Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, October 15, 2015, 2:42 PM

America’s longest war just got a little bit longer (as seems to happen every 12 to 18 months).

Earlier today, President Obama announced that he will slow the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal and leave 5,500 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan following his departure from office. The force would remain at 9,800 through “most of 2016.” Under the new formulation, American operations will primarily consist of training and advising Afghan security personnel, paying particular attention to its counterterrorism forces. In addition, the United States will also maintain a significant counterterrorism capability of its own, including drones and special operations forces, in order to strike any militant groups that pose a threat to the United States.

A reversal of prior policy, “the move reflected a painful, if predictable, reality on the ground in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made gains over the last year as Afghan troops have taken over the vast majority of the fighting.” In his remarks, the president referred to Afghan forces' struggles with the resurgent Taliban as one of the reasons for the shift in policy. The decision comes after “an extensive months-long review that included regular discussions with Afghanistan’s leaders, his national security team and U.S. commanders in the field.” The New York Times has more on the decision.

The Times also reports that President Obama has ordered 300 American troops to Cameroon to aid in the fight against Boko Haram. According to the Washington Post, the troops will set up a drone base to provide “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” to aid Western African soldiers, but will refrain from engaging in more robust military action. The United States has been supporting the Nigerian government in its fight against the terrorist group, but is now ramping up its own efforts to confront Boko Haram.

For more breaking drone news, the Intercept has a visually impressive and information-rich collection of new and secret documents on the United States’ targeted killing program. Make sure to check out their series, “The Drone Papers.”

In light of continuing violence and newly introduced security measures, Jerusalem has become more polarized, the Times suggests. Haaretz also tells us that Israel will reduce gun regulations, thus overturning a "policy of recent years to limit civilian firearms possession." The Israeli government is encouraging citizens to "be vigilant" and to carry a gun if legally owned. Many view the move as likely to encourage instead of suppress the violence. State Department spokesman John Kirby cautioned Israel against the excessive use of force, sparking anger from Israeli politicians.

Al Jazeera writes that, in his first address to Palestinians since the beginning of the violence, “[President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud] Abbas said in a recorded televised speech he supported a ‘peaceful and popular’ struggle against Israel. Israeli politicians have accused Abbas of inciting violence after he suggested that a Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli police despite Israel’s assurance that the boy was alive and well in a hospital.

The United States continues to try to diffuse tensions as Washington fears further escalation. The Wall Street Journal tells us that Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit the region in hopes of renewing dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian officials and crafting the outline of a potential new peace plan. The State Department, however, has tried to lower expectations, noting that the talks are unlikely to lead to a peace process and are instead aimed at trying to “reduce the violence” and “restore some sense of calm.”  

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy asks if it is possible to prevent a Third Intifada and analyzes the recent violence, its underlying causes, and its implications. In considering the bleak outlook of the two-state solution and the political frustrations on both sides, FP writes that “perhaps the best way to describe the violence is, simply, ‘the future.’”

Syrian ground troops and Russian air forces have targeted rebel towns in northern Homs with “concentrated airstrikes and heavy preparatory artillery shelling on the terrorist groupings,” per Reuters. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the strikes have resulted in at least 25 civilian casualties. A Syrian military source quoted in the Reuters piece responded to the claims of civilian deaths by saying that “Syrian forces and Russian jets do not target areas where civilians are present” and by accusing “al Qaeda's wing in Syria, the Nusra Front, of carrying out a massacre on Thursday so it could blame the deaths on the bombardment.”

The Post reports that hundreds of Iranian troops from the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps have arrived in Aleppo for the coming assault. The direct deployment of troops represents a departure from Iran’s traditional provision of military advisors to the beleaguered Syrian forces. And the Long War Journal writes that, in a major turn of events, Quds force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani has been spotted “addressing Iranian military officers and members of Lebanese Hezbollah in western Syria.” While an Iranian news agency maintains that “only some Iranian military advisers, whose mission is to provide consultations and nothing more, are present in Syria,” thousands of Iranian troops are estimated to be in the country.  

The Journal writes that a Russian fighter jet approached a U.S. aircraft over the weekend for identification purposes, highlighting concerns over a potential conflict between U.S. and Russian aircraft. Despite the ongoing deconfliction discussions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lamented Western refusal for further cooperation suggesting that while “it’s hurtful,” Russia is “prepared to go much further, to coordinate much more deeply.”

The Times suggests that “the operation in Syria — still relatively limited — has become, in effect, a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational and defiant Russia under Mr. Putin” as Russia tests out their operational and military capabilities. Accordingly, Putin has used the conflict to demonstrate new weaponry, tactics, and strategy designed to underscore his accomplishments in reshaping the Russian military into a major power. The Times also updated their maps to show the locations that U.S. and Russian air strikes have targeted.

Amid fear over growing relations between the United States and Kurdish forces in Syria, Turkey voiced concern over what the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calls “any kind of cooperation with terror organizations that have declared war against Turkey.” Following reports of a U.S. airdrop of 50 tons of ammunition to Kurdish fighters in Syria, he suggested that any weapons supplied to Kurdish forces could be used against Turkey. The Times also reports on Turkey’s concern over the growing support for Kurdish forces, writing that “the United States has long backed the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., going back to the battle last year for the city of Kobani, but it now appears that Russia may be cozying up to the group.”

Defense One suggests that Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are pushing “the Pentagon to rewrite Its European playbook” in order to include new factors such as hybrid warfare and cyber challenges. Russia has also caused the Pentagon to revise its plan to reduce NATO troop levels in Europe. Instead, the Pentagon is “increasingly deploying forces to Europe on a temporary, rotational basis to train and exercise with NATO allies.”

And NATO itself might be looking to expand once again to include Montenegro, the Post tells us. NATO officials visited the Balkan country to determine whether the country has progressed on reforms necessary to join the alliance. For its part, the United States has suggested that it would back Montenegro’s bid to join NATO if the country can “show an improvement in its corruption problems and prove NATO membership enjoys popular support in the country.”

In light of the Dutch report that concluded that a Russian-manufactured missile was responsible for the downing of MH17, Ukrainian rebel leaders have unsurprisingly rejected the report, suggesting that it "hadn't been carried out properly at all." Read more at the BBC. 

From the Times: Iran’s Guardian Council approved the the nuclear deal concluded by the P5+1 and Tehran in July, setting the wheels in motion for the country to implement the deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani predicted that the process of modifying nuclear facilities to comply with the terms of the deal would take about two months. Following International Atomic Energy Agency verification that the necessary steps were completed, international nuclear sanctions against Iran will be lifted. Meanwhile, Reuters reports of French concern that Iran’s testing of a new long-range missile violated a U.N. resolution barring the country from testing and deploying new ballistic missile technology.

In another bit of troubling news, Radio Free Europe reports that China is seeking deeper military ties with Iran, after a senior admiral in the Chinese PLA met with Tehran’s defense minister “to further promote friendship, deepen cooperation, and exchange views with Iran on bilateral military ties and issues of mutual concern.”

And as tensions over China's artificial islands grow, the Times writes that “China is engaging in some serious image-building for its own military by hosting two international security forums this week.” Beijing will host its first ASEAN meeting and the Xiangshan Forum, where analysts and military leaders “will grapple with Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues and anti-terrorism.”

Defense One challenges the notion that Beijing’s recent hacking arrests will prevent cyber espionage, suggesting that “[Chinese President] Xi will call off the government hacking teams but turn a blind eye to closely-knit criminal groups doing the same work.

The government of Myanmar and eight ethnic rebel groups signed a ceasefire agreement designed to end over six decades of fighting that has cost thousands of lives, Al Jazeera reports. The agreement could help foster development in some of the regions particularly affected by the violence. The State Department suggested that the accord represents “a critical first step in a long process of building a sustainable and just peace in Burma,” according to Voice of America. Despite the progress, a handful of more powerful groups have not joined the pact, suggesting that fighting could continue.

According to the Times, the Obama administration is considering a deal with Pakistan designed to limit the latter's rapidly growing nuclear arsenal. According to U.S. officials, the administration may be open to relaxing restrictions on the sale of nuclear-related technology to Pakistan in exchange for limits on the deployment of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons similar to what the United States deployed in Europe to deter a potential Soviet invasion. The smaller weapons may be much harder to secure against falling into the wrong hands; they also complicate escalation control, in the event of a crisis on the sub-continent.

Yesterday, Assistant Attorney General John Carlin announced that the Department of Justice has created a new office to coordinate investigations into cases of domestic terrorism. Carlin said that the new office would “identify trends to help shape our strategy, and to analyze legal gaps or enhancements required to ensure we can combat these threats.” Carlin made clear that the new office comes as the FBI’s concern over inspired lone wolf attacks, as opposed to foreign directed attacks, grows in light of a spate of recent shootings around the country. The Hill has more.

The Hill also reports that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced an amendment to the upcoming Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA) that would increase the penalty for people convicted of acting as part of a conspiracy to spread a botnet. His amendment would allow prosecutors to seek up to 20 years for individuals who arm a computer connected to critical infrastructure.

Parting shot: Can’t find something to fill your time before the next season of Game of Thrones? Chinese bloggers bring us a modest recommendation: a 45-part drama on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s life in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. Enjoy!

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aaron Zelin shared the Jihadology Podcast, in which Will McCants makes an appearance to talk jihadi governance and his new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.

Stewart Baker brought us the latest Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast featuring Lawfare’s own Jack Goldsmith on cyber espionage, safe harbor, and how the globalized economy has tied U.S. government’s hands.  

Cody linked to the War Powers letter sent by President Obama informing Congress that he would deploy 300 U.S. soldiers to Cameroon to operate a drone base targeting Boko Haram.

David Forscey argued that it is time for Congress to declassify the legislative negotiations over the FISA Amendments Act.

Ben announced the addition of three new Lawfare contributors! While they shouldn’t be strangers to regular readers, please join us in welcoming Naz Modirzadeh, Nicholas Weaver, and Andrew Woods to the Lawfare Clubhouse.

And in that vein, Nick Weaver asked, “Can Technologists Talk Lawfare?,” answering that for the good of both policymakers and technology, it’s a conversation that necessary.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.