Pentagon won’t say how many troops are fighting ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there are two ways to count the number of U.S. boots on the ground. There’s the one that officials admit to. Then there’s the ground truth.

Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army.

But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus another nearly 7,000 contractors supporting the American government’s operations. That includes almost 1,100 U.S. citizens working as military contractors, according to the latest Defense Department statistics. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is killing more civilians in Iraq and Syria than it acknowledges

Paul Wood and Richard Hall report: Al Gharra is a mud-brick village built on hard, flat Syrian desert and populated by the descendants of Bedouin. It is a desolate place. Everything is dun colored: the bare, single-story houses and the stony desert they stand on. There is not much farming — it is too dry — just a few patches of cotton and tobacco.

Before the war, villagers got a little money from the government to look after the national park on Mount Abdul-Aziz, a barren rock that rises 3,000 feet behind the village and stretches miles into the distance. Mount Abdul-Aziz is named after a lieutenant of the 12th-Century Muslim warrior Saladin, who built a fort to dominate the plain below. There is a military base there today too, which changes hands according to the fortunes of Syria’s civil war. In 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad held the base; next it was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army; then the so-called “Islamic State” (IS); and finally the Kurds, who advanced and took the mountain last May under the cover of American warplanes.

Abdul-Aziz al Hassan is from al Gharra, his first name the same as the mountain’s. He left the village while the Islamic State was in charge, but it is because of a bomb from an American plane that he cannot go back. What happened to his family is the story of just one bomb of the 35,000 dropped so far during 10,000 missions flown in the US-led air war against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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From Iraq, general rebukes Ted Cruz’s plan to ‘carpet-bomb’ ISIS

The Washington Post reports: The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday addressed recent political rhetoric in the presidential campaign that the United States should “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State, saying that the Pentagon is bound by the laws of armed conflict and does nt indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

“We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” MacFarland said. “So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”

The comments came in response to a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr during a Pentagon news conference. The general was asked why the military isn’t engaged in “so-called carpet-bombing,” a phrase that has been used often by presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.). [Continue reading…]

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As U.S. expands military operations in Iraq and Syria it is withholding detailed information about civilian casualties

The Washington Post reports: As the U.S. military prepares to expand its operations against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, it has altered how and when it discloses sensitive information about when it kills civilians with airstrikes.

In recent days, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East from its headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., announced the results of investigations into 10 airstrikes “alleged to have resulted in civilian casualties and determined to be credible.” The first five were announced Jan. 15, and the second five were disclosed a week later. In each case, military officials released just a sentence or two of information.

The recent disclosures varied from earlier cases of civilian casualties because the military did not release documents detailing what happened in the incidents. Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, said that was by design. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear mishap withheld by Air Force from review team

The Associated Press reports: In the spring of 2014, as a team of experts was examining what ailed the U.S. nuclear force, the Air Force withheld from them the fact that it was simultaneously investigating damage to a nuclear-armed missile in its launch silo caused by three airmen.

The Air Force on Friday gave The Associated Press the first substantive description of the accident after being questioned about it by the AP for more than a year.

The accident happened May 17, 2014, at an underground launch silo containing a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The silo, designated Juliet-07, is situated among wheat fields and wind turbines about 9 miles west of Peetz, Colorado. It is controlled by launch officers of the 320th Missile Squadron and administered by the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base at Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The Air Force said that while three airmen were troubleshooting the missile, a “mishap” occurred, causing $1.8 million in damage to the missile. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon wants psychologists to end ban on interrogation role

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The New York Times reports: The Pentagon has asked the American Psychological Association to reconsider its ban on the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations at the Guantánamo Bay prison and other facilities.

The Defense Department reduced its use of psychologists at Guantánamo in late 2015 in response to the policy approved by the association last summer.

But in a letter and accompanying memo to association officials this month, Brad Carson, the acting principal deputy secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, asked that the group, the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, revisit its “blanket prohibition.” [Continue reading…]

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What does the return of mercenary armies mean for the world?

Sean McFate writes: It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort. The armed contractors prove to be both a blessing and a curse, providing vital security services to the campaign, yet at times killing innocent civilians, causing strategic setbacks, and damaging the superpower’s legitimacy. Without these contractors, the superpower could not wage the war. With them, it is more difficult to win.

The armed contractors in question are not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in northern Italy, and the year is not 2007 but 1377. The superpower is not the United States but the papacy under Pope Gregory XI, fighting the antipapal league led by the duchy of Milan. The tragic killing of civilians by armed contractors did not occur in Baghdad but in Cesena, 630 years earlier. The military companies employed were not DynCorp International, Triple Canopy or Blackwater, but the Company of the Star, the Company of the Hat and the White Company. Known as free companies, these for-profit warriors were organised as corporations, with a well-articulated hierarchy of subcommanders and administrative machinery that oversaw the fair distribution of loot according to employees’ contracts. CEO-like captains led these medieval military corporations.

The parallels between medieval and contemporary private military companies (PMCs) are strong. Today, the US and many others hire contractors to fulfil security-related contracts in the world’s most dangerous places. In the late Middle Ages, such men were called condottieri – literally, ‘contractors’ – who agreed to perform security services described in written contracts, or condotte. Both modern and medieval contractors were organised as companies, their services available to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit. Both filled their ranks with professional men of arms drawn from different countries and loyal primarily to the paycheck. Both have functioned as private armies, usually offering land-based combat skills rather than naval (or aerial) capabilities and deploying force in a military manner rather than as law enforcement or police.

Mercenaries are back. Once brandished as villainous outlaws, they are emerging from the shadows to once again become a mainstream instrument of world politics. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has hired hundreds of Latin-American mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. After years of struggling against Boko Haram, Nigeria finally employed mercenaries to do the job, and they did. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has sent mercs to ‘liberate’ eastern Ukraine, a conflict that still simmers. Mercs are reportedly working in parts of Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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What Donald Rumsfeld knew we didn’t know about the lack of evidence for WMD in Iraq

John Walcott writes: On September 9, 2002, as the George W. Bush administration was launching its campaign to invade Iraq, a classified report landed on the desk of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and it carried an ominous note.

“Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD,” Rumsfeld wrote to Air Force General Richard Myers. “It is big.”

The report was an inventory of what U.S. intelligence knew — or more importantly didn’t know — about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Its assessment was blunt: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns. … We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.”

Myers already knew about the report. The Joint Staff’s director for intelligence had prepared it, but Rumsfeld’s urgent tone said a great deal about how seriously the head of the Defense Department viewed the report’s potential to undermine the Bush administration’s case for war. But he never shared the eight-page report with key members of the administration such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or top officials at the CIA, according to multiple sources at the State Department, White House and CIA who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Instead, the report disappeared, and with it a potentially powerful counter-narrative to the administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons posed a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies, which was beginning to gain traction in major news outlets, led by the New York Times.

While the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq was at the heart of the administration’s case for war, the JCS report conceded: “Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely — perhaps 90% — on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

The rationale for the invasion has long since been discredited, but the JCS report, now declassified, which a former Bush administration official forwarded in December, nevertheless has implications for both sides in the 2016 presidential race, in particular the GOP candidates who are relying for foreign policy advice on some of the architects of the war, and the Democratic front-runner, who once again is coming under fire from her primary opponent for supporting the invasion. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ‘takes control’ of Rmeilan airfield in Syria

Al Jazeera reports: US troops have taken control of Rmeilan airfield in Syria’s northern province of Hasakah to support Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told Al Jazeera.

The airfield near the city of Rmeilan, which will become the first US-controlled airbase in Syria, was previously controlled by the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The airfield is close to Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey.

“Under a deal with the YPG, the US was given control of the airport. The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an airbase for US warplanes,” Taj Kordsh, a media activist from the SDF told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

“This airport was previously controlled by the YPG for over two years now. This strategic airport is close to several oil bases – one of the biggest in this area. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s swift release of U.S. sailors hailed as a sign of warmer relations

The New York Times reports: Iran’s release of 10 United States Navy sailors on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after they were detained on the Persian Gulf, is being hailed in both countries as a sign that their relations have evolved since the signing of the nuclear accord last summer.

Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Iranians “for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter” and suggested in a statement that the quick resolution of the issue was a product of the nearly daily back-and-forth that now takes place between Washington and Tehran, after three decades of hostility and stony silence.

In an appearance later Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington, Mr. Kerry said that his focus on diplomacy with a country “we hadn’t talked to for 35 years” before the nuclear negotiations had paid off.

“These are always situations that as everybody knows, if not properly handled, can get out of control,” Mr. Kerry said. “We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS leaders fall, ISIS remains

Kyle Orton writes: Last night, Steve Warren, the American colonel who is the spokesman for the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the U.S.-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, announced that between December 7 and December 27, ten IS “leaders” had been killed. Col. Warren adumbrated the positions of the IS leaders, allowing the conclusion that five had been part of IS’s external operations wing, which conducts international terrorism, and five were part of IS’s internal operations, i.e. part of the military operations and security infrastructure that helps IS maintain and expand its statelet in Syria and Iraq. Col. Warren presented this as an important blow to IS that had assisted in the recent loss of territorial losses for IS. There is reason for scepticism on these points. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon thwarts Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo

Reuters reports: In September, U.S. State Department officials invited a foreign delegation to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to persuade the group to take detainee Tariq Ba Odah to their country. If they succeeded, the transfer would mark a small step toward realizing President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the prison before he leaves office.

The foreign officials told the administration they would first need to review Ba Odah’s medical records, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the episode. The Yemeni has been on a hunger strike for seven years, dropping to 74 pounds from 148, and the foreign officials wanted to make sure they could care for him.

For the next six weeks, Pentagon officials declined to release the records, citing patient privacy concerns, according to the U.S. officials. The delegation, from a country administration officials declined to identify, canceled its visit. After the administration promised to deliver the records, the delegation traveled to Guantanamo and appeared set to take the prisoner off U.S. hands, the officials said. The Pentagon again withheld Ba Odah’s full medical file.

Today, nearly 14 years since he was placed in the prison and five years since he was cleared for release by U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, Ba Odah remains in Guantanamo. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon officers: We will quit if Trump wins

The Daily Beast reports: Republican presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to build up the U.S. military if elected president.

But it is not clear he will have the experienced commanders within the ranks to do it.

In the halls of the Pentagon, there is a different plan afoot for the Trump presidency. Here, officers are privately contemplating what they would do should Trump become their commander-in-chief. And more often than not, they proclaim they will leave.

“By 2016 I will have my 20 years in and can get out of here,” one military official said, referring to the amount of time a service member needs to collect retirement pay.

Spend enough time with a service member, and the topic of Trump comes up, always unsolicited. It is far less political than it sounds. Trump’s attack plans for the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS — his call to ban Muslims from the United States, his suggestions that cutting off the flow of information through the Internet can protect the homeland — many said, are an affront to the values they vowed to die to defend. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqis think the U.S. is in cahoots with the ISIS, and it is hurting the war

The Washington Post reports: On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion.

Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion — one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis — that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.

“It is not in doubt,” said Mustafa Saadi, who says his friend saw U.S. helicopters delivering bottled water to Islamic State positions. He is a commander in one of the Shiite militias that last month helped push the militants out of the oil refinery near Baiji in northern Iraq alongside the Iraqi army.

The Islamic State is “almost finished,” he said. “They are weak. If only America would stop supporting them, we could defeat them in days.”

U.S. military officials say the charges are too far-fetched to merit a response. “It’s beyond ridiculous,” said Col. Steve Warren, the military’s Baghdad-based spokesman. “There’s clearly no one in the West who buys it, but unfortunately, this is something that a segment of the Iraqi population believes.”

The perception among Iraqis that the United States is somehow in cahoots with the militants it claims to be fighting appears, however, to be widespread across the country’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, and it speaks to more than just the troubling legacy of mistrust that has clouded the United States’ relationship with Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent withdrawal eight years later.

At a time when attacks by the Islamic State in Paris and elsewhere have intensified calls for tougher action on the ground, such is the level of suspicion with which the United States is viewed in Iraq that it is unclear whether the Obama administration would be able to significantly escalate its involvement even if it wanted to.

“What influence can we have if they think we are supporting the terrorists?” asked Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in neighboring Jordan who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

In one example of how little leverage the United States now has, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi pushed back swiftly against an announcement Tuesday by Defense Secretary ­Ashton B. Carter that an expeditionary force of U.S. troops will be dispatched to Iraq to conduct raids, free hostages and capture Islamic State leaders.

Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, where support for the United States remains strong, has said it would welcome more troops. But Abadi indicated they would not be needed.

“There is no need for foreign ground combat troops,” he said in a statement. “Any such support and special operations anywhere in Iraq can only be deployed subject to the approval of the Iraqi Government and in coordination with the Iraqi forces and with full respect to Iraqi sovereignty.”

The allegations of U.S. collusion with the Islamic State are aired regularly in parliament by Shiite politicians and promoted in postings on social media. They are persistent enough to suggest a deliberate campaign on the part of Iran’s allies in Iraq to erode American influence, U.S. officials say.

In one typical recent video that appeared on the Facebook page of a Shiite militia, a lawmaker with the country’s biggest militia group, the Badr Organization, waves apparently new U.S military MREs (meals ready to eat) — one of them chicken and dumplings — allegedly found at a recently captured Islamic State base in Baiji, offering proof, he said, of U.S. support.

“The Iranians and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are really pushing this line of propaganda, that the United States is supporting ISIL,” Warren said. “It’s part of the Iranian propaganda machine.” [Continue reading…]

The problem doesn’t just apply in Iraq. I have little doubt that there are Americans now reading this report who believe it must be a product of the Pentagon’s propaganda machine, duping gullible journalists in order to conceal “the truth” that ISIS is an American creation!

Such has been the “success” of the internet in spreading conspiracy theories.

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Support grows for U.S. commando raids to fight ISIS

Bloomberg reports: As lawmakers and former Pentagon officials push President Barack Obama to deploy special-operations forces more aggressively against Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. is taking a step in that direction.

“We’re deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and put even more pressure on ISIL,” Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.” The new force may start with about 200 personnel, a U.S. official said.

With the attacks in Paris putting new pressure on Obama to show progress in the stalemated war against terrorists, defense analysts are calling for an intensified campaign of raids to disrupt the group’s leadership, gather intelligence and build momentum.

“The goal is to start a chain reaction of intelligence-driven raids that increase in frequency and expand in scope over time,” said Robert Martinage, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations under Obama. “The metric becomes can you disrupt and dismantle the network faster than the enemy can repair and regenerate it?”

A model for such special operations would be the commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The tactics, honed in hundreds of raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, were developed by groups such as Task Force 714 in Iraq, which joined the intelligence resources of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency with Navy Seal Team Six and Army Delta Force commandos. [Continue reading…]

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