Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 2:38 PM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party scored a decisive victory in yesterday’s Israeli election, setting the stage for him to serve a third consecutive---and fourth overall---term as prime minister. Although early exit polls showed a close race between Likud and the opposition Zionist Union alliance, official vote tallies showed Likud winning likely 30 seats in the Knesset to the Zionist Union’s 24. Prime Minister Netanyahu will now work to form a coalition of mostly right-wing and Orthodox parties. “Our country’s everyday reality doesn’t give us the luxury for delay,” he said in a statement. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters all cover the election.

But many worry how Netanyahu’s campaign tactics---which included a last-minute pronouncement that no Palestinian nation will be formed under his premiership and an ominous election-day warning that “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations”---will affect Israel going forward. Reuters reports that the European Union quickly expressed hope that the new government will help relaunch the Palestinian peace process, but the Wall Street Journal notes that Palestinian officials showed little interest in working with the Israeli government. “Israel has chosen Apartheid rather than peace, thus bringing an end to the peace camp in Palestine,” said one Palestinian politician. An adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, “Netanyahu’s statements regarding our future should only motivate us to continue our struggle” in international fora.

Netanyahu’s strategy, which one Israeli academic described as “a scorched-earth policy to stay in power,” also risks further damaging U.S.-Israeli relations. Jonathan Alter, at the Daily Beast, writes that Netanyahu’s accusation of American meddling in the election, along with the aforementioned tactics, may convince the United States to occasionally refuse to exercise the veto power it holds in the U.N. Security Council that has thus far protected Israel from some international pressure over the Palestinian issue. Politico’s Michael Crowley adds that “Netanyahu’s relations with Obama are likely to resume at their lowest point yet.”

Iraq’s fight against ISIS, and that campaign’s reliance on Shiite militias, appears to be exacerbating sectarian animosity in the country. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (as recounted in this Times piece), Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias looted and razed Sunni dwellings in the town of Amerli after they succeeded in driving out ISIS militants. In a long-form article for Rolling Stone, Matthieu Aikins describes the rise of these brutal Shiite militias.

A truck bomb went off in Iraq near the border with Kuwait yesterday, killing three Iraqis and wounding five others. According to one witness, the truck bore license plates from Anbar province, a center of ISIS activity. Reuters covers the attack.

A U.S. drone has been lost in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, in a government-held region far from the ISIS-held regions over which American planes and drones usually operate. A Syrian state-run news agency claimed that Syrian air defenses had shot down the aircraft, though U.S. officials offered no information on how the military lost contact with the drone, nor did they choose to clarify what it was doing in the government’s coastal stronghold. The Wall Street Journal has more.

This development coincides with an ongoing effort by U.S. officials to reassure allies about its stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Reuters reports that the U.S. official tasked with organizing the coalition fighting ISIS, General John Allen, told Turkish officials yesterday that the United States remains committed to finding a resolution to the Syrian civil war that does not include President Assad.

The U.N. investigators tasked with identifying perpetrators of war crimes in the Syrian civil war announced yesterday that they will release the names of suspected war criminals to judicial officials in countries preparing to prosecute the criminals. While U.N. officials called the move a step on the way to accountability, it represents a retreat from a plan announced earlier to publish the confidential names publicly. The Times has more.

Fighting resumed yesterday in the Libyan city of Surt, the Times reports. Militants aligned with ISIS set up shop there two months ago and a militant group from the neighboring city of Misurata is now trying to drive them out, though the Misurata brigade had been camped outside for two weeks before yesterday’s conflict. Reports did not indicate why fighting broke out now, but noted that prominent Tunisian militant Ahmed al-Ruwaysi was reportedly killed in the clashes.

Finally, the Times brings us news that an Air Force veteran from New Jersey has been charged with trying to support ISIS by seeking to join the militant group. A convert to Islam, Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh left for Syria in January after losing his job, but was stopped when he tried to enter Turkey. Pugh has also been charged with obstruction of justice after the hard drives on his media devices were damaged in an apparent effort to wipe them clean after being expelled from Turkey.

Militants have stormed a museum in the Tunisian capital of Tunis today, killing 19 people, including 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians, Reuters reports. The attack killed visitors from Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain. According to a government spokesman, security forces have stormed the museum, killing two militants and freeing the hostages inside.

The Pentagon has lost track of more than $500 million worth of military aid to Yemen, the Washington Post reveals. As the country has descended into turmoil, the U.S. government has been unable to track weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and other military goods provided to the Yemeni government; presumably, the equipment is vulnerable to theft by Iranian-backed rebels and al Qaeda militants. The Post provides a helpful graphic showing some of what has been delivered to Yemen since 2010.

In Pakistan’s tribal Khyber region, a series of Pakistani airstrikes killed 34 militants, according to the Pakistani army. The Wall Street Journal reveals that the airstrikes hit Tirah Valley, a region home to militants from both the Pakistani Taliban and the allied group Lashkar-e-Islam.

The Wall Street Journal also notes that, elsewhere in Pakistan, the lawyer who once represented the doctor who supposedly helped lead the CIA to Osama bin Laden has been shot to death. Samiullah Afridi, who fled Pakistan in 2013 after receiving death threats but returned last year, was gunned down in Peshawar yesterday.

A car bomb detonated outside the governor’s compound in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province earlier today, according to the Associated Press. The Wall Street Journal describes the attack as an “apparent show of force by Taliban insurgents” who are under increased pressure from Afghan security forces.

The Times describes the marginalization of Afghanistan’s First Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, in the government’s decision-making process. Dostum, a former warlord accused by some of war crimes, secured the Uzbek vote for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani but has apparently become increasingly disgruntled with his minor role in the government.

Yesterday, the Islamic State in “Khorasan Province,” the group's name for Afghanistan, released a 12-minute eulogy marking the death of Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who is believed to have been the deputy commander for the group’s operations in the country. According to the Long War Journal, the video included a short biography of Khadim and, in a sign of growing tensions between jihadists groups, also condemned the Afghan Taliban for “banning lessons in the creed of Islamic monotheism.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met for six hours yesterday in Switzerland to discuss a possible deal on Iran’s nuclear program, the Post notes. The Times adds that Iranian and U.S. officials expressed differing levels of confidence in the prospects of reaching a deal before a self-imposed deadline this month. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said that 90 percent of the technical issues had been resolved, while an American official said, “There is no way around it: We still have a ways to go.”

Back on U.S. soil, the Obama administration is imploring Democratic lawmakers not to vote for a bill, currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that would allow Congress to vote on any nuclear deal the administration reaches with Iran. According to Politico, the pressure is coming from the highest-ranking members of the administration, including the President himself. However, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), expressed optimism that the bill will move forward successfully, the Hill notes. That said, Corker himself is in a bit of a bind. Politico describes his efforts to court Democratic support for the bill against the backdrop of vitriolic Republican opposition to the Democratic administration.

According to the Nigerian military, Boko Haram has been driven out of Bama, a strategic town in the northeastern state of Borno. The BBC reports that the militant group was also reportedly driven out of its last base in the neighboring state of Yobe.

The Pentagon is delaying a plan to train Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, announced yesterday. The Wall Street Journal explains that the delay is meant to avoid giving the Kremlin an excuse to ignore the ceasefire agreed to last month. That agreement, however, appears increasingly tenuous. Reuters reveals that Russian and Ukrainian officials are fighting over a Ukrainian plan to grant some autonomy to Ukraine’s restive eastern regions, while yet another Ukrainian soldier was killed in rebel attacks, according to the Ukrainian military.

A new official Chinese report on its military strategy admits, for the first time, that it employs units solely dedicated to offensive cyber activities. The admission is especially remarkable because, as recently as a month ago, the Chinese government was still denying that it even had a cyber command. At the Daily Beast, Shane Harris covers the new report and its implications.

South Korea has blamed North Korea for a series of cyber attacks that were launched in December against its nuclear reactor, though North Korea denies any involvement. Reuters explains that South Korea’s accusation is based on evidence regarding the Internet addresses used in the attacks.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released the final text of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a bill meant to facilitate the sharing of cybersecurity information between the public and private sectors. The Hill has more, including the text of the bill.

The third round of negotiations on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba ended yesterday, the Times notes. The talks, which began on Monday, produced no breakthroughs, calling into question whether the two sides can establish embassies before the Summit of the Americas in early April.

In an attempt to satisfy both fiscal and defense hawks, the new Republican budget proposes to double war funding. Foreign Policy’s Kate Brannen writes that the budget includes $94 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is not subject to the limits imposed in the Budget Control Act, despite the fact that the Pentagon requested just $51 billion. Gordon Adams, who served as a budget official for national security in the Clinton White House, described the move thus: “In effect, the House Budget Committee is proposing to have their fiscal discipline and eat their defense increase at the same time.”

The NSA’s top lawyer is stepping down, the Post reports. Rajesh De, who became the Agency’s general counsel in 2012, will be joining the law firm Mayer Brown. We wish Raj good luck in his new position.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

As Israelis went to the polls yesterday, Yishai discussed Netanyahu’s supposed reversal on the issue of a Palestinian state and argued that, in fact, his statement simply reiterated a position he has held for some time. The Israeli elections also came up, among other things, in the newest episode of the Rational Security podcast (Episode #11), which Ben posted.

In response to a New York Times editorial on the Petraeus plea deal, Ben noted that the editorial appears to accuse General Petraeus---without supporting evidence---of a separate “crime spree” relating to the General's supposed looseness with classified information.

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