Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: John Kerry is headed to Egypt for cease-fire talks; MH17 crash site in chaos; Dutch experts finally gain access; Wendy Anderson is headed to Africa; Slow going for Afghanistan’s election audit; and a bit more.

 How much worse do things have to get in Israel before they get better? More then 500 Palestinians have now died in the two-week conflict and Israel says 18 of its soldiers have been killed along with two civilians. The question is how long is this going to go on before the two sides strike a cease-fire? Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.N.'s Ban Ki-Moon are in Cairo today to try to bring the two sides to the table after a weekend of terrible violence.

 Sunday was the deadliest day in Gaza, reports The NYT's Anne Barnard and Isabel Kershner: "The mayhem began in the early hours of Sunday morning in Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, where Israeli forces battled with Hamas militants ... At least 60 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and officers were killed in Shejaiya alone, and the shattered neighborhood was quickly becoming a new symbol of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, underlining the rising cost of this latest Gaza war." More here.

 U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon calls the attack on Shejaiya ‘an atrocious action': During a press conference alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiya, Ban said, "While I was en route to Doha, dozens more civilians, including children, have been killed in Israeli military strikes in the Shejaiyah neighborhood in Gaza. I condemn this atrocious action. Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians."

Still, the shelling continued through Sunday night and into this morning. Reuters' Nidal al-Mughrabi and Crispian Balmer: "Israeli forces killed at least 10 Palestinian militants on Monday after they crossed the border from Gaza through two tunnels, the military said, as the death toll from the two-week conflict passed 500.With the U.N. Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire, Israeli jets and tanks continued to pound the Gaza Strip through the night." More here.

And Ya'alon says more reservists could be called up. The Jerusalem Post's Lahav Harkov: "The IDF will call up reservists and continue fighting until quiet is returned, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday." Ya'alon: "We are prepared to continue the operation as long as necessary, and, if necessary, to enlist more combat forces from the reserves until we bring quiet to the Gaza Strip." More here.

 Two Americans are among the Israeli soldiers reported dead: USA Today's William M. Welch: "Jewish websites in the United States identified them as Max Steinberg, 24, of Los Angeles and Sean Carmeli, 21, of South Padre Island, Texas. Both reportedly held U.S. and Israeli dual citizenship." More here.

 And both were members of the Golani Brigade, an elite unit that lost 13 soldiers on Sunday. The WSJ's Joshua Mitnick: "Golani occupies a legendary place in Israeli history. The unit retook Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights from Syrian forces that had seized the area during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In 2006, the last time Israel suffered such high toll, it also came at the expense of the Golani unit. Eight soldiers were killed while fighting in the southern Lebanon war at Bint Jbeil." More here.

It's still unclear whether Hamas captured an Israeli soldier. The AP's Karin Laub and Tia Goldenberg: "Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri in Gaza claimed Sunday evening his group had captured an Israeli soldier. An announcement on Gaza TV of the soldier's capture set off celebration in the streets of Gaza City. But the claim could not immediately be verified and the Israeli military said it was investigating the report." More here.

With the death toll rising, Arab governments finally speak out. FP's Jamila Trindle: "The intensity of the combat in Gaza -- and the growing civilian death toll -- brought the first significant criticism of Israel by Arab governments, who had surprised and angered many Palestinians because of their relative silence on the combat. On Sunday, though, the head of the Arab League blasted the Israeli offensive as a ‘war crime' and a ‘dangerous escalation.'

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is caught on a hot mic. As he did the rounds on the Sunday shows yesterday, Kerry indicated that Hamas "deserved the bulk of the blame for its barrages of rockets into Israel and for rejecting an Egyptian cease-fire offer to the two sides," FP's Trindle reports.

"But in a phone conversation, caught on tape by Fox News before an interview, Kerry seemed to criticize Israel's operation for hitting civilians in what was supposed to be a targeted strike to close down tunnels that Hamas fighters burrowed into Israel... ‘It's a hell of a pinpoint operation,' Kerry said, on a cell phone call, apparently unaware that his microphone was already on. When confronted by Fox host Chris Wallace, Kerry didn't back away from his comments."

 Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the biggest loser is the Palestinian Authority. Hussein Ibish for FP, here.

 Gaza's residents, under a constant barrage of Israeli bombs, are being told to evacuate to stay safe. If they could escape, they would. Sharif Abdel Kouddous from Gaza City for FP, here.

 For TNR, Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon with a behind-the-scenes profile of Kerry's peace process, here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing further isolation this week. With the evidence mounting against Pro-Russian separatists for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, Putin will have to decide how to respond to the growing international pressure. Adding to the world's anger are scenes of mayhem from the crash-site.

 Earlier today, experts finally gained access after a weekend of being blocked. The NYT's David M. Herszenhorn, Sabrina Tavernise and Neil MacFarquhar: A pair of Dutch forensics experts finally gained access on Monday to the remains of the victims from the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine after days of standoffs over access to the site and growing pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to clear the way for a full international investigation." More here.

 Still, chaos at the crash site is fueling anger at Russia. FP's Jamila Trindle: "World leaders expressed disgust at the treatment of the Malaysia Airlines crash site by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine and increased their demands that Russian President Vladimir Putin do more to rein them in.

"Anger grew over the weekend as reports surfaced that separatists had barred international inspectors from taking bodies from the site, and even looted some of the luggage strewn across a broad swath of land near the site where the plane went down. Secretary of State John Kerry summed up the frustration Sunday morning."

Kerry sums it up CBS's "Face the Nation": "Here's what's currently bothering everybody, drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site." More here.

 All eyes turn to the U.N. Security Council today. Reuters' Anton Zverev and Matt Spetalnick report it "is scheduled to vote on Monday on a resolution that would condemn the downing of the plane and demands that those responsible be held accountable and that armed groups not compromise the integrity of the crash site.

 The EU is divided over severity of sanctions. The FT's Alex Barker in Brussels, Hugh Carnegy in Paris, Jim Pickard in London and Chris Bryant in Frankfurt: "Britain, France and Germany put Vladmir Putin on notice over possible fresh EU sanctions as soon as Tuesday, but the common front belies longstanding divisions over how to penalise Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis. During a flurry of calls on Sunday, the leaders of the EU's three biggest economies warned Moscow over further sanctions if it did not help establish a safe environment to recover bodies and investigate the MH17 crash." More here.

 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that 'further escalation is not out of the question' in Ukraine. Read his interview with Spiegel, here.

 Meanwhile, Russian billionaires are ‘in horror' as Putin risks further isolation. Bloomberg' s Henry Meyer and Irina Reznik, here.

 The New Republic's Julia Ioffe on some of the conspiracy theories being spread in Russia about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: "As the crisis surrounding the plane crash deepens and as calls for Vladimir Putin to act grow louder, it's worth noting that they're not really getting through to Putin's subjects. The picture of the catastrophe that the Russian people are seeing on their television screens is very different from that on screens in much of the rest of the world, and the importance of this discrepancy does not bode well for a sane resolution to this stand-off."

Some of the crackpot theories: the plane was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam; it veered off its standard flight plan; and it had recently been re-insured.

What's the message behind these messages? "The pro-Russian separatists we've been supporting all these months couldn't have done this," writes Ioffe. 

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 kate.brannen@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: @k8brannen, @glubold and @njsobe4.

 Who's Where When today - Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos are participating in the Medal of Honor ceremony for Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts at the White House. Stars and Stripes' Chris Carroll has more on Pitts' actions during an attack on an isolated outpost in Afghanistan's Kunar province in 2008.

What influence does Vice President Joe Biden have on the White House's foreign policy? The New Yorker's Evan Osnos addresses that question and many more in a new piece in the July 28 issue of the magazine.

In an interview President Barack Obama tells Osnos, "On the foreign-policy front, I think Joe's biggest in?uence was in the Afghanistan debate." Obama continues, "You had Bob Gates, who proved to be an outstanding Secretary of Defense, but obviously was somewhat invested in continuity from the previous Administration, when it came to Afghanistan policy." He goes on, "What Joe helped me to do was to consistently ask the question why, exactly, are we there? And what resources, exactly, can we bring to bear to achieve speci?c goals?-rather than get caught up in broader ideological debates that all too often end up leading to overreach or a lack of precision in our mission."

And then there were two: Wendy Anderson is leaving the building and headed to Africa. Anderson, now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's deputy chief of staff, was one of the three individuals widely known to be under Hagel's consideration to become the Secretary's right-hand man or woman. But she announced late Friday that she is leaving the Pentagon for another job inside the administration. That means there are now only two candidates left: Elissa Slotkin and Rex Ryu. Hagel's current chief of staff, Mark Lippert, has been nominated to go to Seoul's Habib House as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and is preparing to leave the building in the next couple months if the Senate gives his confirmation the nod, as it's expected to do. The next chief of staff will be Hagel's third in less than 18 months if you count Marcel Lettre, who served in an acting role before becoming the principal deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence last year.

In an email to friends obtained by Situation Report, Anderson said she was approached to take on "an exciting leadership and management position" inside the administration but outside the Pentagon. Anderson, in the email: "...As I move ahead, I want to take a moment to thank everyone - for your unequivocal commitment to national defense, our troops, and their families; for your tireless work ethic and discipline; for your many notable examples of how to lead inspiringly and manage effectively; for your laser focus on mission; for your decency and humility; and most importantly, for your friendship."

Anderson thanked the principals under whom she has served, including Hagel, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Ashton Carter, Christine Fox, Marty Dempsey, and Sandy Winnefeld. "...Additionally, I want to recognize Mark Lippert, Jeremy Bash, Robert Rangel, Jonathan Lachman, John Kelly, Ron Lewis, Eric Smith, and Sam Said, talented pals for whom I have great respect and affection. As they have had the nation's back, they've also had mine.

"But there is no group to whom I owe more profound thanks than our men and women in uniform and their families."

Anderson said she is headed to Africa for vacation and then will return in coming weeks to share the news of where exactly she is going. 

First look: A new report from CNAS on cybersecurity. Richard Danzig, who served as Navy secretary under former President Clinton and now advises the Obama administration, is out with a new report today titled, "Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America's Cyber Dependencies."

"Successful strategies must proceed from the premise that cyberspace is continuously contested territory in which we can control memory and operating capabilities some of the time  but cannot be assured of complete control all of the time or even of any control at any particular time. Policymakers must make a judgment about when to intervene and when to allow market forces to determine exposure to this risk," Danzig writes.

The report will be released today at a 4 p.m. event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. More here.

It's going to be slow going for Afghanistan's election audit, reports AFP: "Four days after Afghanistan began a massive audit of millions of votes cast in the run-off presidential election, disagreements and a shortage of observers have slowed progress ... The audit began last Thursday and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said last week it planned to take around three weeks, with teams working in two shifts auditing around 1,000 ballot boxes a day. But with only 435 ballot boxes checked since Thursday, the exercise is expected to take longer than planned." More here.

And any deal on Iran's nuclear program is also going to take longer than planned. FP's Yochi Dreazen: "The United States, Iran, and five other major powers said late Friday that they would extend the high-stakes talks over Iran's nuclear program for four months while negotiators try to close what both sides acknowledge to be major divides over several issues ... Obama administration officials insist that the talks have made major progress that justified giving negotiators until November to pursue a final deal. In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said "the very real prospect of reaching a good agreement that achieves our objectives necessitates that we seek more time." More here.

The U.S. continues to stay the course on Iran by threatening pain and offering relief. The NYT's David Sanger: "Behind President Obama's decision on Friday to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations for four more months is a calculation that the administration has the mix of pressure and incentives just about right: That by keeping the most damaging sanctions, but giving Tehran a taste of what access to its overseas cash reserves might mean, a deal is possible.

"Congress, and some nuclear experts pushing for a harder line, strongly disagree. It was overwhelming sanctions, and the pressure of covert action against Iran's nuclear program, that brought the country to the table, they argue. To get a final deal, they contend, the formula is simple: More sanctions, more pressure, and behind it all the lurking threat of military action. More here.

 Former Obama advisor Robert Einhorn, in a post for Brookings' blog, says that the extension is better for the P5+1 than for Iran, but warns that enrichment remains the primary outstanding issue in the nuclear talks, here.

You know there's a lot going on in the world when news from Iraq is far from the top news story. Iraqi officials said special forces secured full control of a former U.S. military base on the outskirts of Tikrit on Sunday. The WSJ's Nour Malas and Ali Nabhan: "...Camp Speicher, the headquarters for U.S. forces in northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion and subsequent war, has become a focal point in the fight between Iraqi forces and Islamist militants in the country's north. The battle for the former American base holds significance both because of its strategic location and in the propaganda war between the two sides. Militants from the extremist group that calls itself Islamic State seized Camp Speicher-now an Iraqi air force and military base-shortly after taking control of Tikrit on June 11. Fighting flared on and off around it until government forces pushed militants out earlier this month in a major ground and air campaign. Failing to keep full control of the camp, some 37 miles northwest of Tikrit, would deprive Iraqi forces and allied militias of a strategic staging ground, local officials and military analysts say." More here.

More than 700 people were killed in Syria over the course of Thursday and Friday, in what activists say were the bloodiest 48 hours of fighting in the conflict to date. Al-Awsat's Paula Astih: "...The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Rami Abdul Rahman, told Asharq Al-Awsat that this was the first time casualties had topped 700 in the space of two days since the conflict began in 2011. He contrasted the violence to the gas attack in the Ghouta region close to Damascus last year, which he said killed around 500 people." More here.

 Meanwhile, a deadly battle is raging over Libya's international airport. AP's Maamoun Youssef: "Clashes between rival Libyan militias fighting for control of the international airport in the capital, Tripoli, have killed 47 people over the past 24 hours, Libya's Health Ministry said ... The weeklong battle over the airport is being waged by a powerful militia from the western city of Zintan, which controls the facility, and Islamist-led militias, including fighters from Misrata, east of Tripoli. The clashes resumed Sunday after cease-fire efforts failed." More here.

The Air Force is scrutinizing SpaceX's civilian space flights. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio with the scoop:  "The Air Force is examining several anomalies that occurred during Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s three civilian space flights as part of its review of billionaire Elon Musk's quest to launch military satellites. While none of the irregularities caused the missions to fail, the Air Force is reviewing corrective actions as it weighs certification of SpaceX. Musk's company wants a piece of a $67.6 billion Pentagon program for satellite launches, a market held by a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., the government's top two contractors." More here.

 

Situation Report

FP's Situation Report: Still no hard evidence to pin downing of jet on separatists; Three-star: military force and passion don't mix; Israel targets Hamas tunnels, ops; Dunford on ambiguity on drawdown plans; and a bit more.

 

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel 

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has created a full-blown international crisis. The origins of the anti-aircraft missile that U.S. officials confirm blew the jetliner out of the sky as it passed over a rebel-controlled area of eastern Ukraine are still unclear this morning. But it's certain that the crash of the plane, killing all 298 people aboard, will bring extreme international pressure to resolve the problems that have been festering in Ukraine for months since Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine this winter. But for now, there are still a number of questions for which there are few easy answers.

AP is reporting just minutes ago that Putin is calling for peace talks. AP: "Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a cease-fire Friday in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. A day earlier, Putin had blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions - but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile." More here.

Meantime, the origin of the missile remains unclear even if suspicion falls heavily on Russian-backed rebels operating in that region of Ukraine. U.S. and international military and intelligence officials are trying to pinpoint just where the missile that shot the plane down came from. If that effort confirms that rebels shot the plane - even mistakenly, because they may have thought it was the kind of Ukrainian cargo jet they've shot down in the past - it will force the White House and other countries to come to grips with how they will address Moscow, which is seen by many as having created the conditions in which this could happen in the first place.

A NATO official in an email to Situation Report this morning on tracking the missile: "Two NATO AWACS surveillance planes were on patrol over Poland and Romania at the time of the incident. Their flight records are being reviewed. However, given the great distance of the AWACS patrol routes from the area where the Malaysian airlines flight went down, we do not expect that our aircraft recorded the incident."

The Kyiv Post reports that intercepted phone conversations between Russian-backed Cossack militants prove the origin of the missile. Citing information released by Ukraine's security agency, SBU, the Kyiv Post reports: "...One phone call apparently was made at 4:40 p.m. Kyiv time, or 20 minutes after the plane crash, by Igor Bezler, who the SBU says is a Russian military intelligence officer and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. He reports to a person identified by Ukraine's SBU as a colonel in the main intelligence department of the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Vasili Geranin regarding the shot down plane, which is about to be examined by the militants." More here.

Putin puts it all on Ukraine: FP's Reid Standish: "In a televised statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Ukraine bore sole responsibility for the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a 'disaster' that he said would not have occurred if Kiev had not resumed its military campaign against pro-Russian separatists. 'And without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy,' he said, before adding that he had urged Russian authorities to do everything possible to help investigate the incident."

Still, a number of other things remain unclear, too. Chief among them is who missed what intelligence that would have ceased flights of commercial jetliner traffic across Ukraine, putting ML17 within shooting distance of weaponry U.S. and international officials knew pro--Russian separatists to have had. Commercial aviation had been operating in and over Ukraine but no one put two plus two together. Naturally, major airlines have now banned such flights from the region.

Why was Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 flying through a war zone?  Clive Irving for the Daily Beast, here.

There is still no official confirmation of the number of Americans dead. But reports indicate more than 20 Americans were on the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight with a total of 298 passengers and crew on board.

What now? As American and European flight crash investigators are headed to the scene to investigate the crash and there are calls for the U.N. to step in. FP's Colum Lynch: "Britain's newly minted foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, called for a 'U.N.-led investigation into the facts' of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, saying he was 'deeply shocked' by the incident, noting that an unknown number of British nationals were on board the plane. 'This must be resolved by an international investigation,' Hammond said, adding that British authorities were still trying to determine the number of British nationals on board the plane when it crashed in Ukraine. 'We believe the United Nations, particularly the United Nations civil aviation organization, is the right body to lead that investigation,' Hammond said. 'We are prepared to make Air Accident Investigation Branch assets and specialists available to aid such an investigation.'"

Read more of FP's live blog on ML17 all day today, here.

What the right says on this: Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, in a statement: "The failure of the United States and our allies in Europe to enact serious consequences against Russia for their involvement in Ukraine has allowed the crisis in Ukraine to fester with deadly and tragic consequences. If the culprit is confirmed as Russia, President Obama should address the issue head on and institute serious ramifications."

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of NATO Land Command in Turkey, thinks the situation is grave but doesn't think jumping to military solutions right now is the answer. Hodges, in an interview with SitRep this morning, said as the investigation unfolds, the most important thing is for the international community to do more to push forcefully for political solutions in the region. But in the meantime, assuming Russian-backed separatists did in fact shoot down the plane, it means Moscow will be forced to rein in those separatists, he said.

"This is really going to put pressure on Russia to get these guys under control," Hodges told SitRep.

Meantime, he said, expanding exercises in the region to demonstrate a show of force while pushing Russia and Ukraine on the political front is the first answer even as critics will inevitably demand a more military-oriented response to the downing of the jet. "A political solution is so much better than any other course of action," he said. "To launch forces... when you're passionate, that's not the best circumstances in which to use military force."

Congress has been debating the European Reassurance Initiative, a $1 billion program to increase training in the region and build up necessary infrastructure in the region for allies to conduct such training. Hodges said such exercises are critical right now - not only for their training value but for the show of force they provide. He said he hopes Congress acts fast to approve the initiative.

You'd think the downing of the Malaysian jet would seem to be a game-changer in the conflict. But security analysts hold out little expectation that will be the case. CS Monitor's Howard LaFranchi, here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. Poor timing, but we're going off the grid for a little while. FP's own Kate Brannen will be driving this SitRep train through the end of the month and we know SitRep will be in very capable hands with her and Nathaniel. Be back soon. Meantime, 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.

Of course there was another crisis - in the Middle East, and Israel launches a ground invasion in Gaza focused on the tunnels. FP's Hudson: "...The purpose of the ground offensive, according to a statement by the Israeli government, is to destroy the tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel that enable Hamas fighters to attack Israeli citizens. ‘[The operation] will deal significant damage to the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip,' Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said in a statement.

An Arab diplomat in New York told FP: "There is intense effort being made by President Abbas in Cairo in trying to finalize what would be a cease-fire... That's where all the efforts are for the moment." More here.

And the first Israeli solider was killed in the northern Gaza Strip. AP: "Israel on Friday announced its first casualty since the start of a ground operation in Gaza, with one soldier killed following a night of heavy fighting in the Hamas-ruled enclave. The military said the soldier was killed in the northern Gaza Strip, but the circumstances behind his death were not immediately clear... In a statement, the military said it killed 14 militants in a number of exchanges of fire. It targeted rocket launchers, tunnels and more than 100 other targets. The military said 50 rockets have been fired at Israel since the start of its ground operation, out of more than 1,500 since the fighting began last week." More here.

Israel's late-night assault shows the past week's attempts at talks were a sham all along. Gregg Carlstrom for FP: "The day started with a cease-fire, and ended with a ground invasion. Israeli troops moved across the border into the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday night, the first large-scale ground offensive since a 2008-2009 war that killed more than 1,400 people and caused widespread destruction. The invasion, announced at around 10:30 p.m. local time, followed hours of heavy shelling aimed at clearing improvised explosive devices from the border.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would seek to destroy "terror tunnels," after two attempted Palestinian incursions into southern Israel in the past two weeks, one of which left eight Hamas gunmen dead on Thursday morning. The army will also target the launchers which various groups have used to fire more than 1,000 rockets at Israel. It is a major escalation that was never really supposed to happen: By all accounts, Netanyahu was reluctant to send ground troops into Gaza, despite mounting pressure from the public and the right flank of his coalition." More here.  

Why collateral damage foils the best-laid plans of "limited" war makers. FP's David Rothkopf: "Modern low-intensity conflicts are won and lost on their ragged edges. Nations act as though the careful plans of their militaries and intelligence operations can harness the chaos of combat and guide it to advance their interests. And then the unplanned happens, collateral damage occurs, and it has a bigger impact on politics and the position of combatants than all the calculated elements of the conflict added up." More here.

Meantime, former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh warn of Tehran's attempts to leverage its involvement in Iraq to extract a better nuclear deal: "What is missed is that Tehran and Washington have incompatible strategic objectives. The U.S. needs a stable and inclusive Iraq, while Iran's ambitions lie in preserving a Shiite-dominated state that relies on Tehran for its survival. If we are not careful, the clerical regime will seek to leverage the chaos in Mesopotamia to extract nuclear concessions from us before the Sunday deadline for a deal as talks continue in Vienna this week. We need to be careful not to create indebtedness, even perceived indebtedness." More here.

Hawks looking to sanction Iran are facing opposition from U.S. businesses.  FP's Jamila Trindle,here.

Meantime, this would have been bigger news on any other day. Gen. Joe Dunford, nominated to become the next Marine Corps Commandant after his long tour as the Afghanistan war commander, was asked yesterday during his confirmation hearing as Commandant about President Barack Obama's decision to announce the U.S. drawdown plans over the next two years - a move that many Afghan hands and other critics have decried was foolish and, for the White House, politically unnecessary.

McCain, at the hearing: "Is there any doubt in your mind that the announcement of a complete withdrawal by 2017 has had effect on the morale of the Afghan army?"

Dunford: "Senator, I think all of us in uniform, to include the Afghans, would have preferred that that be a bit more ambiguous."

Lawmakers vow a swift confirmation for Dunford. Military Times' Hope Hodge Seck: "Afghanistan's future was the most popular discussion point during Thursday's confirmation hearing on Gen. Joseph Dunford's nomination to become the next Marine Corps commandant. And while lawmakers' questioning at times became intense over the Afghan National Security Forces' preparedness to take over counter-terrorism missions when U.S. troops exit at the end of 2016, the panel made clear it intends to quickly confirm Dunford for his next post." More here.

Afghanistan begins its presidential election audit. The NYT's Matthew Rosenberg in Kabul: "Afghan election workers on Thursday began auditing the votes cast in last month's presidential election runoff, monitored by American and United Nations observers.

"...Increasing the international presence here to handle the large volume of votes to be audited has proved a challenge. Many of the roughly 30 foreign observers who took part in Thursday's initial auditing session were United Nations officials and American development experts who had been pulled off other projects. An additional 70 observers are being flown in from Europe and the United States, and they should be in place by next week, officials said. The American-led military coalition is flying ballot boxes from across Afghanistan to Kabul so they can be audited." More here.

Read the story that takes you inside John Kerry's diplomatic save in Kabul. Time's Mike Crowley, this morning: "As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday, July 13, Afghanistan's future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country's recent presidential election had paralyzed the country's politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America's costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn't reach agreement. "U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghani players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal." Read the rest of this tale here.

Buildings the U.S. built for Afghan troops could go up in flames - literally. FP's Kate Brannen: "Some 1,600 facilities that the U.S. built for Afghan soldiers, including barracks, medical clinics, and fire stations, were put together so hastily that they're now at increased risk of fire, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who oversaw this $1.6 billion program: Don't worry, the Afghan soldiers who will be inside these buildings are young and fit enough to escape if they need to.

"Needless to say John Sopko, the inspector general, is not satisfied with this answer. ‘I am very troubled by such logic, which seems to argue that fire hazards for a building are somehow remediated by the youthful speed and vigor of the occupants,' he wrote in a July 9 letter to Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Corps of Engineers. ‘This logic pales in light of not only the speed with which these buildings will be consumed by fire as well as the fact that a number of the buildings in question are infirmaries and sleeping quarters.'" More here.

Meantime, Congress approved the $500 million for training moderate rebels in Syria. Breaking Defense's Sydney Freedberg, here.

For al Awsat, Amir Taheri offers constitutional reform as a way out of Afghanistan's presidential impasse, here.

The Islamic State claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in central Baghdad that killed nine. Reuters' Raheem Salman: "A suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State militant group killed three people on Thursday in the centre of Baghdad and a second bomb outside the Iraqi capital killed six people, police and medics said. The bomb in central Baghdad, claimed by the al Qaeda offshoot, exploded near the Shi'ite mosque of Abdullah bin Rawah in the main wholesale market of Shorja, the sources said. The Islamic State said on an affiliated Twitter feed that a man it called Abu Bakr al-Australi (the Australian) had detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing near the mosque." More here.

Former State Dept. official Peter Van Buren writes that the current mini-Surge in Iraq is likely to fail just like the first one did. Find it on Reuters' blog, here.

Will we defeat al Qaeda? Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik for Army magazine: "...The U.S. and its allies need a more comprehensive strategy-one that retains the efforts to make partners out of some nations and to wear down selective al Qaeda network leaders and operatives-but it involves more. Perhaps the most critical component is conceptual. The President rightly lauded American post-World War II wisdom in creating institutions that helped keep the peace and support human progress. Such wisdom and leadership have been absent in creating the international legal and diplomatic institutions necessary to fight a global war against a non-nation-state. If al Qaeda were a nation-state invading countries and using force to achieve the strategic goals as it has, the world response would be much different from what it is now." More here.

Building a better mouse trap: As the military gets smaller, why not create a smarter, better educated military and educate folks before service - not after. Michael Crow and John Paul Parker for FP's Best Defense with Tom Ricks: "...Budget constraints and other factors will ensure that the Army of tomorrow will have fewer soldiers, but we will increasingly need them to operate more independently, and be agile and innovative. That can't be done with technology or organizational changes alone. Moreover, uncertainty about the future suggests that what soldiers of tomorrow will need is more broad-based knowledge and education, and not more drills and rote training. It's time to require every soldier entering the force to have a college degree." More here.

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday condemned recent ballistic missile launches by North Korea. Reuters' story, here.