Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Caitlin Gilligan, Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, May 24, 2016, 5:11 PM

It is the “beginning of the end” for the Islamic State in Anbar province, according to the Pentagon, which began pounding Fallujah as part of coordinated ground and air strikes with the Iraqi army yesterday. Although the death toll has not yet been verified, at least 34 Islamic State fighters were killed and one IS communications center was destroyed. Iraq’s military also targeted bomb-making factories and rocket-launch sites throughout the city.

The launch of the assault comes after a “period of extreme political weakness for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi,” whose leadership has come under withering criticism lately due to the lack of security in Baghdad—exemplified by recent bombings—and his inability to respond to calls for anti-corruption measures. Despite growing unrest, U.S. officials continue to support Abadi, and the Wall Street Journal notes that political stability in Iraq is “paramount to keeping up the fight against Islamic State.”

The Islamic State has held Fallujah since the beginning of 2014, but according to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, the city “has become more of a distant outpost for them that’s hard to sustain and hard to have access to.” While that may herald an easier battle than in places like Mosul, the majority of people in the city are Sunnis who are likely to be “suspicious of the involvement of Shiite militias in the government offensive.” To address those concerns, “Sunni fighters, plus select government forces, will in theory take the lead when it comes to fighting inside the city to avoid the impression Shia-dominated forces are conquering and occupying Fallujah, a proudly Arab Sunni city reports CNN. The 50,000 civilians that remain in Fallujah are now under a curfew from the Islamic State, forcing them to ignore the leaflets dropped by coalition forces urging them to leave before the impending battle.

While the offensive in Fallujah begins, back in Baghdad, conflict simmers between protesters and their opposition. The recent Islamic State attacks in the capital have stoked anger in the city as hundreds of protesters “stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on Friday, demanding better security and government reform.” The protests left two dead, the Washington Post reports. Led by Muqtada al Sadr and his followers, the protest was the second storming of the Green Zone this month.

“The rising tempers are spilling over into potentially dangerous divisions among Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias,” which alarmingly takes the focus off of the Islamic State, and disrupts the unity of one common enemy. Gunmen, supposedly al Sadr’s fighters, fired “on the local headquarters of the Badr Brigade,” a rival militia to that of Mr. Sadr. But Ali Hassan, a senior official in the Badr Brigade told reporters that his group would “not be dragged into that fighting, our only goal now is to fight Daesh.”

The Syrian government blamed Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for bombings yesterday in Tartous and Jableh, while the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to the BBC. Syria’s state media said the bombings “were aimed at derailing peace efforts” and put the death toll at 78; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 145. Both attacks consisted of car bombs and suicide attackers, and the attack on the hospital in Jableh was especially deadly, killing three doctors and nurses while also placing the hospital out of commission. The hospital had been “taking in victims from at least three other blasts that hit the city on Monday,” the Associated Press writes. “The attacks signified a major breach in the security of President Bashar Assad’s coastal strongholds” since both cities had largely been immune to fighting thus far.

After a U.S. State Department spokesman said yesterday that Russia has a “special responsibility” to rein in Syrian government forces, Russia called for a “temporary truce” in the towns of Daraya and Eastern Ghouta to last for 72 hours. U.S. officials continue to pressure their Russian counterparts to press the Syrian government to halt its attacks in Aleppo.

The Islamic State appears to have completely destroyed a Syrian airbase used by Russia near the city of Palmyra. According to the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, which obtained satellite imagery of the base, four Russian combat helicopters and around 20 supply trucks were destroyed in the attack. The BBC has more.

The Taliban said today that Pakistani authorities have delivered Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s remains for burial, an action that Pakistani officials denied. As Lawfare readers likely know, Mansour was targeted in a drone strike over the weekend while driving through Baluchistan province, in Pakistan. According to U.S. officials, Mansour, as leader of the Taliban, was plotting attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan supporting the Afghan government. U.S. officials also told Reuters that the Obama administration hopes that the death of Mansour will push the Taliban to “choose the path to reconciliation,” while also pushing Pakistan to “deny safe haven to the Taliban.” Another anonymous official was less than optimistic, however, suggesting that Mansour’s “successor could be even more loath to negotiate.”

And exactly who might that successor be? The shortlist includes Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, and Mullah Sherin, along with Sarjuddin Haqqani, NBC News reports. See the full report for more on each contender, but as Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School said, "a lot of these guys are more radical than Mansour.”

Vali Nasr tells the New York Times that “the administration is no longer worried about blowing anything up,” this time going so far as to “carry out an operation, not against an Arab terrorist leader, but against a Pashtun ally of Pakistan, inside Pakistani territory.” In addition to extending drone strikes into Baluchistan, President Obama authorized the Department of Defense to execute the strike, denying “Pakistan the fig leaf of a covert operation” conducted by the CIA.

The strike certainly got Pakistan’s attention, leading one Pakistani senator to condemn it as an “illegal and expansionary” attack; another member of Parliament suggested that the United States crossed a “red line,” which the Post characterized as having previously restricted “U.S. drone strikes to Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt in the northwestern part of the country.”

The strike comes as the Pentagon is requesting a change to the 2015 rules of engagement in Afghanistan that would allow the U.S. military to take on offensive operations once again against the Taliban. According to the Wall Street Journal, while President Obama remains reticent to recommit U.S. troops to offensive operations against Taliban foot soldiers, the successful strike against Mansour has boosted the idea that the United States can continue targeting high-value targets and mid-level extremists without fully re-engaging on the battlefield. Intelligence officials have warned the White House that the Taliban could seize more Afghan territory during the warm fighting months this year, but renewed authorization for offensive operations would mark a dramatic reversal in President Obama’s Afghanistan policy.

The wreckage from the drone strike also revealed evidence of a long suspected relationship between Iran and the Taliban. A Pakistani passport with immigration stamps for Iran in the name of Wali Muhammad along with a picture of Mansour was found in what was left of the taxi Mansour was traveling in. Previously, a 2007 State Department leaked cable had said “Iran was supplying surface-to-air missiles” to the Taliban, the Guardian recalls. Even though the Shiite government in Tehran is opposed to the Taliban’s ideology, the two have proven willing to cooperate.

Did President Obama cross the line by authorizing the drone strike? The Atlantic discusses potential repercussions from the drone strike, carried out by the military and not the CIA, “which runs and doesn’t acknowledge the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan.” The Pentagon went so far as to tweet about the drone strike, breaking from the usual code of conduct, especially since the strike was “in a country with which the United States is not, technically, at war--and which, in theory is an ally in the war on terrorism.”

Violence continues elsewhere in the region. Earlier today, a roadside bomb killed at least five civilians in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Associated Press reports.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed an agreement with Tehran on Monday for a transport corridor designed to open up a new route to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar, circumventing Pakistan” according to the Wall Street Journal. The Chabahar port, which India will partially develop just across the border from Pakistan’s Chinese-run Gwadar port, is the centerpiece of the corridor. India and Iran on Monday signed an agreement in Tehran that allows New Delhi to begin work on Chabahar after a delay of more than a decade.” The Washington Post has more on the new deal between India, Afghanistan, and Iran here.

“Hopes that Iran would quickly reintegrate with world markets after its nuclear deal, bringing investment and opportunities to a young population, are turning to frustration,” Reuters reports. Reuters shares that “potential foreign investors have found that the removal of international sanctions in exchange for monitored curbs on Iran’s nuclear program is only part of the story.” While sanctions have been lifted, the opaque business culture in Iran and political uncertainty in the United States continues to undermine the prospects for business in Iran. Read more here.

“That boy now is not my son. That is not the son I raised.” The Washington Post features a piece on how a British citizen became one of the most notorious members of the Islamic State. El Shafee Elsheikh has been identified as the last member of the British group of Islamic State operatives known as “the Beatles.” The cell’s most notorious member was Mohammed Emwazi, or Jihadi John, who was killed in a drone strike last year. Read more on the fourth member of the British IS quartet from the Guardian here.

Meanwhile, police officers stand to become the judges of “what people can and can not say” in Britain. The police chief leading the effort to counter radicalization “has said government plans targeting alleged extremists are so flawed they risk creating a ‘thought police’ in Britain.” According to the Guardian, the new proposed government counterextremism bill “widens Britain’s counterterrorism fight to legislate against those defined as extremists but who do not advocate terrorism. Supporters of the measures say such people encourage those who want to commit atrocities and are ideological fellow travelers who undermine common bedrock British values.”

China warned the United States “not to spark a fire in Asia” after President Obama announced the lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam yesterday. According to the Washington Post, “Obama unveiled the historic step on Monday during his first visit to Vietnam, insisting the move was ‘not based on China’ while simultaneously acknowledging that Washington and Hanoi share a common concern about China’s actions in the South China Sea.” Read more on China’s response from the Post here.

Speaking today in Vietnam, President Obama said that “big nations should not bully small ones.” Without mentioning China by name, he also reiterated that the United States would stand with its partners to ensure freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea. Reuters has more here.

Yet despite President Obama’s actions in Vietnam this week, some Asian countries remain “skeptical about how much they can rely on Washington’s commitment and staying power in the region.” The New York Times reports that Asian nations “sense that for the first time in memory, Americans are questioning whether their economic and defense interests in Asia are really that vital.”

China is planning a base for an advanced rescue ship in the disputed Spratly Islands, just off the coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. Reuters tells us that “the ship, which would carry drones and underwater robots, is set to be deployed in the second half of the year.” Additionally, Reuters writes that Chinese officials indicated that the “rescue ship base station would enable rescue forces to aid fishing boats in trouble, and shorten the distance they need to travel.”

The Romanian hacker known as “Guccifer” who claimed to have broken into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server is expected to plead guilty to U.S. criminal charges in a federal court. Guccifer’s hearing is set for tomorrow morning in Alexandria, Virginia. The Hill shares that “the hacker has been indicted on nine felony counts related to his hacking into accounts of senior U.S. officials, including former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.” The Hill has more here.

There are conflicting statements surrounding the possibility that an explosion brought down EgyptAir Flight 804 over the Mediterranean last week. Senior forensic officials say that human remains recovered at the crash site indicate that some sort of explosion tore the doomed plane apart as it was making its way to Cairo from Paris. However, the Guardian tells us that “the head of Egypt’s forensics authority has dismissed a suggestion that the small size of the body parts retrieved...indicated there had been an explosion on board.” Despite the conflicting analysis, officials continue to believe that the crash was likely caused by an act of terrorism.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody Poplin shared The Week That Will Be, flagging events and job announcements relevant to Lawfare’s readers.

Paul Rosenzweig advocated for strategic planning for a more secure network.

Robert Chesney questioned if the AUMF was necessary for the Mullah Mansour airstrike.

Robert Loeb and Helen Klein flagged the similarities between the al Nashiri and Khadr cases.

Natan Sachs noted that Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister and “least diplomatic” politician, will be the Israel’s next defense minister.

Benjamin Wittes commented on Donald Trump and “a tale of two Washingtons.”

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