Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Wednesday, April 22, 2015, 1:51 PM

Just hours after Saudi Arabia announced the end of its bombing campaign in Yemen, planes from the Saudi-led coalition carried out a fresh round of airstrikes. Reuters reports that an airstrike hit Taiz shortly after Houthi rebels captured a military brigade there. The New York Times adds that this airstrike calls into question whether the Saudi announcement will lead to a broader ceasefire. Anti-Houthi militias in southern Yemen announced that they would continue fighting despite the supposed end of air support from the Saudi coalition, and, indeed, Reuters reports fighting across much of southern Yemen today.

The Times writes that, according to U.S. officials, the Saudi announcement came as a result of pressure from the Obama administration to stop the bombing runs. The campaign, to which the United States has provided logistical and intelligence support, has been roundly criticized for killing civilians and lacking a clear military objective. Moreover, after 26 days, it’s still unclear how much the campaign has actually accomplished. At the start of the campaign, the Saudi ambassador to the United States claimed that “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen.” However, at the time of yesterday’s announcement, Yemen’s president was still in Saudi Arabia and there was no evidence that Houthis had withdrawn from captured territory.

While the Obama administration presses for the conclusion of one air operation, U.S. senators are pressing it to open another. According to Reuters, a bipartisan group of senators have called on the president to use air assets and other “necessary enforcement mechanisms” to establish humanitarian safe zones in Syria. Yet, while senators push for a larger response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, lawmakers are still "not close to a consensus” on an AUMF for ISIS, says Sen. Ben Cardin. The Hill has more.

Despite the congressional impasse in the push for an authorization for the fight against ISIS, the U.S.-led campaign is forcing ISIS to “reallocate their resources” to Syria, according to a U.S. military official. The Hill reports that Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, chief of staff for the military task force against ISIS, said in a Pentagon news report yesterday that “as ISIL has been degraded within Iraq, that they have been moving heavy equipment and personnel into Syria.”

Yet, the Daily Beast informs us that the Pentagon’s map of ISIS locations leaves a bit to be desired. According to several experts on the militant group, the Pentagon’s rendering excludes any information as to where ISIS may have actually gained territory since the coalition strikes began---instead only displaying territory currently dominated by ISIS and territory previously lost by it. Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center likewise observed that the map “ =fails to specifically identify territory gained by ISIS during the same period.” The map also does not reveal where ISIS can still conduct offensive operations. Indeed, according to Lister, this latter factor will influence opinions among local actors as to whether ISIS is losing or not.

And, while long-term success of the campaign against ISIS in Iraq will require local Sunni support, those Sunnis courted by Baghdad face a difficult dilemma. They can support a brutal militancy made up of fellow Sunnis or side with a Shiite government that many Sunnis feel abandoned them and fear will do so again. The Associated Press describes the struggles of one Sunni group facing that choice.

The Afghan Taliban announced today that it will begin its spring offensive this Friday, Reuters reports. The AP notes that this will be the first time Afghan security forces will confront the yearly offensive without NATO troops on the battlefield. Attacks have already ramped up in parts of the country in a prelude to the coming fighting season.

These attacks now appear to include a suicide bombing in Jalalabad that killed at least 35 Afghans last Saturday. Nancy Youssef writes that, while ISIS originally claimed responsibility for the bombing, which killed mostly poor Afghans and sparked outrage in the country, the group is now claiming that it had no part in the attack. At least one U.S. official seemed to concur, noting that Jalalabad is under significant Taliban influence and that the attack mirrored earlier Taliban attacks in the area. The revelation comes as the Afghan Taliban, according to some, tries to match ISIS’s brutality. The Times describes a recent wave of Taliban kidnappings and beheadings---not a normal Taliban tactic---of Hazaras, a persecuted minority in the country. One Hazara lawmaker described the new tactics thus: “The Taliban are trying to send out a new message that they are similar in their brutality to ISIS. They’re trying to show they are as bad as ISIS.”

More from yesterday’s big announcement that China will finance $46 billion of infrastructure development in Pakistan. Today, Pakistan announced that it will create a 12,000 strong security force specifically designed to protect the Chinese workers and engineers that will construct the projects. The latter are expected to run through some of Pakistan’s most dangerous provinces. And, while the security force will stand guard against these threats, one Chinese expert said, “To really solve the problem, the entire security situation in Pakistan needs to improve.” The Wall Street Journal has more.

Speaking of security infrastructure: the Times brings us news that Kenya is planning to construct an enormous barrier along its 424-mile border with Somalia. The planned wall will consist of fences, ditches, and observation posts and is intended to keep al-Shabaab militants out of the country. However, the Times notes that the project has stirred debate among locals and human rights groups who say that the border does not mean much in the area, with students, merchants, and goods flowing back and forth between Kenya and Somalia. Many fear a security wall would stall trade while failing to address the extremism brewing in Kenya itself.

According to the Washington Post, U.S. senators have cut a deal that will allow the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, to move forward. Lynch could be confirmed as early as Thursday.

Last night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill that would reauthorize the government’s Section 215 surveillance authority through 2020. That authority, which is set to expire June 1, provides the basis for the controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. The Post writes that the introduction of a clean reauthorization bill comes as a group of lawmakers is preparing to reintroduce the USA Freedom Act, which would end bulk collection of phone records.

That group of lawmakers includes key Republicans in the House, indicating a split within the Republican party over bulk collection that, Politico writes, threatens to prevent the passage of any Section 215 legislation before the June 1 sunset. Indeed, the Hill adds that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), may emerge as a roadblock to the reintroduced Freedom Act in the Senate.

Yesterday, the White House officially extended its support for two major cybersecurity bills that will incentivize information sharing on cyberthreats between private companies and the government. The bills are set to be voted on in the House this week. The Hill has more.

Reuters reports that a South Carolina teen was sentenced on Tuesday to five years in juvenile prison on a gun possession charge related to suspected terrorist activities. The 16-year-old was “seduced” by the Islamic State, according to a prosecutor, and had planned to rob a gun store and then shoot U.S. soldiers in neighboring North Carolina.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aurel Sari and Noëlle Quénivet responded to a recent report by a British think-tank claiming that “judicial imperialism is defeating the British armed forces.”

Ben gave us his take on the fracas surrounding Harold Koh’s visiting professorship at NYU’s law school.

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