War Report: Washington & Battlefronts

Situation Report: How the Iran nuke deal opened door for missile tests; Bergdahl docs released; State Dept. lagging on Syria report; Moscow selling Kurds arms; U.S. Army worried about war; and lots more
 
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SITUATION REPORT
 
The National Security Daily Brief from Foreign Policy
 
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Thursday, March 17, 2016
 
 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Kunduz fallout.  Punishments for some of those involved in the deadly U.S. airstrike on an aid hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz last October are starting to come down. While no members of the U.S. military involved in the incident which killed 42 civilians will face criminal charges, more than a dozen have been disciplined for a series of mistakes that led to the bombing. There is no word exactly what the punishments may be, but the AP reports they’re “largely administrative.” In the military, such punishments can be enough to effectively end chances for further promotion, and thus scuttle a career. Foreign Policy has reported that officials at the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command had completed their reviews of the incident, and are working on redacting their reports for public release. Those disciplined so far include both officers and enlisted personnel.

Good deal for who? Recent Iranian missile tests have caused some in Washington to double down on calls for slapping more sanctions on Tehran. But as FP’s Colum Lynch points out, the Obama administration shouldn’t be too surprised by the tests. To the contrary, the landmark July 2015 nuclear deal may have actually made the missile launches almost inevitable. United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 — which endorsed the pact — replaced an existing prohibition on ballistic missiles with more permissive language: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

When the deal was struck, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials said the concession was actually a victory, though it turns out the updated measures are not legally binding. “In essence, resolution 2231 provides Iran with a loophole big enough to develop medium- and long-range missiles without the risk of running afoul of Security Council dictates. It also complicates efforts to define what kinds of missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead,” Lynch writes.

No go. The State Department said Wednesday that it would miss Congress’s March 17 deadline for declaring whether the Islamic State has carried out genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the Hill is unhappy.

On Monday, the House went ahead and voted 393 to 0 to declare ISIS attacks on religious minorities genocide, anyway. Despite the vote, the issue is fraught with messy implications. As FP’s John Hudson points out, “using the “G” word would provide fodder for lawmakers pushing for a more aggressive U.S. military intervention in the region — many of whom are Republicans. At the same time, such a declaration could also give momentum to humanitarian advocates arguing for a more welcoming refugee policy — an issue touted more often by Democrats.” Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria has climbed to at least 270,000 and millions more have fled the country.

Going, going, but still strong. Is the Islamic State losing territory? Sure is. At the end of 2014, the group controlled one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria — a land mass roughly equal to the area of Great Britain — holding about 9 million people under its brutal rule. Less than two years later, however, the self-proclaimed caliphate is bleeding sand, having lost about 22 percent of that territory according to a report published this week by IHS Jane’s 360. FP’s Henry Johnson notes, “2016 has already proven crippling” for the group. According to IHS Jane’s, after Kurds moderate Arab rebels ousted the Islamic State from the northern Syria border town of Tal Abyad, the extremists have struggled to balance their budget. Tal Abyad had long served as a gateway for supplies and recruits from Turkey to the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa.

More Bergdahl, in his own words. Wednesday night, the lawyers for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released the transcript of the soldier’s 2014 interview with Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the Army investigator who sat down with the soldier after his release from five years of Taliban captivity. What emerges is a story of why Bergdahl walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 that tracks pretty closely with what he told Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal in a series of phone conversations that now form the backbone of the Serial podcast.

The transcript recalls Episode 6, in particular, where Bergdahl recounts what he saw as the many failings of other soldiers and his leadership since the day he left basic training. So why did he leave? In the transcript, Bergdahl says that due to leadership failures, “the only thing that I could see was, I needed to get somebody’s attention.”

Sneaking off base seemed the best option. Referring to himself in the third person, he told Army investigators, “that guy disappears. No one knows what happened to him. That call goes out. It hits every command. Everybody goes, what has happened?” His plan was to show up at a nearby U.S. base a few days later. “The Soldier shows up…people recognize him. They ID him. They go, ‘What did you just do?’ And that Soldier says, ‘I am not saying anything about what I did until I am talking to a general.'”

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

What did Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria achieve? While the political and territorial gains are subject to debate, the Wall Street Journal reports that Russia did manage to turn Syria into something of its own battle lab, testing out its latest and greatest weapons and showing the West that Russia’s military is new and vastly improved. Moscow used the war to test out a host of new precision guided munitions and cruise missiles — key parts of the country’s military modernization. The conflict also allowed the Russian air force, which lost a number of planes in the 2008 war with tiny Georgia, to redeem some it’s reputation as it proved a formidable force against Syrian Rebels on the ground.

Russia’s says it’ll pull out all the military assets its planning on returning to Russia sometime in the next two to three days, according to Russian air force chief Viktor Bondarev. Reuters camped out in front of Russian TV broadcasts of the returning aircraft and by its count, about half of all the aircraft deployed to Syria are already back home. The returning aircraft include Su-24, Su-25, Su-30, and Su-34 fighter jets, which flown up to 80 percent of the sorties in Russia’s air war over Syria.

Iraq

An Iraqi fighter jet has gone down amid intensifying fighting near Kirkuk. ISIS claims a shootdown, but Baghdad says it was a mechanical failure. The Cessna 208 Caravan can be outfitted with Hellfire missiles, and Iraqi forces have already used it to hit ISIS positions. AFP reports that the terror group has posted a video claiming to show the shootdown, and “the wreckage of a plane that could be a Cessna Caravan. The footage also shows IS fighters celebrating around body parts, some of which are floating in a small canal.”

It looks like a delegation of Iraqi Kurds is headed to Moscow to talk arms sales, according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti.  The news agency said Thursday that Russia has already supplied weapons to Iraqi Kurd fighters, and the first shipment arrived on March 14. It’s unclear why the Kurds would need anti-aircraft weapons, but that shipment reportedly included five Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons and 20,000 shells. Back in January, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that his government was working to begin arming the Kurds, who have often complained about how long it takes Washington to ship much-needed weaponry.

Libya

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t think it’s such a good idea for western powers to get involved militarily in Libya, but if they want to do something, they should send arms and supplies to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is linked to the internationally recognized government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The group can fight back against ISIS “much better than anyone else,” he told an Italian newspaper, “better than any external intervention that would risk putting us in a situation that could get out of hand and provoke uncontrollable developments.” American commandos have been in and out of Libya for months, trying to assess what militias would be the best to throw American support behind, should a national government over form in Tripoli.

Yemen
An air strike carried out by the Saudi-led (and U.S.-backed) coalition hit a crowded market in Yemen, killing at least 41 civilians according to local officials. Al Jazeera reports that the Gulf state coalition fighting to oust the Houthi movement from power in Yemen released a statement pledging an investigation into the incident. The bombing campaign kicked off last March and has claimed the lives of an estimated 6,000 people.

Skunk works

Russia and China may be giving the U.S. a run for its money in the military modernization race, but the head of Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works is still pretty confident in America’s edge in fifth generation fighter jets. Skunk Works has been home to some of the world’s most innovative — and classified — development of military aviation projects, like the iconic SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117, America’s first stealth fighter jet. Rob Weiss, Lockheed’s Skunk Works boss, tells Defense One that the U.S. F-22 and F-35 have little to sweat from rivals and that the U.S. may not need to replace them for another 30 years. Rivals have nonetheless tried to catch up to America’s lead in fifth generation jets, with China working hard on the Chengdu J-20 and Russia developing the Sukhoi PAK-FA.

Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has taken a look at the way the Navy wants to fund its submarine modernization program, and wants a piece of the action. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told a congressional panel Wednesday they should really think about funding a joint service “strategic deterrence” account that would pay for the Air Force’s B-21 bomber as well as refitting the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic submarines. “If [there] is a strategic deterrence fund that would help or benefit one leg of the triad, I would ask for consideration that all legs of the triad be included in such an approach.”

Army

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that he’d have “grave concerns about the readiness of our force” in a major conventional throwdown with a country like China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Milley told the lawmakers that the past decade or so of focus on wars like Iraq and Afghanistan have prepared the service well for combat in counterinsurgencies and small wars, but at the expense of preparedness against larger conventional adversaries.
 
 
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