Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, May 25, 2016, 3:41 PM

Well, that didn't take long.

The Taliban has named Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as its new leader following the death of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who was killed in an American drone strike four days ago. The New York Times reports that the lesser-known Mawlawi Haibatullah was selected possibly in efforts “to avoid a divisive personality and for purposes of enhanced security,” as one former Taliban diplomat suggested that the cleric, who has instructed many Taliban foot soldiers, might be able to “reunite different factions of the Taliban and prevent disintegration.” Mawlawi Haibatullah was chosen over insurgency leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, the young son of the Taliban’s founder, both of whom were rivals for leadership and were named as deputies following the announcement of Mansour’s successor. The Times notes that the Taliban’s announcement of Mansour’s replacement was its first public confirmation that Mansour had been killed in an airstrike. According to the BBC, the change in leadership is unlikely to change the group’s direction.

Shedding light on how U.S. personnel were able to carry out the strike which killed the former Taliban leader, the Wall Street Journal tells us that U.S. intelligence sources were able to zero in on Mansour while he visited his family in Iran. The Journal writes that the strike “also represented a message to Pakistan that the U.S. would take action on Pakistani soil if necessary without advance warning.”

Yet while President Obama called Mansour's death a "milestone," in Foreign Policy, Rosa Brookes writes that the Taliban leader’s death is “a milestone on the road to nowhere.” Pointing to a handful of other senior terrorist leaders who have also been killed, she notes that “the ‘important milestones’ come and go; we keep on killing bad guys, and the bad guys just keep on keeping on.” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, writing in Defense One, notes that regardless of whether it brings the Taliban to the negotiating table, the drone strike resulting in Mansour’s death will lead to a “decidedly less cordial phase of U.S.-Pakistani relations.”

Sure enough, Pakistan condemned the attack for being “against international law,” the Journal tells us. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said “the justification provided by America to the world for this drone attack is illegal, unjustified, unacceptable, against Pakistan’s independence and sovereignty, and completely against the U.N. Charter and international law.0” He also said that the strike would have “serious implications” for the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. And contra to previous reporting, the Washington Post reports that the White House will include the strike against Mansour in its data on drone strikes executed outside active warzones, writing that “the inclusion of attacks in Pakistan, nearly all of which have been conducted as CIA covert actions, will significantly boost the overall number of strikes taken since 2009.”

Over in Syria, the U.S.-backed alliance between Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is launching a campaign to liberate the territory north of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa. The SDF dropped leaflets urging Raqqa's civilians to leave, prompting initial speculation that the alliance planned to launch an attack against the city itself. But according to Reuters, a spokesman for the alliance said that “the current battle is only to liberate the area north of Raqqa. Currently there is no preparation ... to liberate Raqqa, unless as part of a campaign which will come after this campaign has finished.” Yet while the Post suggests that the campaign has limited goals, it will be an important test of the alliance. The Journal adds that the Syrian Democratic Forces’ “assault opened a second crucial front against Islamic State after Iraqi forces launched an effort on Monday to retake Fallujah.” An assault led by the SDF would come with trade offs though, as many Sunni Arabs in the region are wary of "liberation" by Kurdish forces, fearing the potential for sectarian reprisals and violence. Already, in response to the SDF campaign, a renowned citizen journalism group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, tweeted that the campaign was pushing civilians in the city to join ISIS.

Despite Russian denials, ISIS claimed that it attacked and destroyed a large amount of Russian equipment at an airbase in Syria. The private intelligence company Stratfor released a series of satellite images that appear to show damage at the base, stating that “a range of separate locations within the airfield were targeted very accurately, with no sign of damage in the areas separating them.” As Russia maintains that the damage shown in the satellite images was from previous battles between government and rebel forces, U.S. defense sources have “told CNN that [the damage at the base] appeared to be an accident that caused a chain reaction of explosions and not the result of enemy action.”

Turning to Iraq, Iraqi forces today continued their assault on the ISIS-held Fallujah amid mounting concerns over the safety of civilians. Al Jazeera tells us that “the mass-casualty bombings in Baghdad during May, the pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to show positive results in any field, and the hiatus between the end of the battle of Ramadi and the likely start of the battle of Mosul in the late summer or autumn” have all fueled the government offensive to liberate Fallujah from the Islamic State. The Post writes that “hundreds of fighters aligned with the government, including federal police, SWAT forces and at least seven well-armed Shiite militia groups” have joined together in the effort to liberate the city, describing the myriad of forces fighting as “a sign of the challenge that the Iraqi government and its Western backers will face in coordinating what they hope is a final series of offensives by forces with varying loyalties, weaponry and skills.” Meanwhile, USA Today reports that Iraqi forces have not sought U.S. assistance in their fight in Fallujah though Defense Secretary Ash Carter has expressed that “we’re always willing to doing additional things.”

In what the BBC calls a “colourful addition to Israel's ruling coalition,” Avigdor Lieberman was named Israeli defense minister yesterday as part of a deal which will bring Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu, into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. The deal will increase the number of seats held by Netanyahu’s coalition from 61 to 66 in Israel’s 120-seat parliament. The Times writes that “the addition of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu also buttresses the hawkish image of a government already dominated by right-wing and religious parties.” According to the BBC, Lieberman “has a reputation for inflammatory comments and takes a hawkish stance towards the Palestinians.” Commenting on the addition of Lieberman to the cabinet, Lawfare’s Natan Sachs notes that the move “has wrought one of the most hardline governments Israel has ever had.”

In an interview following President Obama's visit to the country, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that Vietnam would work with allies to use “peaceful” and “diplomatic measures” to resolve disputes in the South China Sea and not pursue a military buildup in the disputed region. According to Reuters, “Phuc said the South China Sea dynamic had grown in complexity and needed regional friends and strategic partners to ensure harmony and avoid any disruption to maritime trade.” Phuc also added that "Vietnam is a country that loves peace and Vietnam resolves international and regional issues based on international laws ... in the spirit of not using force and not using force to threaten each other." Phuc’s statements came just days after President Obama lifted a lethal arms embargo on the country.

Chinese media sources responded to the lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam by cautioning the United States from sparking a “regional tinderbox” in efforts to “curb the rise of China,” according to the Washington Post. Speaking from Ho Chi Minh City, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “if you want to point to the possibility of tinderbox and possibly igniting something, I would caution China, as President Obama and others have, to not unilaterally move to reclamation activities and the militarization of the islands and areas that are part of the claims being contested.” Kerry also suggested that the United States does not “take a position on those claims.”

Sajmir Alimehmeti, a Bronx man, was arrested and charged with providing material to the Islamic State, the New York Times tells us. After being denied entry into Britain twice, Alimehmeti attempted to help another apparent ISIS sympathizer, not realizing that this man was actually an undercover law enforcement agent. Islamic State material and jihadi propaganda was found on his computer, including audiotapes of Anwar al Awlaki, the now infamous al Qaeda propagandist. With almost 100 people in the United States facing charges for supporting the Islamic State, the Times writes that "Mr. Alimehmeti’s case — both in the ways that it differs from the others and in the ways that it fits into a broader pattern — highlights the ever-evolving efforts by law enforcement agencies to combat a threat that is also changing."

As the Senate considers whether or not families of 9/11 victims should be able to sue Saudi Arabia, lawmakers are accusing the Kingdom of stoking extremism, Foreign Policy tells us. This latest source of tension between lawmakers and Saudi Arabia comes as the Obama administration considers declassifying 28 pages of a congressional inquiry that may link the Saudi Kingdom to the 9/11 attacks.

The Hill writes that "the House easily passed legislation on Tuesday to authorize intelligence agency activities for the next year with provisions to prevent officials from manipulating reports on combating terrorism." The provisions were added in response to allegations that senior officials in the Pentagon’s Central Command had distorted intelligence analysis in efforts to cast the the U.S. fight against ISIS in a more successful light.

In Guantánamo news, 23 detainees are expected to be released before July. The Guardian tells us that “all the detainees for whom US diplomats have secured arrangements to leave Guantánamo have been officially approved for transfer, either by a 2010 internal review process or through quasi-parole hearings known as Periodic Review Boards.” The Hill notes that Senate Republicans “are gearing up for a battle over Guantanamo Bay, as they seek to use an annual defense policy bill to crack down on President Obama's ability to close the facility.” Republican Senators have criticized the President for downplaying security risks posed by detainees in his efforts to close the detention facilities, according to the Hill.

Parting shot: After three top writers at one of Russia’s last independent media firms resigned last week and as more writers look to resign, the Guardian took an in-depth look at the systematic dismantling of Russia’s independent media. The Guardian writes that “since Putin began his re-election campaign in 2011, 12 prominent newsrooms have battled resignations, restrictions and closures.” That analysis here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Arun Mohan Sumukar asked where U.S.-India cyber relations are headed, arguing that the two countries must set their terms of cyber engagement.

Phil Walter highlighted the “incongruence of the stated policy, legal underpinnings, and facts on the ground in the U.S. fight against ISIS.”

Steve Vladeck considered how “misbegotten an experiment the Court of Military Commission Review has turned out to be.”

Suzanne Maloney argued that the Iran nuclear deal is working but that Tehran will have to give more to get more.

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