Obama, SOF, and the rules of war; Why the US struggles with influence warfare; Report: $125b in Pentagon waste; Mike Flynn, conspiracy theorist; and just a bit more…

President Obama travels to Tampa today to thank the special operations forces community for their work in the war on terrorism—and praise America’s new, lighter way of war, Reuters reports this morning.

Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base is the war room, the home of Central Command, which owns the Mideast counter-ISIS war, with SOCOM and JSOC, Defense One’s Kevin Baron writes.

We asked the White House what Obama thought of his relationship with them at the end of his SOF-heavy presidency. (Ask special operators what they think of Obama and, well, you’re not likely to find much love.) Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said this: “We always wanted to try to visit SOCOM as one of his final acts as commander in chief, and to do so at a time when he can thank a significant number of operators there. Because I think he feels a deep personal connection to a lot of of the special operator community,” Rhodes said, on a Monday conference call with reporters.

Beyond the famed Osama bin Laden raid, he said, Obama personally has signed off on orders for everything from the Maersk Alabama to hostage rescues in Syria, and enjoyed visiting operators when he travels overseas, including in Afghanistan, Rhodes said, adding that this is his thank-you visit to those troops.

But Obama’s team ensured that the big news today would be about their  policies, not the SOF troops carrying them out, by releasing a 61 pages of use-of-force rules meant to solidify how the military can be used to protect America without endangering American “values.”

Under a cover letter by Obama himself, the report touched on surveillance, interrogations, and trying terrorists like criminals. It also “outlines eight years of the administration’s legal opinions, executive orders and military directives,” the Washington Post reported Monday. “In a strong defense of the administration’s actions, it lists rules for lethal drones and terrorist detention, and describes the international and domestic law that undergirds them.”

Writes the Post: “There is no statutory requirement for the document… and no obligation to make it public.”

An important takeaway from the report, writes Marty Lederman over at Just Security, “The President has, however, done all that he could—including in this Report itself—to make the case why future Presidents ought to continue, and build upon, the frameworks he has established, which have made the use of force abroad much more discriminating and substantially limited the incidence of civilian casualties, far beyond what the law requires. Moreover, the Report demonstrates that there are numerous legal limits on the use of force that are more restrictive than many commentators, and potential Trump officials, have acknowledged.” Read his exhaustive take, here.

Mosul’s devils. Some Iraqi troops tell the Guardian the battle for Mosul feels like it’s stalled. “Since Iraqi forces entered Gogali, a light industrial neighbourhood, in mid-November, the advance has slowed…Iraqi troops stationed in Gogali and the roads leading to it insist they will win the war, no matter how long it takes. Some however concede that they could still be fighting in Mosul’s tunnels and alleyways as late as next summer.”

Reminder about those tunnels: Iraqi special forces have already found 15 kms of tunnels beneath the parts of Mosul they’ve cleared, an officer told Newsweek last week. And they expect to find another 55 kms before they’re done.

Iraqi officials, meanwhile, are hoping for less bad news about casualties coming out of various operations inside Iraq—successfully pressuring the UN late last week to suppress casualty statistics after they released November’s numbers (1,959), WaPo’s Loveday Morris wrote. The reason for this, the Guardian writes, is officials “are uncomfortable with anything that could be seen to give Isis a boost, or to show the military’s losses. ‘We will get there eventually, in our own way,’ said Maj Rafid Ismael, an Iraqi infantry officer in the nearby city of Irbil. ‘Don’t forget, we are fighting the devil himself.’”

For what it’s worth, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said last week that he didn’t think the Mosul offensive was stalled—that U.S. officials have said for months this will take a while.

Take a look at the key Kurdish fault lines that line the northern edges of the war on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, via this new report from the folks at the Institute for the Study of War. The lines make up eight separate “seams,” as ISW calls them. Their big-picture take: “The eruption of a conflict along one or more of these seams would directly undermine the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Iraq and Syria. The coalition remains over-reliant upon the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga for military gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Any outbreak of violence that fragments the coalition and turns coalition actors against one another – either politically or militarily – threatens to stall ongoing operations against Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa City in Syria. These seams also stand to fuel the widespread regional disorder that provides optimal safe haven to ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.”

In Syria, the so-called “moderate” opposition numbers some 50,000 fighters, according to U.S. officials, the Washington Post reported. They’re mostly “concentrated in the northwest province of Idlib, in Aleppo and in smaller pockets throughout western and southern Syria, and that they are not likely to give up.”

The Russian-backed Syrian army knows this last point well, and has told all rebels to clear out of Aleppo before they finish the job they started two weeks ago. Al-Jazeera reports this morning rebel commanders have told them Russia has closed the door to negotiations over Aleppo.

That follows Monday’s UN Security Council vote that failed to bring a seven-day ceasefire to Aleppo when it was voted down by Russia and China. More from Reuters, here.


From Defense One

The U.S. Is Losing at Influence Warfare. Here’s Why // Patrick Tucker: Lawmakers and leaders want to fight foreign influence operations, but they aren’t asking the right questions.

Will Obama’s Mattis Be Trump’s Mattis? // Derek Chollet: In General Mattis, Trump picked an insider warrior-diplomat who worked with the Obama administration, respected Hillary Clinton, and knows the Middle East better than most.

The Jihadi Thinker Who Ushered in the Era of ‘Anything Goes’ Warfare // Charlie Winter and Abdullah K. al-Saud: Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir died in a recent airstrike, but his ideas will shape Islamic State and al-Qaeda tactics for years to come.

The ‘Civilian Control of the Military’ Fallacy // Dennis Blair: Retired officers like James Mattis who are nominated for civilian posts should be judged on their merits—not disqualified on the basis of their past service.  

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1917, a French munitions ship blows up in Nova Scotia’s Halifax harbor, producing the largest explosion until the atomic bomb. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


Spotlight on Mike Flynn, purveyor of fake news: Should the White House staffer in charge of sorting through complex and conflicting reports about the world’s security have a penchant for conspiracy theories? In the wake of the Sunday shooting at a D.C. pizzeria, the New York Times and Politico have stories about the many times Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser has seen fit to spread false reports — and the growing backlash to his coming appointment. “We are not talking about policy toward China or Russia,” Peter Singer of New America (and Defense One contributor) told Politico. “We are talking about some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories out there. We are down the rabbit hole. How can you take him seriously when he is discussing people in D.C. drinking human blood? It is exasperating.”

Meanwhile, 53 “progressive organizations” have signed an open letter asking Trump, whose own record of lies and baseless statements is extensive, to reconsider his pick of Flynn. CNN reports, here.

The Pentagon has a bureaucratic waste problem to the tune of $125 billion, the Washington Post reported Monday. “The report, issued in January 2015, identified ‘a clear path’ for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.”

What’s more, “The data showed that the Defense Department was paying a staggering number of people — 1,014,000 contractors, civilians and uniformed personnel — to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty, the fewest since 1940.”

An incentive for the Pentagon: “For the military, the major allure of the study was that it called for reallocating the $125 billion for troops and weapons. Among other options, the savings could have paid a large portion of the bill to rebuild the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal, or the operating expenses for 50 Army brigades.”

However, some inside the Pentagon reportedly “fretted that by spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds. Instead of providing more money, they said, they worried Congress and the White House might decide to cut deeper. So the plan was killed.”

The man who ordered the study, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, isn’t entirely convinced of its findings, calling the $125B “unrealistic,” the Post reports. “There is this meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” he said. “Although there is a little bit of truth in that . . . I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.” Read the rest, here.

North Korea may have just hacked the South Korean military’s cyber command, Stars and Stripes reports. “The incident happened in September, but military officials initially played down reports. An investigation showed some classified military materials had been compromised, the Ministry of National Defense confirmed Tuesday. ‘It is assumed that this was the work of North Korea,’ ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told reporters. He did not provide details, but the Yonhap News Agency reported the malware had been traced to an Internet Protocol address in Shenyang, China, where many North Korean hackers are believed to be based.”

South Korea’s parliament approved a “record-high” defense budget, The Diplomat reports this morning. “The National Assembly passed the 2017 budget which included a 40.34 trillion won (US$34 billion) for defense, which had been announced by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) earlier this year. The amount, which is around 10 percent of South Korea’s overall budget, makes it the first time that Seoul’s annual defense budget has exceeded 40 trillion won. It is also a four percent increase from the 38.79 trillion won allocated for defense back in 2016… The budget boost comes amid a rising North Korean threat, ongoing domestic political turmoil involving the scandal-hit President Park Geun-hye, and uncertainty about the direction of U.S. Asia policy following the surprise election victory of Donald Trump on November 8.” More here.

Lastly today: James Mattis is “looking forward to 12-hour work days, being blamed for everything military does wrong,” the satirical news site, Duffel Blog, writes. “Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is currently under consideration for nomination as Secretary of Defense, is reportedly ‘thrilled’ at the prospect of trading in his retirement for a return to the brutally exhausting, Machiavellian snake pit known as the Pentagon… ‘Once you finish four decades devoting every ounce of your effort and attention to the military, you just…you know, you really just want to seize the chance to…do it for another few years,’” he said. (Though, of course, not really.) Read on, here.

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