Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic
Friday, December 2, 2016, 2:37 PM

President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine General James Mattis as his Secretary of Defense, the Washington Post reports. Commentators on both sides of the aisle have hailed Mattis as a potentially heartening pick and a firm hand on the tiller amidst the uncertainty of the new administration. The general, known for his aggressive approach, previously led U.S. Central Command from 2010 and 2013 before retiring over disagreements with the Obama administration over how best to handle Iran. Mattis disagrees with many of Trump’s apparent policies, taking a hawkish approach to Russia, rejecting torture, and supporting maintenance of the nuclear deal with Iran. The Times has more.

But there’s a hitch. For Mattis to be confirmed, Congress will need to pass a waiver to a statutory restriction on military officers holding the Secretary of Defense position less than seven years after retirement, which exists to maintain civilian control of the military. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has promised to oppose the necessary legislation on these grounds, the Hill tells us.

Meanwhile, Trump’s freewheeling comments to foreign leaders following his election have already sparked concern among diplomats both at home and abroad, the Times writes. Most recently, he reportedly invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—who has been hostile to the United States and has faced international criticism for his encouragement of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines amidst a crackdown on drugs—to the White House.

The Pentagon has increased its estimate of civilian casualties from U.S. coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria from March to October, tallying 54 more deaths and bringing the total number of civilian dead to 173. Despite the revised estimate, the Post reports that advocacy groups still believe that the United States is undercounting reports of casualties provided by on-the-ground media and activists—particularly those civilian deaths linked to the Raqqa offensive, of which the Pentagon has acknowledged only eight.

Turkey’s foreign minister has called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria as the situation in Aleppo worsens, declaring President Bashar al-Assad unfit to rule, Reuters writes. Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicated that Turkish officials have been in contact with leaders from Russia, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon about bringing a halt to the fighting, though a meeting between Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week failed to bring about concrete results.

Iraqi special forces have gained full control of a new neighborhood in Mosul, bringing the total of neighborhoods under coalition control to 23 in the battle to take back the city from the Islamic State. The troops entered the Zohour neighborhood over a week ago, but the dense urban landscape and large civilian population made regaining the territory difficult.

ISIS has used over 600 car bombs against coalition forces in Mosul since the battle began six weeks ago, the Post tells us. The group has turned to car bombs as a major tool in the urban fight against Iraqi forces and their allies, which have struggled to counter the Islamic State while shielding civilians from fighting. Reuters reports that amidst anxiety over high civilian casualties, Iraqi forces considered changing their strategy to recommend that civilians flee rather than take shelter within Mosul—a sign of frustration with slowing progress in retaking the city.

The Islamic State is advising its fighters to cease communicating through encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Telegram out of fear that the U.S.-led coalition is using the apps to locate and target militants in Iraq and Syria. Reuters writes that even the phones used to send such messages are viewed as increasingly risky: a weekly ISIS online newspaper recently advised fighters to turn off their phones before entering Islamic State bases, writing, “As long as it has power, the phone is spying on you.”

The Times examines the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. With ten percent of Afghan territory controlled by a resurgent Taliban and another 30 percent ungoverned by any one group, U.S. and Afghan officials are concerned that the emerging power vacuum may offer a space for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups to gain influence within Afghanistan and potentially craft alliances with Taliban forces. The concern is magnified by reports that the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have become more open to working with ISIS in certain parts of Afghanistan, while the Islamic State simultaneously battles the Taliban elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, the AP reports that Taliban fighters killed 23 citizens in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province over the last two days.

Violence has broken out in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Reuters tells us. The city is effectively controlled by a patchwork of militia groups that routinely spar with one another, but recent reports of heavy fire and armed convoys indicate more intense fighting than usual. The source of the fighting remains unclear.

According to a new Europol report, ISIS attacks within Europe are increasingly aimed at soft targets rather than at police or military forces, the Wall Street Journal writes. The report warns that European states should be vigilant for potential attacks attempted not only by lone wolves, but also by networks of ISIS sympathizers.

The Times takes a look at the life of Abdul Razak Artan, the Ohio State University student and Somali refugee who was killed by police after attacking bystanders on university grounds this Monday. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, as it often does after similar incidents, Artan’s social media posts indicate that he may have been inspired by either ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated cleric and propaganda Anwar al-Awlaki, or both.

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to extend presidential authority to impose sanctions on Iran for another ten years yesterday, affirming the House’s approval of the legislation in November, the Times reports. The Iranian government stated that the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act constitutes a violation of the terms of the nuclear deal, though the ISA does not itself impose new sanctions. The White House has indicated that President Obama will not veto the legislation.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Matt Tait argued that concerns over the rule of law under Donald Trump should lead us to support, not reject, exceptional access for law enforcement.

Benjamin Wittes responded to Jack Goldsmith’s essay on “libertarian panic” with a defense of his own panic over Trump.

Ben also posted Rational Security, the “Who Wants to be a Secretary of State Edition.”

Susan Landau criticized the Rule 41 change expanding the FBI’s ability to obtain search warrants for computers whose location has been concealed by technical means.

Susan Hennessey also weighed in on Rule 41, arguing that the resolution of this procedural debate allows us to turn to more substantive concerns.

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