FP's Situation Report: Sunni insurgents advance toward Baghdad, Iraqis want help U.S. may not give; John Kerry's cousin talks Bergdahl; Why Jordan is in the heart of darkness; Powwowing on the F-35; Turner to the WH; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel
Militants are pushing toward Baghdad, as the Iraqis signal openness to American airstrikes. As tens of thousands of Iraqis flee Mosul in the north and insurgents push toward the Iraqi capital, there is a renewed push from the Iraqis for American assistance. But for the White House, which maintains a robust foreign military sales program with Iraq, there is little interest in getting substantively involved thus far. The NYT's Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt: "As the threat from Sunni militants in western Iraq escalated last month, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, according to Iraqi and American officials.
"But Iraq's appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
"The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.
"A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, declined to comment on Mr. Maliki's requests. "We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions," she said in a statement. "The current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront" the Islamic extremists."
ISIL extends its gains in Iraq and takes Turkish diplomats hostage. Bloomberg's Donna Abu-Nasr and Mahmoud Habboush: "Militants from a breakaway al-Qaeda group extended their control over a swath of Iraq, advancing toward Baghdad after capturing the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, as the U.S. continued to weigh an Iraqi request for air strikes.
"After seizing Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant moved yesterday into Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the Nineveh provincial council, said by phone. In Mosul, ISIL took dozens of people hostage at the Turkish consulate, as hundreds of thousands of residents fled the city." More here.
Iraqi Kurds took control of Kirkuk. Reuters this hour: "Iraqi Kurds took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday after government forces abandoned their posts in the face of a sweeping Sunni Islamist rebel push towards Baghdad that threatens Iraq's future as a unified state. Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, swept into bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army, a peshmerga spokesman said." More here.
The drama unfolding in Iraq is catching the U.S. off guard. Within the White House, the Iraqi box seemed to be checked years ago and to some critics it was politically convenient for the administration to move past worrying about the dynamics on the ground. But today those are hard to ignore. The WSJ's Adam Entous and Julian Barnes: "At a closed-door gathering of Gulf states in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Arab counterparts all signaled agreement on one thing for the first time: Islamist forces seizing territory in Syria and Iraq had become a regionwide menace that can't be ignored. What they didn't agree on was what to do about it, U.S. officials said. The fall this week of the Iraqi cities Mosul and Tikrit to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham rebel group shows how the insurgent threat is outpacing the response and posing a challenge to President Barack Obama's approach of limiting U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts." More here.
The White House's statement on Iraq, late last night: "The United States strongly condemns the recent attacks in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)... ISIL's recent actions in Mosul and surrounding areas demonstrate once again that these extremists seek nothing but death and destruction. The United States will stand with Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum as they forge the national unity necessary to succeed in the fight against ISIL. We will work with Congress to support the new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, which will provide flexibility and resources to help Iraq respond to emerging needs as the terrorist threat from ISIL continues to evolve. Under the Strategic Framework Agreement, we will also continue to provide, and as required increase, assistance to the Government of Iraq to help build Iraq's capacity to effectively and sustainably stop ISIL's efforts to wreak havoc in Iraq and the region."
In case you were wondering, Americans might have forgotten about the Iraq war, but they're about to feel it at the gas pump. FP's Keith Johnson is here with the good news: "Oil markets are finally rattling after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took over a series of key Iraqi cities Tuesday and Wednesday, including the country's second largest, and reportedly surrounded Iraq's biggest oil refinery. The insurgent drive poses little immediate threat to oil production or exports from OPEC's second-largest producer, which explains why oil prices haven't exploded. But Iraq's disarray, coupled with a series of stubborn crude-supply outages in Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, and ongoing sanctions on Iranian exports, portends a summer of high oil prices with potentially dire effects on the global economy." More here.
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Exclusive in SitRep: ‘Jordan in the eye of the storm,' the third installment of the Center for American Progress' four-part series on Islamists in the Middle East series launches this morning. The report, authored by Brian Katulis, Hardin Lang and Mokhtar Awad and provided early to the Situation Report, draws from interviews with a wide range of leaders within the government and actors involved in political movements and civil society, including those in Islamist movements. The three key findings include that the current Jordanian system will endure, but pressure from external threats?is mounting and putting a strain on the fragile body politic; and also that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is recalibrating its strategy with an eye toward building coalitions in the face of a regional tide against Islamists. Jordan's Salafi landscape is slowly evolving, but Salafi jihadists are emerging as the most imminent strategic and security threat to the current system of government.
CAP's Brian Katulis: "Jordan is a country sitting at the heart of regional turmoil - as witnessed in this week's events with a terrorist organization's takeover of a major city in Iraq."
The report also offers several recommendations for U.S. policymakers: Continued support for Jordan in response to the Syria conflict, increased intelligence cooperation on the evolving nature of Islamist ideologies to counter violent extremism, and support for inclusive political and economic reform. Download it here.
Israel is tending to wounded Syrian rebels. FP's Colum Lynch with this exclusive: "Israel is quietly cultivating ties with moderate Syrian rebel groups operating along the country's U.N.-monitored cease-fire line with Syria, providing medical care and other unidentified supplies to the insurgents while potentially extracting a valuable vein of intelligence on the activities of President Bashar al-Assad's army as well as extremist opposition forces within Syria. In the past three months, battle-hardened Syrian rebels have transported scores of wounded Syrians across a cease-fire line that has separated Israel from Syria since 1974, according to a 15-page report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the work of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Once in Israel, they receive medical treatment in a field clinic before being sent back to Syria, where, presumably, some will return to carry on the fight." More here.
The Pentagon's Matt Spence, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs for the Middle East, spoke earlier this week at the Herzliya Conference, a gathering of Middle East national security experts in Israel in which he told the group that three threats were challenging stability in the region: "unprecedented momentum behind sectarianism," "increasing public dissatisfaction from the lack of political representation" and "competition for influence" in region. He argued that the DoD and the American government should see these issues as fundamental reasons why the U.S. is and will continue to focus in that region.
Who's Where When today - Navy Secretary Ray Mabus continues his multi-nation tour, wrapping up meetings in Romania and beginning a visit in Africa... Adm. Michael Rogers delivers the keynote address for the Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare's "Army Networks and Cyber Security in Force 2025" forum at 8 a.m...Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld delivers remarks at the National Defense University Graduation at 10 a.m... U.S. Army Cyber Command Commander Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon participates in a panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare's "Army Networks and Cyber Security in Force 2025" forum at 11 a.m... Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Maj. Gen. John Davis delivers remarks at the Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare's "Army Networks and Cyber Security in Force 2025" at 1:30 p.m.
Also today: The Senate is expected this morning to consider the confirmation of Mike McCord to be the Pentagon's new comptroller.
Also today, version 2.0: The Pentagon's Undersecretary of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall is in Florida for the 18th annual review of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The two-day conference brings together military leaders, officials from the F-35 program office and eight international partners and industry leadership "to discuss progress over the past year as well as future priorities."
The Pentagon noted to SitRep that there has been "recent significant progress," to include "international partners continuing to commit to the JSF program, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona preparing to train international JSF pilots, and the continuing trend towards future lowered costs per JSF." We're also told that "although the program still has numerous wrinkles to iron out, the conference marks a big milestone for progress in a program that has come under increased fiscal and programmatic scrutiny by DOD senior leaders."
Who else is going? Air Force Secretary Debbie James, AT&L's Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley and JSF head Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan.
A new report says that the F-35's single engine is too dangerous for the Canadian military, here.
Shawn Turner is headed to the White House. Turner, the former director of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence - ODNI - will become the new deputy White House press secretary. The White House hasn't announced it formally - though Politico's Mike Allen did run it yesterday in Playbook. DNI Jim Clapper called him "a visionary" who "unified and strengthened public affairs partnerships across the intelligence community," and in thanking Turner said he had "set a high bar for poise and professionalism" through one of the "toughest years in IC history." Clapper also said: "I will miss Shawn's calm demeanor, but I know he will continue to do great things for our nation." We knew him when - he was a Marine. Congrats. Btw, Turner will be replaced by Brian Hale, former assistant director of the office of public affairs at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office.
Update to our story - Yesterday we brought you some details in a broader story about the Pentagon, the White House and the rollout of Bergdahl and how, in the rush of that moment, not everyone was in the loop. The Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Joe Dunford, for example, was left in the dark up until the last moments before Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released. We were told Gen. Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command, was too. The mission was so secretive, that even inside the Pentagon's front office, there was little communication. We now know, as we were told yesterday by the same defense officials, that Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams, Hagel's senior military assistant, had secretly talked to both Dunford and Austin a few days before Bergdahl was released about the notion that something could happen. But that was a little known fact within the Pentagon's front office. By the time the mission went down, Austin was dialed in and watched the mission unfold in real-time. But as our story said, the mission was so fast-moving that the Afghanistan war commander, Dunford, was left in the dark up until the final moments before the mission was executed.
And here's an interesting little bit, FWIW. Secretary of State John Kerry visited relatives recently, after the Bergdahl release, and the French newspaper Le Figaro interviewed a cousin following the visit in which Kerry supposedly remarks privately about his thinking on the Bergdahl release. The story was pointed out to Situation Report. According to the piece in Le Figaro, the cousin of Kerry's paraphrased a conversation he said he had with Kerry about Bergdahl in which the cousin said Kerry didn't think the Bergdahl swap was a good idea.
Translated from French - and thanks to FP's own Hanna Kozlowska for the help:
Kerry's cousin, according to the account, to Kerry: "Are you aware of the negative message that you sent releasing five Taliban terrorists in exchange for an American prisoner, on the eve of the Afghan election?"
Kerry, to cousin, paraphrased by the cousin, according to Le Figaro: "I agree, I was against it, it was Chuck Hagel's decision."
The cousin, paraphrased by Le Figaro: "You have to always keep in mind that Americans don't speak with one voice concluded the cousin."
As one might imagine, State pushed back on what it said was a false narrative. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, to Situation Report: "Any report that Secretary Kerry did not support the deal to release Bowe Bergdahl would be inaccurate. In this case, the attribution is especially confusing." Here's the story here.
Hagel defended the Bergdahl trade as part of the ‘dirty business' of war. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got reasonably high marks yesterday for holding his own before the cantankerous House Armed Services Committee - and even had a couple Hillary Clinton Benghazi moments when she testified last year ("what difference does it make") - when he got hot over the tone of Rep. Jeff Miller's questioning about why Bergdahl hadn't already been returned to the U.S. But for the former senator whose performances on Capitol Hill have sometimes fallen flat, most people thought he did well even if they didn't agree with the White House's policy decision.
HASC Chairman Buck McKeon, to CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday: "I think that he did a good job, I think he has a very tough job, he is kind of the point man for the administration right now to take the brunt for some of the things that we're finding." Still, McKeon went on to say that the White House "dealt with terrorists" and therefore he believes the U.S. is "less safe" than it was a few weeks ago.
The NYT's Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage: "A defiant Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday defended the prisoner exchange that brought the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after years of captivity with the Taliban, telling skeptical lawmakers that the operation had needed to be kept secret from Congress to ensure that the soldier was not killed by his captors in the days leading up to the swap.
"In the first public testimony before Congress by a senior member of the Obama administration since Sergeant Bergdahl's release, Mr. Hagel described the exchange as a ‘military operation' that was in doubt until the very end. He called prisoner swaps part of the "dirty business" of war.
"...Mr. Hagel showed brief flashes of contrition, acknowledging the complaints of lawmakers' ‘great frustration' that they were kept in the dark about the operation and admitting that the Obama administration ‘could have done a better job' keeping lawmakers informed. A statute signed by President Obama requires that the administration give Congress 30 days notice before it transfers a Guantánamo detainee. Mr. Obama issued a signing statement asserting that he could lawfully bypass the notice requirement under certain circumstances.
"But Mr. Hagel did not give ground about the necessity of the prisoner swap, in which Sergeant Bergdahl was exchanged for five senior Taliban detainees being held at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba." More here.
Congress wants to know: Did we talk to terrorists? The WSJ's Elizabeth Williamson, here.
Why the ‘Black Hawk Down" prisoner release is different than Bowe Bergdahl's, by the WaPo's Dan Lamothe, here.
Bergdahl's writings reveal a fragile young man. A Bergdahl journal obtained by the WaPo, shows a look into the man - but also may lay the groundwork for what happens to him after he reintegrates into the U.S. - supposedly soon - at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Despite external pressure to pursue legal action against him, the journal may be his best defense of a troubled man who may not deserve punishment. The WaPo's Stephanie McCrummen in a splashy piece on Page One: "Before he became a Taliban prisoner, before he wrote in his journal ‘I am the lone wolf of deadly nothingness,' before he joined the Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons, said close friends who were worried about his emotional health at the time.
"The 2006 discharge and a trove of Bergdahl's writing - his handwritten journal along with essays, stories and e-mails provided to The Washington Post - paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
From a journal entry Bergdahl wrote before he deployed: "I'm worried... The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I'm reverting. I'm getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness."
"...Harrison said she decided to share the journal and computer files with The Post because she is concerned about the portrayal of Bergdahl as a calculating deserter, a characterization she says is at odds with her understanding of him as sensitive and vulnerable." More here.
For War on the Rocks, Butch Bracknell offers a playbook of sequenced action designed to ensure accountability while celebrating Sergeant Berghdahl's return for the SecDef, here.
After 2014, there won't be any more NATO medevacs for wounded Afghans. Medical evacuation is one of the key capabilities the Afghans have lacked - and something the country has relied on U.S. and allied capability to provide. But that will change. AFP's Dan De Luce, reporting from Forward Operating Base Shank, after describing a recent evacuation: "...The evacuation -- ordered at a moment's notice -- is a routine event for US-led forces in Afghanistan. But after this year, wounded Afghans will no longer be able to rely on Western troops for an evacuation by plane or helicopter. The vast majority of the 51,000 troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year, and they are taking most of their aviation medical squadrons with them.
"After 2014, the Afghans will have "sole responsibility for their security and for medical evacuations", said ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Belcher. In the meantime, American advisers are trying to help the Afghans build up their own capacity using ambulances and Russian-made helicopters." More here. Tomorrow, presidential contender Dr. Ashraf Ghani will address the Center for National Policy on the eve of the Afghan elections. RSVP here.
Meantime, the FBI jumps into the investigation into VA wait times. The National Journal's Jordain Carney: "Another day, another development on the Veterans Affairs Department wait-list scandal. FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday told members of the House Judiciary Committee that the bureau's Phoenix office has opened an investigation. The FBI is looking into allegations that VA staffers at its Phoenix facility lied about veterans' wait times for medical care so they could receive a bonus.
Comey, on questions of whether the FBI will expand the investigation: "We will follow wherever the facts take us. The Phoenix office is where we opened it, because that was the primary locus of the original allegations. We are working with the VA IG." More here.
But speaking of veterans, we mentioned a week or so back the Navy's Annual Wounded Warrior and Veteran Hiring conference in Raleigh, in which the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia and the Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett, along with North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory kicked off the event to bring local companies from the Raleigh-Durham area to meet with wounded veterans. So here were the results thus far: there were 46 job offers accepted the day of the event, there are now 172 job offers pending and what we're told are "dozens of follow up interviews scheduled." We're also told that hundreds of the veterans attending the conference took advantage of the workshops offered during the conference on "veteran skills translation" to private industry as well as courses on military licensing, credentialing and spouse employment. In fiscal 2012, the Navy hired 11,000 veterans - 59 percent of whom were new hires - and 10 percent of whom were wounded warriors. Want more deets on Navy wounded warrior employment? Click here.
Scoopage: the Pentagon set June 22 for a next test of whether its $34 billion ground-based defense system can intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio: "...The effort to hit and destroy a dummy missile will be attempted with an improved Raytheon Co. warhead fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California against a target launched from a Pacific test range, the Missile Defense Agency's congressional liaison office said in an e-mail yesterday to Senate and House defense committees. The newest version of the warhead will carry a redesigned inertial navigation unit and software upgrades, according to the e-mail. The Pentagon hasn't conducted a successful interception using the ground-based system since 2008. Two 2010 tests failed, as did one last July that used the older warhead that's on 20 of the 30 interceptors based in silos at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska." More here.