This Reuters exclusive is getting a lot of careless attention. Here’s what a careless reader learns:
Exclusive: U.S. withdraws staff from Saudi Arabia dedicated to Yemen planning
From that headline, particularly the use of the present tense, you might assume that the US is in the process of withdrawing its Yemen-related staff from Saudi Arabia, perhaps in response to the Saudi war crimes earlier this week.
But here’s what the story actually reports: the staff withdrawal happened in June, and was in no way a response to this week’s war crimes.
The June staff withdrawal, which U.S. officials say followed a lull in air strikes in Yemen earlier this year, reduces [sic] Washington’s day-to-day involvement in advising a campaign that has come under increasing scrutiny for causing civilian casualties.
In spite of the fact that this “exclusive” — which has since been reported by other outlets with similarly misleading headlines — describes two month old news, it nevertheless obscures that fact with its editorial choices, as here where it suggests the move “reduces,” in present tense, staff numbers, or the headline which hides that, in fact, the US already withdrew these staffers.
In fact, the report goes on to admit that this was not a response (which would have required a time machine in any case).
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reduced staffing was not due to the growing international outcry over civilian casualties in the 16-month civil war that has killed more than 6,500 people in Yemen, about half of them civilians.
But the Pentagon, in some of its strongest language yet, also acknowledged concerns about the conflict, which has brought Yemen close to famine and cost more than $14 billion in damage to infrastructure and economic losses.
“Even as we assist the Saudis regarding their territorial integrity, it does not mean that we will refrain from expressing our concern about the war in Yemen and how it has been waged,” Stump said.
I’d also suggest that reports about what non-uniformed US personnel are doing in Yemen’s immediate neighborhood would be a better gauge of the support we’re giving Saudi Arabia beyond refueling their aistrikes, the latter of which has not stopped at all.
It’s not until the last line two paragraphs of the story that we learn what this misleading news is really about:
U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California and a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, said he believed such strikes could help galvanize votes for limiting arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.
“When its repeated air strikes that have now killed children, doctors, newlyweds, patients, at some point you just have to say: Either Saudi Arabia is not listening to the United States or they just don’t care,” Lieu said.
Not long ago, the US announced $1.5 billion in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congress has a narrow window to affirmatively veto that sale, and people like Ted Lieu and Rand Paul and Chris Murphy are trying to do just that. The arms sale was announced such that Congress has just one day after they come back in session to reject the transfer. Stories like this — suggesting the US is not as involved in this war as it really is — will make the task all the more difficult.
The reality remains that the US, even the overt uniformed operations, continues to provide key support to Saudi Arabia’s war, and therefore to its war crimes. Selling it more arms in the wake of these most recent war crimes only doubles down on the complicity.
Over six years ago, according to a State Department cable liberated by Chelsea Manning, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia met with Prince Khalid bin Sultan to complain about all the civilians the Saudis killed in an airstrike on a health clinic. Prince Khalid expressed regret about the dead civilians. But the Saudis “had to hit the Houthis very hard in order to ‘bring them to their knees.'”
USG CONCERNS ABOUT POSSIBLE STRIKES ON CIVILIAN TARGETS
2. (S/NF) Ambassador Smith delivered points in reftel to Prince Khaled on February 6, 2010. The Ambassador highlighted USG concerns about providing Saudi Arabia with satellite imagery of the Yemen border area absent greater certainty that Saudi Arabia was and would remain fully in compliance with the laws of armed conflict during the conduct of military operations, particularly regarding attacks on civilian targets. The Ambassador noted the USG’s specific concern about an apparent Saudi air strike on a building that the U.S. believed to be a Yemeni medical clinic. The Ambassador showed Prince Khaled a satellite image of the bomb-damaged building in question.
IF WE HAD THE PREDATOR, THIS MIGHT NOT HAVE HAPPENED
3. (S/NF) Upon seeing the photograph, Prince Khalid remarked, “This looks familiar,” and added, “if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem.” He noted that Saudi Air Force operations were necessarily being conducted without the desired degree of precision, and recalled that a clinic had been struck, based on information received from Yemen that it was being used as an operational base by the Houthis. Prince Khalid explained the Saudi approach to its fight with the Houthis, emphasizing that the Saudis had to hit the Houthis very hard in order to “bring them to their knees” and compel them to come to terms with the Yemeni government. “However,” he said, “we tried very hard not to hit civilian targets.” The Saudis had 130 deaths and the Yemenis lost as many as one thousand. “Obviously,” Prince Khaled observed, “some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen.”
If only the Saudis had more accurate targeting, Prince Khalid explained — not just satellite imagery from the Americans, but also Predator drones — such unfortunate accidents might not happen.
Six years later, over a year into Saudi Arabia’s latest war against the Houthis, now backed by US satellite imagery and a drone base on Saudi soil, the Saudis are still having unfortunate “accidents,” attacking at least the third of four MSF facilities attacked in Yemen in the last year (Saudis deny responsibility for one of these strikes).
A hospital supported by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in northwestern Yemen was hit by an airstrike today, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 19.
The attack on Abs Hospital, in Yemen’s Hajjah governorate, occurred at 3:45 pm local time and immediately killed nine people, including an MSF staff member. Two more patients died while being transferred to Al Jamhouri hospital. Five patients remain hospitalized. The hospital, supported by MSF since July 2015, was partially destroyed, and all the remaining patients and staff have been evacuated. The GPS coordinates of the hospital were repeatedly shared with all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, and its location was well- known.
“This is the fourth attack against an MSF facility in less than 12 months,” said Teresa Sancristóval, MSF emergency program manager for Yemen. “Once again, today we witness the tragic consequences of the bombing of a hospital. Once again, a fully functional hospital full of patients and MSF national and international staff members was bombed in a war that has shown no respect for medical facilities or patients.”
“Even with a recent United Nations resolution calling for an end to attacks on medical facilities and with the high-level declarations of commitment to International Humanitarian Law, nothing seems to be done to make parties involved in the conflict in Yemen respect medical staff and patients,” Sancristóval continued. “Without action, these public gestures are meaningless for today’s victims. Either intentional or as a result of negligence, this is unacceptable.”
MSF calls on all parties, and particularly the Saudi-led coalition responsible for the attack, guarantee that such attacks do not happen again.
Congress is finally beginning to complain about these serial war crimes, with Rand Paul and Chris Murphy attempting to block the latest $1.5 billion arms sale to the Saudis, and Ted Lieu issuing this scathing statement in support of an effort to do the same on the House side.
I have tried numerous times to work with the Administration to stop the United States from assisting Saudi Arabia in their indiscriminate killing of civilians in Yemen. But when Saudi Arabia continues to kill civilians, and in this case children, enough is enough. Having served on active duty, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Law of War. I am also a graduate of Air War College. The indiscriminate civilian killings by Saudi Arabia look like war crimes to me. In this case, children as young as 8 were killed by Saudi Arabian air strikes. By assisting Saudi Arabia, the United States is aiding and abetting what appears to be war crimes in Yemen. The Administration must stop enabling this madness now.
Nevertheless, six years later, we’re still getting this kind of lip service from the State Department.
QUESTION: All right. So just to clarify earlier what you said about Yemen in regards —
MS TRUDEAU: Yeah.
QUESTION: — to the hospital bombing this morning, you are – is it fair to say that you’re not coming out and condemning the attack; you’re saying we’re raising concerns with the coalition?
MS TRUDEAU: No, of course we would condemn any attack that hit civilians. We’re gravely concerned by any reports of civilian casualties. What we’re saying is we’ve seen these reports. Of course we would condemn any strike against a hospital.
QUESTION: Okay. Because, I mean, I’ve been hearing you all say for months now that we’re raising these concerns with the Saudi-led coalition, but this is the fourth attack on an MSF medical facility in Yemen in the past year, let alone countless others on clinics and hospitals. Are you concerned that these sort of stern conversations aren’t having the desired effect?
MS TRUDEAU: Well, what we would say – and we’d point you back to what we talked about earlier – is the Saudi-led coalition themselves have taken a look at these, they have done reports. One of those reports – I think one or two has been turned over to the UN. We’ve also called on them to make those reports public. And so there is more transparency in that accountability. We remain gravely concerned about civilian casualties anywhere in the world where they occur, and Yemen is no exception.
We’ve been (claiming to be) gravely concerned about Saudis bombing hospitals for six years now. Yet the only thing we do is throw more and more weapons at the Saudis to help them kill still more civilians.
Fresh off being caught lying about rolling her eyes in response to calls for Palestinian rights, Neera Tanden has rolled out something called the National Security Leadership Alliance. Best as I can tell, it exists mainly on paper right now — I couldn’t even find it on CAP’s site yet. But it seems designed to fear-monger about what will happen if Trump becomes Commander-in-Chief.
The project, called the National Security Leadership Alliance, will be funded by C.A.P. Action. It will feature a roster of major members of the foreign policy and national security community, including two retired four-star generals; Leon E. Panetta, the former C.I.A. director; Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state; Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general; and Carl Levin, the former Michigan senator. All have endorsed Mrs. Clinton.
There will be an effort to highlight precisely what, in the military arsenal, Donald J. Trump would have access to as president. Mr. Trump has been criticized for his views on foreign policy, criticisms that have been central to the case that Mrs. Clinton has made against him in an effort to describe the stakes of the 2016 presidential election. The Center for American Progress is led by a top outside adviser to Mrs. Clinton, Neera Tanden, and the new project seeks to put a spotlight on what officials are calling a progressive foreign policy vision.
I’m perfectly okay with fearmongering about Trump. But let’s look at this lineup. It features the woman who said letting half a million Iraqi children die was worth the price of enforcing sanctions against the country. It also includes a guy, Panetta, whose exposure of the identities of Osama bin Laden killers’ to Hollywood producers serves to reinforce what a double standard on classified information Hillary (and Panetta) benefit from.
But I’m most curious by a “national security” team that includes both Eric Holder and Carl Levin, especially given the NYT focus, in announcing the venture, on Brexit.
“I think what brought us together is obviously a lot of concern about some of the division and polarization that we’re seeing in the world,” Mr. Panetta said in an interview. “We know we’re living in a time of great change and uncertainty.”
But he added, “The concern we have is we see these forces of division that are prepared to throw out the fundamental” principles of foreign policy in the United States over many decades.
“What we’re learning from ‘Brexit’ is that there’s a price to be paid in terms of letting out emotion dictate policy instead of responsible leadership,” he said, referring to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Leon Panetta, in rolling out a venture including Carl Levin — who as head of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations worked tirelessly for some kind of accountability on bank crime — and Eric Holder — who ignored multiple criminal referrals from Levin, including one pertaining to Goldman Sachs head Lloyd Blankfein — says the lesson from Brexit is that we can’t let emotion dictate policy but instead should practice “responsible leadership” guarding the “fundamental principles of foreign policy in the United States over many decades.”
Of course, as David Dayen argued convincingly, to the extent Brexit was an emotional vote, the emotions were largely inflamed by elite failures — the failures of people like Eric Holder to demand any responsibility (Dayen doesn’t deal with the equally large failures of hawks like Albright whose destabilizing policies in the Middle East have created the refugee crisis in Europe, which indirectly inflamed Brexit voters).
Again, I’m okay if Hillary wants to spend her time fearmongering about the dangers of Trump.
But to do so credibly, she needs to be a lot more cognizant of the dangers her own team have created.
For the record, I think it quite likely that UK’s Tories will never trigger Article 50, which would mean the two year process of leaving the EU will never start much less finish. If that happens, we will face an increasing game of chicken between the EU — primarily Germany — and the UK, because until things settle with the UK, other right wing parties will call to Exit the EU.
All that said, I want to consider what a UK exit would mean for security, particularly as regards to the balance between privacy and dragnettery in which the EU has, in recent years, played a key but largely ineffectual role.
From a spying perspective, Brexit came just hours after the US and EU finalized a draft of the Privacy Shield that will replace the Safe Harbor agreement next week. When I read it, I wondered whether the US signed it intended to do some data analysis in the UK, an option that will likely become unavailable if and when the UK actually does leave the EU. Amazingly, the UK’s hawkish Home Secretary Theresa May (who in the past has called for the UK to leave the ECHR) is considered a favorite to replace David Cameron as the Tory Prime Minister, which would be like Jim Comey serving as President. The UK will still need to sign its own IP Bill, which will expand what is authorized spying in the UK.
But all that assumes the relative structure of nesting alliances will remain the same if and when the UK departs the EU. And I don’t think that will happen. On the contrary, I think the US will use the UK’s departure — and security concerns including both a confrontational
expanding Russia and the threat of terrorism — to push to give NATO an enhanced role off what it has.
Consider what Obama said in his initial statement about Brexit [my emphasis in all these passages],
The people of the United Kingdom have spoken, and we respect their decision. The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is enduring, and the United Kingdom’s membership in NATO remains a vital cornerstone of U.S. foreign, security, and economic policy. So too is our relationship with the European Union, which has done so much to promote stability, stimulate economic growth, and foster the spread of democratic values and ideals across the continent and beyond. The United Kingdom and the European Union will remain indispensable partners of the United States even as they begin negotiating their ongoing relationship to ensure continued stability, security, and prosperity for Europe, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the world.
President Obama spoke by phone today with Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom to discuss the outcome of yesterday’s referendum on membership in the European Union, in which a majority of British voters expressed their desire to leave the EU. The President assured Prime Minister Cameron that, in spite of the outcome, the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, along with the United Kingdom’s membership in NATO, remain vital cornerstones of U.S. foreign, security, and economic policy. The President also expressed his regret at the Prime Minister’s decision to step aside following a leadership transition and noted that the Prime Minister has been a trusted partner and friend, whose counsel and shared dedication to democratic values, the special relationship, and the Transatlantic community are highly valued. The President also observed that the EU, which has done so much to promote stability, stimulate economic growth, and foster the spread of democratic values and ideals across the continent and beyond, will remain an indispensable partner of the United States. The President and Prime Minister concurred that they are confident that the United Kingdom and the EU will negotiate a productive way forward to ensure financial stability, continued trade and investment, and the mutual prosperity they bring.
And to Merkel,
The President spoke today by phone with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany regarding the British people’s decision to leave the European Union. Both said they regretted the decision but respected the will of the British people. The two leaders agreed that the economic and financial teams of the G-7 partners will coordinate closely to ensure all are focused on financial stability and economic growth. The President and the Chancellor affirmed that Germany and the EU will remain indispensable partners of the United States. The leaders also noted that they looked forward to the opportunity to underscore the strength and enduring bond of transatlantic ties at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 8-9.
NATO, NATO, NATO.
John Kerry and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg seem to echo that viewpoint, with Stoltenberg arguing NATO will become more important.
“We have high expectations of a very strong NATO meeting and important deliverables,” Kerry said of the summit planned for Warsaw on July 8-9. “That will not change one iota as a consequence of the vote that has taken place.”
Kerry, who is on a lightning tour of Brussels and London intended to reassure U.S. allies following the British vote, noted that 22 EU nations, including Britain, are part of NATO.
In Brussels Kerry met NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini.
“After the UK decided to leave the European Union I think that NATO has become even more important as a platform for cooperation between Europe and North America but also defence and security cooperation between European NATO allies,” said Stoltenberg, whose own country Norway is in NATO but not the EU.
Retired Admiral Stavridis provides a list of four reasons why Brexit will strengthen NATO.
It’s actually the third* bullet that I think will be key — and it will be carried over into spying. Without the UK, the EU doesn’t have the capability to defend itself, so it will be more dependent on NATO than it had been. Similarly, without GCHQ, the EU doesn’t have heightened SIGINT power to surveil its own population. And so — I fear — whereas prior to Brexit the EU (and Germany specifically) would at least make a show of pushing back against US demands in exchange for protection, particularly given the heightened security concerns, everyone will be less willing to push back.
It’s unclear whether Brexit (if it happens) will hurt the UK or EU more. It probably won’t hurt the US as much as any entity in Europe. It might provide the trigger for the dismantling of the EU generally.
I think it very likely it will shift Trans-Atlantic relationships, among all parties, to a much more militaristic footing. That’s dangerous — especially as things heat up with Russia. And the countervailing human rights influence of the EU will be weakened.
But I think the US will gain power, relatively, out it.
Update: I originally said “fourth” bullet but meant third. Also, I originally said an “expanding” Russia, which I changed because with the coup in Ukraine I think the “west” started the expansionary push.
Update: This piece games out a number of possibilities on data protection.
On June 1 (apologies for the delay, but as most of you know, our site was hacked and has migrated to a new host) Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, who heads the US effort in Afghanistan, took part in a press conference in which he was patched into Washington via a video link from Kabul. At the end of the transcript, we have a very telling exchange:
Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, from Fox News. Just a quick follow-up to Louis’ question. Were you or General Nicholson concerned that Mullah Mansur was in Iran? And are you concerned about Iran sheltering Taliban officials? Thank you.
BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Lucas. Thank you very much.
You know, our — our real focus on it, again, continue to be Afghanistan and I know it sounds like I’m dodging your question and I don’t mean to, but again, you know, the location of Mullah Mansur and where he was either before or during the strike, et cetera, are really questions that probably the team back in Washington, D.C., has got a better answer for you.
Our real role, again, as I think you’re well aware — Mullah Mansur was a threat to U.S. forces, he was an obstacle to peace. An opportunity presented, the president made a decision and he was targeted and he was killed. And so really, the rest of the aspect of that really is better to answer — better answered back in Washington, D.C.
Q: And lastly, was the taxi cab driver — was he part of the Taliban, too? Did he — did he have that same threat to U.S. forces?
BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: So bottom line is we are confident, Lucas, in our targeting and we are confident that he was a lawful combatant.
General Cleveland’s response to Tomlinson here would have us think that Mohammad Azam, the taxi driver who was killed along with Mansour, was a member of the Taliban who posed a direct threat to the US. That would seem to make him an appropriate target for killing.
It seems that a suitable reference on which to rely for DoD’s thinking on combatants is to go back to William Haynes’ memo dated December 12, 2002 and titled “Lawful Combatants”. This memo comes from Haynes as General Counsel to DoD and is addressed to a Roundtable assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations. It appears that this exercise was geared toward providing legal cover for the Bush Administration’s “new” reading of international law and especially its attempts to shield prisoners from the Geneva Conventions.
In the memo, Haynes says this with regard to combatants:
An “enemy combatant” is an individual who, under the laws and customs of war, may be detained for the duration of an armed conflict. In the current conflict with al Qaida and the Taliban, the term includes a member, agent, or associate of al Qaida or the Taliban. In applying this definition, the United States government has acted consistently with the observation of the Supreme Court of the United States in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 37-38 (1942): “Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts are enemy belligerents within the meaning of the Hague Convention and the law of war.”
“Enemy combatant” is a general category that subsumes two sub-categories: lawful and unlawful combatants. See Quirin, 317 U.S. at 37-38. Lawful combatants receive prisoner of war (POW) status and the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. Unlawful combatants do not receive POW status and do not receive the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention. (The treatment accorded to unlawful combatants is discussed below).
The President has determined that al Qaida members are unlawful combatants because (among other reasons) they are members of a non-state actor terrorist group that does not receive the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. He additionally determined that the Taliban detainees are unlawful combatants because they do not satisfy the criteria for POW status set out in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention. Although the President’s determination on this issue is final, courts have concurred with his determination.
So according to the 2002 DoD interpretation of a “determination” by President George W. Bush, members of the Taliban are enemy combatants. But they also are unlawful combatants instead of lawful combatants, so that is one bit of misleading information from Cleveland.
A much bigger problem, though, is that from all appearances, Mohammad Azam was not a driver affiliated with the Taliban and certainly not Mansour’s personal driver. The Guardian looked carefully into the circumstances of how Azam came to be driving Mansour and it appears that Azam was randomly assigned to drive Mansour:
It was a series of chance occurrences that led to Azam finding one of the US’s most wanted men sitting in his white Toyota Corolla.
Azam got much of his work though a small local transport company owned by Habib Saoli, which has its office near the exit of the Iranian-Pakistani border facility that straddles the border.
Mansoor emerged from that building shortly after 9am on 21 May, returning to Pakistan after a long visit to Iran which, it has been reported, was for both medical attention and to visit members of his family.
He immediately began looking for a ride for the 600km journey to the city of Quetta.
Said Ahmed Jan, an employee of a bus company, was trying to fill up the final seats of his Quetta-bound minibus but Mansoor wasn’t interested.
“He said, ‘I want to go in a car’, so I called Habib and asked him to provide a car,” said Jan. “Habib took a little commission and gave the job to Azam.”
It’s very hard to see how a taxi driver randomly assigned to transport a legitimate target of the Defense Department suddenly becomes transformed into a lawful combatant himself. Despite Cleveland’s assurance to the contrary, I seriously doubt that DoD considered Azam a lawful combatant at the time they authorized the strike. The most logical assumption is that DoD came to the decision that Azam’s life was acceptable collateral damage for taking out Mansour. Cleveland simply lacked the honesty to deliver that sad truth.
There also may be legal reason for this lie, however, since Azam’s family has started the paperwork within Pakistan to sue the US over his death. It will be interesting to see whether the case proceeds, especially in light of the previous ruling in the Peshawar High Court that US drone strikes in Pakistan are war crimes.
Postscript: I suppose that one might argue that Cleveland was referring to Mansour rather than Azam when he was making his assurance that “he was a lawful combatant”, but then that says Cleveland completely ignored the question about the status of Azam.
How much more ironic could it be? More than 43 years after the last Americans evacuated Vietnam, ending our disastrous occupation there, the dateline reads Hanoi on President Barack Obama’s statement today on the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Mansour was the head of Afghanistan’s Taliban but was in Pakistan at the time the US killed him with a drone, striking a similarity to the US “secret” bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war.
From today’s New York Times, we have parts of Obama’s statement:
Calling the death “an important milestone,” President Obama said in a statement, released just as he was meeting with top officials in Vietnam, that the United States had “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces.”
“Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Mr. Obama continued in the statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”
So Obama is saying that the Taliban should respond to our extrajudicial killing of their leader by reconciling with the Afghan government (chosen in large part by John Kerry) and working toward peace. What are the odds of that happening? Max Abrahms has some very important points to make on that topic:
Dr Max Abrahms, from Northeastern University in Boston, said the US Government does not look carefully enough at the strategic implications of its strikes on extremist leaders.
He said he had done a number of studies on leadership decapitation of a militant group and he had not found a statistically significant reduction in the amount of violence perpetrated by the group after a leader was removed.
“In fact these decapitation strikes can actually be counter-productive, because one of the assumptions of the targeted killing campaigns is that the replacement of the leader that you killed will be more moderate,” Dr Abrahms said.
“And yet I find just the opposite to be true. The replacement is even more extreme.
“So for that reason, in the immediate aftermath of a successful targeted killing, like over this weekend, the group’s violence tends to become even more extreme, in the sense that it’s even more likely to attack civilian targets.”
And so our circle of irony is complete. Obama’s statement on the killing of Mansour, released from Vietnam, shows that US military misadventures still rely on faulty logic when major moves are made. A strike made to make the Taliban more peaceful seems virtually certain to result in more indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Because I know how much Marcy enjoys miraculous “left behind” documents, I couldn’t resist following up on a Twitter reference I saw flit by yesterday about how a passport for Mansour somehow survived the conflagration in the taxi in which Mansour met his death by drone. By following it, though, I found even more deep irony in the drone strike. This article by ToloNews carries a photograph of a pristine-looking passport. Compare that with the photo in the New York Times article linked above with the burned out wreckage of the vehicle Mansour was said to have been in when hit. How could the passport have survived?
But wait, there’s more! ToloNews tells us that the passport has Mansour’s name and carries a valid Iranian visa. Furthermore:
Meanwhile, a number of analysts said the Taliban in recent months tried to extend relationships with Iran and Russia to fight Daesh and that there is a possibility that Mansour traveled to Iran to escape ISI and talk with Iranian officials.
“Iran is afraid of Daesh presence in Afghanistan, because Daesh is an enemy to Iranian clerics; therefore, Iran wants to eliminate Daesh with the help of the Taliban. Previously, Taliban had strong affiliation to Saudi Arabia, but now there is a rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran wants to expand its influence on the group [Taliban],” political analyst Shafiq Hamdam said.
So while Mansour and his group have continued to reject peace talks with the Afghan government, at least some observers believe that he was in the process of trying to join the fight against Islamic State. And it may well be that he died because of that effort. Here’s a map of the region, showing that the site of the drone attack, Ahmad Wal, lies about 100 miles away from Quetta (where the Afghan Taliban has long been believed to be headquartered) along the highway that is the most direct route to Iran from Quetta.
Yesterday, Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef informed us that there is now a second allegation of manipulation of intelligence on ISIS:
U.S. military analysts told the nation’s top intelligence official that their reports on ISIS were skewed and manipulated by their bosses, The Daily Beast has learned. The result: an overly optimistic account of the campaign against the terror group.
The complaints, lodged by analysts at U.S. Central Command in 2015, are separate from allegations that analysts made to the Defense Department inspector general, who is now investigating “whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression, or improper modification of intelligence information” by the senior officials that run CENTCOM’s intelligence group.
This second set of accusations, which have not been previously reported, were made to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). They show that the officials charged with overseeing all U.S. intelligence activities were aware, through their own channels, of potential problems with the integrity of information on ISIS, some of which made its way to President Obama.
Once again, it is senior officials at CENTCOM who are accused of manipulating the reports from analysts to make it look as though the US is making more progress against ISIS than is actually happening.
I had never gotten around to posting on this issue when the first accusations came out, but it is my belief that neither investigation will find these senior people at CENTCOM to be guilty of any transgressions. Instead, it seems very likely to me that these officers will claim that they were taking part in an Information Operation aimed at making the fighters within ISIS think that the situation is deteriorating more than is the actual case. I wrote about operations of this sort, termed MILDEC (for Military Deception) back in 2010.
One tidbit I had found back then related to the functions of MILDEC:
Causing ambiguity, confusion, or misunderstanding in adversary perceptions of friendly critical information, which may include: unit identities, locations, movements, dispositions, weaknesses, capabilities, strengths, supply status, and intentions.
Simply by stating that this is what they were doing, these senior officers seem likely to avoid any negative consequences for what they have done. But Harris and Youssef seem to think that the fudging of data was done to fit the intelligence to the Obama administration’s previous comments:
The analysts have said that they believe their reports were altered for political reasons, namely to adhere to Obama administration officials’ public statements that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS is making progress and has put a dent in the group’s financing and operations.
While that does seem like a distinct possibility, it feels backwards to me. Although the Pentagon is not allowed to aim any of its propaganda toward a US audience (unlike recent loosening of this regulation for propaganda from the State Department), I would think that the real target for these senior officers would be the President and Congress. Even though they have the cover of saying they are spinning yarns to fool ISIS, keeping the bosses who control the purse strings happy would fit quite well with what is going on. [Over at Moon of Alabama, b has an alternate theory about various forces at work relating to ISIS, especially in Syria.]
What a coincidence for me, though, that as I was thinking about MILDEC relating to capability estimates of ISIS, this hilarious AP story came out less than 24 hours later:
Faced with a cash shortage in its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State group has slashed salaries across the region, asked Raqqa residents to pay utility bills in black market American dollars, and is now releasing detainees for a price of $500 a person.
The extremists who once bragged about minting their own currency are having a hard time meeting expenses, thanks to coalition airstrikes and other measures that have eroded millions from their finances since last fall. Having built up loyalty among militants with good salaries and honeymoon and baby bonuses, the group has stopped providing even the smaller perks: free energy drinks and Snickers bars.
Interestingly, the story goes back over most of the information in those two opening paragraphs and makes attributions (although some look pretty flimsy) for the sources of the information. The Snickers part, however, is credited to no sources.
At a time when senior officers at CENTCOM are fudging data on ISIS supplies and capabilities, perhaps as part of an Information Operation, why shouldn’t they throw in a gratuitous Snickers jab?
But then again, if ISIS really isn’t getting their Snickers bars, we could be in big trouble:
Just before the election this fall, the US war in Afghanistan will pass its fifteenth birthday, making it old enough to obtain a driving learner’s permit in most states. Despite the fact that the Taliban government fell after only eight days of the war, the US has inexplicably stayed in the country, ostensibly maintaining peace, eliminating a small force of al Qaeda and “training” Afghan defense forces to take over. During that time the US has expended an ungodly amount of money, lost thousands of US troops and been present for much larger losses of life throughout a country that also has seen unacceptable numbers of internally displaced people. All of this has taken place while Afghanistan has continuously been found at or near the top of the list of the most corrupt nations on the globe.
Now, nearly fifteen years into the misadventure, we see that conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating at an ever increasing rate. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction today issued its 30th in its series of quarterly reports to Congress (pdf). Nothing in the report provides any hope that Afghanistan will emerge from the US war nightmare as a functional country any time soon.
Violence levels in Afghanistan are at an all-time high. SIGAR relied on UN data to provide this illustration of violence levels over time:
Although sources and methods of reporting on violence levels in Afghanistan have changed over the years, consultation with posts here and here shows that since the days when troops were diverted from the misadventure in Afghanistan to the even bigger misadventure in Iraq, violence has trended only upward.
Another key feature of the US “activities” in Afghanistan has been the “training” of Afghan forces to step up and take over primary responsibility for defense of the the country. The US has disbursed over $56 billion in this training and equipping effort. After years of SIGAR reports carefully documenting the numbers of Afghan troops trained and the capabilities of those forces, we suddenly encountered a wall of classification of Afghan troop capabilities last year as the US effort in Afghanistan was “ending”.
Today’s report states that Afghanistan reports a fighting force of 322,638 out of a target size of 360,004. However, SIGAR notes that AP has seen through the ruse that Afghanistan uses in its self-reporting of troop numbers:
However, a January Associated Press report alleged that the actual number of ANDSF security forces is far less because the rolls are filled with nonexistent “ghost” soldiers and police officers. In that report, a provincial council member estimated 40% of the security forces in Helmand do not exist, while a former provincial deputy police chief said the actual number was “nowhere near” the 31,000 police on the registers, and an Afghan official estimated the total ANDSF number at around 120,000—less than half the reported 322,638. The success of military operations is at risk, because as one Afghan soldier in Helmand said, they do not have enough men to protect themselves. Additionally, an Afghan lawmaker claimed the government is not responding to the crisis because a number of allegedly corrupt parliamentarians are benefiting from the “ghost” security forces salaries.
SIGAR points out that they have long questioned the reliability of ANSF size and capability reporting, so the AP report should be of no surprise to anyone. Given these issues of the real fighting force size for Afghanistan, it also should come as no surprise that the Pentagon has cut back on how much information it releases. In today’s report, that is marked by this statement:
This quarter, details of ANDSF force strength at corps level and below remained classified. SIGAR will report on them in a classified annex to this report.
A key aspect of what remains classified is most of the information on Afghan troop capabilities. However, the abject failure of these troops can be seen in the assessment of how much of the country has fallen back into Taliban hands:
USFOR-A reports that approximately 71.7% of the country’s districts are under Afghan government control or influence as of November 27, 2015. Of the 407 districts within the 34 provinces, 292 districts are under government control or influence, 27 districts (6.6%) within 11 provinces are under insurgent control or influence, and 88 districts (21.6%) are at risk. In a report issued in December, DOD stated that the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. There are more effective insurgent attacks and more ANDSF and Taliban causalities.
And yet, the mass delusion within the Pentagon persists, as that bleak paragraph above ends with this unbelievable sentence:
However, DOD remains optimistic that the ANDSF continues to improve its overall capability as the capabilities of the insurgent elements remain static.
This completely unfounded and contrary to all available data assessment by DOD of the situation in Afghanistan says everything we need to know about how these geniuses have failed at every step of the way in a mission that has mired the US in a quagmire that anyone could have predicted before the first bomb fell.
Count me as thoroughly unimpressed by DOD’s explanation of what its almost two month long investigation into the attack on Médecins Sans Frontières’ hospital in Kunduz showed.
Don’t get me wrong: I still think this explanation — that the Afghans did knowingly attack the hospital, but that we didn’t follow procedure and so became willing dupes in that attack — remains most likely. But DOD’s explanation raises new questions for me (and clearly for some of the journalists at the briefing). Here’s the video and transcript of today’s press conference.
Back on October 5, General John Campbell said there would be three investigations: DOD’s, NATO’s, and an Afghan one.
I’ve got both U.S. 15-6 investigation, I’ve got a NATO investigation and the Afghans will be conducting an investigation.
Today, he suggested there were just two: his, and a joint NATO-Afghan one.
In addition to the U.S. national investigation, a NATO and Afghan partner combined civilian casualty assessment team, or CCAT, also conducted an investigation.
Campbell says these two investigations came to “generally consistent” conclusions, which is funny because in the days after the attack the Afghans were perfectly willing to say they targeted the hospital intentionally.
What the Afghans say, or would say, if they were conducting their own investigation, is key, given some of the ambiguity in this description Campbell gave.
During the evening of October 2nd, Afghan SOF advised the U.S. SOF commander that they intended to conduct a clearing operation that night. This included a former national director of security, or NDS, headquarters building they believed was occupied by insurgents. The Afghans requested U.S. close air support as they conducted their clearing operation. The U.S. SOF commander agreed to have the support on standby. He remained at the PCOP compound during the operation and was beyond the visual range of either the [National Director of Security] headquarters or the MSF trauma center as he monitored the progress of his Afghan counterparts.
If the operation only “included” NDS, did it also “include” MSF? As the WaPo pointed out at the presser, DOD had already hit NDS.
Q: Yes. (inaudible) — Washington Post. A few hours before the MSF strike, an NDS building and buildings surrounding were actually struck by U.S. airstrikes. So the location was totally known. How do you — how do you account for this discrepancy a few hours later? The coordinate shift, and as you say, the MSF hospital was mistaken for the NDS building when just a few hours earlier, there had been an attack, had been — (inaudible) — there and had a strike in that area.
GEN. SHOFFNER: The investigation found that the U.S. special operations forces commander did rely on information provided by the Afghan partners on the location of the NDS compound. However, the investigation determined that those grid coordinates given by the Afghan forces to that NDS compound were correct.
And per Campbell’s statement, the Afghan description of the target matched the MSF hospital.
The physical description of the NDS headquarters building provided by the Afghan SOF to the U.S. SOF commander roughly matched the description of the MSF trauma center as seen by the aircrew.
And SOF relied on their description.
The investigation also found that the U.S. SOF commander relied primarily upon information provided by Afghan partners and was unable to adequately distinguish between the NDS headquarters building at the MSF Trauma Center.
Reporter Lynn O’Donnell asked about earlier Afghan admissions they had targeted MSF.
The other thing that interests me about this is that Afghan officials have said all along that the hospital — they specifically referred to the hospital as they command and control center for the insurgents. So you know, when did the NDS come into this? In the process of making the decision whether or not to continue with the attack, when does the NDS come into this?
In response, flack Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner (Campbell didn’t respond to the questions from the press) gave a bullshit answer, one relying on what appears to be a substitution of two separate Afghan and NATO investigations into one.
To the second part of your question, I won’t speak for Minister (Stanikzine ?), but I will point out that on the civilian casualty assessment team investigation that was done, that wasn’t just a U.S. investigation. It was a NATO investigation. The members of the team consisted of coalition partners, U.S. and non-U.S. It consisted of seven Afghans that were appointed by President Ghani.
On the civilian casualty assessment team, and I need to point out the purpose of that was different from the 15-6. It was intentionally narrow in purpose. It was designed to determine the basic facts and then to validate whether or not these civilian casualties had occurred. It did that. And the results of the civilian casualty assessment team report informed the 15-6 investigation.
It seems very likely DOD reframed the investigations such that what the Afghans admitted, by themselves, back in October, would not make it into any official investigation.
On October 5, Campbell insisted US SOF was only involved in a Train, Advise, and Assist role (which is what the Administration has said they were doing).
GEN. CAMPBELL: What I said was that the Afghans asked for air support from a special forces team that we have on the ground providing train, advise and assist in Kunduz.
He said that in spite of contemporary, DOD-sourced reporting making it clear it wasn’t the case.
Today, he not only admitted US forces were fighting but offered the extent of their fighting as part of an explanation.
By October 3rd, U.S. SOF had remained at the PCOP compound longer than intended in continued support of Afghan forces. As a result, by the early morning hours of October 3rd, U.S. SOF at the PCOP compound had been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights.
I’m sure they were toast, don’t get me wrong. But why did Campbell try to hide this detail back in October, when he was walking back Secretary Ash Carter’s claim that US forces ordered the strike?
It’s remarkable that all the recording devices on the plane “misfunctioned.” [See below for clarification.]
During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive e-mail or send and receive electronic messages. This is an example of technical failure.
As well as its sensors.
U.S. SOF commander provided the aircraft with the correct coordinates to the NDS headquarters building, the intended target of the Afghan SOF. The green 1 depicts the location of the NDS compound. Again, this was the building that the U.S. SOF commander intended to strike. But when the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the NDS headquarters. The yellow 2 on the chart depicts the location of the open field.
This mistake happened because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance.
Pretty remarkable that DOD has such a clear idea of what happened when, even though all the equipment they would use to determine that failed.
The question is all the more important given a discrepancy between the DOD narrative and MSF’s: Timing.
Campbell said the attack lasted only 29 minutes, and ended as soon as SOF’s commander realized his mistake (how did the pilots find out without fully functioning communications equipment?).
The strike began at 2:08 a.m. At 2:20 a.m., a SOF officer at Bagram received a call from MSF, advising that their facility was under attack. It took the headquarters and the U.S. special operations commander until 2:37 a.m. to realize the fatal mistake. At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes.
MSF said the attack lasted an hour.
According to all accounts the US airstrikes started between 2.00am and 2.08am on 3 October.
It is estimated that the airstrikes lasted approximately one hour, with some accounts saying the strikes continued for one hour and fifteen minutes, ending approximately 3am–3.15am.
Admittedly, MSF’s far more detailed timeline did not describe calls from Kunduz to DOD, but from Kabul.
– At 2.19am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike
– At 2.20am, a call was made from MSF representative in Kabul to ICRC informing them that the hospital had been hit in an airstrike
– At 2.32am a call was made from MSF Kabul to OCHA Civil Military (CivMil) liaison in Afghanistan to inform of the ongoing strikes
– At 2.32am a call was made by MSF in New York to US Department of Defense contact in Washington informing of the airstrikes
– At 2.45am an SMS was received from OCHA CivMil in Afghanistan to MSF in Kabul confirming that the information had been passed through “several channels”
– At 2.47am, an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support in Afghanistan informing that one staff was confirmed dead and many were unaccounted for
– At 2.50am MSF in Kabul informed Afghan Ministry of Interior at Kabul level of the airstrikes. Afghan Ministry of Interior replied that he would contact ground forces
– At 2.52am a reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support stating “I’m sorry to hear that, I still do not know what happened”
– At 2.56am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to Resolute Support insisting that the airstrikes stop and informing that we suspected heavy casualties
– At 2.59am an SMS reply was received by MSF in Kabul from Resolute Support saying ”I’ll do my best, praying for you all”
– At 3.04am an SMS was sent to Resolute Support from MSF in Kabul that the hospital was on fire
– At 3.07am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil that the hospital was on fire
– At 3.09am an SMS was received by MSF in Kabul from OCHA CivMil asking if the incoming had stopped
– At 3.10am and again at 3.14am, follow up calls were made from MSF New York to the US Department of Defense contact in Washington regarding the ongoing airstrikes
– At 3.13am an SMS was sent from MSF in Kabul to OCHA CivMil saying that incoming had stopped
Note the call between MSF and SOF mentioned by DOD does not appear on MSF’s log, nor does DOD say where it came from. That is, both timelines are inconsistent. DOD’s timeline should fairly raise questions about MSF’s timeline.
But DOD sure doesn’t want to answer questions about this apparent inconsistency when called on it.
Q: Jim Miklaszewski from NBC News. General, Doctors Without Borders, which has proven to be a pretty reliable source in regard to what happened there in Kunduz, said that they made at least two phone calls, one just prior to and one during the airstrike, to the Pentagon. And we’ve been told that that information was relayed from Joint Staff to the NMCC that they were under attack.
Did that information ever reach the operators there in the battlefield?
GEN. SHOFFNER: What I’d like to do is, to better answer that question, just briefly review the sequence of events leading up to the issue at hand. Approximately 12 minutes after the firing commenced, Doctors Without Borders called to report the attack. Unfortunately, by the time U.S. forces realized the mistake, the aircraft had stopped firing.
What DOD is not telling us is who communicated the troops on the ground and in the plane when. Would that focus too much attention on the rather incredible claim that all the plane’s recording equipment failed?
Or rather, malfunctioned. While Campbell says this was a technical failure, he doesn’t really explain that part of it.
[Clarification: As Lemon Slayer notes, this is probably not all communications but instead just the plane’s data link. They still should have had voice communication. I agree, though I also think DOD wanted to leave the impression there were no comms because the likelihood there were voice comms raises more questions, from the claim the plane left on an emergency deployment then got rerouted without any vetting of its mission, such as the fact that it didn’t ask questions about why it was attacking a field, such as the likelihood (which Lemon Slayer notes) that there should be voice recording then. In other words, if they have voice comms–and they probably do–then they have more information then they let on and less excuse for the purported confusion here.]
Again, it’s not just me not buying this–it’s the beat journalists too, many of whom asked precisely the right questions. And all the flacks did in response was to say some involved didn’t abide by rules of engagement and that the US would never attack a hospital intentionally.
Would the US playing willing dupe for allies doing just that?
Yesterday, DOD said it took three weeks to conduct an investigation.
They spent a full three weeks completing their report
Three weeks from when Campbell announced the investigation on October 5 would have been October 26 — a month before the report was released. But remember that Campbell brought in a two-star General on October 24, when the first three week period was coming to a close.
With an initial military assessment confirming civilian casualties in the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz by an American warplane, Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, has appointed a two-star general from another command to conduct an independent investigation, his office said in a statement on Saturday.
A spokesman for General Campbell, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, said an assessment team had “determined that the reports of civilian casualties were credible.” The investigation, which will be conducted by three senior officers outside General Campbell’s command, will be led by Maj. Gen. William B. Hickman and supported by two brigadier generals.
General Campbell, also the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said: “My intent is to disclose the findings of the investigation once it is complete. We will be forthright and transparent and we will hold ourselves accountable for any mistakes made.”
Which came — now that I re-read the report of this — at the same moment when the Afghans made it clear their investigation into how they lost Kunduz would not cover how they asked the Americans to bomb a hospital.
The comments from Afghan officials came without a clear investigation on their side. While they have said a nongovernmental fact-finding mission set up to investigate the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban on Sept. 28 would also look into the hospital bombing, it is now clear that the mandate does not extend that far.
“The mandate of the Kunduz fact-finding mission doesn’t cover events beyond Sept. 28,” said Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief who is a leader of the mission. “The team focuses on finding reasons for failure in leadership, structures and resources management.”
So if it takes three weeks to investigate an attack on a hospital, did the Brigadier General who first investigated it discover after three weeks that they needed to stop the Afghans from telling their own side of the story, after which a higher ranking general conducted a new investigation without that information?
Normally, when you bring in higher ranking generals, it’s because the scope of the investigation newly includes people who rank at the same level as the original investigating officer; but here, the guy who got disciplined is a captain [one report says he is a major], so not high ranking enough to require a two-star.
And if that investigation too three weeks, it would have ended November 14, 11 days before they released the report. Which if you hadn’t already figured out was a deliberate attempt to bury the report in the pre-holiday rush, should now.
Just days after the attack on Médecins Sans Frontières, I said that all the available evidence suggested the Afghans asked us to target the hospital — claiming it was being used by Taliban — and we did so, without the vetting that should have prevented the attack.
The AP reports that appears to be precisely what happened.
[T]here are mounting indications the U.S. military relied heavily on its Afghan allies who resented the internationally run hospital, which treated Afghan security forces and Taliban alike but says it refused to admit armed men.
The new evidence includes details the AP has learned about the location of American troops during the attack. The U.S. special forces unit whose commander called in the strike was under fire in the Kunduz provincial governor’s compound a half-mile away from the hospital, according to a former intelligence official who has reviewed documents describing the incident. The commander could not see the medical facility — so couldn’t know firsthand whether the Taliban were using it as a base — and sought the attack on the recommendation of Afghan forces, the official said.
The AP has reported that some American intelligence suggested the Taliban were using the hospital. Special forces and Army intelligence analysts were sifting through reports of heavy weapons at the compound, and they were tracking a Pakistani intelligence operative they believed was there.
It’s unclear how much of that intelligence came from Afghan special forces, who had raided the hospital in July, seeking an al-Qaida member they believed was being treated there, despite protests from Doctors Without Borders. After the American air attack, the Afghan soldiers rushed in, looking for Taliban fighters, Doctors without Borders said.
While it appears DOD is still sorting through where the intelligence it had came from, there seems to be one more question. MSF’s own report strongly suggests that the hospital was bombed to flush the two higher ranking Taliban out of the hospital (one is presumably the Pakistani mentioned by the AP; make sure to read scribe’s comment in that thread). That is, the attack looks very similar to the double tap drone strikes the US has used (most reports of such strikes are from Pakistan), hitting targets with a drone then hitting those who give aid. So it’s not impossible something similar was done here (though I’m not claiming that would mean the targeters knew it was an MSF hospital).
Is that what happened? And if so, how much were Afghans driving that?
And did the Afghans — did we? — capture or kill the ranking Taliban members at the hospital?