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 email@example.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.
- 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.