York Times reports. Amid intense fear that Russia may once again attempt to meddle in American politics in the upcoming midterm elections, the paper reports that the agency’s quality information from inside the Kremlin has mostly dried up.  

Dual life. Congressman Duncan Hunter, the son of a powerful lawmaker, former Marine and champion for military and defense issues, boasted a sterling resume that hit all the right notes in his conservative district. But the California Republican has been rocked by a corruption scandal that threatens his career, including hard partying and violating campaign finance regulations (for which he blamed his wife).

Budgeting. The Senate advanced on Thursday a $857 billion budget measure that includes $675 billion in defense spending, Defense News reports. The measure is raising hopes that the government might avoid a damaging shutdown in the fall.

Information war. American technology companies are stepping up their efforts to combat information operations on their platforms but are complaining that the Trump administration is missing in action. In recent weeks, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all taken down large numbers of fake accounts linked to Russia and Iran, but the companies say they are getting little support from the federal government, the Washington Post reports.

This time, Myanmar. Facebook announced during the early hours of Monday that it had removed a collection of accounts followed by nearly 12 million people and tied to human rights abuses in Myanmar.

Dispatch from the front. Wired’s Andy Greenberg delivers the remarkable inside story of what happened when the NotPetya ransomware—the most destructive virus in history—struck the Danish shipping giant Maersk. “The story of NotPetya isn’t truly about Maersk, or even about Ukraine,” Greenberg writes. “It’s the story of a nation-state’s weapon of war released in a medium where national borders have no meaning, and where collateral damage travels via a cruel and unexpected logic: Where an attack aimed at Ukraine strikes Maersk, and an attack on Maersk strikes everywhere at once.”

Nothing is sacred. Russian hackers accused of meddling in the 2016 election also tried to spy on top Christian Orthodox officials, according to a new AP investigation.

Yemen. Human Rights Watch is sharply criticizing the Saudi led military coalition for what the group describes as its failure to investigate allegations of war crimes. On Thursday, the U.N. reported that a Saudi airstrike in Yemen killed at least 22 children—on the heels of a separate strike that left at least 43 dead, among them dozens of children.

With revelations that the bomb in the first strike was supplied by a U.S. companies, the strikes in Yemen are raising questions about the extent of U.S. involvement in the conflict. Saudi Arabia is leading a military campaign in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Point… U.S. officials believe a drone strike in Yemen killed the elusive al Qaeda bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri. American officials have long described Asiri as one of the group’s most innovative bomb-makers. One of his devices turned up in the underwear of a man trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner and another in printer cartridges packed aboard Western freight planes.

…counterpoint. But Asiri’s death also prompted a thoughtful rebuke from Amnesty International’s Brian Kastner, a former bomb disposal expert. The American obsession with Asiri represents everything that is wrong with American counterterrorism strategy, Kastner argues, and has diverted attention from far more competent bomb-makers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Open silos. The Pentagon recently revealed that it believes China is considering a silo basing option for its DF-41 ICBM, and the open source intelligence wizards over at Arms Control Wonk appear to have confirmed those plans. Recent satellite imagery from Wuzhai, China, captured an image of what appears to be such a silo. Remarkably, the image captured an open silo door.

Breakthrough. Researchers at MIT have developed a novel method of finally delivering a communication from a submarine to an airplane, Engadget reports. The technology relies on a combination of sonar and radar technology to deliver a small amount of data from an underwater vessel.

Salvaging mission. Russian naval forces planning to attempt to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile that crashed in the Barents Sea after a test, CNBC reports. Citing individuals with knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report, the outlet says that the salvaging crew is searching for a missile launched in November and that the Russian navy will dispatch three ships to find the weapon.

Document request. Two top Senate Democrats want the Trump administration to turn over all documents and notes—including those of the president’s translator—related to President Donald Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) cite concerns that Trump may be hiding commitments made to Putin and that their questions related to the meeting have so far gone unanswered.

Diplomacy by tweet. President Donald Trump triggered a minor diplomatic crisis last week after he directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to examine a plan by the South African government to redistribute the country’s land holdings—or as Trump put it, to seize the land belonging to white farmers, a longstanding white nationalist talking point.

Second Fleet. The U.S. Navy formally re-established the Second Fleet naval command, a move that marks the return of the Cold War era command that prowled the Atlantic. The decision to once more assign ships to the Norfolk-based command comes amid concerns about heightened Russian naval—and particularly submarine—activity in the Atlantic, Politico reports.

The feint. The U.S. Air Force is making progress in testing its Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, a small cruise missile that is able to mimic American air assets and even jam enemy air defenses, the Drive reports. The weapon successfully flew twice this month and offers interesting options for American war planners to deceive opponents.

Base in a box. The Air Force is testing its new concept for forward deployments, a so-called “base in a box” that will allow the service to quickly set up an airfield and mount operations. Defense News’s Valerie Insinna traveled to Poland for a trial of the system and reports on how the concept is working.

About that new Iranian fighter. Last week, we brought you the story of a new, highly touted Iranian fighter jet, which Iran claimed to be entirely domestically made. Those claims turned out to be overstated. Upon closer examination, the jet appears to be a slightly revamped F-5 fighter jet, the Aviationist reports.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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