Are the stars shining in Kuwait?; A ceasefire grows more fragile; Houthis appoint new leadership; Carter channels Perry; Who’s John Allen? And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold and Ben Watson

February 23, 2015

There are more stars here in Kuwait than were on the red carpet in LA last night. We’re with Defense Secretary Ash Carter for the final leg of his five-day trip, and we’re coming at you today from Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, where Carter is holding a big meeting with all the big brains of the military and diplomatic communities to talk U.S. strategy against ISIL. The group includes combatant commanders, senior defense policy officials, other two- and three-stars, ambassadors, senior State Department personnel and a few straphangers.

Carter, at the kickoff of the meeting, before the press was shooed out: “This is team America.” A pic from inside the meeting, here.

As we reported yesterday, the meeting isn’t expected to have big “fancy deliverables,” as a senior defense official briefing reporters yesterday said. The idea is to help Carter, the Pentagon’s former No. 2 who left the department in 2013, get his head around the myriad issues he is confronting as the U.S.-led coalition mounts a successful campaign against ISIL. But a senior defense official said yesterday there should be no expectation that a game plan should emerge from today’s talks – or that the current strategy is going to be overhauled.

But Carter wants a “lasting” defeat of ISIL. Before the meeting here at Arifjan, Carter met with soldiers here on the base, where he told them: “What we discuss here and what I learn here will be important to me as I formulate our own direction in this campaign and as I help the president to lead it.”

Where’s my fleece? If Carter and company want to freeze out the enemy, they picked the right conference room. All the stars and top diplomats and policy officials there seemed to be shaking cold in the highly air-conditioned room.

Earlier today here at Camp Arijfan, Carter hosted a town hall-style troop meeting and was asked about committing boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Carter dodged the question, saying that was one of the things he wanted to learn more about by holding the big meeting today. “I don’t have a good answer for you right now,” Carter said, adding: “That’s one of the things I want to climb on top of.”

He added: “What I would say to you is we’ll do what it takes to defeat ISIL. We’ll do what it takes to get success.”

Later during the same town hall, he was asked “what it would take” for him to decide to recommend committing “boots on the ground” for the war against ISIL. Carter replied: “Like any tool we use to complete the defeat of ISIL, we have to be convinced that any use of our forces is necessary, is going to be sufficient, that we’ve thought through not just the first step but the second step and the third step… We have to make sure we think things through several steps in advance. That’s difficult to do.”

Speaking of those second and third order effects: Read Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake’s bit on why rushing into Mosul could be a disaster for Obama, here.

Speaking of dodging, we’re told there’s a huge dodgeball tourney happening here on the base the same day as the meeting with Carter, the top brass and top intel and diplomatic officials.

Speaking of boots on the ground, the WaPo’s @CraigmWhitlock noticed a T-shirt for sale here at the PX at Arifjan. It reads: “Boots on the Ground: Till They’re Needed No More.”

More of what we reported yesterday about Carter’s consultation meeting in Sunday’s special edition D Brief, here.

France has deployed a carrier in the Gulf as part of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq. AFP: “‘The integration of the Charles de Gaulle in the operation … [in Iraq] begins this morning,’ a member of staff of the defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told AFP as his entourage made its way to the carrier.

The first Rafale fighter jet took off on Monday morning from the Charles de Gaulle as it sailed about 120 miles off the coast north of Bahrain in the direction of Iraq. The warship’s deployment will halve the time it takes for the planes to reach Iraq for strikes against Isis from their base in the United Arab Emirates. France launched Operation Chammal in support of the US-led coalition against Isis in September.” More here.

More trip notes, including on why situational awareness is a good thing at Arifjan, and what Bill Perry means to Ash Carter, if you scroll below.

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Ukraine’s ceasefire is in still more peril. Kiev’s army says it cannot withdraw all of its heavy weapons from the front lines in eastern Ukraine until rebels stop firing on their positions. Reuters, this morning, here.

WaPo’s Karoun Demirijian and Daniela Deane from Kiev: “[Ukraine's Lt. Col. Anatoliy Stelmakh] said there were two artillery attacks overnight and although much fewer than in previous days, ‘as long as firing on Ukrainian military positions continues, it’s not possible to talk about a pullback.’ …The statement came one day after a bomb killed two people Sunday at a march in the city of Kharkiv commemorating the first anniversary of the ouster of Ukrainian former president Viktor Yanu­kovych. Ukrainian officials said Russia was behind the attack.” More here.

Fears remain high that an assault on the port city of Mariupol is imminent. AFP’s Marc Burleigh: “Kiev says Russia has sent 20 tanks and other vehicles and heavy weapons towards Mariupol, a port city of half a million residents on the Azov Sea coast. Ukrainian officials said Sunday two tank attacks were reported there… Up to now, the main compliance with the truce has been a prisoner swap conducted on Saturday. The Ukrainian army and the rebels traded nearly 200 fighters seized during the fighting.” That here.

The chief executive of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec warned Moscow's military budget could shrink by 10 percent this year. Reuters’ Stanley Carvalho from Abu Dhabi: “‘Sanctions have given us a kick to produce our own (equipment),’ said [Sergei] Chemezov. ‘Before sanctions we procured from Ukraine, which has many defense plants and factories. By 2017, we plan to substitute all our imports.’

In the absence of high oil prices…defense equipment would be a useful source of hard currency for the Russian authorities, and Chemezov said the current strong dollar was beneficial for its arms exports. Russia has an order book worth $40 billion dollars for weapons over the next three to four years, with the biggest buyers coming from India, China, the Middle East and Latin America.” More here.

Will democracy ever work in Afghanistan? Seen in Kandahar during the secretary’s trip, and worth the click, here.

A CNN primer on the five terrorist groups making headlines this month, here.

As State Secretary Kerry meets with his Iranian counterpart again in Geneva, an NSA document (actually from April 2013, a product of the Snowden bonanza and first reported by The Intercept) reveals a rapidly-accelerated cyber war between Washington and Tehran. NYTs David Sanger: “The document declares that American intercepts of voice or computer communications showed that three waves of attacks against American banks that began in August 2012 were launched by Iran ‘in retaliation to Western activities against Iran’s nuclear sector,’ and added that ‘senior officials in the Iranian government are aware of these attacks.’ The main targets were the websites of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.” More here.

Who’s doing what today: SecNav Ray Mabus is keynoting the 2015 Climate Leadership Conference to talk the Navy’s energy initiatives at Pentagon City’s Ritz-Carlton this afternoon.

An Oscar victory in the name of veterans: The documentary short “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” took home first for its category last night. Military Times’ Patricia Kime: “First aired on HBO in late 2013, the 40-minute documentary showcases the emotional strain the job has on employees and the deep compassion and devotion they have for troubled veterans on the other end of the line… The number for the Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255. Chatting also is available online at and by texting 838255… Since it was launched in 2007, the line has fielded more than 1.35 million calls and made roughly 42,000 lifesaving rescues.” More here.

And for a bit more on that veterans’ crisis line, here’s Military Times’ Leo Shane, back when he was a Stars and Stripes’ scribe, here.

A couple weeks ago, we shared a story about a possible new diagnosis on the horizon for combat-associated sleep disorders that could ease the struggles of many troops returning from war. Since then, we learned about a new non-fiction book by author Jen Percy—called “Demon Camp”—that traces the innovative but desperate struggles of Afghan war vet Sgt. Caleb Daniel and his attempts to cope with PTSD after his comrades were killed in the first rescue attempt of Marcus Luttrell. No spoilers, so for more on that, head over here.

The veterans-to-business-owners process just got a boost. The credit card processing company First Data—which has made a concerted effort to help military spouses find work, as we noted in December—last week announced a 7-year partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse U. It’s part of a broader effort to help finance education, training and a number of other opportunities designed to better position transitioning veterans looking to enter the business community. More on that one, here.

Israel is creating a cyber defense authority to fight atttacks.  The CS Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant, from Israel, for the Monitor’s new Passcode site on cyber: “…Many countries such as the US already have national centers or programs designed to bridge the gap between the government and privacy sector to help improve cybersecurity. But Israeli cybersecurity experts says because of the broad powers of the new authority, Israel is taking a pioneering step and in effect leap-frogging other top cyber powers in the world.” Read the rest here.

Yemen’s president held a meeting with governors and military commanders in Aden yesterday, as the fate of the embattled nation is still very much in the air. Reuters: “Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi convened governors of several southern provinces and military commanders at the presidential retreat in the economic hub of Aden, in a meeting which was broadcast on the city's local television channel…

On Saturday Hadi appeared to rescind his resignation after he escaped from Sanaa, saying in a statement he was still president… His flight to Aden followed an agreement between Yemen's rival factions on Friday, brokered by the United Nations, to set up a transitional council that keeps the parliament in place and gives a voice to some other groups.” More here.

Houthis have appointed new leadership over Yemen’s air force after taking “full control of al-Daylami air base, the main Air Force base in Sanaa, as well as Hodeida air base," al-Araby al-Jaheed reports, here.

Vice Admiral John Miller, commander of U.S. Naval Central Command, told Reuters today major shipping routes remain safe from Yemen’s instability. That, here.

It’s easy, but not excusable, to underestimate the enormous difficulty of hostage rescues. And former CIA-er and Army Ranger Kevin Strouse—who was on location when Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued in 2003—shares his perspective on missions like the failed James Foley rescue in this article at the intelligence and natsec blog OvertAction, here.

More trip notes from our travels with Ash Carter, today in Kuwait:

There should be no doubt that Carter’s mentor is former Defense Secretary Bill Perry and that he sees a little of Perry in himself. During the town hall, Carter expressed how tired he was of the budget debate, saying, “The debate over our budget and sequester, I’m sick of it, because it’s been going on for a few years, and I’m sick of it because it has no real cause, other than gridlock.” Then to underscore the point, he noted how it’s not as if the U.S. can afford to have such protracted gridlock, before mentioning his mentor. “It’s not like we’ve had some brilliant new idea that doesn’t require us to have a Bill Perry anymore, it’s not like peace has broken out in the world…”

If you’re interested in Carter’s answers to questions at yesterday’s troop town hall in Kandahar, Afghanistan on everything from alleged micromanagement of the Pentagon, to transgender service to the Japanese military to proposals on revamping the DoD benefit and compensation program, then click here for the DoD transcript of the event.  

We call this candy: And you are…? For a military that prides itself on its planning, the big talks Carter is hosting here came together very quickly, especially considered the senior level military and diplomatic folks who were all brought in. But it doesn’t mean everybody has full situational awareness. In the flurry that is the building on Camp Arifjan where the meeting is being held, there was a scramble to find conference rooms for smaller meetings on the sidelines of the bigger one.  

One of the many young minders was looking for a conference room for his boss and popped open a door, where John Allen, the retired Marine four-star and former ISAF commander who is now coordinating the anti-ISIL campaign, was meeting with a couple other people.. The minder, not knowing just who it was sitting there, leaned into the room and asked, “excuse me, do you have this room reserved?” A senior officer intervened quickly to smooth things over, and the minder who had just stepped in it was allowed to step back out of it.

Eagle eyes: A courtroom in the building where Carter is having his conference has not one but five large eagles with American flags superimposed on top of them. It turns out Stephen Colbert had wanted to film his show here at one time. We kid! But he coulda. Check out the big eagles here.

Time flies when you’re having fun - as SecDef. On his seventh day on the job, time is already moving a little fast for Ash Carter. On at least two occasions on Monday, Carter has made remarks, to troops, and also at the opening of his big meeting here at Camp Arifjan by noting to his audience that it is his fifth day as Secretary. In one case, he corrected Lt Gen. James Terry, when Terry said it was his sixth day as Secretary. Actually, Monday is his seventh day, but, as they say (and as Carter himself said) “who’s counting?” Apparently not Carter. 

By Gordon Lubold and Ben Watson // Gordon Lubold is a senior military writer for Defense One. Before that, he was a senior national security writer for Foreign Policy magazine and, where he launched and authored the widely-read Situation Report newsletter, sent to 150,000 readers in the foreign policy and national security community each day. Prior to that, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he writes on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular “Morning Defense” early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN and others, and radio programs such as “Diane Rehm" and “To the Point,” a syndicated broadcast on NPR. // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge.

February 23, 2015