The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction just released the 25th quarterly report (pdf) on US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. We are of course at a major crossroads in US involvement in Afghanistan, as US and NATO combat involvement are being phased out and Afghanistan assumes responsibility for its own security. Some US and international troops will remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year under the new Bilateral Security Agreement, but with Afghanistan in charge it is of utmost importance that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are fully staffed and functional so that they can take on their responsibilities. One of SIGAR’s key roles in its oversight activity through the years has been to collect and review information coming directly from ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, concerning the recruitment, training and subsequent capabilities of ANSF. ISAF ostensibly is a NATO team but is of course dominated, both in command and in personnel, by the US military.
Suddenly, in the final SIGAR report before the current ISAF mission ends and operations move to the new arrangement, ISAF, and more specifically ISAF Joint Command, has decided to classify the reports it prepares on ANSF troop capability. Here is Inspector General John Sopko in his cover letter accompanying the quarterly report:
This quarterly report also examines the reconstruction effort across the security, governance, and economic sectors. In the security sector, SIGAR was deeply troubled by the decision of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to classify the executive summary of the report that assesses the capability of the ANSF. For years, SIGAR has used the ISAF report as a primary metric to show Congress and the public the effectiveness of the $61.5 billion U.S. investment to build, train, equip, and sustain those forces. Prior to this quarter, aggregate data on the operational effectiveness of the ANSF were unclassified in the Regional ANSF Status Report (RASR) as well as its predecessors, the Commanders’ Unit Assessment Tool (CUAT) and the Capability Milestone rating system.
ISAF’s classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort. SIGAR and Congress can of course request classified briefings on this information, but its inexplicable classification now and its disappearance from public view does a disservice to the interest of informed national discussion. Moreover, while SIGAR understands that detailed, unit-level assessments could provide insurgents with potentially useful intelligence, there is no indication that the public release of aggregated data on ANSF capabilities has or could deliver any tactical benefit to Afghan insurgents.
It is very difficult to see this move by ISAF as anything more than a blatant attempt to cover up massive failure on the part of the efforts to train Afghan troops to take over their own security functions. This move by ISAF follows previous efforts that also come off as attempts to game the system so that evaluation of the always-claimed “progress” is difficult to impossible. Note in Sopko’s letter that he refers to three different systems by which troop readiness has been analyzed and reported. First, we had the Capability Milestone system, which was replaced by the Commanders’ Unit Assessment Tool (CUAT) and the now-classified Regional ANSF Status Report has replaced CUAT.
In March of 2013, I pointed out SIGAR’s frustration with how ISAF was gaming the CUAT:
A related area in which SIGAR has found a disgusting level of dishonesty is in how the US goes about evaluating Afghan forces in terms of readiness. Because it became clear to the trainers in 2010 that they had no hope of achieving the trained and independent force size numbers that NATO planners wanted (and because SIGAR found that the tool they were using at the time was useless), they decided that the only way to demonstrate sufficient progress was to redefine the criteria for evaluating progress. From the report:
In 2010, SIGAR audited the previous assessment tool—the Capability Milestone (CM) rating system which had been in use since 2005—and found that it did not provide reliable or consistent assessments of ANSF capabilities. During the course of that audit, DoD and NATO began using a new system, the CUAT [Commander’s Unit Assessment Tool], to rate the ANSF. In May 2010, the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) issued an order to implement the new system which would “provide users the specific rating criteria for each [ANSF] element to be reported by the CUAT including leader/commander considerations, operations conducted, intelligence gathering capability, logistics and sustainment, equipping, partnering, personnel readiness, maintenance, communications, unit training and individual education, as well as the partner unit or advisor team’s overall assessment.”
Since the implementation of the CUAT, the titles of the various rating levels have changed, as shown in Table 3.3. In July 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised concerns that the change of the title of the highest rating level from “independent” to “independent with advisors” was, in part, responsible for an increase in the number of ANSF units rated at the highest level. GAO also noted that “the change lowered the standard for unit personnel and equipment levels from ‘not less than 85’ to ‘not less than 75’ percent of authorized levels.” In a response to SIGAR last quarter, the IJC disagreed with GAO’s assessment, saying a change in title does not “equal a change in definition.” Since last quarter, the IJC has initiated a CUAT Refinement Working Group to standardize inputs and outputs in the areas covered by the assessments.
But it turns out that the CUAT itself was developed only when SIGAR initiated an audit (pdf) of the Capability Milestone rating system. So, twice, when SIGAR decided to audit the system for evaluating Afghan troop readiness, ISAF responded by developing a totally new system, creating a strong discontinuity in the ability to track Afghan troop readiness over time. And now that we are at the most important moment for Afghan troops to be ready, ISAF decides that any information at all on their readiness is classified, even though they have provided the very same information without classification for years.
When we drill down to the details about the classification that SIGAR provides in the report, we see in footnote 196 (page 94) that they were informed of the classification in response to a data call submitted to IJC on October 3 of this year. Noting this and the arguments that SIGAR provides that aggregate data on Afghan troop readiness should not provide any sort of strategic advantage to insurgents, I submitted the following question to SIGAR: Continue reading
At the risk of being misunderstood as defending Susan Rice, let me explore a couple of things about this article, complaining about her “bumbling” as National Security Advisor.
3,000 words into a 3,500 word article, this sentence — which I believe is the real point of the story — appears.
And the larger question is whether Hagel’s mostly inward focus on budget and morale issues at the Pentagon is the right focus now—instead of helping to project American power abroad amidst spiraling global crises.
That is, the article expresses the viewpoint of a bunch of mostly anonymous people who believe that “projecting American power” (in the form of military presence) is the solution to the multiple crises in the world today, including the Ebola epidemic. Underlying it all is a complaint not only that Obama isn’t projecting enough tanks and planes, but he’s daring to cut DOD’s budget.
Along the way, the article complains that the White House:
It also complains about Chuck Hagel’s low visibility and the fact he let Dempsey undercut the President’s claims about boots on the ground in Iraq.
Now, I agree with the complaint — if true — that the initial plan sent for ISIL wasn’t sufficiently vetted. It sounds like something the Saudis wrote, which might suggest the Saudis wrote it, which given the Saudi role in fostering ISIL, would be deeply alarming but not at all surprising.
And I agree that the White House appears to run from crisis to crisis like 6 year olds on a soccer field (though I’m not 100% convinced that reflects reality, rather than a response to a political need to appear to be in crisis mode). I even agree there is abundant reason to be skeptical of the Administration’s strategy, though Michael Hirsh doesn’t even consider that they might have one, which seems to overlook hints of an effort to rework the regional structure of the Middle East.
But ultimately, these criticisms serve another purpose: to complain that Obama is not rushing into full-scale war in Iraq and Syria.
To his critics—and I spoke with several for this article inside Obama’s administration as well as recent veterans of it—it’s all a reflection of the slapdash way a president so vested in “ending wars” has embraced his new one.
With ISIL still on the move in Iraq and Syria, and the air strikes that Obama announced on Sept. 10 proving to be of dubious effectiveness, many military experts say this is the moment to beef up the U.S. presence with close combat advisers and spotters on the ground who can guide in heavier and more precise airstrikes, as well to provide more U.S. trainers. But the president’s “no boots on the ground” pledge has paralyzed discussion, despite Dempsey’s lonely effort to open the door slightly to the possibility of bringing in such advisers.
There is never the hint of consideration that the solution may perhaps be less military involvement, not more, the last decade of evidence notwithstanding. Nor is there consideration of the possibility that the reason Obama seems so lackadaisical is because he has different goals in Syria than they do, not least to get beyond the election and force the Middle East to start putting some skin in their own security demands.
There’s never the hint of consideration that projection of American power is part of the problem, not the solution.
That’s my general complaint about the article. But I’m also very fascinated by this passage.
The office of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was taken by surprise as well last July, when national security adviser Susan Rice sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner requesting a withdrawal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in 2002 to enable U.S. military action in Iraq. This letter came after Mosul, a key northern Iraqi city, had already fallen to ISIL and the scale of the threat was becoming clear. The letter was never acted on, and in fact the AUMF that Rice wanted withdrawn is now part of the very authority the administration says it is operating under, along with the 2001 AUMF against al Qaeda. The Pentagon was not given a heads-up about that letter either, according to multiple sources. “We didn’t know it was going over there, and there were significant concerns about it,” said the senior defense official. “We had these authorities to go into Iraq under the 2002 AUMF, which is what she wanted repealed. We believed the authorities were still needed.”
“The authorities were still needed”?? Two and a half years after we withdrew troops from Iraq?
Before I explain my interest in the passage, consider this response from a guy who was Special Counsel to DOD while the Iraq War AUMF was being drawn up, and later interpreted the scope of that AUMF while Assistant Attorney General at OLC, Jack Goldsmith.
Of course we now know that DOD was right, since the administration is now relying on the 2002 AUMF in its uses of force against the Islamic State.
In context, Goldsmith makes an enormous logical leap. That we need some kind of authorization if we’re going to go back to war in Iraq in no way means we need an AUMF crafted — at least as far as those of us who weren’t privy to the process are concerned — to fight an entirely different war. Nothing about Obama’s subsequent decision to go to war suggests we need that AUMF — and almost every observer who wasn’t involved in crafting and interpreting that AUMF disagrees about its applicability in this case.
But Hirsh’s “senior defense official” source seems to be saying something even more. In July 2014 DOD believed “the authorities” provided by Congress in 2002 to fight Saddam “were still needed.” Not, “would be needed” if we put all the boots on the ground this article seems to endorse. But “were still needed.”
That leads me to suspect the entirely unsurprising hypothesis that DOD never stopped relying on (or had already resumed relying on) the AUMF for … something.
It’s not out of the question, for example, that whatever JSOC forces that were part of CIA’s boots on the ground that started at least by June 2013 were “relying” on the totally inapt 2002 AUMF. It’s possible that, even when JSOC gets “sheep-dipped” into CIA ops, it still likes to have an AUMF lying around so it can claim that its un-uniformed soldiers operating off of a battlefield are entitled to the same combatant’s privilege they would be if they wore a uniform on a recognized battlefield.
Or it could be DOD never really pulled all its troops from Iraq. Because someone has to manage the contractors after all. There were reports, for example, as ISIL advanced on Kirkuk, that we’ve always had troops there.
If either is the case, I can see how DOD might react badly to these lines from Rice’s letter asking to have the AUMF withdrawn.
As the President unequivocally stated in late June, “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq,…”
With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal. Such a repeal would go much further in giving the American people confidence that ground forces will not be sent into combat in Iraq.
After all, if ground forces already were in Iraq, and if DOD works under the assumption that its covert special forces obtain combatant status from these AUMFs lying around, it would explain why they were so cranky that Rice moved to withdraw it.
But there must be some explanation, because unless it was in use in July, months before Obama overtly started engaging ISIL in Iraq, there’s no basis for DOD to complain.
It sure seems like the Iraq AUMF has been secretly redefined (maybe even was when Goldsmith was still at DOD), just like the 2001 AUMF.
In a blockbuster story published last night by the New York Times, C.J. Shivers lays out chapter and verse on the despicable way the US military covered up the discovery of chemical weapons in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Even worse is the cover-up of injuries sustained by US troops from those weapons, their denial of treatment and denial of recognition or their injuries sustained on the battlefront.
Why was this covered up, you might ask? After all, if George W. Bush would joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner about looking under White House furniture for Saddam’s WMD’s, why didn’t the US blast out the news of the WMD’s that had supposedly prompted the US invasion?
The answer is simple. The chemical weapons that were found did not date to the time frame when the US was accusing Saddam of “illegally” producing them. Instead, they were old chemical weapons that dated from the time Saddam was our friend. They come from the time when the US sent Donald Rumsfeld to shake Saddam’s hand and to grease the skids for Iraq to get chemical weapons to use in their war against Iran.
Chivers give us the details:
From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.
In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The New York Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified.
Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them.
But here is the real kicker:
Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”
Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.
Good old USA technology, conveniently exported to European firms that we helped to build factories in Iraq to produce chemical weapons to be used against Iran. That is what caused injury to US servicemen who were routinely denied care and quickly sent back into battle because they weren’t missing limbs. Chivers talked to a number of those soldiers and their stories are so consistent they nearly blend together. Also consistent was the instant classification of the injuries, presumably because of the embarrassment to the Bush Administration they would cause should the press look into them too rigorously.
Sadly, though, the story is not yet over. The US left Iraq in 2011, knowing that chemical weapons were still stored in bunkers at Al Muthanna. At the end of Chivers’ report: Continue reading
Iran, Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Russia, Ecuador, Iraq, Angola. Those are the countries the budgets of which will face significant shortfalls if the Saudis succeed in their bid to drive the oil price down below $90/barrel for the year or more. Kuwait, the Emirates, Qatar — all Saudi partners (albeit reluctantly, in Qatar’s case) in whatever the hell it is doing — can afford the cuts, with Libya on the bubble.
Some, like Zero Hedge’s Tyler Durden, have suggested this ploy is part of the plan the US and Saudis made when the Saudis finally agreed to engage in combat against ISIL.
I’m not sure I buy that though. Cutting prices will make it far harder for Iraq’s Shia led government to invest in the fight against ISIL. So long as Western sanctions continue, it will destabilize Iran significantly, not only making it a lot harder for Iran to help Iraq and Syria, but also undermining the government that has chosen to deal with the US. The cuts will also destabilize Iran’s allies in Venezuela and Ecuador. Oligarchic forces have been trying to foment a coup in the former country for some time and this may well help to do so.
The cut, made just before winter strengthens Vladimir Putin’s hand with Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and made in such a way that may make Europe as dependent on the Saudis as they are on Russia, will make it harder for Putin to play the waiting game that otherwise was bound to achieve his objectives in Ukraine. Without that Ukrainian victory, Putin will be unable to invest resources as heavily in Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Saudis have been trying to undercut Russia for some time and — to the extent the ruble exchange with the dollar doesn’t shelter Russia from these changes [Update: though see Mark Adomanis on how this is hurting Russian consumers] — this price cut will hurt Russia too.
Ultimately, though, I suspect the US is just as much the target of this move as Iran and Russia are. Since the US refused to take out Assad last year and inched forward with its Iran deal, the Saudis have been worried about having Shia Iran and Iraq take over its role as the swing producer in the world, mirroring what happened in 1976 when the US replaced Iran’s Shah with the Saudis. By destabilizing the government in negotiations with the US, the price cut will make it a lot harder to achieve such a deal.
Just as importantly, the US is now a petro-state. And this price cut will make fracking (and deepwater drilling) unprofitable. We’ve been fracking largely to give ourselves some breathing room from the Saudis; cutting the price will make it far harder for us to sustain that effort (and will make some renewables uncompetitive).
To me, then, this move looks like part of an effort to force the outcome the Saudis have been chasing for a decade and even more aggressively since the Arab Spring: to paralyze Shia governments just as the chaos of ISIL threatens to remap the Middle East.
The Saudis may well claim to be supporting our fight against ISIL, but the long-term commitment to dropping oil prices, looks more like an effort to undercut it.
All that said, something remains unexplained here. The Saudi break-even point is $90/barrel. Oil prices are already below that and may drop still further. And the Saudis rely on bribery just as much as some other petro-states to keep their populace from rising up. How will the Saudis sustain this for a year or more, if that’s what they’re doing (especially since they are at least purportedly contributing to the ISIL fight)?
Saudis have low debt-to-GDP right now, so it may be they’ll just finance this play. But I wonder whether some cash rich Asian country has backed this move? What better way to end US hegemony than to ensure it gets sucked into another unwinnable war in the Middle East, wallowing in really cheap oil for the middle term, with the understanding that it will replace the US after the US exhausts itself with this latest Mideast adventure?
Sure, low oil prices might help Democrats retain the Senate. Low oil prices certainly will avoid any immediate backlash against the ISIL war. So it may well be this is part of a deal with the Obama Administration. But if so, it seems like a counterproductive deal, because it’s going to make it even harder to achieve any success against ISIL.
The Wall Street Journal ran with the headline “Islamic State’s Siege of Kobani, Syria Sparks Protest in Kabul, Afghanistan” while Iran’s PressTV went with “Afghan protesters blast US-led forces, BSA”. Remarkably, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press did not see it necessary to spin the focus of the protest in a particular direction, using the headline “Afghans protest against Islamic State, US and NATO forces in Kabul”.
The Khaama Press article quickly sums up the protest:
Over 500 people participated in a demonstration against the Islamic State and presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The protesters were shouting slogans against the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and in support of the Kurdish people who are fighting the Islamic State militants.
Protesters were also carrying signs purporting crimes committed by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and resistance of the female Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State.
The US and NATO were also accused by protester for supporting the extremist groups in Afghanistan and Kobane.
We learn in the article that the protest was organized by the Solidarity party of Afghanistan, which Khaama described as “a small and left wing political party in the country”. Presumably, since they were allowed to stage the protest, the ban on the party issued in 2012 must have been lifted.
One has to read the Wall Street Journal article very carefully to find any evidence of the US criticism that was in the protest. The article opens:
Residents of Kabul have a war on their own doorstep: The provinces around the Afghan capital have seen an upsurge in violence this year.
But the conflict in Syria was on the minds of demonstrators who marched Sunday in solidarity with the town of Kobani, Syria, currently under siege by Islamic State militants.
Over a hundred Afghans—most of them women—held placards supporting Kurdish fighters defending the city.
Near the end, the article mentions, but dismisses as “conspiracy theory”, the accusations of US involvement in the creation of ISIS:
Conspiracy theories often thrive in Afghanistan, and at Sunday’s protest, many demonstrators expressed the belief that Islamic State was a U.S. creation. Some held placards saying, “Yankee Go Home.”
The article then mentions the BSA without stating that it was also a target of the protest other than citing the “Yankee Go Home” sign.
PressTV, on the other hand, focused exclusively on the anti-US aspects of the protest. In fact, the video accompanying their story does not match the photo that is used in the video frame while the video isn’t playing. The photo, which is full-frame, shows protesters somewhere burning an American flag, but the video itself-which appears to match the same event in the Khaama Press photo-only partially fills the frame and does not show any flag-burning. PressTV opens:
Afghan protesters have staged a rally in the streets of the nation’s capital, Kabul, to reiterate their opposition to the continued presence of US-led troops in the war-ravaged country.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the capital on Sunday to also express their outrage against the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed by the newly-inaugurated President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
The protesters were reportedly carrying banners pointing to alleged crimes committed by US and NATO forces across Afghanistan
Remarkably, even though Iran is staunchly opposed to ISIS, the PressTV story makes no mention of the protest also being aimed against ISIS, or even of the accusations of a US role in the creation of ISIS.
Congratulations to Khaama Press for choosing to not spin a story that major outlets in the US and Iran used as propaganda pieces.
Yesterday, I described what was known at the time about a mysterious blast near the Parchin military site in Iran. I postulated that satellite imagery would soon be available to help sort out the mystery of what took place. A tweet this afternoon from @dravazed alerted me to this article at the Times of Israel, which, in turn, linked to this story posted at israeldefense.com.
Satellite imagery described as from Sunday night’s blast at the Israel Defense site shows several buildings destroyed. The article claims that the blast looks like an attack on a bunker:
Satellite images obtained by Israel Defense and analyzed by specialist Ronen Solomon clearly show damage consistent with an attack against bunkers in a central locality within the military research complex at the Parchin military compound.
Because of the unique shape of the large building adjacent to those destroyed by the blast, I was able to find the location of the blast on Google Maps. Also, with the help of this article from 2012 in The Atlantic, I was able to locate both the area inspected by IAEA in 2005 and the site of the disputed blast chamber where it is alleged that research to develop a high explosive fuse for a nuclear weapon has been carried out. None of these three locations, the blast site, the chamber site or the area inspected in 2005, lies within the boundaries marked as Parchin on Google Maps. The blast site looks to be near a populated area of what is marked on Google Maps as Mojtame-e Maskuni-ye Parchin (which appears to translate as Parchin Residential Complex A if I used Google Translate appropriately). In fact, the blast site appears to be just over a mile from an athletic field. On the map below, #1 is the disputed blast chamber location, #2 is the blast site and #3 is the area inspected in 2005. Note that both the blast chamber site and the area inspected in 2005 are more removed from what appear to be the populated areas.
I am far from an image analysis expert, but the blast site looks to me to be more like an industrial site than a cache for storing explosives. If a bunker were indeed located here, that would put the local planning in this area on a par with West, Texas.
It will be very interesting to see how US officials describe the damage and the site where it occurred.
In a story published at 7:28 am this morning, Reuters more or less transcribed a sales brochure for Israel trying to get other countries to buy their own versions of the Iron Dome system. I have written on Iron Dome a couple of times, noting that it amounts to a billion dollar boondoggle and that Congress now wants US contractors to get their portion of the take from the huge funds the US is pouring into the program.
Remarkably, it seems that Reuters reporter Dan Williams could find none of this information about problems with Iron Dome while he copied from Israel’s sales brochure for Iron Dome:
Normally, an advanced new weapon system with a battle-proven success rate of 90 percent would have global defense procurement agencies on the phone in minutes. But Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor is yet to prove a hit with buyers abroad.
In terms of operational achievement, tested on the Gaza, Lebanese and Egyptian Sinai fronts, Iron Dome is unrivalled in the arms market. However its uniqueness – developed for a particular threat in a particular place – also limits its appeal to countries dealing with more conventional military adversaries.
But the praise for Iron Dome doesn’t stop there. Later in the piece, Williams says:
So far the system – its effectiveness against Palestinian rocket fire demonstrated beyond doubt since 2011 – has been bought by just one foreign country. Its identity is being kept secret by both sides.
So far, at the time of this writing, about two hours after Reuters posted the article, I have had no response from Williams on Twitter to my calling out his uncritical transcription of Iron Dome effectiveness and Reuters has posted no comments on the story even though I submitted a comment about an hour ago.
Jenan Moussa continues her remarkable string of discoveries of intact artifacts amid the destruction of war. Six weeks after the Benghazi attack, she found a slew of papers (some unsigned) that had survived the fire that killed Chris Stevens. And in the lead-up to the ISIL escalation, she got handed a laptop of dubious provenance which contained evidence ISIL wanted to weaponize bubonic plague.
This time, she went to the “completely destroyed” headquarters of the group dubbed Khorasan by US authorities and found intact documents showing the group was in fact an elite sniper unit of Jabhat al-Nusra called the Wolf Group. Moussa reports 50 fighters (but no civilians) were killed in the strikes. She shows, among other things, an intact list of 14 fighters found at the site.
Now, it is apparently the case that’s who was targeted (or at least, who was reported by Jihadists to have been killed). This post traces their well-publicized history and location. Though as it points out, the Wolf Group does not appear, at least from what is public, to be the western focused group it has been billed as. (h/t TalkLeft, which has been great on Obama’s ISIL escalation)
So was the Wolf Group plotting against Western targets?
The honest answer, of course, is that it is impossible to know that from the open source information we have. What we do know, though, is that:
(a) there is no evidence that the group was called the Khorasan Group;
(b) the group ran a sniper training facility in Aleppo that was highly regarded and trained elite snipers to fight against Syrian government forces, so one would presume that loss of this facility will impact on JAN’s ability to train snipers and thus perhaps confer a benefit on Assad;
(c) it was well-known and not a secret that Abu Yusuf al-Turki was a sniper trainer and that he fought in Afghanistan, and that other members of the training school were veteran jihadis;
(d) there are videos of the training school so its location is not a secret either.
Moussa’s story completely tracks with what we know about the guy who was reported by jihadists to have been killed in the attack, Abu Yousef al-Turki, though there’s not yet evidence that means Khorasan is the Wolf Group — only that the strike that killed some members of the Wolf Group have been dubbed Khorasan Group.
Which is why — even more than how the list survived — I’m most interested in how Moussa’s report is now being used. Eli Lake uses it to equate threat reporting that everyone knew the President would not find sufficiently threatening to act on in June with his attack now.
The new disclosure that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had prepared target packages against al Qaeda’s cell comes as some critics on the left and righthave questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the so-called “Khorasan Group” in order to justify airstrikes that began in September against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in Syria. Skepticism has also mounted because U.S. officials have walked back claims in the last week that the strikes on the Khorasan Group were an attempt to disrupt an imminent threat.
Jenan Moussa of Al-Aan Television this week reported that the Khorasan Groupwas actually an elite unit within al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, which has been focused on its fight inside the country. Other U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the group is composed of senior al Qaeda planners focused on attacking the West.
But much later in his report, he notes that military officials are not yet convinced al-Turki did die.
After last week’s airstrike, Jihadist websites reported that two of the group’s leaders, Muhsin al-Fadhli and Abu Yousef al-Turki, were killed. But thus far the U.S. military and the intelligence community have not been able to confirm this.
One problem for the U.S. intelligence community is that it has no American intelligence officers on the ground in Syria to assess the areas where U.S. missiles hit, according to two intelligence officials. Instead, these officials say, the U.S. must rely on Jordanian assets and Kurdish fighters in Syria for on the ground information.
Some U.S. intelligence officials also suspect deception. “This could be false information from these Jihadist web forums,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “We don’t have people on the ground, so it’s hard to know.”
We are relying on far more than Jordanian assets. And there is a good deal of disinformation, and not just, it appears, from those we’ve labeled as jihadists.
But I’m sure it’ll all work out if we continue bombing blindly.
Harold’s Koh’s grudging defense of the domestic legal basis for President’s Obama’s use of force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is important. It adds little new to other defenses of the President’s position – a legal position, I have argued in past posts, is politically stupid and constitutionally imprudent but nonetheless legally defensible under Article II and the 2002 AUMF (but not the 2001 AUMF). Koh’s defense is nonetheless important because it definitively reveals the death of the Obama administration’s ambition to end what Koh has described as “the Forever War.”
As I said, I think this is a misreading of Koh. Koh still clings to the notion that a Congress ducking legislative action for many reasons – almost none of which have to do with electoral pressure in the short term, and many of which have to do with the fact the President has given them the luxury of dodging responsibility for what will almost certainly be an unpopular and probably unsuccessful escalation — will provide the President a more appropriate authorization for his escalation later this year.
Achieving a better outcome is not politically impossible. Representative Adam Schiff’s proposed AUMF, for example, would accomplish in one bill three of the four steps described above. It would (1) authorize “all necessary and appropriate force against ISIL” for eighteen months, limited geographically to Iraq and Syria and operationally to no US ground forces; (2) repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF now and (3) repeal the 2001 al-Qaeda AUMF in eighteen months. If the President openly backed such legislation, it would place his war with ISIL on a much firmer legal ground, while advancing his longer-term objective—announced in 2013 at the National Defense University —of taking us off a permanent war footing.
This President came to office to end war. But he just declared a new one, sparing Congress of its constitutional responsibility to back him. Instead of breaking the vicious cycle, and asking Congress to live up to its constitutional duties to confront the Islamic State, the President prolonged a dysfunctional historical pattern that is inconsistent with the design of our National Security Constitution. As the conflict with ISIL stretches on, pressure will build to send advisers and other boots on the ground to further the goal of destroying ISIL. Americans and the world will grow weary and forget the exigencies that led this President to take this course.
There is still time to avoid this vicious cycle. When Congress returns, some will be lame ducks, and for all, the next election will be at least two years off. If members of Congress seriously care about their prerogatives, they will have no excuse for again ducking their constitutional responsibility. And this President will have those same years to consider what his constitutional legacy will be. History will treat this President far better if he leaves office not just having fought the Islamic State, but having lived up to his promise to put us on the path toward ending the Forever War.
That is, Koh still clings to the fantasy that the President will agree to limit his own authority when Congress won’t force him to do so.
Goldsmith, on the other hand, presents Koh’s painful somersaults as endorsement of the notion that Islamic extremism will remain a threat for the foreseeable future, and therefore Congress may finally replace the 2001 AUMF with something that better authorizes Forever War for the long haul.
I always thought the debates about what to do with the 2001 AUMF – repeal it, let the President interpret it flexibly, or replace it with a more rigorous updated authorization – turned on intuitions about the persistence and danger posed by Islamist terrorists. It is now clear that the Islamist terrorist threat is not dissipating anytime soon. It is also clear that the President’s interpretation of the 2001 AUMF to fight this threat, whether lawful or not, is certainly a stretch, even on Koh’s account. It is also pretty clear, finally, that Congress will not easily authorize wars on a threat-by-threat basis. So perhaps now we can start talking about realistic statutory replacements for the 2001 AUMF.
For Koh, this is a choice between a legally defensible (in the short term) justification, and more legally justifiable way to bring the Forever War to a close. For Goldsmith, however, the choice is between a legally suspect justification for the Forever War, and a more defensible justification for the Forever War.
Forever War or Forever War.
Whichever you choose, the President will retain the authority to override limits on domestic spying (written by … Jack Goldsmith!), to override due process to drone-kill American citizens, to indefinitely detain men who were sold for a bounty, and to train and arm men we’ve given cause to loathe us. From time to time, Congress will be called on to stir itself from suckling, Matrix-like, on its Defense Contractor cash to approve funds and expand immunities. The fight Osama bin Laden started will continue to rot our government and Constitution. “They hate us for our freedoms,” they used to say, and now our experts embrace indefinitely signing away those freedoms in increasing bits, via legally suspect means or legally defensible.
All the while, this Forever War will suck up money that should be spent funding things like education and infrastructure, things that used to sustain America’s vitality. And the constant threat inflation needed to justify this Forever War will distract from far more pressing threats, like climate change and Ebola and reckless banksters.
Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t worked as OBL wanted is that America’s refusal to deal with climate change will kill devout Muslims in far greater numbers, at first, than it will Americans.
Institutionalizing the Forever War might as well be declaring victory for OBL.
The most telling part of this exchange, though, is how Koh, after having referred to a bunch of fellow law professor critics as “commentators,” then called law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, writing for a publication with greater reach and news credibility than the legal blog Just Security that Koh was writing in, “the blogosphere.” Continue reading
Last week, besides pointing out the obscene fact that the US Senate approved $500 million for the US to get more involved in the Syrian civil war on the same day the UN announced a $352 million funding shortfall for feeding civilian refugees of the war, I predicted that the “training” of Syrian rebels would fail just like training in Iraq and Afghanistan but civilian deaths from the US air strikes and at the hands of the rebels would greatly aid recruiting in extremist groups like ISIS.
It turns out that ISIS recruiting shot up even on Obama’s announcement of the US effort:
At least 162 people joined the radical al Qaeda offshoot in northeast and eastern Aleppo in the week after Obama’s speech on Sept. 10, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information on the conflict.
Islamic State has put particular pressure on rival insurgent groups in this part of Aleppo.
An additional 73 men had joined the group on Sept. 23 and 24 in the northeast Aleppo countryside since the start of the strikes, the Observatory said, bringing the total number since Sept. 10 to at least 235.
“This means these people are not scared. Even if there are air strikes, they still join,” said Rami Abdelrahman, who runs the Observatory.
And, just as could be expected from the “pinpoint” US air strikes, for which we have virtually no on-site intelligence to guide the strikes (other than reconnaissance flights by drones), we are now getting reports of civilian casualties. From Reuters yesterday:
U.S.-led air strikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State-controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria overnight, killing civilians and militants, a group monitoring the war said on Monday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, in an area controlled by Islamic State, killing at least two civilian workers.
Isn’t that nice? Our intelligence-gathering for the air strikes can’t distinguish ISIS bases from silos used to distribute grain to starving civilians. How many new recruits will ISIS get from families whose only food supply was bombed in that strike or whose family members were killed by it?
Of course, the US military refuses to believe any evidence that it could possibly make a mistake. From the same Reuters story:
The U.S. military said on Monday an American air strike overnight targeted Islamic State vehicles in a staging area adjacent to a grain storage facility near Manbij, and added it had no evidence so far of civilian casualties.
“We are aware of media reports alleging civilian casualties, but have no evidence to corroborate these claims,” said Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the U.S. military’s Central Command. He promised that the military would look into the report further, saying it took such matters seriously.
You betcha. I’m sure Central Command will get right on that investigation of how it killed silo workers (and see below for the military admitting that it can’t properly evaluate the effects of strikes). Just as soon as they get the next fifty or so new targets for air strikes put on their targeting lists.
Sadly, this strike on the silos is not the only instance of civilian deaths from the US strikes. The Daily Mail has more information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights about yesterday’s strike and the overall civilian death toll from all strikes:
Mr Abdulrahman, said today: ‘These were the workers at the silos. They provide food for the people.’ The airstrikes ‘destroyed the food that was stored there’.
The group says at least 19 civilians have been killed so far in coalition airstrikes.
And, of course, the US has not acknowledged any of the previous civilian casualties, either. All they will say is that the evidence is “inconclusive”:
Earlier Monday, the Pentagon admitted that some assessments of civilian casualties were “inconclusive” since the U.S. was only using drones to assess the results of strikes from the air.
“The evidence is going to be inconclusive often. Remember we’re using [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] to determine the battle damage assessment,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday.
A defense official told The Hill earlier this month that accurate assessments of damage from strikes are impossible without U.S. forces on the ground to exploit the attack sites, since Iraqi and Syrian partners did not have the capability.
Gosh, I don’t understand how we can have sufficient analytical ability to select targets but insufficient ability to assess the results of strikes on those targets. Sounds to me like the military is just bombing Syria for shits and giggles.
And to help contractors sell more bombs.