Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Staley Smith, Quinta Jurecic
Thursday, July 30, 2015, 2:51 PM

It’s official. Afghan Taliban sources have confirmed to Al Jazeera that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is dead. The U.S. government says it considers the report of Omar’s death to be credible. The Afghan intelligence service asserted yesterday that Omar died in a Karachi hospital more than two years ago. Earlier today, the ruling council elected Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the head of the Quetta Shura, to be the new “Commander of the Faithful in Afghanistan.”

The Pakistani government says it will postpone ongoing peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban in Afghanistan in light of the news. Afghani President Ashraf Ghani believes the death of Omar will strengthen conditions for a peace process that began in Islamabad earlier this month. However, the Afghan Taliban “said on Thursday they are “not aware” of a new round of peace talks due to begin on Friday in Pakistan — a statement indicating the group may be pulling out of the negotiations.” The group has been trying to overthrow the Afghan government since 2001.

The Washington Post reports that death of Mullah Mohammad Omar may be causing an internal conflict within the group and that “For many months, Taliban forces have been divided between factions and commanders who want to negotiate and those who want to keep fighting. Even as momentum for peace talks has built this summer, with several exploratory meetings in foreign countries, Taliban fighters have continued to wage an aggressive campaign of violent attacks across the country.”

Foreign Policy reveals that the United States put a $10 million bounty on Mullah Omar’s head following the September 11 attacks. The State Department claimed that he had sheltered Osama bin Laden and represented “a continuing threat to America and her allies.” It also questions why Kabul would announce the death of Mullah Omar at such a critical point in the peace process. Michael Semple of Politico discusses the far-reaching consequences for Afghan politics, observing that the “revelation of Mullah Omar’s fate constitutes an unprecedented threat to the unity of the Taliban.”

Secretary of State John Kerry crashed a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing yesterday, along with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Defense One notes that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the SASC, invited only Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, but Carter requested the presence of the three cabinet secretaries so that they could provide testimony on the technical details of the deal. All five Obama administration witnesses in attendance agreed that the deal “prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in a comprehensive and verifiable way,” according to Carter.

Foreign Policy suggests a discrepancy between the White House and Gen. Dempsey, who is against lifting sanctions on weapons and ballistic missile shipments to Iran. In response to a recent comment by President Obama that “Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East,” Gen. Dempsey clarified by saying that “at no time did that come up in our conversation, nor did I make that comment.”

Also in an interview with Al Jazeera, Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk put rumors to rest by admitting that Iran has in no way discontinued the military and civilian support it has extended to the Palestinian group for year. Al-Monitor indicates that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has, on top of supplying a “staggering quantity of weapons smuggled into Gaza,” the Iranian military is also providing “counseling, briefings and training for members of Hamas’ military wing, thus setting the movement’s tone and modus operandi for a very long time.”

Fighting continues in Yemen despite Sunday’s promise of a ceasefire, and bombing and airstrikes in the country are increasingly targeting hospitals and other civilian areas, endangering the humanitarian mission there. So says the head of Médecins Sans Frontières, who placed blame on both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition conducting airstrikes. In July, the United Nations designated Yemen as a humanitarian emergency of the highest level.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the rapidly shifting fortunes of Turkish Kurds, whose growing political power has been overshadowed by Turkey’s new efforts against the P.K.K. in Iraq. And over at Foreign Policy, Dov Zakheim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies studies the ins and outs of Turkey’s new military campaign. Ankara and Washington, he argues, are essentially at cross-purposes: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief goal is to defeat the Kurds, whereas President Obama’s sights are focused on ISIS.

If all this has got you confused, the BBC has a helpful explainer of Turkey’s relationships with various Kurdish groups and its role in the fight against ISIS.

The United Nations has once again proposed negotiations in Syria, the Times tells us. The prospective negotiations would not constitute formal peace talks but instead “preparatory discussions” with the goal of “stress-testing” willingness among the warring parties to reach a peace agreement. The Post examines what Syrians themselves think of the proposed talks and finds that about half believe that negotiations could end the conflict, though Sunnis, Islamists, and young people are far more likely to oppose talks.

The Syrian government has accused Israel of conducting an airstrike against pro-government troops in Syria. Three soldiers were killed in the strike.

The faltering U.S. training program for moderate Syrian rebels has suffered yet another setback: the Nusra Front has kidnapped the commanders of a U.S.-trained rebel faction. According to the Telegraph, the fighters were abducted on their way back from a meeting of various rebel factions hoping to collaborate in fighting ISIS. Estimates of the number of fighters kidnapped range from 7 to 18, but one thing is clear: whatever the number, it’s an unfortunately high proportion of the 54 total fighters trained by the U.S. so far.

Though the U.S. government has planned to provide Iraq with 3,000 MRAP fighting vehicles, Iraqi forces have accepted only 300. U.S. News investigates the strange situation: “why would an army at war not accept a free upgrade?” The apparent problem may stem from either bureaucratic inefficiency or Iraqi efforts to “play hardball” and get more out of the United States in the future.

Kuwait has identified a cell of Kuwaiti citizens involved with ISIS activities. According to the AP, one of the members of the cell was killed in Iraq and the others are currently in custody. A recent ISIS suicide bombing of a Kuwaiti mosque has placed the country on high alert for ISIS’s presence within the country.

The Daily Beast reports on three young Chechen women who turned ISIS’s online recruiting system into a money-making scheme. The women, who had been contacted by ISIS recruiters, made over three thousand dollars by asking for wire transfers to ease their travel to ISIS-held territory and then cutting off contact with the recruiters. They were recently detained by Chechen authorities on charges of fraud.

Egypt will soon receive a delivery of eight F-16 fighter jets from Washington, Reuters tells us. The shipment will arrive a few months after President Obama’s removal of restrictions on arms supplies to the country in the wake of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s rise to power.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has mustered a coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian paper This Day Live writes. The coalition force will be based in Chad’s capital and will be operational by next month. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Air Force announced success in blocking Boko Haram’s access to “petroleum products and other materials” through patrols along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

This morning, India executed Yakub Memon, a major conspirator in the 1993 terror attacks that struck Mumbai, killing over 250 people. Memon had spent over two decades in prison. The Journal reports that the execution is a rare one for India, where the death penalty has been used only three times in the past fifteen years.

China continues its island-building projects in the South China Sea, dredging reefs in the South Philippine Sea to produce material for the construction of further islands. Yet according to China, it’s the United States who is “militarizing” the region with the use of air patrols and military drills---though China welcomes U.S. officials to fly over the sea in order to “enjoy its beauty.” Reuters has the story.

In a move surprising to no one, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations vetoed a Security Council resolution to establish a criminal tribunal investigating the Malaysia Airlines crash over Ukraine. Time reports that, according to the Kremlin, the establishment of a tribunal would be “inexpedient.” But U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he will push for the creation of a tribunal through an alternate route independent of the Security Council.

Defense One weighs in on speculation that Europe and the United States may have “sold out” Ukraine in order to ensure the Kremlin’s support on the nuclear deal with Iran. While cooperation with the United States has granted Russia a few more footholds in Ukraine, these small advantages hardly constitute a selling-out. Foreign Policy also examines the complicated relationship between Russia and the United States in terms of Ukraine, Iran, and Syria.

A pro-Kremlin hacker group has begun using a powerful new piece of malware against the West, Foreign Policy writes. The “cyber-espionage gang” APT29 is using the malware, named HAMMERTOSS, to attack targets ranging from governments to media organizations---though the cybersecurity firm that released the news has declined to identify the targets by name.

A Bureau of Investigative Journalism report examines the Pentagon’s use of private contractors to help fly drones. The operation of a single drone requires an extensive crew, and a short-staffed military has turned to contractors to analyze surveillance feeds. While the story doesn’t explicitly indicate whether the number of contractors working on drones has increased in recent years, the Bureau’s reporting brings up the tail on a series of recent reports on the military’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining drone pilots---suggesting that the Air Force may be looking to contractors as one possible solution to its staffing woes.

Google has rejected a ruling of the French data protection authority that would require the company to comply with the European “right to be forgotten” worldwide, removing search results worldwide rather than only on European or French subsidiaries of Google. The company released a statement declaring Google’s refusal to accept “the idea that a national data protection authority can assert global authority to control the content that people can access around the world.” The Guardian has the story.

Parting shot: As the crisis in Syria drags on, the number of displaced Syrians keeps going up and refugee camps continue to grow. This interactive graphic shows the astonishing expansion of the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan from 2012 to 2015.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Andrew Kent alerted us to his new article in the Columbia Law Review on the disappearance of the “legal black holes” that have long characterized both U.S. and international law.

Ashley Deeks pondered news of U.S. airstrikes conducted against al Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, asking the question: “is there a new legal theory supporting U.S. airstrikes against al Shabaab?”

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