Security Brief

Security Brief: Trump Wants to Keep an Eye on Iran From Iraq; Bolton’s Arms Treaty Kill List

Trump’s plan for a continuing U.S. troop presence draws Iraqi backlash.

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive to speak to members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive to speak to members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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

From Syria to Iraq. In the weeks since President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, the United States has quietly been negotiating with Iraq to allow perhaps hundreds of American commandos and support troops now operating in Syria to shift to bases in Iraq and strike the Islamic State from there, writes The New York Times.

But some worry that the president is now undercutting the delicate negotiations by inflaming fears that the moves would be a guise to check Iran, potentially straining ties with Baghdad and weakening the ability of the United States to respond to Islamic State remnants in Syria.

In an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Trump pointed to an “unbelievable and expensive base” the U.S. maintains in Iraq, and said he plans to keep U.S. troops in the country to monitor and pressure neighboring Iran. Roughly 5,200 American troops operate from several Iraqi bases, with most concentrated at the Al Asad and Erbil bases.

“I want to be able to watch Iran,” Trump said. “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”

The comments immediately sparked backlash from Iraq. The nation’s president, Barham Salih, said on Monday that Trump did not ask Iraq’s permission for U.S. troops to stay there to watch Iran.

“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih said. “The U.S. is a major power … but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers are now working on drafting a law that would strictly limit the United States military activities in the country.

What arms treaty is next on Bolton’s kill list? Last week’s decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from a key Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty has stoked concerns other arms treaties are on the chopping block, too, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman report.

Nearly everyone agrees that Russia has been violating the  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty for years. Some say a U.S. exit from the treaty is long overdue, while others fear it could spark a new arms race. They also worry about the fate of another key nuclear arms treaty, New START, which is due to expire in early 2021 barring a renewal.

“You have to be concerned [Bolton] will welcome any excuse not to extend New START, just has he welcomed this reason to kill the INF Treaty,” said Thomas Countryman, an arms control expert and former senior U.S. diplomat told FP. Read the story here:

Trump administration

SOTU. President Donald Trump on Friday said there is a “a good chance” he will declare a national emergency at the southern border to unlock Defense Department dollars for a wall, and signaled he may announce it during his State of the Union address Tuesday.

Tax dollars blowin’ in the wind. In the middle of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the State Department processed an unusual expense: a piece of iron artwork that stands about 4 feet high. The cost? $84,375. The artist? The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The purchase reopens a long-running debate about how and where the State Department spends money on new embassies and artwork. FP has the story.

Buzz. A White House source leaked President Donald Trump’s private schedules to Axios, and an analysis of the documents reveals that he has spent 60 percent of his time since the midterm elections on loosely defined “Executive Time.”

Turtle Bay. The Trump administration attempted to derail the appointment of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, claiming her political views on Israel were troubling and citing photographs in which she appeared alongside “Latin American dictators,” Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports

Thermonuclear monarchy. Two new congressional bills are aiming to rein in President Donald Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons, one by requiring congressional approval for such a strike and a second enshrining “no first-use” as American policy, Tom Collina of the Ploughshares Fund writes for Defense One.

Second chance. President Donald Trump has appointed Rear Adm, Ronny Jackson to be his assistant and chief medical adviser, the White House announced Saturday, following the president’s decision to re-nominate his former doctor for a second star. Jackson’s original nomination was put on hold last year after Trump tapped him to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Navy doctor withdrew following allegations of professional misconduct, which the Pentagon continues to investigate. Jackson has denied any wrongdoing.

Pentagon

Dear Google. First Lt. Walker D. Mills, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, writes an open letter to Google asking the company to reconsider working with the U.S. military. “I deeply respect your desire to remain above conflict and to husband the application of your work,” Mills writes. “But we know now that this is impossible… In the pleading words of Merry from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy: “You’re part of this world, aren’t you?”

Sexual assaults up. Pentagon officials are concerned that despite significant prevention efforts, a new, anonymous survey indicates a nearly 50 percent spike in the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact at the three military service academies last year, while the number of incidents that were reported directly to authorities remained relatively unchanged.

War room. Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan’s ambitions to apply corporate culture to the Defense Department is running head first into his public audition to take over the secretary of defense job permanently, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Shanahan attempted to create an “Obeya,” which the Journal describes as a Japanese “war room of sorts for communications and decision-making.” The effort flopped and “was an experience that reflected the limits of Mr. Shanahan’s self-assured approach to injecting a corporate mind-set into the military, what some experts have described as trying to fit a square peg into the Pentagon’s five-sided hole,” according to the paper.

Border troops. The Pentagon says it will send 3,750 more troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to put up another 150 miles of concertina wire and provide other support for Customs and Border Protection. The additions announced Sunday will bring the total number of active-duty troops on the border to 4,350.

BOGO. The U.S. Navy inked a $14.9 billion contract for two Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to Defense News. The service claims the purchase of two carriers at once will save $4 billion.

Middle East

Talks in Moscow. The Taliban said Monday they will participate in what they call “intra-Afghan” talks in Moscow designed to bring together prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai, opposition figures and tribal elders—but no Kabul government officials.

The two-day meeting in the Russian capital, which starts Tuesday, is seen as another step in a process aimed at resolving Afghanistan’s 17-year war, a process that has accelerated since the appointment last September of U.S. peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Kingmaker. Russia’s attempts at mediation reflect Moscow’s desire to reclaim its role as regional power broker, writes FP’s Lara Seligman. Experts say Russia views involvement in the Afghan conflict as another way to undermine the United States and NATO on the world stage—and in particular in regions that Moscow sees part of its sphere of influence

Grim report. Meanwhile, the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says the size of Afghanistan’s armed forces is shrinking even as its military faces a sustained challenge from Taliban insurgents. The report finds that “the army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016,” the AP reports. “The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.”

Spies for hire. The United Arab Emirates hired former NSA hackers in a campaign to stand up a domestic hacking unit that targeted human-rights activists and dissidents, according to a new Reuters investigation.

The hacking operation — dubbed “Project Raven” — used a sophisticated exploit known as “Karma” that allowed Emirati-employed hackers to target iPhones by simply uploading the targets’ numbers into a database and without clicking a malicious link, Reuters reports.

According to Reuters, the Emirati unit targeted Americans, but UAE officials denied last week going after citizens of allied countries.

Black Cube. One of the operatives who approached the Citizen Lab research group, which has done extensive work on Middle Eastern hacking activities, has previously worked on a case tied to the Israeli security firm Black Cube, the New York Times reports.

Asia

The grand deal? President Donald Trump said he has no plans to withdraw American troops from South Korea, telling CBS in an interview that he has never even discussed the issue.  

Trump’s comments come amid a simmering dispute with South Korea over cost-sharing arrangements for U.S. troops on the peninsula and plans for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump and Kim are expected to meet at the end of the month in Vietnam.

South Korean media reported Monday that officials in Seoul are laying the groundwork for a follow-on meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart shortly after a second Trump-Kim summit.

Overture. Moscow attempted to interject in negotiations to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons by offering to build the country a nuclear power plant in exchange for giving up its nukes, the Washington Post revealed last week.

Second acts. Blackwater founder Erik Prince is deepening his involvement with the Chinese state and is building a training camp in the Xinjiang region, Reuters reports. Prince’s Frontier Services Group has signed a contract with an industrial park in southern Xinjiang.

The Great Firewall. Activists have created a new app that documents which programs Apple has removed from its app store in China, the Intercept reports.

“In addition to the hundreds of VPN apps, Apple is currently preventing its users in China from downloading apps from news organizations, including the New York Times, Radio Free Asia, Tibetan News, and Voice of Tibet,” the outlet reports. “It is also blocking censorship circumvention tools like Tor and Psiphon; Google’s search app and Google Earth; an app called Bitter Winter, which provides information about human rights and religious freedoms in China; and an app operated by the Central Tibetan Authority, which provides information about Tibetan human rights and social issues.”

Philippines. A year after Philippine security forces liberated the city of Marawi from an Islamic State-linked militant group, the city still lies in ruin, the Washington Post reports. Promises to rebuild have gone unfulfilled amid local opposition to building contracts with Chinese firms. The city’s state of limbo now has security officials concerned that militant groups could make a comeback.

Latin America

Shrouded in secrecy. A military-run Chinese space station in Argentina has stirred unease among residents, fueled conspiracy theories and sparked concerns in the Trump administration about its true purpose, Reuters reports. Beijing insists the compound is solely used for scientific research, but Argentine authorities have little oversight over the facility.

‘An option.’ President Donald Trump told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that deploying the US military to Venezuela is “an option”. “Well, I don’t want to say that. But certainly, it’s something that’s on the—it’s an option,” Trump said when asked if he would use the American forces during Venezuela’s crisis.

Showdown. Meanwhile, The U.S. government and Venezuela’s opposition are preparing humanitarian aid shipments for the crisis-stricken country, setting the stage for a showdown with authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro as his military backers face rising international pressure.

El Salvador election. The former mayor of San Salvador won El Salvador’s presidential election, a result that overturns three decades of two-party rule, writes The Wall Street Journal. Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old former advertising executive, has lured young and middle-class voters, while running as an outsider to a political establishment dominated by an older generation of former military officers and guerrilla commanders who faced off during a 12-year civil war.

Africa

Congo’s rigged election. When the results of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were announced last month in favor of the candidate Felix Tshisekedi, officials from government agencies across Washington worked together to craft a U.S. response. Independent groups in Congo had detected widespread fraud in the vote, so U.S. officials agreed to condemn the process as rigged and vowed to hold those involved responsible.

But the statement that came out of the U.S. State Department on Jan. 23 caught some of the policymakers who worked on the region by surprise, write FP’s Robbie Gramer and Jefcoate O’Donnell. Instead of condemning the election as “deeply flawed and troubling,” following the language of the original draft, the United States endorsed the results—with minor caveats—and offered praise for the election.

ISIS rises in West Africa. In recent months, as Islamic State has seen its self-described caliphate in Iraq and Syria radically shrink, a Nigeria-born group calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, has taken control of hundreds of square miles of territory, writes WSJ.

The group’s rapid rise, largely away from public view, foreshadows the next chapter for Islamic State. Its local allies are expanding in a flurry of far-flung states, battling local armies and carving fundamentalist enclaves in Afghanistan, Mali, the Philippines and Somalia. Islamic State’s threat to regional governments and the West is likely to continue, U.S. intelligence chiefs said in a formal risk assessment last week.

Mogadishu attack. A powerful car bomb has exploded at a shopping mall in the Somali capital Mogadishu, killing at least 11 people, security officials said. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the al-Shabab armed group has regularly carried out such attacks in the past.

Europe and Russia

The story that never ceases to surprise. The Belarusian model Anastasia Vashukevich, who claimed that she was in possession of information tying President Donald Trump’s to Russia, says she has turned the material over to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Vashukevich returned to Russia last month after she was detained in Thailand on charges of soliciting sex.

Fancy Bear. Operatives linked to the Russian hacking unit Fancy Bear are continuing to target the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank. In court documents last week, Microsoft said the group has set up domains attempting to mimic CSIS infrastructure, the Daily Beast reports.

Fancy Bear has made CSIS a favorite target over the years, attacking the organization as early as 2016, according to a Defense One report at the time.

Meanwhile in Minsk. Belarus is on a charm offensive with the West, but the ongoing criminal prosecution of the editor in chief of the country’s most-read news outlet is calling into question whether the country’s reforms are more than cosmetic, FP’s Amy McKinnon writes.

God save the queen. British authorities have revived Cold War plans to evacuate Queen Elizabeth and members of the royal family in the event of widespread civil unrest following Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The F-35. German defense officials said they will not be replacing the country’s fleet of Typhoon fighter jets with the F-35, Defense News reports.

Cyber

Manipulation. Criminal hackers are increasingly advertising access to the back-end system of media outlets, selling credentials that could be used to post and edit articles, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

Such access could potentially be used as part of disinformation operations, but there is little evidence of that occurring as of now. Rather, hackers are using access to news sites to mostly post malicious code as part of schemes to generate cryptocurrency.

Getting better? The cybersecurity of American weapons systems is improving but not fast enough to outpace the increasing capabilities of U.S. adversaries in cyberspace, a new report from the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester concluded.

The report found persistent problems with the logistics system behind the F-35 fighter jet, a Pentagon healthcare system, and the network security system known as the Joint Regional Security Stack.

North Korea. The Justice Department said it is working to notify individuals affected by a North Korean botnet that the department is attempting to knock offline.

The megabreach. Researchers have assembled a massive database of leaked usernames and passwords that amount to some 25 billion stolen records, Wired reports. The data appears to have been put together from previous, large-scale breaches.

The disinfo beat. Prosecutors working on behalf of Special Counsel Robert Mueller said that files turned over as part of the discovery process for the trial of an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have been posted online in a bid to discredit American investigators.  

Bad apple. Tech giant Apple said it has fixed a bug that exposed users of its Facetime app to an eavesdropping vulnerability. It plans to issue an update this week.

–Robbie Gramer contributed to this report. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@EliasGroll

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