National Security

Suicide bomber attacks Kandahar air base hours after Panetta leaves

Hagel to the Pentagon? Karzai to DC; Is the U.S. mil a victim of its own success in Afghanistan; Amos to have the talk with his generals; Why a head is called a head, and more.

Bloomberg News is reporting that Obama is expected to nominate Chuck Hagel for defense secretary. "Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has emerged as the leading candidate to become Obama's next Secretary of Defense and may be nominated as soon as this month, according to two people familiar with the matter," writes White House correspondent Hans Nichols, who is known at Bloomberg for getting personnel tips right.

"Hagel, who served as an enlisted Army infantryman in Vietnam, has passed the vetting process at the White House Counsel's office, said one of the people. The former Nebraska senator has told associates that he is awaiting final word from the president, said the other person. Both requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters."

A vehicle-borne IED exploded near Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan hours after Panetta visited troops. The attack killed one American service member and injured three more. Defense officials said that a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated "in the vicinity" of Kandahar airfield, just hours after Panetta left the base with his traveling entourage. It is as yet unclear if the attack was connected to Panetta's visit or if it was coincidence, defense officials told Situation Report in Kabul.

Military officials at the base had just provided a reasonably optimistic view of Regional Command-South, the area in which the airfield is located. Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of RC-South and the 3rd Infantry Division, had just a few hours earlier said that insurgent threats at the airfield itself had been interdicted in part because of growing Afghan intelligence capabilities.

"I think the security conditions are getting better every single day, and they'll continue to get better as we move towards the next phase of our mission here," Abrams told reporters during an impromptu briefing on the press bus just hours before the attack. "But they have dramatically improved over time."

ISAF officials at the airfield were on the scene "collecting facts and assessing the situation," according to George Little, Pentagon press secretary.

Reporters traveling with Panetta heard about the report after one member of the press corps retweeted a post from the Kandahar Media and Information Center, which reported that the attack had injured 10 Afghans and three ISAF personnel and occurred around 5pm local time.

Panetta had met with officials in the south and then spoke to troops during an outdoor "troop event" in which he thanked them for their service, updated them on budget talks at home, and acknowledged the work they had done to secure the area. RC-South is considered reasonably secure compared to even a few years ago and compared to other regions in Afghanistan -- particularly the eastern sector known as Regional Command-East. But there are still at least three "contested" areas in RC-South, according to a separate operational update reporters received that afternoon. There are approximately 14,000 Americans still serving in RC-South, which includes Kandahar, considered the spiritual home of the Taliban.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report and greetings from Kabul, where we are on our fourth day of travel with Panetta, and here in Afghanistan the "wintry mix" today almost foiled the secretary's plans to fly to Kandahar. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. And sign up for Situation Report here: http://bit.ly/NCN9uN or just send me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Jim Amos begins an around-the-Corps talk with senior officers next week. As Secretary Panetta considers how to re-emphasize ethics across his senior officer corps, members of the Joint Chiefs are moving out on their own to connect with senior officers to make sure they got the proverbial memo. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos begins an effort next week to reinforce personally his expectations with each of his 87 general officers. "Marines take this issue very seriously and watch it closely," Amos said through a spokesman.

"Senior leaders have to be held to a higher standard," Amos said in a statement to Situation Report through a spokesman. "After a decade at war, it is wise to remind all Marine general officers of who we are, and who we are not." Last spring, Amos, along with Sgt. Major Michael Barrett, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, undertook a four-month effort to talk ethics to Marine officers and staff noncommissioned officers. They called the talk the Heritage Brief. Amos will now brief each general officer with what amounts to a "Version 2.0" of that same talk, Situation Report is told. It will serve as a refresher course for general officers and their spouses "on the specifics of rules and regulations relating to senior leaders."

Meanwhile, Karzai will visit Washington the week of Jan. 7 to discuss the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship post-2014. At a late-night presser at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai and Secretary Panetta announced that Karzai would travel to Washington to discuss the U.S.-Afghan security agreement with President Barack Obama. The meeting will not seal a deal but will hammer out the two countries' "shared vision." At the presser, Karzai was asked what assurances he needed to cut a deal on immunity from prosecution for American military personnel -- a point he acknowledged was key to the overall agreement. But he wants a few things first: resolution on the detainee issue, confidence the U.S. will help Afghanistan to build a good Army and Air Force, and other things. While he didn't necessarily say anything new, Karzai sounded like a man ready to negotiate.

"I can go to the Afghan people and speak on the subject of immunity for U.S. troops with ease and with reason. But before I do that, I need to be given those assurances by the United States," he said.

Meanwhile, reporters traveling with Panetta have received generally positive assessments of the war in Afghanistan from ISAF commanders: violence is limited to a handful of areas and is generally down, and the Afghan National Security Forces are taking major steps toward independence. At the same time, conventional wisdom suggests that Gen. John Allen, the ISAF commander, will recommend having as large a fighting force through 2013 as possible. But if security has increased as the military says, some will ask why the U.S. needs to maintain a large fighting force there through next year and if it will be harder for the military to justify a large force if the White House wants it to shrink faster.

Panetta was asked that very question at tonight's presser by Situation Report. He didn't exactly answer it, saying that 2013 will be a "critical year" and that it is the talks about the size of the force after 2014 -- which could number between 6,000 and 10,000 -- that will drive the pace of withdrawal. There are approximately 66,000 U.S. service members currently serving in Afghanistan.

Part of his answer: "With regard to the specific recommendations as to how much of a force we need, once there is a decision about the enduring presence, and General Allen will make recommendations as to how he should proceed with regards to the drawdown through the end of 2014."

Random fact: number of reporters currently embedded in RC-South: "Just 2," we were told.

"Head" isn't really a Marine term as much as it is a naval one, we're told after our brief post yesterday about "head" versus "latrine." A Situation Report reader writes: "The use of the term ‘head' to refer to a ship's toilet dates to at least as early as 1708, when Woodes Rogers (English privateer and Governor of the Bahamas) used the word in his book, ‘A Cruising Voyage Around the World.' Another early usage is in Tobias Smollett's novel of travel and adventure, ‘Roderick Random,' published in 1748. ‘Head,' in a nautical sense referring to the bow or fore part of a ship dates to 1485. The ship's toilet was typically placed at the head of the ship near the base of the bowsprit, where splashing water served to naturally clean the toilet area."

Mike Barbero testified today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lt. Gen. Mike Barbero, who heads the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, testified before the SFRC today on two issues critical to defeating IEDs: Pakistan and homemade explosives, or HME. Last week Situation Report looked at the issue of homemade explosives and the fertilizer that comes across the border from Pakistan to help make them.

Situation Report on Barbero, Pakistan and HME - http://atfp.co/YOoBJ4

SIGAR is investigating the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' settlement with DynCorp International. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction announced today that it was reviewing the settlement between the USACE and DynCorp after the Corps of Engineers released the defense contractor "of all contractual obligations" and then, in a letter, said it lacked sufficient evidence to support whether the settlement was "fair and reasonable." The initial investigation surrounded the Corps of Engineers' contract with DynCorp for work at the Afghan National Army garrison in Kunduz in which "poor performance and structural failures" were pervasive.

SIGAR investigation: http://atfp.co/YOoBJ4

DynCorp letter to SIGAR: http://bit.ly/W0PicX

And thanks to the dog owner in El Dorado, Arkansas, who took pity on us when the handler in Kuwait wouldn't let Situation Report pet the doggy. We'd love to see your six dogs and we hope to take you up on it someday.

National Security

SecDef in Kabul

Larry Nicholson: tough love for the Afghans; Panetta’s wake-up call from the North Koreans; Don’t ask a soldier where the ‘head’ is, and more.

Panetta got a wake-up call from the North Koreans. A senior aide awakened Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at 4 a.m. in his room at the Hotel Safir in Kuwait City to alert him to the North Korean missile launch. It was just hours before he was scheduled to speak with troops assigned to the U.S. mission in Kuwait about the importance of what they do. The moment reflected in a small way what the U.S. is trying to do in a big way: pivot to Asia while not taking its eye off the ball in the Middle East. "That continental dilemma is exactly what the rebalance is all about -- walking and chewing gum at the same time," an official told Situation Report. "We have to make sure we can do both."

NORAD confirmed the launch, saying U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked it at 7:49 p.m. EST and that initial indications show that the first stage of the missile fell into the Yellow Sea and the second into the Philippine Sea. "Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," according to a statement from U.S. Northern Command, suggesting a satellite had been deployed. "At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America."

One take: The biggest reason for North Korea's successful missile launch, compared to the inauspicious attempt earlier this year, can be summed up in one word, John Park, a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at MIT, tells Situation Report: Iran. The improved cooperation between the two means North Korea will be taken more seriously on the world stage -- and perhaps mocked less on late night comedy. Park: "Their September 2012 bilateral ‘scientific and technological cooperation' agreement signed in Tehran provides cover for more institutional cooperation -- something that now appears to have translated into significant improvement in DPRK's missile development program. Prior interactions were sporadic."

"With this institutionalized Iran-DPRK cooperation agreement and what is shaping up to be a successful launch, were the North Koreans able to access this proven Russian technological know-how through the Iranians? I think we just saw the answer to that question," Park told us by e-mail.

Now for the U.S., he says, the test makes "strategic patience" largely obsolete. "However, increased sanctions are unlikely to have a material impact. The next steps for the U.S. point to more robust missile defense in the region."

Meanwhile, Panetta left Kuwait and is now in Kabul, visiting troops and getting operational updates on the war from Gen. John Allen and company.

Look who came to dinner with Panetta: After a one-hour meeting with Allen and other top commanders here, Panetta sat down for dinner with Maj. Gen. Thomas (Special Operations Joint Task Force); Maj. Gen. Mayville (RC-East); Lt. Gen. Bolger (NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan); Maj. Gen. Abrams (RC-South); Maj. Gen. Nicholson (Ops chief, ISAF's IJC); Lt. Gen. Huber (Task Force 435); Maj. Gen. Dahl (deputy commander of U.S. Forces, Afghanistan); Lt. Gen. Waldhauser (Panetta's senior military assistant); and Maj. Gen. Polumbo (Army Corps of Engineers). Others included two Pentagon officials accompanying Panetta, David Sedney and Derek Chollet.

Panetta told them he was in Afghanistan to see the situation on the ground and to "try to tee up" the decisions the president has to make on troop levels in the future. 

Welcome to Wednesday's edition of Situation Report, where we are now in Toyota Town (also known as Kabul) with Panetta and the dress code for civilians accompanying him is "rugged casual." Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. And sign up for Situation Report here: http://bit.ly/NCN9uN or just send me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Larry Nicholson says the U.S. is in a "tough love" phase when it comes to partnering with Afghans. Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the U.S. Marine who is the deputy chief of staff for operations for ISAF, told reporters traveling with Panetta that ISAF is in a period of "unpartnering" with the Afghans as ISAF pushes them to do more. "There is a lot of tough love going out there in theater," he told reporters traveling with Panetta during a briefing we sat in on at Camp Eggers in Kabul. Nicholson said the infantry kandaks, or battalions, are not his main concern. What is, he said, is making sure the Afghans can sustain themselves beginning in 2015 when the ISAF force will no longer have a major role in Afghanistan and the force of about 68,000 Americans will have shrunk to as little as 6,000.

The three things Afghans can't do for themselves: Afghans still need support to do ground and air fire, engineering (including explosive ordnance disposal and route clearance), and medical evacuation. "Those are what we are providing the Afghans today," Nicholson said. But ISAF is "pushing them to failure" to get them to better solve their own problems. The one thing the Afghans won't be able to do after 2015, Nicholson said, is close air support.

Other issues with the ANSF: Attrition is still too high, but it's coming down, from 31 percent last year to 27 percent today. The goal: 17 percent.

Nicholson, when asked if his assessment means the White House could keep a small force on the ground:  "All I know is what my mission is. Our mission right now is to make the Afghans as self-sufficient as we can, and we're pushing them and we're pushing them pretty hard. And in many cases they are responding magnificently. I'm more than optimistic. Once you get to 2015, it will be imperfect, it will be flawed, it will have warts, but it's going to work. This army, this police force will be able to sustain itself, take care of itself and function. I am confident of that. You guys know me, I'm not a guy to blow smoke. I'm not here to spin, I'm not here to deceive, I'm telling you the truth. These guys are going to be right."

But: Nicholson also said he thought commanders in the past were "disingenuous" when they talked about the U.S. and Afghans working shoulder-to-shoulder - shona ba shona. At the time, "we were mugging for the cameras, I put my arm around my Afghan counterparts, here we are, shoulder-to-shoulder, brother-to-brother, but it was a little disingenuous, I mean it was a little bit cosmetic." Now, he said, it really is different as Afghans are doing the majority of the operations even if they do require some support.

Back at home, Jay Paxton will become the 33rd AC-MACK. Lt. Gen. Jay Paxton, confirmed now as the next assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, will assume office after ceremonies at the Marine Barracks Dec. 15. That officially frees Gen. Joe Dunford to head to Afghanistan to be ISAF commander, sometime in the coming month or so.

Rules of the road in Kabul:  Don't ask a soldier where the "head" is -- that's more of a Marine term. You gotta say "latrine" or he'll just look at you blankly.

Remember Kuwait? About 13,500 troops are still there, and earlier today, Panetta spoke with them in a large hangar near some of the bombed-out bunkers in which Saddam used to store his fighter jets during the Gulf War. They asked Panetta about sequestration, the fiscal cliff, how cuts could affect the size of the American military, and what budget constraints might do to the financial welfare of military personnel.

Then a master sergeant asked about Afghanistan: "Can we expect that five to 10 years from now, our children will still be serving in that region of the world to maintain stability?"

Panetta answered that the drawdown, ending in 2014, would lead to the agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan about the size of the force after 2014. "At that time, the agreement is that we'll have an enduring presence that will continue in Afghanistan. The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering over these next few weeks to determine exactly what that will be. But I would assume that enduring presence, whatever the size that is, will be there for a longer period of time."

What Panetta said when he first got to the podium at Ali Al Salem: "It's a great honor to have a chance to come out here in the middle of nowhere to say ‘Merry Christmas, guys!'"

"Oooooooooooh!" -- sound troops in Kuwait made after at least two of them accidentally dropped their challenge coins on the cement floor at Ali Al Salem.

Number of coins Panetta presented to troops there: about 400.

Situation Report wanted to pet one of the guard dogs at the Kuwait troop event, but the dog's handler, wearing a blue Izod polo, said no. But when Panetta went over to greet the dog, the handler didn't seem to have a problem with it. Here's the pic plus other images from Panetta event in Kuwait. http://bit.ly/VVgo5b

Didn't see that coming: On hand in Kuwait was Lt. Gen. Vince Brooks, commander of Third Army, U.S. Army Central, who Situation Report reported yesterday is expected to head to the Army's command in the Pacific.

Behind the music - Panetta stayed at the Hotel Safir in Kuwait City then rode in a black Suburban the hour or so to Ali Al Salem with his motorcade in tow. Panetta then boarded a C-17 cargo jet and stepped into the "silver bullet" -- basically an Airstream trailer without wheels -- strapped down inside the plane. Staff, security personnel, reporters and other members of Panetta's entourage sat along the sides of the plane for the 3 ½-hour trip to Kabul. Although the plane is loud and the amenities crude, it's a welcome change from the cramped Doomsday plane Panetta travels in overseas. Passengers get up and mill around, eating, drinking coffee, and talking about the next stop. But the C-17 Air Force crew are still cautious: about an hour before landing in Kabul, a crewman told everybody on board that we were in Afghan air space and thus a war zone and that we should sit down (prompting jokes about the Taliban's non-existent fleet of fighter jets).

Joining reporters on a plane: CNN's Erin Burnett and crew. Panetta interview with "Out Front" coming soon on CNN.

The evening before in Kuwait, Panetta met with Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. Panetta expressed "strong confidence" in the U.S.-Kuwaiti defense relationship and in the two countries' ability to work together to address "common security challenges" in the region. They also discussed the crisis in Syria, cyber threats, Kuwait's recent parliamentary elections, and the "on-going commitment to the rule of law," according to the official readout of the meeting. "The secretary underscored the importance the U.S. defense strategy places on the Middle East, and he commended the emir for Kuwait's leadership role in fostering peace and security in the region."