For some time, a number of us have been tracking the collective forgetfulness about CIA’s acknowledged covert forces on the ground in Syria. I often point back to the day two years ago when Chuck Hagel confirmed our covert efforts in Syria in a congressional hearing, as well as Senate Foreign Relations Committee member frustration with their inability to get details on the acknowledged covert ops (that already numbered in the thousands, according to Tom Udall) there. Jim and I have written a slew of other posts about CIA’s covert forces there (one two three four five six seven are just a small sampling).
More recently, Adam Johnson caught NYT and Vox pretending CIA’s efforts don’t exist at all.
This past week, two pieces—one in the New York Timesdetailing the “finger pointing” over Obama’s “failed” Syria policy, and a Vox“explainer” of the Syrian civil war—did one better: They didn’t just omit the fact that the CIA has been arming, training and funding rebels since 2012, they heavily implied they had never done so.
To be fair, some intelligence reporters have done consistently good reporting on CIA’s covert war in Syria. But the policy people — especially the ones reporting how if Obama had supported “moderate” rebels sooner — usually pretend no one knows that Obama did support Qatar and Saudi-vetted liver-eating rebels sooner and they often turned out to be Islamists.
The selective ignorance about CIA’s covert operations in Syria seems to have been eliminated, however, with one Russian bombing run that targeted them.
Russia launched airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, catching U.S. and Western officials off guard and drawing new condemnation as evidence suggested Moscow wasn’t targeting extremist group Islamic State, but rather other opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
One of the airstrikes hit an area primarily held by rebels backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services, U.S. officials said, catapulting the Syrian crisis to a new level of danger and uncertainty. Moscow’s entry means the world’s most powerful militaries—including the U.S., Britain and France—now are flying uncoordinated combat missions, heightening the risk of conflict in the skies over Syria.
Thus far, of course, US officials are insisting that the anti-Assad troops Russia targeted are wholly distinct from ISIS (even while they remain silent about whether they’re Islamic extremists).
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said he raised U.S. concerns about attacks that target regime opponents other than Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In Syria’s multi-sided war, Mr. Assad’s military—aided by Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah—is fighting both Islamic State and opposition rebel groups, some of which are supported by the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S. and its allies were angry at the Russians on many scores: that they are supporting Mr. Assad; that they aren’t coordinating their actions with the existing, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition; that they provided terse notice only an hour before their operations; that they demanded the U.S. coalition stay out of Syrian airspace; and that they struck in areas where anti-Assad rebels—not Islamic State—operate.
“It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach,” said Mr. Carter, the U.S. defense chief.
This attempt to distinguish ISIS from the CIA-backed rebels will quickly lead to an awkward place for the Administration and its allies, not least because making any distinction will require providing details on the vetting process used to select these forces, as well as addressing the evidence of cooperation with ISIS or traditional al Qaeda in the past. Plus, the more the US argues these groups that aren’t entirely distinct from al Qaeda are entirely distinct from ISIS, it will make the Administration’s claim that the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda authorizes it to fight ISIS (in related news, DOJ just denied USAT’s FOIA request for 3 OLC documents making that case) really wobbly. Any claim Russia makes that these anti-Assad forces are also Islamic extremists (and therefore entirely legitimate targets in the fight against ISIS) will be based on intelligence that is no more shitty than US intelligence that they’re not, especially given that CentCom admits on the record it can’t even trust (much less vet) the communications it is getting from rebels on the ground about their coordination with al Qaeda. It will devolve into a he-said-she-said about whose claims are more suspect, Assad’s or the Saudis’ who’ve been pushing for regime change long before the Arab Spring gave then an opportunity to push it along.
And all the while, any pretense that CIA’s involvement is covert will grow more and more laughable. Reporting like this — which claims Putin has “hijacked” Obama’s war on ISIS when the content only makes sense if Putin has more urgently hijacked Obama’s regime change efforts against Assad — will become more and more laughable.
Whatever Russia’s entry does for the tactical confrontation (I have no hopes it will do anything but make this conflict even bloodier, and possibly expand it into other countries), it has clarified a discussion the US has always tried to obscure. There are plenty of US backed forces on the ground — which may or may not be Islamic extremists (see Pat Lang on this point) — whose priority is toppling Bashar al-Assad, not defeating ISIS. While there will be some interesting fights about who they really are in coming days (and whether CIA has already acknowledged that it inflamed Islamists with its regime change efforts), American priorities will become increasingly clear.
Make no mistake: I am not defending Russia, Syria, our vetted “moderate” rebels, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else. It’s a volatile situation and none of the outside intervention seems to be helping. But one big reason we’ve been failing is because we’ve been lying publicly about the forces on the ground. Those lies just got a lot harder to sustain.
(As always on the Syrian quagmire, see Moon of Alabama’s latest.)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on potential airstrikes against Assad, September 3, 2013
SEN. CORKER: What I’m unaware of is why it is so slow in actually helping them with lethal support — why has that been so slow?
SEC. KERRY: I think — I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that. Suffice it to say, I want to General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel. That is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it’s made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.
Secretary Hagel, do you — or General, do you want to —
SEN. HAGEL: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition, as you all know. We have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance. The vetting process, as Secretary Kerry noted, has been significant. But — I’ll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything — but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action, and as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.
Tom Udall, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on ISIS, September 17, 2014
Everybody’s well aware there’s been a covert operation, operating in the region to train forces, moderate forces, to go into Syria and to be out there, that we’ve been doing this the last two years. And probably the most true measure of the effectiveness of moderate forces would be, what has been the effectiveness over that last two years of this covert operation, of training 2,000 to 3,000 of these moderates? Are they a growing force? Have they gained ground? How effective are they? What can you tell us about this effort that’s gone on, and has it been a part of the success that you see that you’re presenting this new plan on?
A number of us were discussing how odd it was that this big NYT article — describing President Obama blame those who championed arming Syrian rebels — made no mention of the covert CIA operation dating back to 2012 (and confirmed in a public hearing to have started by June 2013). How could a NYT writer pretend the CIA training effort didn’t proceed the DOD one, especially given the fairly lengthy reporting done by other NYT reporters on it? Especially given the Peter Baker’s refutation of Obama’s position pertains to whether Obama should have armed rebels earlier, which of course he did.
In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.
Which is why I was interested in the blame-setting.
Hillary comes in for a large part of the blame, almost certainly justifiably (though she’s also likely a stand-in for those on Obama’s own staff who espouse intervention with little consideration of consequences). David Petraeus — CIA Director when arms first started flowing to Syria, though not when that April 2013 finding was signed — gets remarkably little blame, especially given the prominence Petraeus Godfather Jack Keane got in the piece.
The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The idea of bolstering Syrian rebels was debated from the early days of the civil war, which started in 2011. Mrs. Clinton, along with David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, and Leon E. Panetta, then the defense secretary, supported arming opposition forces, but the president worried about deep entanglement in someone else’s war after the bloody experience in Iraq.
Perhaps most remarkably, our allies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — get no blame here, even in spite of the fact that they’d be funding more radical anti-Assad forces with our involvement or not (on that note, see this great tick tock of how we got here). Much of the reason our options remain so dismal in Syria is because our so-called allies are going to pursue their objectives whether or not we’re playing along. Which leaves only the question of whether anything we could do would improve the outcome — not to mention whether our interest coincides with that of our allies.
So with all that in mind, let’s reconsider David Petraeus crack plan to start allying with al Qaeda to fight (he says) ISIS. As I noted at the time, he engaged in a lot of making shite up, including not only “the Surge” (which he will spin until his dying day), but also what he was doing at CIA.
I’m most interested in this claim:
Petraeus was the CIA director in early 2011 when the Syrian civil war erupted. At the time, he along with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly urged the Obama administration to work with moderate opposition forces. The U.S. didn’t, and many of those groups have since steered toward jihadist groups like the Nusra Front, which are better equipped and have had more success on the battlefield.
While it is true that Obama did not systematically arm rebels in Syria in 2011, it is also a public fact that the CIA was watching (and at least once doing more than that) Qatar and Saudi Arabia move arms from Libya before Petraeus’ departure in 2012, and Obama approved a covert finding to arm “moderate” rebels in April 2013, with CIA implementing that plan in June.
That’s all public and confirmed.
So how is it that we once again are pretending that the CIA — the agency Petraeus led as it oversaw a disastrous intervention in Libya that contributed to radicalization both there and in Syria — didn’t arm purported moderates who turned out not to be?
That is, Petraeus’ plan to ally with al Qaeda accompanies a false narrative about whether we had supported rebels, including al Qaeda affiliates, from the start.
The plan from those who got CIA to support rebels in 2013 (and arm them even earlier) and who kept pushing to train rebels after that is — now that blame is being assigned for the second attempt to arm them — to join with al Qaeda. Which we effectively did years ago.
On top of everything else, its a nice way to inoculate against what has happened, which is and always was going to be about strengthening Islamic fighters.
We need no other indicator of just how bad the situation in Afghanistan really is than that, with no previous announcement of the schedule that I am aware of, the US staged a ceremonial “end of combat operations” in Kabul today, more than three weeks before the December 31 scheduled end of the current NATO mission. The NATO mission is supposed to transition from a stated combat operation to one of support (as noted in its name: Resolute Support). We can only conclude that the date of the ceremony wasn’t announced because it would become an obvious target for the increased number of Taliban attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan.
But like most of what the US says and does in Afghanistan, this was all really just bullshit. In a visit to Kabul on Saturday, which, like today’s ceremony also was unannounced due to the horrid security situation in Afghanistan, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted that the non-combat designation for US troops in Afghanistan from 2015 onward is in name only. First, the claim of support:
“As planned, Resolute Support will focus here in Kabul and Bagram with a limited regional presence,” he said. “As part of this mission, the United States is prepared to provide limited combat enabler support to Afghan forces.
See? Right there, he says we only are there to enable Afghan troops to take part in combat.
Oops. Hang on, Hagel wasn’t finished:
Hagel said U.S. forces in Afghanistan would “always” have the right and the capacity to defend themselves against attacks.
“We’re committed to preventing al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven,” Hagel said, to threaten the United States, the Afghan people, and other U.S. allies and partners.
Also, the United States will take appropriate measures against Taliban members who directly threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to al Qaeda, he added.
Oh. So we are “only” combat support, unless we decide we aren’t and that there are targets we need to hit because they pose a threat to us.
And why are our troops there threatened? Simply by being there:
Yet Obama’s decision to allow American forces to remain behind in a more active role suggests the U.S. remains concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to fight. Chances of Ghani restarting peace talks with the Taliban also appear slim as he signed agreements with NATO and the U.S. to allow the foreign troops to remain behind — a red line for the militants.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AP that the group would continue to fight “until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.”
“The Americans want to extend their mission in Afghanistan, the motive being to keep the war going for as long as possible,” Mujahid said. “And for as long as they do, the Taliban will continue their fight against the foreign and (Afghan) government forces.”
And there we have it. The Taliban and US troops continue their sick cycle of co-dependency. The Taliban will fight us as long as we are there, and we refuse to leave while they still want to fight us.
In recent days, the press has reported that President Obama signed an order (or on second thought, maybe it’s just an unsigned decision that can’t be FOIAed, so don’t start anything, Jason Leopold) basically halting and partly reversing his plans for withdrawal.
President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.
Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.
Virtually simultaneously with the decision to permit American forces to be more involved with the Afghan government, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has reversed Hamid Karzai’s ban on night raids — and also renamed them “night operations.”
The government of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has quietly lifted the ban on night raids by special forces troops that his predecessor had imposed.
Afghan National Army Special Forces units are planning to resume the raids in 2015, and in some cases the raids will include members of American Special Operations units in an advisory role, according to Afghan military officials as well as officials with the American-led military coalition.
That news comes after published accounts of an order by President Obama to allow the American military to continue some limited combat operations in 2015. That order allows for the sort of air support necessary for successful night raids.
Night raids were banned for the most part in 2013 by President Hamid Karzai. Their resumption is likely to be controversial among Afghans, for whom any intrusion into private homes is considered offensive. Mindful of the bad name that night raids have, the American military has renamed them “night operations.”
Night operations …. sort of like the tooth fairy?
And now that Obama has made it clear he will spend his Lame Duck continuing — escalating, even — both forever wars he got elected to end, he has
fired forced the resignation of the Secretary of Defense he hired to make peace.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse ofPresident Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises.
The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.
The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.
But now “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He insisted that Mr. Hagel was not fired, saying that he initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.
But Mr. Hagel’s aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years as defense secretary.
Some great reporting from the NYT, getting all three scoops about Obama’s pivot to war.
I’m just hoping someone is reporting out the really important questions: who will be paying for the resumption of the forever war, and how it will be any more successful than the last 13 years?
Political and military leaders in the US are hopelessly addicted to the idea of training an Iraqi military. Never mind that it fails every time a “new” initiative on training is introduced. As soon as the situation in Iraq deteriorates, the only idea that Washington can put forward is train more Iraqi security forces. As soon as genius Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military and banned Saddam’s Baath party, training a new force became central to US activities in Iraq even though Bremer’s move had made it impossible.
David Petraeus, the ass-kissing little chickenshit himself, first led the training effort and was given several Mulligans. He burst on the political scene in 2004, penning an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he spouted fictitious numbers on accomplishments in training and perhaps helped Bush to re-election. He then was hailed again by the press as the perfect leader to train Iraqi forces in 2007, with no discussion of what happened to all those forces he “trained” earlier. And now that Iraqi forces fled their posts in droves ahead of ISIS, the only solution our fearless leaders can imagine is for us to once again train Iraqi forces.
Not only are we getting another fix for our training junkies, but Chuck Hagel is accelerating the effort:
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the Pentagon will accelerate its mission to train Iraqi forces to combat Islamic State militants, using troops already in Iraq to start the effort while funding is sought for a broader initiative.
The quest for more funding had been announced earlier by Obama:
Hagel’s announcement follows President Barack Obama’s Nov. 7 decision to roughly double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, adding 1,500 military personnel to establish sites to train nine Iraqi brigades and set up two more centers to advise military commands.
Obama also sought $5.6 billion in funding from Congress for the initiative, including $1.6 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces. Officials initially said the funding would have to be approved by Congress before the new effort could begin.
Translating from military-speak, nine brigades in US forces means between 27,000 and 45,000 troops. So Obama wants $1.6 billion to train a few more tens of thousands of Iraqi troops. We have already spent many more billions to train several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces. Several times. Why on earth would anyone think it will go any better this time?
Of course, one bit of information feeding the desire for the junkies is that Iran now openly admits that they have advisors in Iraq helping the military:
A senior Iraqi official lauded Iran’s assistance to Iraq in fighting terrorist groups, including the ISIL, and said the Iranian military advisors played an important role in freeing Jarf Asakhr in the Musayyib district in the North of Babylon province.
“The Iranian advisors were present in the battle ground during the Jarf Asakhr operations and provided excellent counselling to the fighters of popular front,” Governor-General of Karbala province Aqil al-Tarihi told FNA on Sunday.
Stressing that the cleanup and liberation operations in Jarf Asakhr were all carried out by the Iraqi forces, he said, “Iran helped the success of the operations with its useful consultations.”
Late September, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Gholam Ali Rashid announced that Iran’s military advisors were present in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine to provide those nations with necessary military recommendations.
Besides bragging about their advisors in Iraq, Iran is having a lot of fun trolling the US on its misadventures in Iraq. We know, of course, that ISIS has come into possession of large amounts of US-provided weaponry as Iraqi bases have been seized and that there have been reports of US airdrops of supplies and weapons missing their targets. Iran provided this hot take on those developments today:
Iraqi intelligence sources disclosed that US military planes have been supplying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Takfiri terrorists with weapons and foodstuff under the guise of air raids on militants’ positions.
The Iraqi forces have found out that the US aircraft usually airdrop arms and food cargoes for ISIL militants who collect them on the ground, Asia news agency quoted Iraqi army’s intelligence officers as saying.
“The Iraqi intelligence sources reiterated that the US military planes have airdropped several aid cargoes for ISIL terrorists to help them resist the siege laid by the Iraqi army, security and popular forces,” added the report.
On Saturday, Iraqi security sources disclosed that the ISIL terrorist group is using the state-of-the-art weapons which are only manufactured by the US and each of their bullets are worth thousands of dollars.
“What is important is that the US sends these weapons to only those that cooperate with the Pentagon and this indicates that the US plays a role in arming the ISIL,” an Iraqi security source told FNA.
The source noted that the most important advantage of the US-made weapons used by the ISIL is that “these bullets pierce armored vehicles and kill the people inside the vehicle”.
He said each of such bullets is worth $2,000, and added, “These weapons have killed many Iraqi military and volunteer forces so far.”
Well, gosh. If ISIS has all those sophisticated weapons we originally gave to Iraq, the only answer is to send more of those sophisticated weapons to Iraq and train more Iraqi troops. Who will once again abandon their posts, leaving the weapons for the next opponent to seize…
Over the weekend, the NYT had a story reporting the “conspiracy theory” popular among Iraqis that the US is behind ISIS.
The United States has conducted an escalating campaign of deadly airstrikes against the extremists of the Islamic State for more than a month. But that appears to have done little to tamp down the conspiracy theories still circulating from the streets of Baghdad to the highest levels of Iraqi government that the C.I.A. is secretly behind the same extremists that it is now attacking.
“We know about who made Daesh,” said Bahaa al-Araji, a deputy prime minister, using an Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State on Saturday at a demonstration called by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to warn against the possible deployment of American ground troops. Mr. Sadr publicly blamed the C.I.A. for creating the Islamic State in a speech last week, and interviews suggested that most of the few thousand people at the demonstration, including dozens of members of Parliament, subscribed to the same theory.
The prevalence of the theory in the streets underscored the deep suspicions of the American military’s return to Iraq more than a decade after its invasion, in 2003. The casual endorsement by a senior official, though, was also a pointed reminder that the new Iraqi government may be an awkward partner for the American-led campaign to drive out the extremists.
It suggests the theory arises from lingering suspicions tied to our occupation of Iraq.
But, given the publicly available facts, is the theory so crazy?
Let me clear: I am not saying the US currently backs ISIS, as the NYT’s headline but not story suggests is the conspiracy theory. Nor am I saying the US willingly built a terrorist state that would go on to found a caliphate in Iraq.
But it is a fact that the US has had a covert op since at least June 2013 funding Syrian opposition groups, many of them foreign fighters, in an effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Chuck Hagel confirmed as much in Senate testimony on September 3, 2013 (the NYT subsequently reported that President Obama signed the finding authorizing the op in April 2013, but did not implement it right away). We relied on our Saudi and Qatari partners as go-betweens in that op and therefore relied on them to vet the recipient groups.
At least as Steve Clemons tells it, in addition to the more “moderate” liver-eaters in the Free Syrian Army, the Qataris were (are?) funding Jabhat al-Nusra, whereas Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan gets credit for empowering ISIS — which is one of the reasons King Abdullah took the Syria portfolio away from him.
McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.
But shortly after McCain’s Munich comments, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah relieved Bandar of his Syrian covert-action portfolio, which was then transferred to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. By mid-April, just two weeks after President Obama met with King Abdullah on March 28, Bandar had also been removed from his position as head of Saudi intelligence—according to official government statements, at “his own request.” Sources close to the royal court told me that, in fact, the king fired Bandar over his handling of the kingdom’s Syria policy and other simmering tensions, after initially refusing to accept Bandar’s offers to resign.
ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria. The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported ISIS. But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance—whether direct or indirect—away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups.
The worry at the time, punctuated by a February meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the intelligence chiefs of Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and others in the region, was that ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra had emerged as the preeminent rebel forces in Syria. The governments who took part reportedly committed to cut off ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and support the FSA instead. But while official support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia appears to have dried up, non-governmental military and financial support may still be flowing from these countries to Islamist groups.
Thus, to the extent that we worked with Bandar on a covert op to create an opposition force to overthrow Assad, we may well have had an indirect hand in its creation. That doesn’t mean we wanted to create ISIS. It means we are led by the nose by the Saudis generally and were by Bandar specifically, in part because we are so reliant on them for our HUMINT in such matters. Particularly given Saudi support for Sunnis during our Iraq occupation, can you fault Iraqis for finding our tendency to get snookered by the Saudis suspect?
Moreover, our ongoing actions feed such suspicions. Consider the way the Administration is asking for Congressional sanction (at least in the form of funding) for an escalated engagement in the region, without first briefing Congress on the stupid things it has been doing covertly for the last 18 months?
Eli Lake has a piece trying to explain the big disparities between claimed numbers of Americans who have joined ISIS.
One might think that a government that secretly collected everyone’s cellphone records would be able to find out which Americans have joined ISIS. But actually that task is much harder than it would appear.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN more than 100 Americans have pledged themselves to the group that declared itself a Caliphate in June after conquering Iraq’s second-largest city. Hagel added, “There may be more, we don’t know.” On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman walked back Hagel’s remarks, saying the United States believes there are “maybe a dozen” Americans who have joined ISIS.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast when asked if there were more than 12 Americans in ISIS. “We have some identifying information on some of the Americans, it may not be their name but we have enough information. That said, we readily acknowledge that that number is probably low and there are others we don’t know about.”
“I think 12 is probably low only because there is always stuff we don’t know,” said Andrew Liepman, who left his post as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2012 and is now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “I would not say that number is hugely low, but we always have to remember what we don’t know.”
But at least some of these discrepancies are actually quite easy to explain.
First, Lake jokes about the NSA’s dragnet. But that is actually one explanation for the larger numbers: in FISC documents, it is clear NSA treats association as transitive, meaning that an association with someone who is known to be associated with a group is itself, in many cases, considered evidence of association with the group. And some of this analysis is not going to go beyond metadata analysis (meaning NSA may not get around to reading the content to confirm the association unless the metadata patterns suggest some reason to prioritize the captured communication).
Thus, for any Americans who are in email or phone contact with a known or suspected member of ISIS, NSA likely considers them to be associated with ISIS. And remember, NSA’s collection of email and phone records overseas is almost certainly more extensive than their collection here, meaning those contact chains will be more exhaustive.
In addition, we know that the government considers traveling to an area of terrorist activity to be reasonable suspicion that someone is a known or suspected terrorist. The watchlist guidelines list just that as one behavioral indicator for being watchlisted as a known or suspected terrorist (see page 35).
3.9.4 Travel for no known lawful or legitimate purpose to a locus of TERRORIST ACTIVITY.
This means that any Americans who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are likely classified, by default, as terrorists. And many of those may have traveled for entirely different reasons (like freelance journalism).
That the Pentagon responded the way it did to Chuck Hagel’s fear-mongering is itself tacit admission that the government’s means of tracking terrorist affiliation sweep far wider than actual terrorist affiliation actually does. All Americans who have communicated with ISIS or traveled to Syria may not even want to join ISIS, and not all that want to will succeed in doing so. But NSA and NCTC are going to track everyone who might want to join, because that’s the best way to keep us safe.
Of course, that means the numbers can be used as Hagel used them, to fearmonger about the possible rather than the actual threat of American ISIS members.
All the more reason to make these watchlisting details public!
Back in July of last year, SIGAR issued an alert (pdf) regarding what SIGAR head John Sopko termed “a potentially troubling example of waste that requires your immediate attention”. That statement was in Sopko’s cover letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Head of Central Command Lloyd Austin and ISAF Commander Joseph Dunford. It would appear that the folks in the Department of Defense missed that key word “immediate”, as the subsequent responses from the Defense Department have been both troubling and, at least on the most important move, slow.
First, to set the stage on the evidence of wasteful spending in constructing a building that had no use at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. From the alert letter linked above:
I was told by senior U.S. military officials that the recently completed Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) Command and Control Facility, a 64,000 square feet building and related infrastructure with a contract award value of $34 million that was meant to serve as a command headquarters in Helmand to support the surge, will not be occupied. Based on documents provided to SIGAR, it appears that military commanders in Afghanistan determined as early as May 2010 that there was no need for the facility, yet the military still moved ahead with the construction project and continued to purchase equipment and make various improvements to the building in early 2013. Based on these preliminary findings, I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped.
In addition, I was told that U.S. military officials expect that the building will be either demolished or turned over to the Afghan government as our military presence in Afghanistan declines and Camp Leatherneck is reduced in size. Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling—destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a “white elephant” to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain. Determining all of the facts on how we reached this $34 million dilemma and what can be done to prevent it from happening again is the reason for sending this management alert letter to you.
Even though the Camp Leatherneck Commander determined in May, 2010 that the building was not needed, construction began anyhow after February of 2011. Ironically, Sopko notes in his letter that this may well be the best-constructed building he has toured in his many inspections in Afghanistan, even though it was known before construction began that there would be no use for the building.
Sopko’s letter continues, citing information collected that the building can accomodate 1200 to 1500 staff but that at the time of writing, only 450 people were available to use it. Furthermore, there was nobody on the base qualified to maintain the expensive HVAC system. But it gets even worse:
According to a senior U.S. military official, as the footprint of Camp Leatherneck decreases, the building could be outside the security perimeter, thereby making it unsafe for the U.S. military to occupy it. This leaves the military with two primary options—demolish the building or give it to the Afghan government.
However, to make it usable for the Afghan government, the building would require a major overhaul of existing systems, including the expensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. A high-ranking, senior U.S. military official also advised me that the facility was built to U.S. construction standards rather than Afghan standards. For example, the power runs at U.S. 60 cycles versus Afghan 50 cycles and U.S. 120 volts versus Afghan 220 volts. Therefore, it would not be easy to transfer the building to the Afghan government. These were some of the reasons why the U.S. military officials we spoke with believe the building will probably be demolished.
It appears that the Defense Department reacted to Sopko’s letter, because Sopko states in a subsequent letter that he was informed that an investigation was underway and that his questions would be answered. But that process seems to have directly contradicted earlier work from DoD. Sopko wrote a new letter (pdf) to the same recipients on November 27 of last year: Continue reading
As I posited yesterday, Pakistan appears to be putting together a US-style counterterrorism structure. This morning, we see even stronger hints that a full-blown military offensive against the Taliban may soon be launched by Pakistan. Although we have not seen any evidence that they have done so yet, I fully expect Pakistan to include both the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network among their targets in this operation. In fact, the Washington Post article mentions that Pakistan “would ‘not discriminate’ among the TTP, the Haqqani network and other militant groups in North Waziristan, including al-Qaeda”. In return for this offensive, look for Pakistan to get a massive amount of US financial and intelligence assistance. The US also appears to be making a renewed push against the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan and this report from Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart describes that effort while noting that the US wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis and any other groups that use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
These moves by Pakistan and the US make more sense when we see that the US has come to the realization that an ongoing troop presence in Afghanistan is increasingly unlikely. There was significant movement on that front yesterday, with President Obama speaking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone. From the White House readout of the call:
President Obama called President Karzai today to discuss preparations for Afghanistan’s coming elections, Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and the Bilateral Security Agreement.
With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.
The United States continues to support a sovereign, stable, unified, and democratic Afghanistan, and will continue our partnership based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual accountability. We remain fully supportive of our partners in the Afghan security forces, and we continue to proudly work side by side with the many Afghans who continue to work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their fellow citizens.
Although there is no clear deadline date, this phone call has the hallmarks of a “final warning” to Karzai. If the US doesn’t see movement from him on the BSA soon, look for the zero option of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan to take place. As noted in the readout, the lack of a signed BSA is causing trouble for NATO, as well. A NATO gathering (called a Defense Ministerial) opened today, but with no BSA in place, Afghanistan planning can’t be done, prompting a very uncomfortable opening press conference for Secretary General Rasmussen.
It’s hard to imagine how Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s travels this week could have gone any worse. Starting off with horrible optics, Hagel began his trip with a stop in Bahrain. Although it appears that he at least had enough sense not to appear in front of the cameras with him, he did meet with Bahrian’s king even though the country continues a brutal crackdown on protests, in which mass punishment and torture by the king’s forces have been documented as ongoing. Hagel did appear in front of the cameras though, to “share a laugh” with Egypt’s foreign minister (see this photo essay and scroll down) while in Bahrain, so he did manage a public appearance with a regime engaged in violent suppression of its people.
Hagel moved on to Afghanistan. The US press had already warned us ahead of the visit that he and Karzai were not scheduled to meet even though the US is in the midst of applying incredible amounts of pressure to convince Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end of this year. Or perhaps by the NATO meeting in February. Or whenever. Not content to settle for a mere snub, though, Karzai went a step further in his disrespect to Hagel. Under a story with the headline “President Karzai Leaves for Iran, While Hagel Still in Kabul“, Tolo News informed us yesterday of Karzai’s latest move:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a high-ranking delegation departed Kabul on Sunday to meet with Iranian officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Karzai is visiting Iran to negotiate with Iranian officials on bilateral relations between Tehran and Kabul, the Presidential Palace said in a statement.
Karzai will meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani today in Tehran, the statement added.
Karzai’s visit to Iran took place while the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is visiting U.S forces in Afghanistan.
It appears that Karzai was treated quite well in Tehran:
And RT informs us that a security deal between Iran and Afghanistan now appears likely (h/t to Greg Bean for alerting me to this link via Twitter).
Think about that. Hagel came to Afghanistan with no Karzai meeting arranged and then while he was there, Karzai went to Tehran and announced a pending agreement. It can’t get much worse than that.
Or can it? Hagel’s next stop was Pakistan. He met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where Sharif told him that drone strikes must stop. But while Hagel was there, the US “announced” that NATO shipments through Pakistan would resume since protests against drones have stopped. From the same Express Tribune article about the meeting with Sharif:
But a US defence official told reporters in Kabul that the suspension of shipments via Pakistan had been lifted because the protests had stopped, removing the threat to Nato trucks that move through the Torkham gate pass.
Except that the protests have not stopped. So it appears that the US withdrew that statement. From Dawn:
The visit came as Hagel’s deputies withdrew Sunday’s statement that said Nato shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to resume due to the end of anti-drone protests.
And as an added bonus, we have yet another incident of NATO supply trucks using the southern route in Afghanistan being attacked, so perhaps pressure is being ratcheted up on that route as well.
Perhaps it is time for Mr. Hagel to come home.