Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, May 23, 2016, 4:14 PM

The battle for Fallujah has begun.

“The moment of real victory has come, and Daesh has no option but to flee,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said yesterday when he announced that Iraqi forces have begun their assault on the Islamic State in Fallujah. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “the operation follows months of planning and preparation in coordination with a U.S.-led military coalition that is backing Iraqi forces with airstrikes.” Additionally, the Journal writes that “Iraqi forces have long had the city surrounded, but a major buildup of forces became evident in recent days as Shiite militias working alongside the Iraqi army moved military equipment to the area and officials suggested an operation was imminent.”

However, the fight may not be an easy one. The Associated Press reports that “Iraqi forces are expected to face a complicated fight to push the Islamic State out of Fallujah, which is about 40 miles west of Baghdad, and has been under the militants’ control for more than two years.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic State attacked two cities on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Jableh and Tartous, earlier today killing nearly 150 people and wounding at least 200 more. Reuters tells us that according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “148 people were killed in attacks by at least five suicide bombers and two devices planted in cars.” Reuters has more on the assaults here.

Syrian rebels have a deadline for the Assad regime to end its assaults. And the clock is ticking. According to Al Jazeera, “Syrian rebel groups have said that they will no longer abide by a ceasefire deal unless the Syrian army ends a major offensive on their positions in the suburbs of Damascus within 48 hours.”

At least 60,000 people have died in government jails throughout Syria’s five-year conflict. Reuters cites a new report issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that claims “no fewer than 60,000 detainees were martyred either as a result of direct bodily torture or denial of food and medicine.” More from Reuters here.

Syria had a surprise visitor over the weekend. General Joseph Votel, the new Commander of U.S. CENTCOM, said that “he felt a moral obligation to enter a war zone to check on his troops and make his own assessment of progress in organizing local Arab and Kurd fighters for what has been a slow campaign to push the Islamic State out of Syria.” The Associated Press covers General Votel’s surprise trip here.

Also over the weekend, “one of the Islamic State’s most hunted leaders delivered a rare speech Saturday that suggested the militants are feeling the pinch of recent territorial losses and the killing of key officials in U.S. airstrikes.” The Washington Post reports that Abu Mohammed al Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, “urged supporters to carry out more terror attacks against Western targets and used typically defiant language to predict victory for the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.”

Here is today’s long read: How Kosovo Was Turned Into Fertile Ground for ISIS,” by the New York Times’s Carlotta Gall.

This weekend proved to be a busy one for counterterrorism. News broke on Saturday that a United States airstrike likely killed Mullah Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Earlier today during his visit to Vietnam, President Obama confirmed the insurgent leader’s death by an airstrike in a remote area of Pakistan. However, he was sure to stress that “the operation doesn’t mark a shift in the American military mission in Afghanistan.” The Wall Street Journal has more on the Taliban leader’s death here. Additionally, you can read the White House’s official statement on Mansour’s death here.

While President Obama confirmed Mansour’s death, senior Afghan Taliban officials met today to agree on a new leader. Reuters shares that the “Taliban have so far made no official statement on the fate of Mansour, who assumed leadership only last year. But senior members have confirmed that their main shura, or leadership council, has been meeting to discuss the succession in a bid to prevent factional splits from fragmenting the movement.”

Wondering who will succeed Mansour? Reuters suggests that the next leader of the Afghan Taliban could possibly be Sirajuddin Haqqani who “would likely prove an even more implacable foe of beleaguered Afghan government forces and their U.S. allies.” According to Reuters, “Haqqani, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, is widely seen by U.S. and Afghan officials as the most dangerous warlord in the Taliban insurgency, responsible for the most bloody attacks, including one last month in Kabul in which 64 people were killed.” More on Haqqani here.

The Washington Post calls the strike that killed the Taliban leader “the most aggressive U.S. military operation in Pakistan since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.” Even though President Obama noted that the strike does not represent a shift in the United States’ approach, analysts see it as an escalation. The New York Times writes that “the strike in Baluchistan was also seen as a signal that the Obama administration was growing less patient with Pakistan’s failure to move strongly against the Taliban insurgency.” Yet, as the United States celebrates its successful airstrike targeting Mansour, Pakistan has accused the United States of, once again, violating its sovereignty.

In the Daily Beast, Brookings’ Bruce Riedel comments on the strike and indicates that “the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in an American drone strike is a significant but not fatal blow to both the Taliban and their Pakistani Army patrons.” Read more of Riedel’s analysis here.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government is apparently providing financial support to the Taliban—or rather a breakaway faction of the insurgent group. The Wall Street Journal tells us that the effort by the Afghan government is aimed at sowing “rifts within the insurgency and nudge some of its leaders toward peace talks.” Read more on the military and financial support here.

The Islamic State claimed credit for a suicide bombing in Aden earlier today. The car bomb killed at least 40 army recruits and injured 60 others. Reuters describes the attack as “one of the deadliest attacks yet on the beleaguered government.” According to Reuters, “the attack occurred as the recruits lined up to enlist for military service at the home of a senior general in Khor Maksar district of Aden.”

The Yemeni peace talks are making some progress, again. According to the Associated Press, “fragile peace talks aimed at ending fighting in Yemen are making progress as a truce largely holds, the U.N. envoy for the country asserted Sunday after the impoverished Arab nation’s government agreed to return to the negotiating table.” However, despite the progress in the peace talks, Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen continue. Read more from the AP here.

Libya is asking for the European Union’s help to train the county’s security services. The Wall Street Journal reports that European Union foreign ministers are likely to approve Libyan Prime Minister Faiez Serraj’s request “after diplomats were recently preparing the extension of the bloc’s naval mission to also train the new national government’s security forces.” However, not everyone is so happy with the new unity government. General Khalifa Haftar, who heads the Libyan forces in the east, “said it would be ‘unthinkable’ for eastern Libyan forces to join up with the U.N.-backed unity government until militias aligned to it have been disbanded.” Reuters has more on that story here.

President Obama kicked off his trip to Vietnam over the weekend. Speaking in Hanoi earlier today, President Obama announced that the United States would lift its arms embargo on Vietnam. According to the New York Times, “the United States has long made lifting the embargo contingent on Vietnam’s improving its human rights record, and recently administration officials had hinted that the ban could be removed partly in response to China’s buildup in the South China Sea.” However, the Times tells us that President Obama “portrayed the decision as part of the long process of normalizing relations between the two countries after the Vietnam War.” The Wall Street Journal adds that President Obama indicated that “arms sales will have to meet certain requirements, including conditions related to human rights. He said the U.S. is ‘fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment,’ with the aim of ensuring Vietnam has the ability to protect itself.” The Associated Press provides the latest updates from President Obama’s trip here.

China responded to President Obama’s announcement of the arms embargo lift saying that “it hopes developing ties between the United States and Vietnam will be conducive to regional peace and stability.” Reuters tells us that “China resents U.S. efforts to forge stronger military bonds with its neighbors amid rising tension in the disputed South China Sea.”

“A bogus peace offensive.” That is what South Korea is calling a recent proposal from North Korea requesting military talks between the two rival nations. According to Reuters, “North Korea said dialogue between military officials from the two sides was urgently needed to reduce tension, and suggested they be held in late May or early June. South Korea said the offer was insincere.”

Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines-based terrorist organization and Islamic State affiliate, has released what it says is the last video of three hostages pleading for help. CNN shares that “the video, released on Sunday, anticipates a rapidly-expiring June 13 deadline set by the group, which is headquartered in the restive Muslim-majority province of Mindanao in the country’s far south.” More from CNN here.

Meanwhile, the United States has “infuriated” Russia as it deployed tanks within miles of its border with Georgia. NBC News reports that “the symbolic deployment of the Army’s largest weapon system to this former Soviet republic was part of Exercise Noble Partner which has involved hundreds of American, British, and Georgian troops and runs through Thursday.” The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the exercises and stated, “We regard this ongoing ‘exploration’ of Georgia’s territory by NATO forces as a provocative step aimed at escalating the military and political situation in the South Caucasus.”

The Guardian shares the story of John Crane, a former senior official in the Department of Defense who fought to provide fair treatment for whistleblowers. But then, in an ironic turn of events, Crane was “forced out of his job and became a whistleblower as well.” Read the Guardian’s report “How the Pentagon Punished NSA Whistleblowers” here.

As John Crane’s story hit headlines over the weekend, Edward Snowden called for a complete overhaul of United States whistleblower protections. Snowden told the Guardian that “we need iron-clad, enforceable protections for whistleblowers, and we need a public record of success stories. Protect the people who go to members of Congress with oversight roles, and if their efforts lead to a positive change in policy - recognize them for their efforts. There are no incentives for people to stand up against an agency on the wrong side of the law today, and that’s got to change.”

“The FBI has been in the hacking business for a long time, famously using malware to log suspects’ keystrokes as early as the 1990s. But in the high-profile case surrounding a dark web child abuse site called Playpen, the Bureau is arguing that because it was authorized by a warrant, its computer intrusion code shouldn’t be called ‘malware’ at all.” Read more on that story from Motherboard here.

The Miami Herald has the latest Guantanamo Bay news this week. Following the start of the Military Commissions trials last week, the Periodic Review Boards have approved the release of an Afghan man known by the name Obaidullah. Obaidullah, once considered a war criminal by military commission, has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2002.

Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports that “Congress is moving to intervene in a legal dispute over whether female guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison should be barred from touching Muslim detainees, wading into a fight that has raised questions about the independence of the war court from outside influences.” More from the Times here.

The Washington Post shares the “foggy numbers of Obama’s wars and non-wars.” Karen DeYoung writes that the long-delayed report on how many militants and noncombatant civilians the United States has killed since 2009 “may be defined by what is left out as by what is included.” The death tolls are set to cover places in which the United States conducts airstrikes but does not consider itself officially at war. Those places include Yemen, Somalia, Libya, but will likely exclude Pakistan.

Investigation into the EgyptAir Flight 804 mystery is turning to the plane’s movements before it crashed into the Mediterranean. The Wall Street Journal chronicles the doomed plane’s movement from Europe to Egypt here. The cause of the plane’s crash still remains unclear, but Egyptian officials leading the investigation suspect terrorism.

Parting Shot: Here are some words of wisdom: If you decide to support the Islamic State, don’t post your selfies/handwritten love notes to al Baghdadi with familiar locations in the background. BuzzFeed News shares that “the exact locations of ISIS supporters in several European cities were allegedly found Saturday, when photographs published by those in support of the group were used by internet sleuths to track them down.”

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Alex McQuade shared The Week That Was, rounding up all of Lawfare’s content from last week.

John Bellinger flagged the House of Representative’s rejection of an NDAA amendment that would have repealed the 2001 AUMF.

Cody Poplin released the latest Lawfare Podcast featuring a conversation with H. Jefferson Powell on his new book, Targeting Americans.

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, David Ucko examined why and how dictators often defeat insurgents despite the lessons of the United States and other democracies.

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