Iraq rescue op: combat or not?; Assad clears Russia to hit ISIS; USAF’s secret bomber-design team; Russian satellites behaving oddly; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

October 23, 2015

Details emerge of the rescue operation that led to the first U.S. combat death in Iraq in four years. The mission’s objective: freeing 17 kidnapped Peshmerga fighters who faced imminent execution at an improvised prison at the former home of an Iraqi judge. But when U.S. and Kurdish commandos arrived on the scene Thursday morning, they found and freed about 50 more kidnapped Iraqis.

What prompted the raid? Kurdish intelligence, as well as “American drones that showed fresh mass graves dug around the prison compound,” the Wall Street Journal reported. The Kurds were going, with or without the U.S. And had the Americans not come along, at least according to official accounts, the rescue operation could have gone very differently.

Authorization for the mission came from Defense Secretary Ash Carter, while President Barack Obama “was notified of the operation but didn’t sign off on it,” White House officials said.

The operation began with an airstrike “to destroy a bridge near Hawija and hamper the Islamic State’s ability to send reinforcements. But the operation soon became an intense firefight,” the New York Times reports. “The Americans were meant to play a supporting role in the early-morning raid by piloting as many as five helicopters that ferried Kurdish Peshmerga forces to the site of the raid,” WSJ adds. “But when the Kurdish fighters got pinned down by heavy Islamic State fire” and “it became clear to the U.S. force that the rescue mission might have to be aborted, the Americans inserted themselves into the battle…to provide covering fire, resulting in the American’s death.”

The underlying morality of the combat support role: “In the chaos of combat, when you see your friends being hit, I would submit to you that you’re under somewhat of a moral obligation,” said U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren from Baghdad.

But Warren and Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook both found themselves in the semi-awkward position of delineating the blurred lines between a training mission and a combat mission.

According to protocols governing the advise-and-assist mission, the Americans were to ‘stay behind the last covered and concealed position,’ Col. Warren said. But shortly after the Peshmerga fighters left the helicopters and began advancing toward the walled compound, they began taking ‘withering fire’ and casualties,” he said. “These are men of action. They don’t stand around. They take action and that’s what they did. And they frankly saved the day.”

The U.S. military is “not in an active combat mission” in Iraq, Cook said.

This is all authorized,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz added, noting “several types of operations that would be permitted under the president’s directive,” including training, counterterrorism and rescue operations calling for America special operators. For a healthy skeptic’s read on the raid and the combat/not combat distinction, check out Nancy Youseff’s take in The Daily Beast.

In Syria, embattled President Bashir al-Assad may allow Russia to support actual anti-ISIS efforts, WSJ reports.

Says Putin, via Reuters: “I asked [Assad]: ‘What view would you take if we found, now in Syria, an armed opposition which nonetheless was ready to oppose and really fight against terrorists, against Islamic State? What would be your view if we were to support their efforts in fighting Islamic State in the same way we are supporting the Syrian army.’ He answered: ‘I would view that positively.’”

Elsewhere in Syria, that 50-ton ammo drop the U.S. aimed at the Syrian Arab Coalition “has instead been claimed by the overall command of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is fighting alongside Arab units but overwhelmingly dominates their uneasy alliance,” Kurdish and Arab sources told the Washington Post. That’s not just important to Turkey, which is simultaneously fighting ISIS and Kurdish groups, but it also highlights the problems facing Kurdish fighters on the doorstep of Islamic State HQs in Raqqa—a city WaPo says “the Kurds do not aspire to govern.”  

U.S. State Secretary John Kerry is in Vienna today discussing the way ahead in Syria with his Russian counterpart as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia envoys. Before the meeting, Kerry told reporters, ““One thing stands in the way of being able to rapidly move to implement that and it’s a person called Assad.”

Up next for Kerry: Meeting “with diplomats from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to discuss ways to calm tensions and end a wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank.” Kerry on Thursday spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and plans to go to Amman for a Saturday meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah,” writes WaPo.

And before we leave Syria, take a break from war (sort of) to catch a glimpse of these pictures of everyday life in the country from journalist Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation.

Meet the secretive team that’s shaping the Air Force’s next bomber — whose prime contractor might be announced as early as today. The bomber team works inside the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, a unit that specializes in “delivering eye-watering capabilities,” says William LaPlante, the service’s acquisition chief. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber pulls back the curtain, just a bit, here.

From Defense One

Obama vetoes 2016 defense policy bill, as expected. Now what? GovExec’s Kellie Lunney and our Ben Watson lay out the stakes, here and here.

Does Russia have war bots in space? Moscow’s latest satellites might be bashing into other orbiting things — on purpose. Read that, from Quartz contributor David Axe, here.

As Jihadis gather in Libya, Tunisia struggles to fend them off. Libyan militants are aggressively recruiting Tunisians, promising a closer fight than Syria — and threatening a Mideast “beacon.” CSIS’ Haim Malka shares what he found during his recently visit to Tunisia.

The State Department will never be able to tweet ISIS into obscurity—not with their current numbers, anyway. The State Department Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, has a staff of just 50 folks. And about 20 of those (including five from DoD) are devoted to countering ISIS propaganda on social media. Put together, that's not nearly enough muscle to counter the group, Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, told the House Armed Service Committee yesterday.

The fact that we have 25 percent of the CSCC detail to fill critical positions over there tells me that they don’t have the manpower to put against the mission like they would,” he said before pointing to a Washington Post op-ed by State’s Richard Stengel, who estimated that ISIS has some 16 million online supporters. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker has the story.

This is the only cyber security plan any 2016 candidate has offered. It’s hardly comprehensive, and not exactly chock full of new ideas. But Jeb Bush’s plan is the most extensive yet offered by those who would become the next Network Age commander in chief. Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations does the analysis, here.

The latest “nonpartisan” Benghazi hearing was as partisan as ever, with little to show for it. Both sides pledged they wouldn’t. Both went after each other anyway. Politics Reporter Molly O’Toole, who sat through the entire 11-hour sparfest between Hillary Clinton and House Republicans, reports.

A new material promises NSA-proof wallpaper and a defense against EMPs. A Utah company has a new nickel-carbon material that could help the Pentagon fight off some of its most haunting threats. Tucker again, here.  

Welcome to the Friday edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Tell your friends to subscribe here: Want to see something different? Got news? Let us know:

Wiki-yawn. The website Wikileaks yesterday released a second set of documents taken from the personal AOL emails of CIA director John Brennan. They included a position paper on Afghan-Pakistan relations (sent in November 2008) and all of the director’s email AOL contacts. THe previous day’s drop details a squabble between the CIA and Brennan's company, The Analysis Corporation, about how much value the latter provided to the former. (Spoiler: not much.)

Bottom line: (1) the head of the CIA’s drone targeting program may not have been America’s greatest businessman and (2) he still couldn’t master two-factor authentication. More documents—yawn—could be forthcoming.

With the U.S.-Israeli relationship on ice, spying between the two countries is perhaps more central to understanding true intent than any point in recent memory, WSJ’s Adam Entous reports, tracing the Obama-Netanyahu relationship from their first meeting in 2007 all the way to the Iran deal. At the center of it all? Tehran’s nuclear program. Complicating things today is one particular clause in the Iran nuclear agreement, writes Entous, that “says the major powers will help the Iranians secure their facilities against sabotage. State Department officials said the clause wouldn’t protect Iranian nuclear sites from Israel.”

The dangerous hypothetical: “If we become aware of any Israeli efforts [to sabotage Iranian facilities], do we have a duty to warn Iran?” former CIA director Michael Hayden asked. “Given the intimacy of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it’s going to be more complicated than ever.” Read Entous’s report in full, here.

Ejection problems for skinny Joint Strike Fighter pilots are real. A senior Air Force official confirmed that F-35 pilots “who have to eject during take-off or landing while wearing the latest helmet face a ‘serious’ danger of major injury or death,” Roll Call’s John Donnelly reported. The risk zone: any pilot weighing less than 199 lbs. “In other words, 14 years into the F-35 program — the next generation fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — officials have yet to fully test how the physics of ejection would affect a significant portion of the pilot population,” Donnelly writes. More here.

Lastly today—and for your ears only—inventive oddball John McAfee and the White House’s cybersecurity czar Michael Daniel in one place: New America’s Peter Singer and CSM Passcode’s Sara Sorcher sat down to talk about White House plans to prevent online attacks and encourage public/private-sector information-sharing in the wake of the OPM hack. McAfee, meantime, talks up cyber war with China, among a few other charged topics—along with an announcement that he, too, is campaigning for the White House in 2016. It is almost Halloween, after all, the one day of the year where we can all play pretend.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston // 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. // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national security journalist for two decades, he helped launch, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

October 23, 2015