Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: Troops into Iraq; ISIS as mobsters: making money the old-fashioned way; FP Exclusive: US helps protect Chinese oil investments; Dahl to investigate Bergdahl; A big day for Mark Lippert; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

POTUS weighs sending Special Forces to Iraq. As more Marines go to help in Baghdad and the U.S. weighs options for countering the deepening crisis in Iraq - but not putting "boots on the ground" into combat - there is also talk of using Special Forces troops, not as combat troops, but as advisers. The AP's Lara Jakes and Julie Pace: "The White House is considering sending a small number of American Special Forces soldiers to Iraq in an urgent attempt to help the government in Baghdad slow the nation's rampant Sunni insurgency, U.S. officials said Monday. While President Obama has explicitly ruled out putting U.S. troops into direct combat in Iraq, the plan under consideration suggests he would be willing to send Americans into a collapsing security situation for training and other purposes.

"Three U.S. officials familiar with ongoing discussions said the potential of sending Special Forces to Iraq is high on a list of military options that are being considered. It's not clear how quickly the Special Forces could arrive in Iraq. It's also unknown whether they would remain in Baghdad or be sent to the nation's north, where the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has overrun several cities in the worst threat to the Shiite-led government since U.S. troops left in 2011.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement: "The president was very clear that we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq...That remains the case and he has asked his national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces."

"...The mission almost certainly would be small: one U.S. official said it could be up to 100 Special Forces soldiers. It also could be authorized only as an advising and training mission - meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but not officially be considered as combat troops.

"The troops would fall under the authority of the U.S. ambassador and would not be authorized to engage in combat, another U.S. official said. Their mission is ‘non-operational training' of both regular and counter terrorism units, which the military has interpreted to mean training on military bases, not in the field, the official said.

"...The White House also is considering launching air strikes and increased surveillance over insurgent bastions to thwart ISIL's march toward Baghdad after capturing the Sunni-dominated cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit. The insurgency also has overrun smaller towns between Baghdad and the Syrian border, including on Monday the northwest city of Tal Afar." More here.

The U.S. and Iran signal willingness for a joint effort in Iraq.  The NYT's Rick Gladstone, Thomas Erdbrink and Michael Gordon: "The United States and Iran on Monday signaled increased willingness to work together to arrest the expanding Sunni insurgency in Iraq, with Secretary of State John Kerry openly suggesting such a collaboration would be constructive and another American official saying the subject could come up at talks this week on the Iranian nuclear dispute." More here.

Meantime, from bank heists to extortion and kidnapping, ISIS is using mob tactics to fund its own attacks - which means it's a militant group with built-in sustainability. FP's Yochi Dreazen: "When fighters from the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham stole tens of millions of dollars from a bank in Mosul earlier this year, it wasn't simply a startling symbol of the collapse of Baghdad's control over Iraq's second-largest city. The brazen theft was instead a stark illustration of one of the most alarming aspects of ISIS's rise: the group's growing ability to fund its own operations through bank heists, extortion, kidnappings and other tactics more commonly associated with the mob than with violent Islamist extremists.

"In its early years ISIS -- like the Taliban and other Sunni militants -- received most of its funding from wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and other Persian Gulf countries. Extremists in those U.S. ally states continue to send money to ISIS, but American counterterrorism officials believe that the group now finances the bulk of its recruitment, weapons purchases, and attacks without outside help. Even if the U.S. and its allies somehow stopped the flow of money from the Persian Gulf to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, in other words, it would be too late to prevent ISIS from banking enough money to fight on for years.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official: "The overwhelming majority of their money comes from criminal activities like bank heists, extortion, robberies and smuggling... They're getting some money from outside donors, but that pales in comparison to their self-funding."

"The exact amount of money in ISIS's possession is the subject of intense debate among Western intelligence officials. At the high end, some analysts estimate that the group may have access to at least $500 million in cash drawn from bank robberies, oil smuggling, and old-fashioned extortion and protection rackets. Other analysts believe the number is far lower, with one official putting it at between $100 million and $200 million. Those numbers are moving higher as the group conquers more cities on its seemingly inexorable drive toward Baghdad and is able to loot the local private and government banks. On Monday, ISIS fighters took the strategically important town of Tal Afar, adding to the territory under its direct control." More here.  

Though ISIS is known for its brutal rule in Syria, many residents of the Iraqi city it just captured are so hostile to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, they have welcomed the group. Andrew Slater for the Daily Beast, here.

J.M. Berger for the Atlantic on ISIS' sophisticated social-media strategy, here.

Air strikes carry inherent risk, of course. But the U.S. must tread particularly carefully as the White House ponders using them against ISIS in Iraq. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio: "...for all the available firepower of U.S. planes and missiles, with an aircraft carrier already in the Persian Gulf, airstrikes risk civilian casualties and may not be enough to defeat an irregular enemy moving through densely populated areas, defense analysts and administration officials said. 'One needs to be very careful about the downsides,' said Eric Edelman, a former Pentagon undersecretary for policy in President George W. Bush's administration. Airstrikes 'to be effective will require some kind of U.S. presence on the ground" to discern militant targets from civilians.' More here.

Marines have arrived at the U.S. Embassy compound in Iraq. Military Times' Gina Harkins and Andrew Tilghman: "The Pentagon has deployed about 100 troops - including more than 50 Marines attached to a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, to help protect diplomatic personnel and property... The arrival of FAST Marines and a contingent of U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq on Sunday marked the first operational deployment of U.S. troops there since the withdrawal of combat forces in December 2011. Pentagon officials declined to identify the Army unit deployed to Baghdad. The Marine platoon is based out of nearby Bahrain, and is tasked with protecting American personnel and property, said Master Sgt. William Price, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Central Command.

Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby said yesterday: "This is a temporary thing... There is no intention that this is any kind of permanent plus up. They are there temporarily, to assist with some relocation of some personnel who work at the embassy. They are not engaged in ferrying to and fro anyone. No military aircraft ... is being used to ferry these folks."

The U.S. doesn't know what to hit in Iraq. The Daily Beast's Eli Lake: "...Current and retired American defense and intelligence officials tell The Daily Beast that the CIA and the Pentagon are not certain who exactly makes up the forces that have taken so much of Iraq. Moreover, these intelligence and defense officials says that they believe that some of the people fighting with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are former U.S. allies who could be turned against the hard-core fanatics-if they can be identified." More here.

What Iran's Foreign Minister told Robin Wright on the phone sounds a lot like what Obama said on Friday about Iraq. USIP's Robin Wright for the New Yorker's blog: "For both [Washington and Tehran], their longtime strategies toward Iraq appear to be failing, as a few thousand thugs in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) burn their way across the country. Washington and Tehran have started using the same language." More here.

Democracy For America, formed out of Howard Dean's 2004 anti-Iraq war presidential campaign, believes a bipartisan group of lawmakers could stop intervention in Iraq by Buzzfeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro, here.

The U.K. will reopen its embassy in Tehran. Reuters this morning: "British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that 'circumstances are right' to reopen Britain's embassy in Iran, which was closed in 2011 after hard-liners overran the building and ransacked it. The announcement represents another step in the thaw in recent days between Iran and the West. American officials are also looking for common ground with Iran as they seek ways to quell mounting violence in Iraq." More here.

And what the Pentagon said about cooperating with the Iranians in Iraq. Reuters' Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart: "U.S. officials may hold discussions with Iran about Iraq's security crisis on the sidelines of nuclear talks this week, but Washington will not coordinate potential military action in Iraq with its longtime adversary Tehran, the Pentagon said on Monday.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby on the upcoming nuclear talks: "It's possible that on the sidelines of those discussions there could be discussions surrounding the situation in Iraq."

He added: "But there is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran ... there are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq." More here.

How did we get here, anyway? Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey takes that and other questions from War on the Rocks' Ryan Evans, here.

Welcome to Tuesday's edition of Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

FP Exclusive: In another part of the world, the U.S. is funding U.N. peacekeepers -  to help protect Chinese oil projects. FP's own Colum Lynch has this exclusive tale ahead of a big meeting at the U.N. this morning detailing how the U.S. is essentially paying to protect Chinese investment in South Sudan.  Lynch: "For years, American administrations have embraced U.N. peacekeeping as a cost-effective alternative to U.S. military intervention, a policy that has allowed Washington to harness the power and purse of foreign governments to promote America's security and humanitarian interests abroad.

"...In South Sudan, the investment is indeed paying dividends -- for China. Last month, Beijing quietly secured a deal that will put the U.N.'s famed blue helmets to work protecting workers in South Sudan's oil installations, where China has invested billions of dollars over the years and holds a major financial stake -- at least 40 percent -- in South Sudan's largest oil field. American taxpayers, who fund about 27 percent of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping missions, will effectively be helping to shoulder the financial burden of securing China's investment.

"The unprecedented arrangement was hammered out last month in closed-door negotiations -- which have not been previously detailed -- over how to bolster the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, so it could better protect hundreds of thousands of civilians from ethnic cleansing. The beefed-up mission will include thousands of additional troops from African countries as well as hundreds more from China."

David Deng, a researcher for the South Sudan Law Society: "The U.N. is walking a thin line between neutral peacekeeper and proxy military force for the government of South Sudan... For the U.N. to protect oil facilities would clearly be a huge strategic advantage for the government and cannot be seen as consistent with the role of a neutral peacekeeping force." More here.

Al-Shabab is blamed for a deadly attack on a hotel on Kenya's coast that killed almost 50. One of the survivors described the carnage to the Daily Beast's Margot Kiser, here.

Lippert's big day: Hagel Chief of Staff Mark Lippert, nom'ed to go to South Korea as ambassador, appears before Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. Lippert, who is passionate about Asia and is considered by many to be one of the administration's best experts on Asia policy, appears before the Committee today as the Senate weighs his nomination to go to Seoul. He'll likely get a question or two about the Pentagon's role in the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and perhaps his views on Iraq. It's at 3pm today.

The Navy talks strategy in Newport today. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert is expected to speak today, 8:40 a.m., at the Current Strategy Forum at Naval War College. The two-day forum brings together a bunch of top thinkers, VIPs and students to "explore issues of strategic national importance." This year's theme is "American Grand Strategy and Sea Power: Challenges and Choices," and it will focus on challenging assumptions and undertaking a strategic assessment of the future. Three panel discussions; "On Strategy," "Future Challenges," and "Sea Power and Maritime Strategy," that will be held over the course of the two-day event, and Greenert will give the opening keynote address.

From the Navy: "The Current Strategy Forum brings together preeminent naval strategists, scholars, authors, and leaders to discuss and debate the challenges that face our service and our nation now and in the future. This event underscores and reinvigorates the formulation of maritime strategy," Rear Adm. James Foggo III, Assistant Deputy CNO (Operations, Plans, and Strategy).

In addition to Greenert, who else is speaking? Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King's College London; Robert Kaplan, Chief Geopolitical Analyst for Stratfor and Author of the 2014 book 'Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific; Peter Singer of Brookings and Professor Geoffrey Till, King's College London.

Who else is attending? Vice Admiral John Currier, U.S. Coast Guard; Rear Admiral James G. Foggo III, U.S. Navy, Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans, and Strategy; Rear Admiral Walter Carter, U.S. Navy, President, U.S. Naval War College. What's the agenda? Click right here for that. I wanna watch! Then click here to do that. 

Kenneth Dahl, an Army two-star, will investigate the Bergdahl matter. The Army issued a statement yesterday that Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, "an Army officer with Afghanistan combat experience," will lead the investigation into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance from a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. From the Army: "...The primary function of this investigation, as in any other investigation, is to ascertain facts and report them to the appointing authority.  These types of investigations are not uncommon and serve to establish the facts on the ground following an incident. The investigating officer will have access to previously gathered documentary evidence, including the 2009 investigation. The Army's top priority remains Sgt. Bergdahl's health and reintegration. We ask that everyone respect the time and privacy necessary to accomplish the objectives of the last phase of reintegration. The investigating officer will not interview Sgt. Bergdahl until the reintegration team clears such interaction, so no timeline for completion of the investigation has been set."

As the war ends, the military cuts its enlistment goals. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Brian Bowling via Stripes: "...With budget cuts, the Iraq war ending and reduction of forces in Afghanistan, the Army and other branches of the military need fewer people. Since 2003, enlistment goals for most active and reserve branches dropped between 18 and 35 percent. The Navy Reserve cut its recruiting goals by 66 percent. ‘Everybody does more with less,' said Master Chief Aaron Smith. Like any organization, the Navy needs to find people qualified for jobs it must perform, and more of its people re-enlist to do those jobs - further cutting the number of openings. ‘It used to be a lot of people could get in,' said Smith, assistant recruiting chief for the Navy's Pittsburgh recruiting district. ‘We just don't have the job availability.' Locally, the Air Force Reserve has had fewer applicants and fewer of them qualifying, said Master Sgt. Dawn Serakowski, a recruiter stationed in Moon." More here.

Moscow's cancellation of natural gas exports to Kiev ratchets up the pressure on Ukraine - and is making European leaders nervous about energy supplies. FP's Keith Johnson: "With tensions between Russia and Ukraine at fever pitch, Moscow unsheathed its energy weapon Monday, cutting off natural-gas supplies to Ukraine amidst a dispute over billions of dollars in unpaid bills. The gas cutoff, Russia's third in less than a decade, raises concern in Europe that one of its main sources of imported energy could be affected, with few realistic alternatives on the horizon. A last-ditch effort by the European Union to broker a compromise between Russia and Ukraine broke down Sunday night. Monday morning, Gazprom, the big Russian gas firm, said it halted gas flows to Ukraine and that it won't ship any more until Kiev pays its hefty arrears and then prepays thereafter. Gazprom said that Ukraine was guilty of ‘persistent nonpayment,' and said Kiev owes it about $4.5 billion. Russian officials said they would only be willing to go back to negotiations if Ukraine settles its outstanding debt. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev blamed Ukraine for the crisis after it rejected ‘very beneficial, very preferential proposals' from Gazprom." More here.

In a new article for Foreign Affairs, Stimson's Russell Rumbaugh and Barry Blechman make the case for phasing out the U.S.'s tactical nukes in Europe. Over 20 years after retiring most of its tactical nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States still maintains a small arsenal of tactical nuclear bombs in Europe.  In the article, Rumbaugh and Blechman examine the weapons' obsolete military mission, diminishing political value within NATO, and skyrocketing modernization costs. They make the case that, barring any major buy-in by European allies, the US should phase out its tactical nukes by cancelling plans to modernize these weapons and to make the F-35 capable of delivering them. Read it here.

 

Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: Claims of a mass execution in Iraq; Sending in the Marines; Throwing money at the VA; Whistleblowers tried to alert VA: Security ain't the problem in Afg; and a bit more.


By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

Militants claim that they've conducted a mass execution of Iraqi forces. The news out of Iraq didn't get any better over the weekend, as the White House scrambles for a viable response to the unraveling security situation there, sending the carrier George H.W. Bush as well as just this morning, an "amphib" ship full of Marines into the Arabian Gulf to give the administration more options. Over the weekend, the White House announced that it had sent another unit of Marines, to the embassy, to protect a potent target. But there's news that the Iraqi security forces' Sunni members died at the hands of a brutal militant group intent on bringing the crisis to the next level. The NYT's Rob Nordland and Alissa Rubin in Baghdad on Page One: "Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq's security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come. Even as anecdotal reports of extrajudicial killings around the country seemed to bear out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's intent to kill Shiites wherever it could, Iraqi officials and some human rights groups cautioned that the militants' claim to have killed 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit could not be immediately verified.

"But with their claim, the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus last year.

In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants' sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by ISIS were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group's stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region."

Col. Suhail al-Samaraie, head of the Awakening Council in Samarra, a pro-government Sunni grouping: "They are targeting anyone working with the government side, any place, anywhere."  More here.

Hagel sends an amphib into the Gulf. The Pentagon announced just a few minutes ago that it had sent the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde into the Arabian Gulf. Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby: "It's presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there -- including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush -- and provides the commander-in-chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them. USS Mesa Verde is capable of conducting a variety of quick reaction and crisis response operations.  The ship carries a complement of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft."

Meantime, the U.S. is considering talks with Iran amid the worsening security situation in Iraq. Reuters' Ziad al-Sanjary and Lesley Wroughton this hour: "The United States is contemplating talks with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government in its battle with Sunni Islamist insurgents who routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week. The stunning onslaught by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant threatens to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare across a crescent of the Middle East, with no regard for national borders that the fighters reject.

"Joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up the government of their mutual ally Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister, would be a major turn of events after hostility dating to Iran's 1979 revolution, and demonstrates the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance. More here.

Security is boosted at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and some personnel are relocated. Send in the Marines - that was basically the call as security falls apart and the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad becomes a potential target. The WaPo's Karen DeYoung: "The Defense Department has sent a contingent of about 50 Marines to provide security for the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and the State Department on Sunday ordered some embassy personnel to relocate to safer parts of Iraq or to leave the country.

"‘As a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq,' State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, ‘some' of the more than 5,000 embassy personnel are being sent to consulates in Basra, in the far south, and Irbil, in the northern Kurdish region. Others are being relocated to the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Jordan. ‘Overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the Embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission,' Psaki said in a statement.

"The announcements came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry made calls to his counterparts in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to discuss the crises in Iraq and Syria. Both the State and Defense departments emphasized in statements that there has been no request for the military to help evacuate personnel and that the relocations are being done by commercial, charter and government aircraft. The State Department maintains its own aircraft in Iraq, in addition to ground vehicles, to travel between the embassy and consulates." More here.

The rags-to-riches story of the man behind the ISIS, Al-Baghdadi. The WSJ's Matt Bradley: "As a master's-degree student at a university in Baghdad in 1997, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai was so poor he took cash handouts every month from a kindly professor, said a former classmate. Now flush with cash, armed to the teeth and backed by an army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, he is within striking distance of attacking the city where spent his humble youth. The rise of the militant Islamist leader, who changed his name to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2010, is a rags-to-riches story that mirrors the rise of the ISIS militia he now leads. By emphasizing practical gains over ideology and placing a premium on battlefield victories rather than lofty principals, Mr. Baghdadi's ISIS has become one of the most powerful militant Islamist groups, said experts on militant Islamism." Read the rest of this here.

Dexter Filkins in the forthcoming New Yorker on the Syria-Iraq connection: "...The border between Iraq and Syria may have effectively disappeared, but the dynamics driving the civil wars in those nations are not identical. In Syria, an oppressed majority is rising up; in Iraq, an oppressed minority. (The opposition fighters in both wars are mostly members of the Sunni sect.) Both countries just held elections: in Syria, the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, won in a display of empty theatre; in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to form a government for a third term, the elections were for the most part free. In Iraq, the dynamics driving the strife are largely Iraqi, and in Syria they are largely Syrian.

"Even so, the events unfolding in Iraq point toward a much wider war, reaching from the Iranian frontier to the Mediterranean coast. The long open border between Iraq and Syria, and the big stretches of ungoverned space, has allowed extremists on each side to grow and to support one another. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, two of the strongest groups fighting in Syria, were created by militant leaders from Iraq, many of whom had fought with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia against the United States. The vast swath of territory between the Euphrates and the Tigris-from Aleppo, in Syria, to Mosul, in Iraq-threatens to become a sanctuary for the most virulent Islamist pathologies, not unlike what flourished in Afghanistan in the years before 9/11.

"Among those fighting with ISIS and Al Nusra are hundreds of Westerners, from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. At some point, the survivors will want to go home; they will be well trained and battle-hardened." Read the rest, here.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

In defense of Obama: a former Pentagon official offers the real story behind the failure to sign a Status of Forces Agreement. Georgetown's Colin Kahl, the senior Pentagon official who was responsible for Iraq policy when the U.S. and Iraq failed to come up with a security agreement - that some would argue could have prevented the current situation - tells the story of what happened behind the scenes at the time. Kahl, for Politico Magazine: "...Ultimately, at great political risk, President Obama approved negotiations with the Iraqi government to allow a force of around 5,000 American troops to stay in Iraq to provide counterterrorism support and air cover and to train the Iraqi army. But, as commander in chief, he was unwilling to strand U.S. forces in a hostile, anti-American environment without the legal protections and immunities required to ensure soldiers didn't end up in Iraqi jails. These protections, which are common in nearly every country where U.S. forces operate, were guaranteed under the 2008 status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration; Obama simply demanded that they continue under any follow-on accord.

"Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This was the judgment of every senior administration lawyer and Maliki's own legal adviser, and no senior U.S. military commander made the case that we should leave forces behind without these protections. Even Sen. John McCain, perhaps the administration's harshest Iraq critic, admitted in a December 2011 speech discussing the withdrawal that the president's demand for binding legal immunities ‘was a matter of vital importance.'

"...Unfortunately, Iraqi domestic politics made it impossible to reach a deal. Iraqi public opinion surveys consistently showed that the U.S. military presence was deeply unpopular (only in Iraqi Kurdistan did a majority of people want American G.I.s to stay). Maliki was willing to consider going to parliament to approve a follow-on agreement, but he was not willing to stick his neck out. Other political factions would have to support the move, and the support wasn't there." More here.

Criticizing Obama: The President pulled the United States out of Iraq without actually ending the war - and now we're paying for it. Obama critic Kori Schake for FP: "Is this is what a ‘responsible withdrawal' from Iraq looks like? ... Soon, either Iraq will be the caliphate Osama bin Laden yearned for, or the Iraqi government will be beholden to Iran for preserving it. Iran will have achieved a stunning victory: dramatically expanding and consolidating its regional influence while getting us to ignore its domestic repression and lethal influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in hopes of a nuclear weapons deal. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be thrilled: so little invested, so much achieved." More here.

Nick Kristof puts the blame for the situation in Iraq on Maliki, here.
The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq - we should've known better. American University's Gordon Adams for FP: "What is happening in Iraq right now is both a cautionary tale and an unfolding tragedy. The lesson is not about leaving Iraq too early, nor is it about having a Status of Force Agreement that would have kept us there. It's not about firing the current national security team and appointing another one. It's not about the effectiveness of air power in halting the advance of an insurgency.

"The caution is about the blithe American assumption that the United States is omnipotent, that with enough money, good will, expertise, equipment, and training Americans can build foreign forces and bring security to troubled areas around the world. The tragedy is that what the U.S. does and has done leads down the road to failure. And more often than not, America bears the costs of its mistakes." More here.

Thomas Friedman offers five principles for thinking about Iraq, here.

Ross Douthat looks at the map of the Middle East, after Iraq, here.

Irony alert: For the WSJ, in what some might believe is a little rich, Paul Bremer, George W. Bush's envoy to Iraq in 2003-04, and the man to whom much blame goes for early American missteps, argues that only America can prevent a disaster in Iraq, here.

Just sayin' - with Iraq falling apart, suddenly everyone wants to have a "Situation Report." Obviously there are others out there - and some news organizations had "Situation Reports" before us. But now the think tanks are into it - Brookings' Ken Pollack wrote a blog - "Iraq Military Situation Report" - and the Institute for the Study of War has begun a  series of "Situation Reports" on what's happening there. We don't have a monopoly on the term, natch. But in our minds? There's just one Situation Report - FP's.

Meantime, the VA didn't want to hear about the problems its own people were saying was a problem. In the sad story of how a government bureaucracy that was trying to reform itself really didn't want to reform itself, the NYT today has a piece about the whistleblowers who couldn't be whistleblowers - because somewhere inside the VA, no one wanted to hear it. The NYT's Eric Lichtblau: "Staff members at dozens of Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country have objected for years to falsified patient appointment schedules and other improper practices, only to be rebuffed, disciplined or even fired after speaking up, according to interviews with current and former staff members and internal documents.

"The growing V.A. scandal over long patient wait times and fake scheduling books is emboldening hundreds of employees to go to federal watchdogs, unions, lawmakers and outside whistle-blower groups to report continuing problems, officials for those various groups said. In interviews with The New York Times, a half-dozen current and former staff members - four doctors, a nurse and an office manager in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Alaska - said they faced retaliation for reporting systemic problems." Read the rest of this story here.

So is the VA situation an "emergency" or not? Many people who know say the problems at the VA aren't necessarily about money - more about government ineptitude and bureaucratic backlash against those who speak up about problems. But Congress - perhaps in its guilt over the treatment of veterans - wants to throw money at the problem - a lot of it. AP: Spending on veterans' health care could double in three years under the Senate's solution to the long waits experienced by thousands seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics, according to congressional budget experts. Analyzing a bill the Senate passed overwhelmingly last Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure would add $35 billion over the next three years to the $44 billion the government now spends annually on medical care for veterans.

"Both the Senate bill and a House version also passed this past week would dramatically expand government-paid health care. They would require the Veterans Affairs Department to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments at the VA's nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics or who live at least 40 miles from one of them." More here.

Speaking of veterans, Bergdahl faces a long recovery. The LA Times' Molly Hennessy-Fiske in San Antonio: "Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who returned to the U.S. on Friday in good physical condition, probably faces a lengthy recovery adjusting to life after five years of captivity in Afghanistan, Army medical specialists said. Bergdahl, 28, arrived at a near-empty hangar at Ft. Sam Houston from Germany, where he received initial medical treatment and counseling. No family or friends had come to meet him." More here.

Meet the sixth man the Taliban wanted in the Bergdahl swap. Oddly, in the wide coverage of Hagel's hearing last week on Bergdahl before a House panel, it went largely unnoticed that there was to be another detainee as part of the Bergdahl deal - before the detainee died. FP's John Hudson: "In an offhand remark during congressional testimony this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed a morbid detail about the controversial swap the United States made for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: The Taliban originally wanted six Guantánamo detainees but didn't get their way. Not because the United States rejected the terms of the trade, but because the sixth man died in U.S. custody. Hagel to the HASC on Wednesday: "It actually started with six... One of them died."

"Although the revelation inspired no follow-up questions or explanations (lawmakers were more concerned about the administration leaving them in the dark about the Bergdahl deal), the White House revealed on Friday the sixth detainee's identity and the circumstances of his death, in a statement to Foreign Policy. ‘In initial talks, the Taliban also sought the transfer of Awal Gul, who later died in Guantánamo of a heart attack in February 2011,' White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said. ‘If you have further questions, please contact DOD.' The Pentagon declined to elaborate." More here.

The military appointed a general to investigate Bergdahl's situation. But the Pentagon isn't saying just who it is yet - that announcement will come from the Army shortly. He/she has a difficult job though, as the general officer has to lead an unbiased investigation that gets to the bottom of the case when there is so much rancor over it. USA Today's John Bacon: "A two-star general has been appointed to investigate Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and reports that he walked away from his post in Afghanistan prior to his capture by Taliban-aligned insurgents, multiple media outlets were reporting Sunday. CNN and NBC news were among outlets reporting the appointment, citing senior defense officials. Sources for both outlets, however, declined to name the general until the Pentagon formally announces the information. CNN said the general could begin his work as soon as this week." More here.

On Sunday's NYT op-ed page, Chelsea Manning says the U.S. military was complicit in suppressing press freedoms in Iraq. For the Sunday Review: "...If you were following the news during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, you might remember that the American press was flooded with stories declaring the elections a success, complete with upbeat anecdotes and photographs of Iraqi women proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. The subtext was that United States military operations had succeeded in creating a stable and democratic Iraq. Those of us stationed there were acutely aware of a more complicated reality.

"Military and diplomatic reports coming across my desk detailed a brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police, on behalf of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Detainees were often tortured, or even killed. Early that year, I received orders to investigate 15 individuals whom the federal police had arrested on suspicion of printing ‘anti-Iraqi literature.' I learned that these individuals had absolutely no ties to terrorism; they were publishing a scholarly critique of Mr. Maliki's administration. I forwarded this finding to the officer in command in eastern Baghdad. He responded that he didn't need this information; instead, I should assist the federal police in locating more ‘anti-Iraqi' print shops." More here.

Pakistan said it launched a major ground offensive Sunday to clear out the Pakistani Taliban and other local and foreign militants from the North Waziristan tribal area by the WSJ's Saeed Shah, here.

 

The Taliban's existential threat to Afghanistan wanes, but the next president faces big problems. It's maybe a good sign that, for now, security won't be the new Afghan government's biggest concern. Instead, it will be the bigger lifts, the ones that Afghanistan has always had to confront: corruption, governance and building an economy. The WaPo's Kevin Sieff: "As Afghans wait for the results from this weekend's presidential election, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Taliban - which failed to undermine the vote - no longer represents an existential threat to the country's government. But that is of little solace to the millions of Afghans who may face a graver enemy in the government itself - a bundle of inept and corruption-plagued institutions whose actions could threaten the gains of the past decade.

"About 7 million voters turned out Saturday, a showing some Afghans read as a repudiation of the Taliban and others saw as a sign of the electorate's desperation to reform a host of public institutions. The next president, who will be either former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, will inherit those institutions. On Sunday, both campaigns frantically tried to assess the election outcome, reporting dozens of cases of voting fraud to the country's election commission. The official results won't be released until early July. Neither candidate campaigned primarily on his ability to suppress the insurgency. Both found that the electorate had more pressing worries."

Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan watchdog organization: "I'm not concerned about the insurgency. The security forces are capable of dealing with it... But I am concerned about corruption and its impact on the economy."

One U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly: "The biggest concern is not the security situation - the Afghans have that mostly under control - but the political institutions." More here.