Pentagon grudgingly accepts Syria deal amid deep mistrust of Russia

The Washington Post reports: Hours after reaching an agreement on Syria last Friday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and clearing the final deal with Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wandered the halls of their meeting venue in Geneva, waiting for Kerry to get the okay from Washington.

In a secure room upstairs, a frustrated Kerry was on hold. Already deep into a conference call with President Obama’s top national security team, he was waiting for the Defense Department to locate its legal counsel to sign off on one of the many provisions of the accord that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was questioning.

“I hope before Washington gets some sleep, we can get some news,” Lavrov said as he offered pizza and vodka to reporters awaiting an announcement. Clearly on a propaganda roll, he observed that the wheels of government appeared to turn more efficiently in his country than in the United States.

Obama, who did not attend the principals’ meeting, ultimately approved the agreement and a news conference was held at midnight, Geneva time.

But beneath the politics and diplomacy of the deal — which began with a cease-fire Monday, to be followed, if it succeeds, by coordinated U.S.-Russian counterterrorism airstrikes — the prospect of military-to-military cooperation does not sit well with the Defense Department.

“There is a trust deficit with the Russians; it is not clear to us what their objectives are,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday. “They say one thing, and we don’t necessarily see them following up on this.”

That mistrust resides most deeply in Carter, who officials familiar with the Russia negotiations said almost single-handedly delayed Friday’s final agreement with his repeated questions during the conference call. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced little objection during the principals’ meeting, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change ‘significant and direct’ threat to U.S. military

Reuters reports: The effects of climate change endanger U.S. military operations and could increase the danger of international conflict, according to three new documents endorsed by retired top U.S. military officers and former national security officials.

“There are few easy answers, but one thing is clear: the current trajectory of climatic change presents a strategically-significant risk to U.S. national security, and inaction is not a viable option,” said a statement published on Wednesday by the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington-based think tank.

It was signed by more than a dozen former senior military and national security officials, including retired General Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, and retired Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the Pacific Command until last year.

They called on the next U.S. president to create a cabinet level position to deal with climate change and its impact on national security. [Continue reading…]

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Marine drill instructor accused of running a clothes dryer with a Muslim recruit inside

The Washington Post reports: A Muslim Marine said he was called a terrorist and ordered into an industrial clothes dryer multiple times by a drill instructor who then turned it on, burning him, according to investigative documents that provide new details about the alleged abuse of recruits at the service’s training center at Parris Island, S.C.

“You’re going to kill us all the first chance you get aren’t you, terrorist?” the drill instructor thundered at the recruit, the new Marine later alleged, according to the documents that have not been released publicly but were reviewed by The Washington Post. “What are your plans? Aren’t you a terrorist?”

The issue of hazing and abuse at Parris Island surfaced March 18, when a 20-year-old recruit with Pakistani roots — Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, Mich. — died after leaping from a stairwell landing that was nearly 40 feet high while running away from the same drill instructor who used the dryer. The instructor had just slapped Siddiqui before he jumped. Siddiqui’s death drew public scrutiny to a culture of harsh punishments at Parris Island — one that Marine officials were already examining, the documents show.

Last week, service officials announced that 20 members of Parris Island’s staff could face criminal charges or administrative discipline following the conclusion of three investigations into various abuse allegations. But the documents raise questions about whether more Parris Island Marines could be implicated in the scandal. [Continue reading…]

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Details of Syria pact widen rift between John Kerry and Pentagon

The New York Times reports: The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry announced with Russia to reduce the killing in Syria has widened an increasingly public divide between Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who has deep reservations about the plan for American and Russian forces to jointly target terrorist groups.

Mr. Carter was among the administration officials who pushed against the agreement on a conference call with the White House last week as Mr. Kerry, joining the argument from a secure facility in Geneva, grew increasingly frustrated. Although President Obama ultimately approved the effort after hours of debate, Pentagon officials remain unconvinced.

On Tuesday at the Pentagon, officials would not even agree that if a cessation of violence in Syria held for seven days — the initial part of the deal — the Defense Department would put in place its part of the agreement on the eighth day: an extraordinary collaboration between the United States and Russia that calls for the American military to share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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A reminder of the permanent wars: Dozens of U.S. airstrikes in six countries

The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.

In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of ­al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with ­al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.

Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.

“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”

In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.

But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.

Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. gets ready to assist offensive with additional troops to retake Mosul from ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. is gearing up to assist in an offensive to reclaim the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, and has sent 400 additional troops to the country in anticipation Iraqi forces will begin the long-delayed battle in October, officials said.

The troops have been sent into Iraq to assist Iraqi forces consolidating south of Mosul in what is known as the launchpad for the allied operation in the city of Qayyarah, defense officials said on Thursday. There now are more than 5,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.

Despite rising optimism over chances for success in Mosul, the new commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said he thinks the battle to retake the jihadist group’s last major Iraqi stronghold will be a difficult and dangerous operation.

“We’re preparing for a hard fight, a long, difficult fight” in Mosul, Gen. Townsend told The Wall Street Journal late Wednesday here at his office at the coalition’s base in Baghdad. “Really, it’s a siege I’m talking about here.” [Continue reading…]

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Documents show U.S. military expands reach of special operations programs

Nick Turse reports: The United States is spending more money on more missions to send more elite U.S. forces to train alongside more foreign counterparts in more countries around the world, according to documents obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the Joint Combined Exchange Training program, which is designed to train America’s special operators in a variety of missions — from “foreign internal defense” to “unconventional warfare” — U.S. troops carried out approximately one mission every two days in 2014, the latest year covered by the recently released documents.

At a price tag of more than $56 million, the U.S. sent its most elite operators — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and others — on 176 individual JCETs, a 13 percent increase from 2013. The number of countries involved jumped even further, from 63 to 87, a 38 percent spike.

The JCET program is a key facet of a global strategy involving America’s most secretive and least scrutinized troops. Since 9/11, special operations forces (SOF) have expanded in almost every conceivable way — from budget to personnel to overseas missions. On any given day, 10,000 special operators are deployed or “forward stationed,” conducting missions that vary “from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations,” then-chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. [Continue reading…]

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Nick Turse: What the U.S. military doesn’t know (and neither do you)

It hardly matters where you look. There are the nearly million-and-a-half weapons that the Pentagon shipped to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. As a recent study shows, it evidently lost complete track of hundreds of thousands of them, many of which seem to have simply gone on the open market in countries where buyers are unlikely to be the crew of our dreams. Or there’s the $6.5 trillion (that is not a misprint) that the accountants for a single service, the U.S. Army, seem to have lost track of in 2015. Or there’s the simple fact that the Pentagon is utterly incapable of conducting a successful audit of itself or, on a minor note, that its officials can’t even keep track of which of their underlings go to strip clubs, “adult entertainment establishments,” and casinos on the taxpayer dollar. You could say that, though it swallows up at least $600 billion-plus a year of our money, it’s an organization that seems remarkably comfortable knowing remarkably little about itself (which means of course that you know next to nothing about it).

This should, of course, be unacceptable in a democracy. But coverage of the Pentagon and its stupendously wasteful ways, not to speak of oversight of its financial dealings, is in remarkably short supply in our world. That should be surprising, given this country’s 800 military bases around the world, the planet it largely arms, and the fact that its special operations forces have been active in up to 135 countries a year. What it does, and where and how it does it, given its reach and its power, plays a not-insignificant role in determining what transpires on this conflicted planet of ours. 

This is why I regularly find it amazing, even unnerving, that, in a world of monster media organizations, covering what the U.S. military does in Africa — and it does more and more there — has largely been left to Nick Turse of TomDispatch. He’s been reporting on that military’s “pivot” to Africa for years now and, with the rarest of exceptions, he’s done so in a remarkably lonely fashion. How can this be? It obviously matters what our military is doing — especially in a world where, it seems, the more it enters a region, the more terror outfits spread and flourish in that same region. Call it happenstance if you wish, but as for me, I would prefer that Americans knew regularly and in some detail what exactly was being done in our name in the world.  Tom Engelhardt

Mission impossible
Keeping track of U.S. Special Ops in Africa
By Nick Turse

Sometimes the real news is in the details — or even in the discrepancies. Take, for instance, missions by America’s most elite troops in Africa. 

It was September 2014. The sky was bright and clear and ice blue as the camouflage-clad men walked to the open door and tumbled out into nothing. One moment members of the U.S. 19th Special Forces Group and Moroccan paratroopers were flying high above North Africa in a rumbling C-130 aircraft; the next, they were silhouetted against the cloudless sky, translucent green parachutes filling with air, as they began to drift back to earth.

Those soldiers were taking part in a Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET mission, conducted under the auspices of Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa out of Camp Ram Ram, Morocco. It was the first time in several years that American and Moroccan troops had engaged in airborne training together, but just one of many JCET missions in 2014 that allowed America’s best-equipped, best-trained forces to hone their skills while forging ties with African allies.

[Read more…]

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Why the U.S. Army is worried about insurgents turning to remote-controlled weapons

The Washington Post reports: As conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya continue, battlefields in the region have turned into technological incubators for groups looking to find new and improved ways to kill one another.

While homemade munitions and Mad Max-style modifications to civilian equipment have been a staple of 21st-century warfare, a new Army report released last week by the branch’s Foreign Military Studies Office points to the growing trend of insurgent and terrorist groups using remote-controlled or “tele-operated” weaponry.

The report looks at 21 case studies — gathered mainly through social media and news reports — of remote-controlled rifles and machine guns used by groups such as the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army and the now rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Twenty of the weapons are from groups in Iraq and Syria, while one is from Libya in 2011. The modified weapons are mostly older Soviet variants, though at least one Syrian rebel group appeared to be using a U.S.-style rifle in one of its systems. The designs are rudimentary but include the necessary components — a small screen and operating cables — for firing the weapon from a distance. Some of the designs are stationary, while others are mounted on wheels or tracks. One such weapon, photographed with rebels in Misurata, Libya, appears to be a medium machine gun affixed to a toy truck. [Continue reading…]

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The reported death of ISIS leader, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani

Michael Weiss writes: Officially, the 39-year-old Taha Subhi Falaha, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, was spokesman for the so-called Islamic State: a vitriolic but compelling rhetorician for the caliphate whose imprecations—against America, the Shia, insufficiently pious Muslims and eventually al Qaeda—earned him the nickname “attack dog.”

Now he’s a dead one, according to the organization he served.

In a statement, the ISIS propaganda agency Amaq said he was “martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns in Aleppo,” in Syria.

The Pentagon is being cautious, or perhaps a little coy. A senior defense official said “coalition forces conducted an airstrike in al-Bab, Syria,” and the target was Adnani. Although it is “still assessing the results of the strike… Al-Adnani’s removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to” the terror franchise, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement this evening. [Continue reading…]

The Hill reports: The State Department is offering up to a $3 million reward for information related to an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader who underwent U.S. training before joining the terrorist group.

Gulmurod Khalimov is described in a State Department press release as a top leader and recruiter for ISIS.
Before joining ISIS, he was the commander of a police special operations unit in the Ministry of Interior of Tajikistan. He received training from U.S. special operations forces, as well as elite Russian forces, according to multiple reports. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military now says ISIS leader was held in Abu Ghraib

The Intercept reports: In February 2004, U.S. troops brought a man named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and assigned him serial number US9IZ-157911CI. The prison was about to become international news, but the prisoner would remain largely unknown for the next decade.

At the time the man was brought in, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was finalizing his report on allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib’s Hard Site — a prison building used to house detainees singled out for their alleged violence or their perceived intelligence value. Just weeks later, the first pictures of detainee abuse were published on CBS News and in the New Yorker.

Today, detainee US9IZ-157911CI is better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. His presence at Abu Ghraib, a fact not previously made public, provides yet another possible key to the enigmatic leader’s biography and may shed new light on the role U.S. detention facilities played in the rise of the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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How many guns did the U.S. lose track of in Iraq and Afghanistan? Hundreds of thousands

C.J. Chivers reports: Early this year, a Facebook user in Baghdad using the name Hussein Mahyawi posted a photograph of a slightly worn M4 assault rifle he was offering for sale. Veterans of the latest war in Iraq immediately recognized it. It was a standard American carbine equipped with a holographic sight, a foregrip that was military-issue during the occupation and a sticker bearing a digital QR code used by American forces for inventory control. Except for one detail — an aftermarket pistol grip, the sort of accessory with which combatants of the current generation often pimp their guns — it was a dead ringer for any of the tens of thousands of M4s the Pentagon handed out to Iraqi security forces and various armed militias after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. And here it was on the open market, ready for bids.

Was this a surprise? No. A little more than four years after the United States withdrew all its military forces from Iraq, and not quite two years after a smaller number of American troops began returning to the country to help fight the Islamic State, the open sale of such an M4 was part of Iraq’s day-to-day arms-trafficking routine. Mahyawi’s carbine was another data point attesting to an extraordinary and dangerous failure of American arms-trafficking and public accountability and to a departure from a modern military’s most basic practice: keeping track of the guns.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has handed out a vast but persistently uncountable quantity of military firearms to its many battlefield partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the Pentagon has only a partial idea of how many weapons it issued, much less where these weapons are. Meanwhile, the effectively bottomless abundance of black-market weapons from American sources is one reason Iraq will not recover from its post-invasion woes anytime soon.

An inkling of just how expansive these arms transfers were, and how stubbornly resistant they are to precise measurement, is apparent in a new attempt at weapons-tallying compiled in a project led by Iain Overton. Overton is a former BBC journalist who is now the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a charity based in London that researches and lobbies against weapons proliferation and violence against civilians; he is also the author of “The Way of the Gun,” a dark examination of some of the roles firearms play in modern society. With a string of Freedom of Information Act requests that began last year, he and his small team of researchers pooled 14 years’ worth of Pentagon contract information related to rifles, pistols, machine guns and their associated attachments and ammunition, both for American troops and for their partners and proxies. They then crosschecked the data against other public records. Overton is releasing the data and his analysis today. It covers 412 contracts and merits pause for reflection as the parties to the international Arms Trade Treaty gather this week in Geneva. The treaty, which took effect in 2014 and of which the United States is a signatory, is intended to promote transparency and responsible action in the transfer of conventional arms and to reduce their diversion to unintended hands — exactly what the United States often failed to do in recent wars. [Continue reading…]

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