Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: The Pentagon gets the first hint of Iraq assessment; Holder: a potential "global crisis;" Bergdahl to return to service; A deal in Kabul; The "viability" of SESes.; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

For the Pentagon, a big week when it comes to Iraq. The final version of a classified assessment of the Iraqi security forces by U.S. military personnel lands on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's desk this week. It will spell out in painful detail just how ineffective the Iraqi security forces will be in combatting determined Sunni militants even if Baghdad won't likely fall. And although the U.S. military assessment is on the Iraqi forces, it will help provide some clarity in Washington about just how dire the situation in Iraq has become  - and how parlous sending U.S. advisers on the ground could be - as it triggers what will be a passionate debate on what to do now. The NYT's Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon on Page One: "A classified military assessment of Iraq's security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad's forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.

"The report concludes that only about half of Iraq's operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month. Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government's dependence on... Iranian-backed militias, officials caution."

One senior Obama administration official who has been briefed on the draft assessment: "It's a mess." More here.

And Obama's top lawyer reminded everybody over the weekend that the problems 'over there' in places like Syria could as easily be a problem right back here. Indeed, what is quietly animating administration anxiety is the long-held but now front-and-center fear that foreign fighters with American passports could bleed back into the U.S. with their violent, radical agendas. Then the problems that President Obama had sought to keep at arm's length overseas become issues of security in the homeland. The WSJ's Andrew Grossman: "Attorney General Eric Holder urged U.S. allies to toughen their strategy against the risk of Westerners traveling to fight in Syria's civil war and returning home radicalized and ready to commit domestic terrorist attacks. That prospect amounts to 'a global crisis,' Mr. Holder said in Oslo on Tuesday...

"Many would-be fighters traveling to Syria now join groups focused on conflicts within Islam and the Middle East. But Western officials are concerned the anti-Western ideology of some militant organizations will ultimately inspire attacks against Europe and the U.S. In Milan on Tuesday, eight European nations agreed to enhance their surveillance of Europeans who have gone or could go to Syria to fight alongside extremist Islamic groups in the country's bloody civil war." More here.

Can the Kurds prevent Maliki from sabotaging the country's oil infrastructure? FP's Keith Johnson: "Iraqi Kurds capped a week of steadily increasing tension with Baghdad by sending troops to seize oil fields near Kirkuk before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could take the extraordinary step of destroying some of his own country's oil installations. The move raises the specter of armed conflict between the restive northern region and the central government and seemingly accelerates the very disintegration of Iraq that the United States seeks to avoid." More here.

Arab Sunnis must confront ISIS. Tariq Alhomayed for al-Awsat: "... Whoever wins this war, will win the region. What is happening today in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, with terrorist acts being carried out in these countries by Al-Qaeda, the Houthis, the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and Hezbollah, demonstrates that the region as a whole is facing a new battle in this prolonged conflict. This new phase of the conflict is completely different from the initial phase that immediately followed 9/11." More here.

At the White House, there's a bandwidth issue as worlds collide. The WSJ's Jay Solomon and Carol Lee: "A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama's foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous. The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn't been seen since the late 1970s..." More here.

Is it time for Obama to return to a "team of rivals?" Below.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to be one of our subscribers, we'd love to have you. Sign up for Situation Report by sending 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, you, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

In Vienna, Kerry to hold talks with Iran's top diplomat in a bid to reverse the crumbling nuclear talks. AP this morning: "...The scheduled talks come a day after Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany failed to reach a breakthrough on uranium enrichment and other issues standing in the way of a deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the end of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran." More here.

The two Afghan candidates agree to a deal, brokered by Kerry, to hold a recount of millions of ballots. The WaPo's Erin Cunningham: "Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped ease a major political crisis in Afghanistan on Saturday, persuading rival presidential candidates to agree to a full recount of votes cast in a runoff election marred by widespread fraud. Emerging from at least 20 hours of talks over two days, Kerry said that United Nations and international observers, along with observers from each campaign, will preside over the inspection of all 8 million ballots, which international troops will transfer to Kabul from Afghanistan's 34 provinces. The winner of the recount, which Kerry said could take ‘many weeks,' will then form a national consensus government.

"...As the news conference concluded, Abdullah and Ghani raised their hands, then grabbed Kerry's and raised his, too." More here.

Despite the offensive, Gaza rockets continue to hit Israel. AP's Aaron Heller: "Israel says its punishing air assault on Hamas militants, their property and their weaponry has delivered a devastating blow to the Islamic militant group. Yet rocket fire at Israel has continued almost unabated. The military says that due to years of generous Iranian shipments, thousands of rockets remain in Gaza, and there is no quick way to eliminate the threat. It says its goal is to inflict so much pain on Hamas that it will be deterred from attacking Israel again - just like Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon have largely remained on the sidelines for the past eight years.
A senior military official involved in the fighting: "There is no knockout, it is more complicated... if there is a map of pain that the enemy sees, it will have to think about things." More here.
Thousands of Palestinians flee northern Gaza. AP's Karin Laub and Josef Federman from Gaza City: "Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people..." More here.

What Hamas wants and what Israel needs by Brookings' Natan Sachs for FP: "...But if we are interested in preventing the suffering rather than using it for political purposes, the real question is not whether Israel is stronger than Hamas (it is, and feels no need to apologize for that fact), nor whether Hamas spends its energy stoking terror (it does, and does not even claim otherwise) rather than on governing and developing Gaza. Faced with the terrible consequences of war, the real questions we face now are: How can this round of violence end? And what are the sides really after? More here.

The Houthis in Yemen: the new Hezbollah of the Arabian Peninsula? Yemen Post, here.

Yemen's president fires two senior commanders, AP: "...The report late Saturday gave no reason for their removal. However, it comes after Shiite Hawthi rebels took the northeastern city of Amran last week. They had been fighting against conservative Sunnis from one of the country's largest tribes backed by a local army unit." More here.

France wraps it up in Mali, redeploys its troops to the Sahel, AFP, here.

Really briefly noted: There was a time not long ago when, if North Korea launched two missiles, it would have made the front page. It just launched two short-range missiles in a test but barely justified full-length pieces. USA Today, here.

Who's Where When - Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon to welcome the Minister of State for Defense Affairs of Qatar Hamad bin Ali al Attiyah to the Pentagon at 11 a.m... Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is at Fort Stewart with 3rd Infantry Division.

Situation Report corrects - On Friday we noted that Hagel, a frequent swimmer, had given his Japanese counterpart underwater headphones. Of course it was the other way around, duh. Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera had given Hagel the headphones on his first trip to Japan. Apologies for the idiocy.

Bergdahl could return to active duty today. CNN's Barbara Starr: "Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has finished undergoing therapy and counseling at an Army hospital in San Antonio and could return to active duty as early as Monday, a defense official tells CNN... An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after his disappearance concluded he left his outpost deliberately and of his own free will, according to an official who was briefed on the report.

But there was no definitive conclusion Bergdahl was a deserter because that would require knowing his intent, something officials couldn't learn without talking to him, a U.S. military official has said." More here.

Russia vows to respond after shelling from Ukraine. Bloomberg's Daryna Krasnolutska and Olga Tanas: "Russia and Germany called for a resumption of Ukraine crisis talks as President Vladimir Putin's government condemned the shelling of its territory that left one person dead. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed during a meeting in Rio de Janeiro yesterday that international representatives should meet as soon as possible, probably via video link, said Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president's spokesman. The so-called contact group on Ukraine should work to secure a cease-fire and a resumption of monitoring, he said." More here.

A portrait of a rebel wedding in Ukraine by the NYT's Sabrina Tavernise and Noah Sneider, here.

The F-35 combat jet fails to take to the skies at Farnborough. From the BBC: "The F-35 combat jet, due to be used on the UK's new aircraft carriers, will not make its UK debut on the opening day of the Farnborough Airshow. However, it may still appear later in the week, organisers have said. Last week, the entire fleet of F-35s was grounded in the US following an engine fire. Plans for the jet to appear at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, Gloucestershire, last Friday were also cancelled. ‘The aircraft is still awaiting US DoD (Department of Defense) clearance but we are hopeful that it will fly at the airshow by the end of the week,' Farnborough organisers said in a statement." More here.
US industry and military leaders have unveiled a plan to cut costs in the F-35 program through investments in research and development. Defense News' Aaron Mehta, here.

Defense News' Intercepts blog (Mehta) spots a hint that four F-35B jets could make it to Farnborough, here.

US "bounces back" at Farnborough, on Breaking Defense, here.

Watch Kirk Spitzer's interview with Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of U.S. Air Forces Pacific.  Gen. Carlisle is in Japan this week to sign a new bi-lateral air defense plan with Japan and to visit with American pilots and servicemen and women at U.S. bases across the Japanese archipelago. The timing couldn't be better: Carlisle says tensions and the threat of miscalculation in the Asia-Pacific region have never been higher - and the timing of defense budget cuts couldn't be worse. Full interview here.

Building a better bullet: The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely. TIME's Mark Thompson, here.

Congress is asking some questions about civilian workers, including SESes and GSes who work at DoD. The WaPo's Joe Davidson: "Federal senior executives may not have realized there's a question about the existence of their elite crew. Yet, that's the implication from the title of last week's House hearing on 'The Viability of the Senior Executive Service.' ... With some members of Congress thinking that senior executives are overpaid and overprotected, there is a question about the viability of the SES in its current form. Congress now is poised to kill or badly cut certain SES civil-service protections in the Department of Veterans Affairs. That might just be the opening act." Note that it's not just SESes who are under scrutiny; tomorrow, there will be a hearing on "General Schedule" employees, too. More here.

Is it time for Obama to re-build a team of rivals? The WaPo's Fred

Hiatt on the op-ed pages: "Maybe it is time for a shake-up.

President Obama's second-term staffing was always going to be a risk. He abandoned his first term's team of rivals for a closer-knit team of loyalists. The bet was that he was assured enough in the job to no longer need the in-house challenge - and that smooth-running consensus would compensate for the loss. The bet isn't paying off. Overseas and at home, the administration seems besieged and befuddled. Obama is in danger of cementing an image of haplessness that would be hard to undo.

"In his first term, Obama surrounded himself with people with the independence and self-confidence to debate him and each other: his primary opponent Hillary Clinton at State; his predecessor's defense secretary, Bob Gates, staying on at the Pentagon; the formidable Richard Holbrooke coordinating Afghanistan-Pakistan policy; a former four-star general, James Jones, as national security adviser; Leon Panetta and David Petraeus at the CIA... Will Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Obama's pal from Senate days, or Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, his aide from the same era, question the president's world view or tell him that fundamental change is needed, as Gates or Emanuel might have?..." More here.

 

Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: Germany expels an American spy; Is Chalabi the answer in Iraq?; Bergdahl all smiles with the Taliban as new photo emerges; A new narrative in post Snowden-era; State runs out of visas for Afg. interpreters; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Could Ahmed Chalabi be Iraq's next leader? The Iraqi politician, long discredited by many inside the U.S., is among those who believe they could save Iraq - even if Chalabi denies he's interested in becoming the next prime minister. But with Washington's military assistance to Baghdad so tied to its demand for a political solution, the question at this point becomes, would anyone do as long as their name wasn't Maliki? For FP, Jane Arraf with "the resurrection of Ahmed Chalabi": "To many in the West, Chalabi, 69, is still the political operator who convinced the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, paving the way for the U.S.-led invasion of the country. But inside an Iraq dangerously on the verge of splintering, that invasion is almost ancient history. After almost a decade of being sidelined, the man who could not win a seat in parliament in 2005 and whose name once inspired insults scrawled on Baghdad walls has emerged as a serious contender to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Part of Chalabi's proposed reconciliation would be reviewing the cases of thousands of prisoners, most of them Sunnis, who have been arrested under sweeping anti-terrorism laws and held in jail without charge, or long past orders for their release. Chalabi says he would also appoint a judicial committee to review cases where people have been sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions.

"Then he would turn his attention to Iraq's bleeding economy and combat corruption. The former banker proposes a team of forensic auditors -- perhaps headed by the American former special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen -- to review contracts and contracting procedures in order to reduce Iraq's staggering corruption.

Chalabi, to Arraf for FP: "The facts, you see, add cumulatively to my credibility with all sections of society... These people proposing me to be prime minister -- [they are] not only among the Shiites but among the Sunnis and the Kurds." More here.

The Kurds this morning say they will no longer take part in Iraq's national government in protest against Maliki's accusation that they were harboring Islamist insurgents. Ahead of the Iraq Parliament convening on Sunday, a month earlier than planned, as pressure mounts on the Iraqis to reconcile, there are few signs that any such reconciliation is afoot. Reuters this hour: "...The Kurds said on Thursday they were cancelling their participation in cabinet meetings. Zebari told Reuters that Kurdish ministers were now suspending their day-to-day involvement the foreign, trade, migration and health ministries and the deputy premiership.

"[Kurdish minister] Zebari said the Kurds will continue to attend the parliament, elected on April 30, which is seeking to form a new government in the face of a Sunni insurgency that has seized large sections of northern and western Iraq. Maliki said on Wednesday the Kurds were allowing insurgents of the Islamic State (ISIL), an offshoot of al Qaeda, to base themselves in Arbil. Zebari said Iraq risked falling apart if a new inclusive government is not formed soon as 'the country is now divided literally into three states - 'Kurdish; a black state (ISIL) and Baghdad.' More here.

Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani should walk back his talk of a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurds. Amir Taheri for Asharq al-Awsat: "...Why did Barzani, a seasoned politician, decide to fly that kite at this time? Cynics claim he wanted to divert attention from his seizure of Kirkuk. A Persian proverb says that if you want an adversary to accept fever, threaten him with death. Thus, Barzani is inviting Iraqis to accept the loss of Kirkuk as a lesser evil compared to secession by the Kurdish autonomous region." More here.

ICYMI - The Committee for a Secular Iraq ran a full-page open letter to the American people in the WaPo yesterday, calling for the U.S. to "bring all sides to the table to negotiate a workable future for Iraq."  Find it here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to be one of our subscribers, we'd love to have you. Sign up for Situation Report by sending 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, you, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

The German government has taken the extraordinary step of ordering the top U.S. intelligence official in the embassy in Berlin to leave the country. The expulsion of the officer means the U.S. and Germany's relationship and ability to share intelligence is dramatically diminished just as the U.S. needs to keep its friends close as it grapples with Iraq and Syria, and the move potentially doesn't bode well for U.S. relationships with its other allies. FP's Shane Harris: "...The expulsion of the official, who wasn't named, follows the revelation last week that a 31-year-old German intelligence service employee has allegedly been giving classified government files to the United States, including documents about Germany's own investigation into U.S. spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was exposed by Edward Snowden. The expulsion of the most senior American intelligence official in Germany, known as the chief of station, seems unprecedented.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said it's a sign that trust is broken: "When they throw out the chief of station, that's a very strong indication that the Germans are ticked... It sends that message to the U.S. But it also lets Merkel send a message to the people on her left, who are outraged about the spying Snowden exposed, and to keep them under control, too." More here.

The Justice Department declines to investigate CIA review. The NYT's David Joachim: "The Justice Department has declined to pursue dueling claims by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which had accused each other of criminal behavior related to the committee's investigation of the agency's interrogation practices, the department said on Thursday. 'The department carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation,' a spokesman, Peter Carr, said in a written statement." More here.

And speaking of intelligence, FP's Harris explores the new narrative in the post-Snowden world: "To hear some of America's top intelligence officials tell it, the damage the most famous leaker in history inflicted on U.S. spying might not be as severe as previously thought, and the storm that beset the National Security Agency when former contractor Edward Snowden exposed a trove of top-secret documents to journalists may finally be subsiding." More here.

On Day Four, there are no signs of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.  Reuters' Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Ori Lewis this morning: "Israeli air strikes on Gaza killed four more Palestinians before dawn on Friday, raising the death toll from the four day offensive to at least 85, while a Palestinian rocket hit a fuel tanker at an Israeli petrol station causing a huge blaze. Israeli leaders, determined to end Palestinian rocket attacks deep into the Jewish state, have hinted that they could order the first ground invasion of the coastal strip in five years. Some 20,000 army reservists have been mobilized. The Israeli military said it launched fresh naval and air strikes early on Friday, giving no further details." More here.

This morning's Ha'aretz editorial cautions Israel against repeating past mistakes: "...After Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, during which hundreds of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip were killed, Israel paid a heavy price in the form of international censure, which reached its peak in the Goldstone report. Israel should have learned its lesson and been as careful as possible to avoid harming civilians. But the first few days of Operation Protective Edge make us fear that Israel hasn't learned anything. The growing body count not only damages its international standing, it is first and foremost a corruption of its own moral character." More here.


The AP's Aaron Heller on how Israel's 'Iron Dome' changes the face of battle,
here.

Who's Where When today - Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon at the Pentagon for Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera at 1:45 p.m and then Hagel does a presser with him at 3:15 p.m (though they rarely start on time)... Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos participates in the change of command at I MEF, Camp Pendleton.

The Japanese Defense Minister visited Hagel's alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Wednesday. Onodera did some homework at the school ahead of today's meeting with Hagel. Read more from Omaha.com, here.

Onodera: he'll buy more Joint Strike Fighters - if the price drops. Onodera to reporters during a visit to the Lockheed factory this week, according to Kyodo News via Global Post, July 9: '"If the unit price falls, it may be important to reconsider the number of fighters (Japan will buy)' ... He held talks with senior officials from Lockheed Martin at the factory." More here.

Meantime, the F-35 remains grounded as Hagel visits a training facility in Florida. Stars and Stripes' Jon Harper: "Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed strong support for the Joint Strike Fighter program Thursday, a week after the entire F-35 fleet was grounded due to safety concerns.

Hagel to troops at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla: "I believe this aircraft is the future for our fight aircraft for our services. This is as big a project...as we have at the Department of Defense, and we've got a lot riding on this aircraft, as well as eight partners around the world who have invested in this aircraft."

"...On Thursday, Hagel said the engine inspections are complete, but investigators are still looking at the data they have collected and haven't issued any recommendations yet as to when flights can resume." More here.

Hagel, an avid swimmer, gave Onodera underwater headphones to use to swim during his first visit to Japan ­- did he bring them on the trip?

The military's top brass is less concerned about the Taliban 5 than Congress. FP's John Hudson: "Despite thunderous claims from lawmakers that the five Taliban prisoners released for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May represented the 'hardest of the hard core' -- members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold a markedly different view of the threat posed by the former detainees. On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released seven separate letters from the members of the nation's senior military leadership explaining their supportive opinions on the concessions the United States made to free Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner by the Haqqani network since 2009." Find the five main arguments the military offered, and the letters themselves, here.

A new Bergdahl photo is "100 percent propaganda," the Pentagon says. USA Today's Jim Michaels: "The photo of a smiling Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl posted to a Twitter account by a Taliban sympathizer is being dismissed by the Pentagon as '100% propaganda.' Bergdahl was "held up in brutal conditions for a half a decade," said Col. Steve Warren, a military spokesman. "We're glad that he is back." NBC News reported that a Taliban official said the photo was released by a Twitter account belonging to a Taliban sympathizer. Bergdahl, the Army soldier who was held captive for five years by the Taliban after leaving his base in Afghanistan, is seen with a smile standing beside a Taliban commander who has his arm around Bergdahl's shoulder. The photo could not be authenticated as depicting an actual scene that was not manipulated. The Pentagon pointed out that Bergdahl was held captive by a ruthless enemy and would have no way of preventing the Taliban from staging photographs." More here.

Could the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces wind up in as bad shape as their counterparts in Iraq? FP's Kate Brannen: "Hanging over the confirmation hearing Thursday for the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan was not the country's disputed election or its widespread corruption, both of which threaten to unravel any progress the United States has made there. Instead, Gen. John Campbell faced questions about Iraq, where, in parts of the country, militants from the Islamic State have overrun security forces trained by the United States at a cost of more than $25 billion. Now it's believed that, without help, the Iraqi security forces will be unable to retake areas seized by the Islamic State.

"But not so long ago, U.S. military officials were confident in the capabilities of the units they were training in Iraq and would update Congress and the media about the progress they were making in building those units' capacity. What members of the Senate Armed Services Committee heard Thursday morning about the Afghan military -- that it's capable and mostly responsible for the largely nonviolent elections that took place in April and June -- sounds eerily familiar. And they fear that as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, what's happening in Iraq is a preview of what could happen in Afghanistan.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.): "I watch and analyze the mistakes in Iraq, and I think many of them are going to come to pass in Afghanistan."

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): "I would suggest that one of your missions is to continue to assess the readiness and the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces, because it wasn't ISIS so much as the collapse of the Iraqi Army that led to the debacle that's currently unfolding in Iraq." More here.

Amid an election impasse in Kabul, Kerry tries to broker an election-audit deal between Abdullah and Ghani. The WSJ's Ian Talley and Nathan Hodge in Kabul: "...It is unclear how the Obama administration plans to broker a compromise. Mr. Kerry said he has contacted both candidates several times, encouraging them ‘not to raise expectations for their supporters, [and] to publicly demonstrate respect for the audit process.' Administration officials say the U.S. isn't trying pick a winner, but rather to ensure that the election is seen as legitimate so that the new government has a mandate for power.

"...Mr. Abdullah claims that as many as 2 million fraudulent ballots were cast on Mr. Ghani's behalf, out of an official tally of 8.1 million-an accusation denied by his opponent. Mr. Ghani says higher voter turnout in the second-round vote was due to more effective voter mobilization by his campaign. On the eve of Mr. Kerry's arrival, Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed a plan presented by the United Nations to audit 8,000 polling stations, the president's spokesman said." More here.

Afghan interpreters are in limbo at State. Interpreters who put their lives at huge risk for American personnel and are now hoping to relocate to the U.S. are in limbo as State is running out of visas to give them. The WaPo's Ernesto Londono, here.

The VA is overpaying administrative staff by millions an internal audit finds. The HuffPo's David Wood: "The scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs is systematically overpaying clerks, administrators and other support staff, according to internal audits, draining tens of millions of dollars that could be used instead to ease the VA's acute shortage of doctors and nurses. The jobs of some 13,000 VA support staff have been flagged by auditors as potentially misclassified, in many cases resulting in inflated salaries that have gone uncorrected for as long as 14 years.

"Rather than moving quickly to correct these costly errors, VA officials two years ago halted a broad internal review mandated by federal law. As a result, the overpayments continue. Moreover, in the two years since thousands of misclassified jobs were identified, hundreds of additional positions have been filled at improperly high salaries. Internal VA documents obtained by The Huffington Post show that between September 2013 and May 2014, for instance, overpayments in annual salaries for the latter jobs alone came to $24.4 million, not counting benefits." More here.

SOCOM troops could be becoming "frayed." The Hill's Martin Matishak at yesterday's confirmation hearing: "The Obama administration's nominee to lead the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on Thursday expressed concerns about the physical and mental health of the troops he could soon command. Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the 67,000 special operators force could be 'fraying' after being 'operationally active for a long time.' However, the troops 'remain effective in the tasks' assigned to them and can continue offering 'unique solutions to challenging problems,' he added during his confirmation hearing." More here.

Obama's counterterrorism blueprint looks good, on paper by the WaPo's David Ignatius, here.

Meantime, how strong is the U.S. Navy? James Holmes for War on the Rocks, here.

China's heavy-handed behavior is driving neighbors, especially Australia, farther away from its orbit. FP's Keith Johnson: "For years, policymakers from Down Under have worried about just how long the country could balance moving ever closer to China in terms of economic interests with maintaining deep defense ties with the United States as tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific. With the U.S. 'pivot to Asia' -- featuring a leading role for Australia -- and growing concern about China's heavy-handed diplomacy, those fears had been intensifying... On Tuesday, just weeks after doubling down on security ties with the United States, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed sweeping economic and defense deals, reaffirming the two countries' ‘special relationship.' The deals, which include plans for joint development of advanced submarines, indicate Abbott's vocal support for Abe's more muscular military posture -- while also sending a clear message to China." More here.