Turkey’s frightening trifecta: ISIS, Erdogan & U.S. nukes

Christopher Dickey writes: Immediately after the coup [last July], which involved some Turkish air force officers, the Incirlik air base used by the United States in the war against the so-called Islamic State was cordoned off and effectively shut down for several days. Its Turkish commander was placed under arrest and frog-marched off the base.

Given the Turkish government’s behavior and the country’s evident instability, it’s of no small concern that under NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program, an estimated 50 to 90 atomic weapons reportedly are located at Incirlik (PDF). Although these B61 munitions are considered “tactical” weapons, each thermonuclear device has a potential blast yield of about 340 kilotons—more than 20 times that of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

In the immediate aftermath of the Incirlik blockade and arrests last summer, spurious reports played up by Russian propagandists claimed the nukes had been moved from Incirlik to Romania. That was not the case. But there remains wide sentiment among security analysts that those nukes should be moved somewhere more secure.

As a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) noted at the time, concerns were based on “both the ongoing political uncertainties in Turkey, including the evolving state of U.S.-Turkish relations, and the base’s proximity to territory controlled by ISIS.”

The Syrian border is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Incirlik. Towns like Al Bab and Dabiq, until recently under the control of the so-called Islamic State, are slightly further.

The argument for leaving the nukes in Turkey was to reassure Ankara against a threat from Russia. But given the obvious and growing rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan’s increasingly overt hostility toward his NATO allies, leaving thermonuclear weapons on the bomb racks of Incirlik seems to many a pointless and dangerous exercise. [Continue reading…]

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UN seeks inquiry into deadly assault on migrant boat near Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations on Monday called for an inquiry into an aerial assault on a boat of migrants last week off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that left at least 42 people dead.

The attack on the boat, believed to be carrying 145 people leaving Yemen, was among the most horrific episodes of deadly violence on asylum seekers there since Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the country’s civil war and began an air campaign against the Houthi rebels two years ago.

The boat assault also illustrated the vibrant trade in people-smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a congregation point for tens of thousands of Africans fleeing their own countries.

Most of the passengers aboard the vessel were believed to be Somalis who had been staying in Yemen and were trying to reach Sudan.

United Nations officials have registered nearly 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen, mostly from Somalia. [Continue reading…]

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Struggle to define an ‘America First’ foreign policy divides White House

The Washington Post reports: Before President Trump delivered his first major address to Congress, he sat down with H.R. McMaster, his new national security adviser, who had sketched out proposed changes to the address on index cards.

McMaster pressed the president to describe the battle against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda as a global and generational war that the United States would fight in partnership with its Muslim allies, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. And he urged Trump to strike the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” from his remarks.

None of McMaster’s proposed changes made the cut. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military denies reports it bombed mosque in Syria

The New York Times reports: The United States military said that it had carried out an airstrike against a meeting of Qaeda militants on Thursday in Syria and that a number of the extremists had been killed.

The American military statement came as Syria activists reported that a mosque had been bombed and that scores of innocent civilians had been killed and wounded.

A spokesman for the United States Central Command said the American aircraft had struck a nearby building, but did not hit the mosque.

“We did not target any mosques,” said Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for the Central Command, which has responsibility for American military missions in the Middle East. “What we did target was destroyed. There is a mosque within 50 feet of that building that is still standing.”

But one local activist, Mohamed al Shaghel, said the people who had been struck had “no affiliation with any military faction or any political side.”

“I passed by the hospital,” he said. “I was told that about 50 were killed and 50 wounded. Rescuers are still looking for bodies under the rubble.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike took place in Al Jinah, a village between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo. It said 42 people had been killed, most of them civilians, and described the attack as a “massacre.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump federal budget 2018: An armed assault on the poor, the environment, and American culture

The Washington Post reports: President Trump on Thursday will unveil a budget plan that calls for a sharp increase in military spending and stark cuts across much of the rest of the government including the elimination of dozens of long-standing federal programs that assist the poor, fund scientific research and aid America’s allies abroad.

Trump’s first budget proposal, which he named “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” would increase defense spending by $54 billion and then offset that by stripping money from more than 18 other agencies. Some would be hit particularly hard, with reductions of more than 20 percent at the Agriculture, Labor and State departments and of more than 30 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency.

It would also propose eliminating future federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Within EPA alone, 50 programs and 3,200 positions would be eliminated.

The cuts could represent the widest swath of reductions in federal programs since the drawdown after World War II, probably leading to a sizable cutback in the federal non-military workforce, something White House officials said was one of their goals. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A deep fear came to pass for many artists, museums, and cultural organizations nationwide early Thursday morning when President Trump, in his first federal budget plan, proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

President Trump also proposed scrapping the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a key revenue source for PBS and National Public Radio stations, as well as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It was the first time a president has called for ending the endowments. They were created in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation declaring that any “advanced civilization” must fully value the arts, the humanities, and cultural activity.

While the combined annual budgets of both endowments — about $300 million — are a tiny fraction of the $1.1 trillion of total annual discretionary spending, grants from these agencies have been deeply valued financial lifelines and highly coveted honors for artists, musicians, writers and scholars for decades. [Continue reading…]

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Defense Secretary Mattis withdraws Patterson as choice for undersecretary for policy

The Washington Post reports: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has withdrawn retired senior diplomat Anne W. Patterson as his choice for undersecretary for policy after the White House indicated unwillingness to fight what it said would be a battle for Senate confirmation.

U.S. officials said that two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), were strongly opposed to Patterson’s nomination because she served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, a time when the Obama administration supported an elected government with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that was ultimately overthrown by the Egyptian military.

The withdrawal leaves Mattis with a bench still empty of Trump-appointed senior officials, a situation that stretches across the administration as Cabinet secretaries have not chosen or the White House has not approved nominees. Although Obama administration holdovers remain in a few jobs, after eight weeks in office, President Trump has not nominated a single high official under Cabinet rank in the Defense or State departments. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. to deploy missile-capable drones across border from North Korea

The Guardian reports: The US has declared it will permanently station missile-capable drones in South Korea in the latest round of military escalation in north-eastern Asia.

The drone deployment comes a week after North Korea carried out a test salvo of four missiles that landed off the coast of Japan, and a day before the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, embarks on a tour of a region widely regarded as the most dangerous corner of the world.

The US military in South Korea took the unusual step of publicly announcing the deployment of a company of Grey Eagle drones, which it said would add “significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability” for American and South Korean forces.

Grey Eagles are designed to carry Hellfire missiles and together with the deployment of Thaad anti-ballistic missile defences in South Korea they represent a significant build-up of US military muscle in response to an accelerated programme of missile and nuclear testing by the North Korean regime. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. troop presence in Syria now at its highest. But how long will they remain for and why?

Time reports: The Trump Administration is intensifying America’s involvement in the ground war in Syria, having announced on March 9 that it is sending 400 more troops to join the fight against ISIS there.

The new deployment of Army Rangers and a U.S. Marine artillery unit raises fresh questions about the scope and timeline of the U.S. mission in Syria, where the number of American troops is now approaching a high of around a thousand (Washington has not disclosed an exact number). The U.S. is also sending another 2,500 troops to a staging base in Kuwait, awaiting possible deployment to Iraq or Syria.

Recent comments from U.S. officials suggest that the military is contemplating a deployment in Syria that extends far beyond the defeat of ISIS as a conventional armed force. In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, Army General Joseph Votel, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said additional forces may be needed in the future to help with “stability and other aspects of the operations.” The Pentagon is also considering lifting a formal cap of roughly 500 U.S. troops permitted on the ground in Syria, a limitation imposed by former President Barack Obama, according to the Washington Post.

The near doubling of the U.S. military deployment in eastern Syria, along with Votel’s comments, suggest a shift toward a more open-ended commitment of forces to Syria, echoing the prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the escalation is also prompting calls to define the objectives of the mission over the long term in order to avoid a costly occupation both in terms of lives and resources. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration looking for ways to lift restrictions on killing civilians

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.

Already, President Trump has granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces of Yemen to be an “area of active hostilities” where looser battlefield rules apply. That opened the door to a Special Operations raid in late January in which several civilians were killed, as well as to the largest-ever series of American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago, the officials said.

Mr. Trump is also expected to sign off soon on a similar Pentagon proposal to designate parts of Somalia to be another such battlefield-style zone for 180 days, removing constraints on airstrikes and raids targeting people suspected of being militants with the Qaeda-linked group the Shabab, they said.

Inside the White House, the temporary suspension of the limits for parts of Yemen and Somalia is seen as a test run while the government considers whether to more broadly rescind or relax the Obama-era rules, said the officials, who described the internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Marines have battled misogyny for years. Will it be different this time?

Marine Times reports: Although the Marine Corps was quick to condemn the secretive “Marines United” Facebook group, the Corps’ leadership has known for years about websites that encourage misogyny and cyber bullying of female Marines, veterans and other women.

Four years ago, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., warned then-Commandant Gen. James Amos that male Marines were harassing their female counterparts on Facebook pages.

“Back in 2013 then-Commandant Gen. Amos wrote to me saying, ‘We share your indignation,’ regarding deplorable images on social media that denigrate women in the United States Marine Corps,” Speier said in a Wednesday speech on the House floor.

“They were words — just words. I fear military leadership will say anything to placate Congress and an outraged public but then do nothing.”

While the Marine Corps is moving rapidly to deal with the fallout from the scandal, it is unclear whether the Corps will have any more success than it has in the past in stopping cyber bullying and online harassment.

The latest revelations have sparked a criminal investigation amid allegations that Marines and others were posting “revenge porn” and encouraging sexual assault, potential violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The potential crimes were first reported by Marine Corps veteran Thomas Brennan and published by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal on March 4.

Speier is now calling on Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general, to ensure that the Marines involved with “Marines United” face consequences for their actions.

“That means heads should roll,” she said. “Talk is cheap. Action is what is needed for the integrity of the military. Survivors must be supported, and that will only happen if those bad Marines are drummed out of the Corps — with no exceptions.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korea isn’t testing its missiles. It’s preparing for a nuclear first strike

Jeffrey Lewis writes: On Monday morning, North Korea launched four missiles from the northwest corner of the country that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.

While none of the launches were the long-awaited test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile — the sort of weapon that could reach the United States — the salvo was a big deal in its own way. Pyongyang very vividly demonstrated the warnings from Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year and described how the country was taking the final steps to arm its missile units with nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict. When combined with what we know about U.S. and South Korean war plans, this fact raises troubling questions about whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula might erupt into nuclear war before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.

In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. (Why, yes, the U.S. analysts did name the missiles after the town. The emasculating quality was a pure coincidence, I am sure.) These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.

In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the damn country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.

The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”

This time, North Korea launched four “extended-range” Scud missiles that are capable of flying up to 620 miles. The map showed all four missiles landing on an arc that stretched down to the Marine Corps Air Station near Iwakuni, Japan. Once again, the North Korean statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination: “Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”

So why is North Korea practicing nuking U.S. forces in Japan?

The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest annual joint military exercise, known as Foal Eagle. The exercise, which is really a series of exercises, lasts two months and involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean military personnel, as well as an aircraft carrier, bombers, and — guess what? — F-35 aircraft based out of Iwakuni. Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for the U.S.-Republic of Korea war plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which has been described as a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation. Whether that’s a fair description or not, the North Koreans certainly think the annual exercise is a dress rehearsal for an invasion. This year’s menu of fun and games reportedly includes a U.S.-ROK special operations unit practicing an airborne assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.

What North Korea is doing is simply counterprogramming the Foal Eagle with its own exercise. If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion. [Continue reading…]

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With a show of Stars and Stripes, U.S. forces in Syria try to keep warring allies apart

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military is getting drawn into a deepening struggle for control over areas liberated from the Islamic State that risks prolonging American involvement in wars in Syria and Iraq long after the militants are defeated.

In their first diversion from the task of fighting the Islamic State since the U.S. military’s involvement began in 2014, U.S. troops dispatched to Syria have headed in recent days to the northern town of Manbij, 85 miles northwest of the extremists’ capital, Raqqa, to protect their Kurdish and Arab allies against a threatened assault by other U.S. allies in a Turkish-backed force.

Russian troops have also shown up in Manbij under a separate deal that was negotiated without the input of the United States, according to U.S. officials. Under the deal, Syrian troops are to be deployed in the area, also in some form of peacekeeping role, setting up what is effectively a scramble by the armies of four nations to carve up a collection of mostly empty villages in a remote corner of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says it was practicing to hit U.S. military bases in Japan with missiles

The Washington Post reports: North Korea was practicing to strike United States military bases in Japan with its latest barrage of missiles, state media in Pyongyang reported Tuesday, and it appeared to be trying to outsmart a new American antimissile battery being deployed to South Korea by firing multiple rockets at once.

Kim Jong Un presided over Monday’s launch of the four missiles, “feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in a statement that analysts called a “brazen declaration” of the country’s intent to strike enemies with a nuclear weapon if it came under attack.

“If the United States or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory, we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with a nuclear tipped missile,” the KCNA statement said.

The four ballistic missiles fired Monday morning were launched by the elite Hwasong ballistic missile division “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan,” KCNA said. The United States has numerous military bases and about 54,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, the legacy of its postwar security alliance with the country. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon plan to seize Raqqa calls for significant increase in U.S. participation

The Washington Post reports: A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground, according to U.S. officials.

The military’s favored option among several variations currently under White House review, the proposal would ease a number of restrictions on U.S. activities imposed during the Obama administration.

Officials involved in the planning have proposed lifting a cap on the size of the U.S. military contingent in Syria, currently numbering about 500 Special Operations trainers and advisers to the combined Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. While the Americans would not be directly involved in ground combat, the proposal would allow them to work closer to the front line and would delegate more decision-making authority down the military line from Washington. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson wants to see State Dept budget slashed by more than one third

The Associated Press reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has agreed in principle to a White House proposal to slash foreign aid and diplomatic spending by 37 percent, but wants to spread it out over three years rather than in one dramatic cut.

Officials familiar with Tillerson’s response to the proposal from the Office of Management and Budget said Friday that Tillerson suggested the reductions to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development begin with a 20-percent cut in the next budget year. Tillerson sent his response to OMB director Mick Mulvaney on Thursday, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the budget publicly until it is presented to Congress.

Tillerson likened his approach to that of landing an airplane safely: a gradual descent rather than a precipitous one-time drop that would have far-reaching consequences for policy as well as political and human costs, according to the officials. The officials cautioned that Tillerson’s response was the beginning of a discussion with the OMB that could lead to a different figure, which would then go to Congress, where more changes could emerge. Some lawmakers, including senior Republicans, as well as current and former military commanders strongly object to steep cuts in foreign aid and diplomacy.

The combined State Department/USAID budget this year was $50.1 billion, a little more than 1 percent of the total federal budget. The White House is looking for massive savings across the non-defense portions of the total budget to offset a proposed $54 billion increase in military spending. [Continue reading…]

When he was Commander of U.S. Central Command, James Mattis said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” He wasn’t arguing for more defense spending and reduced diplomacy.

The Washington Post reports: Now is not the time to slash U.S. foreign aid, more than 120 retired generals and admirals said Monday in a letter to lawmakers, while citing past comments from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to buttress their case.

The letter was released by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which includes business executives, foreign-policy experts and retired senior military officials, as the Trump administration signaled that it will slash international spending while boosting funding for the U.S. military. The signatories include several past service chiefs and combatant commanders. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s alpha male foreign policy

Susan B Glasser writes: Forget America First or the new nationalism or any of the other isms that have been offered as explanations for Donald Trump’s emerging foreign policy.

Want to really understand Trump’s philosophy of international relations?

Just listen to Sebastian Gorka, the Breitbart propagandist and Hungarian ultranationalist turned White House national security aide. He’s been saying it loud and clear for a couple months now whenever he’s asked about Trump’s foreign policy and how the new president will shake things up globally: “The alpha males are back.”

“Our foreign policy has been a disaster,” Gorka told Fox’s Sean Hannity before the inauguration. “We’ve neglected and abandoned our allies. We’ve emboldened our enemies. The message I have — it’s a very simple one. It’s a bumper sticker, Sean: The era of the Pajama Boy is over January 20th, and the alpha males are back.”

He’s repeated the phrase several times since, and it strikes me as perhaps unintentionally helpful in trying to sort through Trump’s largely unformed and at times outright contradictory foreign policy views. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wants to tap the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, as his undersecretary of defense for policy, but the Pentagon chief is running into resistance from White House officials, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.

If nominated and confirmed, Patterson would hold the fourth most powerful position at the Pentagon – and would effectively be the top civilian in the Defense Department, since both Mattis and his deputy, Robert Work, were military officers.

As ambassador to Egypt between 2011 and 2013, Patterson worked closely with former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist government. She came under fire for cultivating too close a relationship with the regime and for discouraging protests against it—and White House officials are voicing concerns about those decisions now.

The skirmish surrounding Patterson’s nomination is the latest in a series of personnel battles that have played out between Mattis and the White House, with each side rejecting the names offered up by the other while the Pentagon remains empty. The White House has yet to nominate a single undersecretary or deputy secretary to the Defense Department, while Work, Mattis’s deputy, is an Obama administration holdover who only agreed to stay on until the secretary taps a deputy of his own.

A similar tug of war has played out between the White House and other agency chiefs, most notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom the president denied his top choice for deputy secretary of state last month. [Continue reading…]

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