Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 2:48 PM

Is this what defeating ISIS looks like?

From the New York Times: “Another day brought another horrible set of headlines out of Baghdad: On Tuesday, four bombings, one after another, killed dozens of people and left streaks of blood and strewn body parts across public markets.” The bombings killed at least 70 people, but its not the first day of recent violence in Baghdad. Bombings are once again becoming familiar; over the last week, they have killed at least 194 people.

As ISIS wreaks havoc in the capital city, “the official talking points say the new wave of bombings is a sign that the Islamic State is losing.” Tim Arango writes that while there may be some truth to that line, ISIS is not “in the death throes” yet. Instead, the streak of bombings more likely harkens back to a strategy of calculated violence designed to incite and terrorize Iraq’s Shiite population in an effort to harden the country’s sectarian divisions.

The attacks may also be designed to prompt calls for security forces and military divisions to be called back from the front lines in order to protect Baghdad, freeing up areas for ISIS to operate once again. U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren noted, however, that the Iraqi government already had almost half of its military deployed in Baghdad, saying “if you want to stop these bombs, you have to keep forces in the field.”

In Vienna yesterday, major powers failed to agree to a new date to resume Syrian peace talks, and according to Reuters, the opposition “said it would not come back to Geneva negotiations unless conditions improved on the ground.” Yet in a joint statement following the close of the meeting, the United States and European and Middle East states that oppose Assad, as well as Iran and Russia—who support Assad—called for a full cessation of hostilities and access to aid. Russia and the United States also warned that if humanitarian access was denied by either side, the powers would airdrop food, medicine, and water to besieged communities starting on June 1.

More today on that Russian military base in Palmyra. According to Russian officials, the camp is “temporary” and serves as housing units for explosive experts who are currently removing mines left behind in the ancient city by the Islamic State. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the Syrian government had given approval to build the camp.

On Monday, the United States announced that it is considering sending weapons to the Government of National Accord in Libya in order to battle the Islamic State. Yet today the Washington Post notes that “doing so will require taking cues from a fledgling unity government that is still struggling to establish support at home.” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Monday that the United States lacks a “great picture” of what is happening in Libya, and while U.S. special operations forces have been operating in the country, Army General David M. Rodriguez, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters that “Libya’s internal politics still make it difficult to determine which armed groups are aligning themselves with the Government of National Accord.”

The Islamic State has been up to all the horrifying things in Libya that you would expect. That’s the account from Human Rights Watch, which released a report on the “scenes of horror” that followed the city of Sirte’s seizure by ISIS militants in February 2015.

Mohamed al Sayagi of Reuters brings us a report from Sanaa, Yemen, where “hope is hard to find” where some “fear that their society may never emerge intact.” Life for many in what was already one of the Arab world’s poorest countries had always been a struggle, but since the war began more than one year ago, mere survival has become the main priority.

“Afghanistan signed a draft agreement with the Hezb-e-Islami militant group on Wednesday in a move the government hopes could lead to a full peace accord with one of the most notorious warlords in the insurgency,” reports Reuters. The group’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former prime minister of the country, and is accused of widespread human rights abuses. The United States has designated him as a terrorist, but the Ghani government in Afghanistan views a peace accord with Hezb-e-Islami as a critical step to drawing insurgents off the battlefield.

The announcement of the agreement came as the United States, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan held another round of talks in Pakistan aimed at “laying the ground for a negotiated end to the Afghan war.” The problem? The Taliban were a no-show, as they have been for the previous four rounds of discussions. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also refused to send a delegation from Kabul, a decision that follows last month's demand that Pakistan use force to expel the Taliban from its territory.

And while diplomats talk peace, the skies of Afghanistan remain busy. Yesterday, a U.S. drone strike killed Mullah Mohammad Ali, a commander of al Qaeda, and four other suspected terrorists. Elsewhere, an Afghan Air Force strike killed two Taliban commanders and 15 other militants in the Ghaziabad district.

In the Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Aqil Shah, just back from Waziristan, writes that drone blowback in Pakistan is a myth. Here’s why.

Reuters reports that the United States eased some sanctions on Myanmar yesterday as part of an effort to support ongoing political reforms in the country.

The National Security Agency’s Deputy Director, Rick Ledgett, sat down for a rare on-the-record interview with Fox News’ Catherine Herridge to discuss a “highly secretive program” developed by the NSA during the Iraq war that “put NSA specialists on the battlefield in order to send ‘near real-time’ intelligence to the troops so they could avoid ambushes and root out insurgents.” The program, called Real Time Regional Gateway or RT-RG, deployed 5,000 NSA specialists to Iraq and 8,000 to Afghanistan, and at least another 5,000 to unidentified “hostile areas around the world.”

In the New York Times’s “White Collar Watch,” Peter J. Henning provides an overview of the ongoing fight over privacy and secrecy in government investigations and how provisions in the Email Privacy Act, passed by the House in April, could affect investigations by federal regulatory commissions.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism act by unanimous consent; the bill would allow the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role it played in plotting or executing the terrorist attacks. The White House has promised to veto the bill. For its part, the Saudi government has threatened to sell of up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they can be frozen by U.S. courts. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a sponsor of the bill, called the threat “hollow” and suggested that if the Saudi government was not involved in the attacks, “they have nothing to fear.” The bill would carve an exception to the 1976 Sovereign Immunities Act, and as Molly O’Toole writes in Foreign Policy, could undermine U.S.-Saudi relations far into the future. In Lawfare, Francesca Procaccini discusses the state of play of the bill and what it would mean for the future of foreign sovereign immunity.

The House Armed Services Committee yesterday adopted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would slash the size of the National Security Council from its current size of almost 400 employees to just 100 staff members. To hire above the caps, the National Security Adviser would have to request authorization from the Senate. The House has recently accused the Obama administration’s NSC of micromanaging the Defense Department and military forces. The Hill has more on the amendment. Previously, Lawfare’s John Bellinger covered the proposal here and here, arguing that it raises serious separation of powers questions.

After a long-stalled nomination, the Senate has confirmed Eric Fanning to by Army Secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service. His confirmation comes after Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) dropped his opposition to Fanning. Roberts had blocked Fanning’s nomination over concerns that the Obama administration would attempt to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In removing his block on the nomination, Senator Roberts suggested that the Pentagon had told him no detainees would be sent to Kansas; the Pentagon denied that they had taken any location off the table.

Military commissions pre-trial hearings in the case of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi resumed yesterday, and as these things go, quickly took a puzzling twist when Mr. Hadi asked to be called by his real name of Nashwan al Tamir. Mr. Hadi’s new civilian defense counsel told the commission that his client had been deposed in the Southern District of New York in 2007 as "Nashwan al Tamir." Prosecutors did not weigh in on the request, but according to the Miami Herald, Mr. Hadi, who is the only formally trained military officer charged in the war court, was listed as having nine different aliases, none of which have the last name Tamir.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Francesca Procaccini updated us on the Senate’s passage of JASTA and what it means for the future of foreign sovereign immunity.

Stewart Baker posted the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an interview with Dmitri Alperovitch.

Quinta Jurecic explored the intersection of sextortion, online harassment, and violence against women.

Ben updated us on the legislative response to sextortion.

Paul Rosenzweig rounded up the newest Bits and Bits in “the All-China Cyber Edition.”

Cody Poplin shared a statement from Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins issued prior to this week’s hearings in the case of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi.

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