Why it’s taking so long for the U.S. and its allies to finish off the ISIS in Libya

The Washington Post reports: A U.S. air campaign against Islamic State militants in Libya, which was supposed to be a brisk illustration of the effectiveness of U.S. support for local forces, has turned into an extended operation with no clear end in sight.

About 100 militants are believed to remain in the coastal city of Sirte, which in 2015 became the most important Islamic State stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria. They are holed up in a small, densely packed residential area. For months, U.S.-backed local militia fighters have struggled against militant defenses and sniper attacks; last week, 14 fighters were killed on one day alone.

The elusiveness of victory in Sirte underscores the challenges that continue to face U.S. efforts to defeat extremists from North Africa to Afghanistan: the limitations of local fighting forces, including inadequate battlefield support and poor morale, and the corrosive effects of local political feuds. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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Russian air defense raises stakes of U.S. confrontation in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Russia’s completion this month of an integrated air defense system in Syria has made an Obama administration decision to strike Syrian government installations from the air even less likely than it has been for years, and has created a substantial obstacle to the Syrian safe zones both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have advocated.

Deployment of mobile and interchangeable S-400 and S-300 missile batteries, along with other short-range systems, now gives Russia the ability to shoot down planes and cruise missiles over at least 250 miles in all directions from western Syria, covering virtually all of that country as well as significant portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the eastern Mediterranean.

By placing the missiles as a threat “against military action” by other countries in Syria, Russia has raised “the stakes of confrontation,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.

While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. Neither its touted ability to counter U.S. stealth technology, or to target low-flying aircraft, has ever been tested by the United States.

“It’s not like we’ve had any shoot at an F-35,” the official said of the next-generation U.S. fighter jet. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.” [Continue reading…]

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A million refugees could make a Mosul victory look like defeat

The Daily Beast reports: In a shabby school building that has ceased to be a place of learning, families crowd the spaces that are shielded from the intense autumn sun. Women sit on pieces of cardboard to avoid the dirty floors of the school’s courtyard, corridors, and classrooms. Their children are clustered around them.

With little more than the clothes on their bodies, these families are recent arrivals at the Debaga displacement camp in Kurdish administered northern Iraq. They’ve walked through the dark of the night and the heat of the day to escape the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

These men, women, and children have staggered through the arid plains of Nineveh province, arriving here with fear and exhaustion etched on their faces. And every day more civilians seep through the front lines, a trickle expected to turn into a flood as Iraqi forces begin their assault on Mosul, the final ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

More than 100,000 people have fled the crumbling caliphate in the run-up to the battle, which could begin as soon as mid-October, and of those, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 62,000 fled Mosul and its environs. [Continue reading…]

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In Somalia, U.S. escalates a shadow war

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.

The Somalia campaign, as it is described by American and African officials and international monitors of the Somali conflict, is partly designed to avoid repeating that debacle, which led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers. But it carries enormous risks — including more American casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.

The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya — despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more. [Continue reading…]

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If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS media output drops as military pressure rises

The New York Times reports: The vaunted propaganda operations of the Islamic State, which helped lure more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically as the extremist group has come under military pressure, according to a study by terrorism researchers at West Point.

In addition, the researchers found, there has been a striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state with competent bureaucrats, thriving businesses and happy citizens. The Islamic State, also called ISIS and ISIL, claims that it is building a new caliphate — or unified Muslim land — a claim that has become increasingly threadbare.

“It’s not just the numeric decline,” said Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the author of the new report. “The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there’s an inability to say we’re doing the things that make us a state. And that was behind their broad appeal.”

At the peak of the Islamic State’s media output, in August 2015, the group released more than 700 items from official outlets in Syria and several other countries. During the month of August 2016, after a year of airstrikes and other assaults, that number had declined to under 200, according to the study.

Over the same period, the share of items devoted to military reports doubled to 70 percent, eclipsing attention to governance, commerce and other topics portraying civilian life. [Continue reading…]

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Even the U.S. military is looking at blockchain technology — to secure nuclear weapons

Quartz reports: Blockchain technology has been slow to gain adoption in non-financial contexts, but it could turn out to have invaluable military applications. DARPA, the storied research unit of the US Department of Defense, is currently funding efforts to find out if blockchains could help secure highly sensitive data, with potential applications for everything from nuclear weapons to military satellites.

The case for using a blockchain boils down to a concept in computer security known as “information integrity.” That’s basically being able to track when a system or piece of data has been viewed or modified. DARPA’s program manager behind the blockchain effort, Timothy Booher, offers this analogy: Instead of trying to make the walls of a castle as tall as possible to prevent an intruder from getting in, it’s more important to know if anyone has been inside the castle, and what they’re doing there.

A blockchain is a decentralized, immutable ledger. Blockchains can permanently log modifications to a network or database, preventing intruders from covering their tracks. In DARPA’s case, blockchain tech could offer crucial intelligence on whether a hacker has modified something in a database, or whether they’re surveilling a particular military system. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul

The New York Times reports: As Iraqi and American troops prepare to try to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, the Obama administration is describing the battle as the last major hurdle before declaring victory against the extremist Sunni militancy — in Iraq, at least.

But some former officials and humanitarian aid groups are worried that President Obama will run into the same problem that haunted his predecessor, George W. Bush: beginning a ground campaign without a comprehensive plan for what happens afterward.

“There’s an effort to proclaim mission accomplished, and obviously, getting back Mosul would be a momentous and symbolic defeat for ISIS,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, using another name for the Islamic State. But, he said, victory in Mosul without a detailed arrangement for how the city and the surrounding province will be governed “does nothing to prevent extremists from resurfacing again.”

Still, Obama administration officials are loath to further delay the operation, which they first envisioned two years ago, in order to sort out in advance the post-conflict political arrangements in and around Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The administration is taking the calculated risk that the future of a region populated by a welter of ethnic and religious groups can be worked out peacefully as the battle unfolds or even after the militants are defeated, with American officials serving as brokers when needed but not imposing a plan. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and Al Qaeda turf wars in Africa may push fragile states to breaking point

Jason Burke reports: It is a war within a war, fought across thousands of miles of desert, scrub and forest, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean coastline.

It pits the Islamic State (Isis), the Iraq and Syria-based group that has expanded deep into Africa since surging to international attention in 2014, against al-Qaida, the veteran extremist group, which has maintained a significant presence in much of the continent in recent years.

Both groups and their affiliates are also fighting an array of armies and counter-terrorist agencies: French soldiers, US special forces, British military trainers, as well as the local armies of a dozen states. Last week, it was revealed the US was building a $50m base for drones in Niger, which is at the very centre of the conflict zone.

But at the same time, the extremist groups are fighting each other. Such internecine struggles between militant groups may seem esoteric to casual observers. But the eventual result will have an enormous impact on the security of dozens of often fragile states in Africa and, more broadly, on the future of Islamic militancy.

Though they share many aims, al-Qaida and Isis have divergent strategic visions and favour dramatically different tactics. Al-Qaida has largely avoided attacks on other Muslims, including Shias, and has sought to build support from local communities. Though still committed to strikes in the west, it does not appear to see a terrorist campaign in Europe or the US as a priority. Isis, also known as Isil, has made other Muslims who do not share its beliefs a key target, often used violence to keep local communities in line, and launched bloody attacks in the west. [Continue reading…]

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Obama has no plan to save Aleppo from Putin and Assad

The Daily Beast reports: U.S. officials are scrambling to find ways to blunt Russian and regime aggression in Syria. But none of the limited set of options currently being crafted would stop the eastern part of the country’s largest city, Aleppo, from falling into the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian allies, two U.S. officials told the Daily Beast.

Rather, lower level American officials are proposing to arm U.S.-backed rebels with more powerful, longer range weapons and surface-to-air weapons to potentially thwart Russian and regime airstrikes. The hope is that such weaponry would be enough for opposition groups to retain their control in other parts of Syria, like the suburbs of Damascus.

The surface-to-air missiles would not include shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — so-called “MANPADS,” short for “Man Portable Air Defense Systems,” — but rather less mobile systems that would be less likely to end up in the wrong hands, the officials said.

“Those kind of plans are on the table,” one of the U.S. officials explained to The Daily Beast.

But even those plans would be an ambitious sell to the White House, the officials concede, given that the administration has so far rejected direct military intervention in eastern Aleppo. None of those potential proposed responses would be carried out in time to stop the fall of eastern Aleppo into regime hands, which officials have told The Daily Beast is imminent. [Continue reading…]

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Obama views Aleppo’s destruction as preferable to risky U.S. intervention

Josh Rogin writes: U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime will be back on the table Wednesday at the White House, when top national security officials in the Obama administration are set to discuss options for the way forward in Syria. But there’s little prospect President Obama will ultimately approve them.

Inside the national security agencies, meetings have been going on for weeks to consider new options to recommend to the president to address the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, where Syrian and Russian aircraft continue to perpetrate the deadliest bombing campaign the city has seen since the five-year-old civil war began. A meeting of the Principals Committee, which includes Cabinet-level officials, is scheduled for Wednesday. A meeting of the National Security Council, which could include the president, could come as early as this weekend.

Last Wednesday, at a Deputies Committee meeting at the White House, officials from the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed limited military strikes against the regime as a means of forcing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to pay a cost for his violations of the cease-fire, disrupt his ability to continue committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo, and raise the pressure on the regime to come back to the negotiating table in a serious way. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Tuesday for pointedly ignoring the Syrian government’s use of chlorine gas and barrel bombs against its own citizens, and he left little hope for an early resumption of talks with Russia about a cease-fire.

Speaking here before the opening of a conference on Afghanistan organized by the European Union, Mr. Kerry said that the United States would continue efforts to end the fighting in Syria through the United Nations, but that Washington had little hope of persuading Russia to give up its unqualified support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The Obama administration announced on Monday that it was suspending bilateral talks with Russia on a cease-fire. [Continue reading…]

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