Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Staley Smith
Friday, August 14, 2015, 2:24 PM

ISIS may have used chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports. On Wednesday, Peshmerga fighters southwest of Erbil reported injuries “consistent with a chemical attack,” most likely a mustard agent. While U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected ISIS to have a small supply of the agent before this week, the attack on the Peshmerga is the first documented use of mustard by ISIS fighters---though officials also suspect ISIS of having used chlorine gas. The Journal writes that ISIS may have obtained the agent from stockpiles left behind from the days of Saddam Hussein, or from supplies that the Syrian government had failed to destroy under the terms of an international agreement.

The main benefit of mustard agent for ISIS may be the ability of chemical weapons to inspire fear, the Journal suggests. And over at Defense One, Roxane L. Euben points to another front in ISIS’s skilled propaganda and terror campaign: namely, the group’s use of violent execution videos not only to frighten enemies, but to recruit young, disaffected men.

Fighting continues around the Iraqi town of Baiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery---and hence a major prize for whatever side can hold on to it. With control of the town and the refinery up in the air, ISIS fighters launched an offensive against the Iraqi military and Shiite militias this morning. Reuters has more.

Near Fallujah, airstrikes have destroyed an ISIS-held hospital, killing and wounding over 50 civilians. The AP writes that local officials blamed the Iraqi military for the attack. But a military spokesman rejected the accusation, saying that “we have specific instructions to avoid hitting any targets that provide services to the civilians."

Kuwait has been on edge over the threat of terrorism since a recent ISIS suicide bombing targeted a Shiite mosque in the country’s capital. And it’s looking like Kuwaiti authorities’ worries will probably not be calmed any time soon: Officials have seized an enormous arms cache that appears to have been smuggled over the border with Iraq and held by a group linked to Hezbollah. According to Reuters, the cache contained 42,000 pounds of ammunition.

Members of a Salafist group have clashed with ISIS fighters in the city of Sirte in central Libya, only to be driven out of a district recaptured by ISIS, Reuters reports. ISIS gained control of the city in early February, but local fighters struck back earlier this week. Sirte is the hometown of the former Libyan strongman Muammar Ghaddafi, whose death in the Arab Spring contributed to the chaos currently roiling Libya.

A ceasefire agreement that took hold earlier this week in three Syrian towns has been extended until Sunday. The ceasefire, which was reached between anti-government rebels and the Syrian government, along with allied Hezbollah forces, will allow civilians to be evacuated from two of the towns. Negotiations will also focus on a possible rebel withdrawal from the third town, the southwestern city of Zabadani.

According to a U.S. general stationed in Kabul, ISIS may be expanding its presence in Afghanistan. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner stated that while ISIS’s “capabilities” in Afghanistan are increasing, the militant group has not yet reached the point where it can coordinate a campaign on the level of its operations in Syria and Iraq---”although we do note the potential for them to evolve into something more serious.” The AP has the story.

The Hill updates us on the status of the nuclear deal with Iran in the Senate. On Thursday, two Democrats---Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Al Franken (D-MN)---came out in support of the deal, which the White House hopes will add to the pro-agreement momentum.

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussein extended an offer to India to negotiate over the disputed territories in Kashmir, the AP writes. Pakistan believes in a “peaceful co-existence” with its neighbor, the president stated in a televised address, despite the decades of testy relations between the two countries.

Last March, Ukraine announced an ambitious plan to build an extensive border security system along the frontier with Russia. Yet the AFP tells us that the system has yet to materialize in any real sense, hampered by prohibitive costs and a labyrinthine bureaucracy. The Ukrainian-Russian border stretches across roughly 1,200 miles, of which about 250 miles have been lost to separatist control.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific Theater, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commemorated the occasion with a highly anticipated speech. Yet while Prime Minister Abe acknowledged that Japan “took the wrong course” and pointed to previous Japanese expressions of “deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” he declined to add any apologies of his own, instead stating that “we must not let… further generations to come, who have nothing to do with the war, be predestined to apologize.” The New York Times reports that Abe’s comparative lack of contrition may mark a new turn in Japan’s uncertain relationship with its past.

Abe has been criticized for his departure from Japan’s post-World War II tradition of pacifism, instead moving to revitalize the Japanese military and take a less contrite approach toward Japan’s history. Earlier this week, Denny Roy of the East-West center weighed in on Abe and how Japan’s behavior, past and present, affects politics with its East Asian neighbors.

Speaking of those neighbors: after two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded by explosions from mines laid along the border between the Koreas, North Korea has now denied any involvement in laying the mines. The Journal writes that Pyongyang instead suggested the mines to be a South Korean ploy, despite a U.N. investigation to the contrary. In response, Seoul has resumed the anti-Pyongyang cross-border broadcasts that it had previously halted in 2004.

Interactions between Chinese and U.S. military officials will now face a new set of constraints, Defense News tells us. Chinese personnel are now prohibited from Pentagon laboratories, and discussion of nuclear, surveillance, and other advanced-capability operations are off the table, along with a long list of other potentially sensitive topics.

The Washington Post announces that the American flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Cuba earlier today. The three U.S. Marines who last lowered the had lowered the flag at the Embassy in Havana in 1961 presented a new flag to be raised by the Marines now assigned to the diplomatic post. In a speech at ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States remains “convinced that the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy.”

Over at the Guardian, Spencer Ackerman alerts us that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, backed by high-ranking military officers, is blocking the return of British citizen Shaker Aamer and two other longtime Guantánamo Bay detainees---all of whom have been recommended for transfer at one point or another.

"Enhanced interrogation" techniques have become a hot topic among 2016 presidential candidates. Defense One reports that Republican candidate Jeb Bush “won’t commit” to continuing the Obama administration’s ban on the enhanced interrogation. Bush was careful with his words, adding that “When you’re president your words matter, and I’m cautious about making commitments without having all the facts because this is a serious one.” He also clarified that “There’s a difference between enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. America doesn’t do torture.”

Following the events in Ferguson one year ago, questions arose about the about how the Pentagon distributes unused gear and weapons to local law enforcement agencies. The Post brings us news that new guidelines tightening the program are set to come into effect. The Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, often known as the 1033 Program, has distributed more than $5.1 billion in military equipment to some 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies since it was established in 1997.

The BBC reports that an Android update designed to fix a security hole in the operating system is itself flawed. A vulnerability in the Android software was revealed by technology researchers in July. Google subsequently designed a patch to fix the defect but security company Exodus Intelligence claims it’s able to bypass the fix. It went on to say that the patch could give people a "false sense of security".

The AP alerted us to a drug-smuggling operation conducted across the U.S.-Mexico border by drone. “With border security tight, drug traffickers have thought of every conceivable method to move their drugs over, under and through the border,” says a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California---including, apparently, the use of a drone to transport nearly 29 pounds of heroin into California.

Parting shot: A squadron of drones, flying from “strategic stations” around a national capital. Counterterrorism operation? Libertarian nightmare? Neither---it’s a worthwhile Canadian initiative to use drone technology to clear Ottawa of those pesky Canadian geese.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

A helpful reader alerted us a last minute addition to the Carper CISA amendment authorizing DHS Einstein, which requires the DNI to identify security risks posed by unclassified databases. Paul Rosenzweig asks: Coincidence or Lawfare readers in our midst?

Cody pondered the United States' failed efforts to train---and defend---Syrian rebels.

Bruce Riedel announced that al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahri, has resurfaced in a new video message.

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