National Security

ISAF, not commenting on status of forces after Karzai kicked SOF out; JIEDDO: Good news from Pakistan on bomb-making materials; Hagel vote today; A game-changer in Syria?; Napolitano, in the house; and a little more.

By Gordon Lubold

ISAF is pushing back on the reports that Special Operations Forces did anything wrong in Wardak province in Afghanistan, but won't say if the units have ceased operations or are moving out. Over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai threw a curveball to newly-minted ISAF commander Gen. Joe Dunford by directing that American Special Operations Force units operating in Wardak province west of Kabul should pack up and leave. The Karzai government had received multiple complaints from individuals in Wardak alleging that American units had tortured, killed, or abused Afghans there. Karzai's government issued a statement that said in part: "[A]rmed individuals named as US special force stationed in Wardak province engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people. A recent example in the province is an incident in which nine people were disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force and in a separate incident a student was taken away at night from his home, whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge." U.S. officials in Kabul say that a previous investigation did not validate concerns from Wardak.

"In recent months, a thorough review in cooperation with the Defense Ministry and National Directorate of Security has confirmed that no Coalition forces have been involved in the alleged misconduct in Wardak province. Because we take these allegations seriously, ISAF and Afghanistan officials have agreed to a joint commission to look into the current concerns of citizens in Maidan Wardak," an ISAF spokesman told Situation Report. But ISAF would not confirm the status of SOF operations in Wardak or whether any units were planning to come out within the two-week timeframe Karzai demanded. "We don't discuss the status of their operations," a spokesman told us. 

A game-changer in Syria? Saudi Arabia is financing a "large purchase" of infantry weapons from Croatia and is sending them to rebel fighters in Syria in a move that could potentially tip the balance between opposition fighters and the Assad regime, which has successfully clung to power as fighting continues and thousands of people die. The NYT reports this morning that these weapons began reaching rebels late last year and "have been a factor in the rebels' small tactical gains this winter against the army and militias loyal to Mr. Assad." NYT: "The arms transfers appeared to signal a shift among several governments to a more activist approach to assisting Syria's armed opposition, in part as an effort to counter shipments of weapons from Iran to Mr. Assad's forces. The weapons' distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers." One senior American official described the shipments as "a maturing of the opposition's logistical pipeline," but said that the opposition in Syria remains fragmented and that the shipments were not a game-changer. "I remain convinced we are not near that tipping point," the official told the Times.

Welcome to Tuesday's edition of Situation Report, where we never use horsemeat. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

The moment you've all been waiting for: the Hagel vote. Sometime this morning, the Senate is expected to end the filibuster against Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and then, depending, vote up or down on his nomination. He's expected to get through, but of course you never know. If he does, we're told he would be sworn in tomorrow. Panetta, at home in California, will be watching the vote on CSPAN, AP reports.

The NYT today on confirming Hagel: "The Senate has a constitutional duty to review top executive appointments. But it's one thing to raise serious questions about a candidate's character or political views; it's quite another to distort a nominee's views on Israel and Iran as some conservative Republicans as most rigidly pro-Israel groups have with Mr. Hagel."

ICYMI: You think you know Chuck? Compare what Hagel has said with some of the critiques of Israel from Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon and Avi Dichter, former heads of the Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet -- all interviewed in the new documentary, The Gatekeepers. Click on this link to guess who said it: "I think you have to make peace with whoever you have to make peace with," or "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist," or "Peace is always better than war." We probably won't send you a T-shirt if you win since we don't have any to send, but try it anyway.

Napolitano, in the house. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was seen stepping into the Pentagon's River Entrance Monday for a Council of Governors' meeting chaired by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The group discussed cyber-security, the response to Hurricane Sandy, and of course, every defense official's favorite topic: the defense budget. Pentagon pressec George Little issued a statement saying: "Carter began the meeting by describing the Department's current budget situation and the devastating impacts of sequestration, which will go into effect on March 1 if Congress does not act. He reiterated the President's request at today's National Governors Association (NGA) meeting for Governors to urge their congressional delegations to pass a balanced deficit reduction package that avoid these cuts."

Carter and the group discussed an initiative announced at the NGA meeting, by which each state would make it easier for service members to obtain civilian professional credentials and licenses. And the group also approved a proposal to establish a "consultative process" between the Defense Department and the states for programming budgetary needs for the National Guard. "This consultative process opens an avenue for the states to communicate their civil support needs to DoD, strengthens unity of effort, and maximizes transparency on the strategic context of DoD programming and budgeting."

Also, on cyber: Napolitano briefed the govs on Obama's recent executive order on cyber, and the group discussed "state-federal partnerships" to improve cyber-security and "agreed to make cyber-security a recurring agenda item for future sessions."

Governors, also in the house: Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, and Wyoming Governor Matthew Mead.

Here, ICYMI, the letter Napolitano wrote to Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democrat from Mississippi and ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, about what sequester means to DHS -- including a 25 percent reduction in Coast Guard operations.

From JIEDDO, good news on the flow of bomb-making materials from Pakistan. In December, Situation Report reported on the frustrations of Lt. Gen. Mike Barbero, the head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, when it comes to the flow of fertilizer from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Fertilizer, of course, is used in making homemade bombs, and Barbero, whose job it is in part to counter the flow of such material, expressed his exasperation with one company, Fatima, that seemed to want to cooperate in stopping the use of its product to make bombs, but hadn't actually done anything. He had even testified before a subcomm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need for greater cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Well this week, Barbero issued a statement: things have gotten better. "While I stand by my testimony [in December], in recent weeks I've seen positive developments in discussions with the Fatima Group, the Pakistan-based producers of calcium ammonium nitrate. Fatima confirmed to me in writing that it has suspended sales of [calcium ammonium nitrate] fertilizer products in the border provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, affecting 228 dealers in those areas. I'm encouraged by their actions and remain hopeful this step will have positive and significant near-term impacts with respect to diminishing the IED threat not only to U.S. and coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan, but to Pakistan's civilians and security forces as well." Fatima has also agreed to create a "reformulated product" that renders calcium ammonium nitrate "more inert and less explosive," Barbero said, and thereby "diminishing its effectiveness as an IED precursor material," calling such a long-term solution a "true scientific breakthrough."

JIEDDO, created as the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan was at its worst, is one of those Pentagon organizations that now may be seen as less necessary at a time of grave cost-cutting. It has been attempting to show that the work it does is still relevant.

Barbero added that the Pakistan military recently expressed a desire to "achieve tangible progress" on what's known as the U.S.-Pakistan Counter IED Cooperation Framework, which encourages information-sharing, enhanced border control, and helps build "counter-IED capacity" in Pakistan.

Noting

  • Al-Monitor: Iraqi national security adviser says terrorism tied to Syria.
  • CS Monitor: Karzai is mad as heck and he isn't going to take it anymore.
  • The Iran Primer: Khazaee welcomes U.S. calls for direct talks.
  • NBC: Hagel vote expected today after seven-week struggle.
  • David Frum on CNN: Vote no on Hagel today.  
  • LAT: Syria opposition will reportedly attend Rome meeting.      

National Security

Karzai kicks SF unit out of Wardak; On sequester, did the Pentagon overplay its hand? Hagel would be sworn in Wednesday; Could a half-inch crack in the F-35 create a broader fissure?; What Dan Senor got wrong, and a little more.

By Gordon Lubold

If the Senate votes on the Hagel nom on Tuesday, he'll likely be sworn in Wednesday. The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday to end the filibuster against Chuck Hagel and then quickly confirm him. Despite some last minute maneuvers -- and efforts like the full-page ad in the WSJ this morning from the Emergency Committee for Israel, featuring a bummed-out looking Hagel -- his confirmation is likely. The Hagel camp believes he will get as many as 65 votes, and Situation Report is told he would be sworn in Wednesday. Details are still being worked out for the swearing in, which of course ends a tumultuous political episode -- and potentially begins another.

Karzai has kicked U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak province. At a presser Sunday, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said a American SOF unit had to cease operations immediately and leave an area of Wardak province within the next two weeks, potentially creating a security void in a critical "staging area" used by the Taliban. This comes after citizens in that area reportedly made repeated complaints, charging that an American unit had unlawfully "detained, tortured and killed innocent civilians," according to a report in the WSJ. "The move will complicate the transition process by worsening U.S.-Afghan tensions and increasing operational uncertainty as international forces hand over security responsibilities to their Afghan counterparts." It's also a sign that Karzai will not make life easy for the U.S. military in the remaining 22 months or so of its formal combat presence. The U.S. military said it was investigating the allegations, but it wasn't clear if the unit had begun pulling out.

What happened in Brussels with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere? On Friday, there was confusion in Brussels on the last day of the NATO defense ministerial, after the German defense minister either misspoke or mistakenly spoke the truth, telling reporters that the U.S. would leave between 8,000-12,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. How many troops the U.S. keeps in country is perhaps the most significant question in Afghanistan policy, and de Maiziere's comment was surprising because (a) he does not represent the United States, (b) it's not clear that Washington has made any decision, and (c) the range he cited is higher than most anticipate. The Pentagon quickly addressed the statement, saying that the range of 8,000-12,000 represented the range for both the U.S. and international forces, but still leaving the door open for a sizeable American force post 2014. We'll see. But for now, a senior defense official explained de Maiziere's comment to Situation Report: "It seems like it really was a purely innocent mistake. Nothing more."

 

Welcome to the Monday edition of Situation Report. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

Four days from sequestration, has the Pentagon overplayed its hand? Democrats and Republicans alike think DOD's apocalyptic rhetoric is overstated, noting that after more than a decade of massive wartime spending, it is hard to argue that budget cuts will have consequences as dramatic as Secretary Leon Panetta and others have claimed. The NYT's editorialists today suggest that much of the Pentagon's rhetoric is "plainly hype," they write. "Both the generals and the civilians in the Pentagon know that some cuts are possible and that even under the sequester American security need not be compromised. The military has many resources, and in some respects it is over-resourced. Important budgetary accounts -- military pay and benefits -- are exempted from the sequester and, according to experts, the Pentagon has more flexibility than is commonly understood to weather these reductions." And on the front page of the paper this morning, Jonathan Weisman and Ashley Parker point out that defense spending, once a sacred cow for the GOP, is seen differently. Although some notable conservatives still clearly decry further defense cuts, Republicans in the main are more serious about reducing spending than stressing cuts to the Pentagon: "Most Congressional Republicans are standing their ground, a position they say is strategic. The federal government's growing debt cannot be controlled through the spending at the annual discretion of Congress, and after the cuts take effect, that part of the federal budget will drop to levels not seen in five decades as measured against the size of the economy. Long term, the problem is entitlements, especially Medicare and Social Security."

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, told the NYT: "Fiscal questions trump defense in a way they never would have after 9/11. But the war in Iraq is over. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and we want to secure the cuts."

It could take 10 days for Pratt & Whitney to figure out what's wrong with the F-35 engine. The crack discovered last week during a routine inspection of an F-35A resulted in the grounding of 51 aircraft Thursday. It was about a half-inch long, according to Reuters' Andrea Shalal-Esa, and it will take about 10 days for experts at engine maker Pratt & Whitney to determine if the crack was the result of a design flaw or something else. Meanwhile, today the Pentagon's top F-35 official and executives from Lockheed Martin are at an air show in Australia to make sure the Australians know the program is on track. The Australians, who are supposed to buy 100 of the expensive plane, may be getting cold feet: they are thinking about doubling their inventory of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, Shalal-Esa reports this morning. It's unclear that the problem with the engine will lead to any significant changes in U.S. procurement, but it's the second time the plane has been grounded this year. If the Pentagon gets to choose its own budget cuts, debate over the future of the F-35, the most expensive fighter jet ever produced, could get pretty heated as budget cutters look for low-hanging fruit. No sense that this grounding will put the F-35 in such a position, but it may grow harder to defend.

Dan Senor's column on "What a Defense Secretary Does" in the Weekly Standard might have given Bob Gates a little too much credit. Senor counters the view that the job of defense secretary is only about implementing White House policy - which is what defenders of Chuck Hagel have been arguing in recent weeks in response to worries about his past statements. Senor writes to the contrary, saying that the defense secretary actually should have "the keys to the car" and is as much if not more so a policymaker on national security as anyone in the White House. As an example of this, Senor says that as defense secretary, Bob Gates stepped in to help strengthen the Army officer promotions system by sending David Petraeus to head the Army promotion board. After up-and-comer Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, credited with playing a big role in the post 9/11 world, was passed over twice, there was widespread recognition that the system was broken and Petraeus seemed like the man to put it back together. Senor used the example of McMaster's then-stalled career - he is now a two-star - to show the significant policy-making role the defense secretary can play. But a friend to Situation Report wrote us to say that it was actually Army Secretary Pete Geren, not Gates, who intervened to get Petraeus as the head of the promotion board. "Geren came up with the idea, wrote the parameters that could only fit [Petraeus] and Gates simply approved," the friend wrote. "I get his larger point, but history is about getting the details right."

 

The Knife

  • Defense News: DoD unlikely to get budget-cutting authority.
  • Omaha World Herald: Hagel faces rush to front lines of budget war.
  • The Atlantic: Why Congress should avert sequestration, then make smarter cuts equal to the same dollar figure. 

The Stan

  • USAT: Insider attacks decline in Afghanistan.
  • Small Wars: Withdraw and win: "Go" for victory in Afghanistan.

Into Africa

  • Socialist Worker: What France wants in Mali: untangling the web of lies and deceptions that obscure the strategy.
  • Reuters: 10 Chadian fighters killed in Mali.
  • Al Arabiya: Arab militia kills 50 in Sudan's Darfur.
  • Defence Web: Four Somali immigrants convicted of supporting militants. 

Noting

  • Danger Room: The AR-15 is more than a gun, it's a gadget.
  • Saudi Gazette: How an ordinary Syrian became a Kalashnikov-wielding fighter.

The Peninsula

  • The Telegraph: North Korea approves 28 "socialist" hairstyles.
  • American Prospect: No one understands the North like the South (Korea).
  • AP: First female South Korean president faces crisis from the North.