A Special Sunday D Brief: Mehsud reportedly transferred to Pakistan; D Brief with Chuck Hagel in Afghanistan; Why a Yemen raid went bad; Ash’s budget problems; What Hagel fears most; And a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold
Breaking now: The U.S. has handed Pakistan three prisoners, reportedly including Mehsud, the senior Taliban militant, who has been held in Afghanistan. But as the U.S. rushes to meet a deadline of Dec. 31, it could no longer legally hold Mehsud and other detainees and must empty its detention facility in Bagram. So it appears that he and two other detainees have been transferred to Pakistan. U.S. officials are not confirming that one of the detainees was Mehsud, but a variety of reporting indicates that it is true.
Reuters just this afternoon: “…U.S. forces captured Latif Mehsud, the former number two commander in Pakistan's faction of the Taliban, in October 2013, in an operation that angered then Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Mehsud, a Pakistani, and his two guards were secretly flown to Pakistan, two senior Pakistani security officials told Reuters. The U.S. military confirmed it transferred three prisoners to Pakistan's custody on Saturday, but would not reveal their identities.” More here.
Meantime, the U.S. transferred six detainees from Gitmo to Uruguay this weekend. The NYT’s Charlie Savage: “…It was the largest single group of inmates to depart the wartime prison in Cuba since 2009, and the first detainees to be resettled in South America.
“The transfer included a Syrian man who has been on a prolonged hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention without trial, and who has brought a high-profile lawsuit to challenge the military’s procedures for force-feeding him. His release may moot most of that case, although a dispute over whether videotapes of the procedure must be disclosed to the public is expected to continue. Read the rest here.
A defense official tells The D Brief that of the six detainees, four were Syrian – Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, Ali Hussain Shaabaan, Omar Mahmoud Faraj and Jihad Diyab; one was Tunisian, Abdul Bin Mohammed Abis Ourgy; and the sixth one was Palestinian – Mohammed Tahanmatan. There are now 136 detainees at Gitmo, we’re told.
A Saudi American accused of a plot to bomb a N.Y. subway was killed in Pakistan over the weekend. The WaPo’s Haq Nawaz Khan and Sudarsan Raghavan, here.
Pardon our Sunday intrusion and welcome to a special, first-ever weekend edition of The D Brief, Defense One's new, first-read national security newsletter. In fact, in all our newsletter writing since 2009, we’ve never gone to press on a Sunday. But at Defense One’s Stephanie Gaskell’s suggestion, we thought, why not? We’re traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Afghanistan and Kuwait and so we’re bringing you the latest here today.
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Meantime, we’ve been wheels up with Hagel in Afghanistan and Kuwait. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is on what is likely his last trip as Secretary and originally planned to make a trip this week with several stops overseas. But after the announcement of his departure last week, his trip was truncated. After approving the Yemen mission mid-morning on Friday, and after President Barack Obama introduced Hagel’s likely successor, Ash Carter, at the White House, Hagel jumped on an E-4B military jet, (otherwise known as the Doomsday Plane) and zipped to Kabul for a visit with commanders, top Afghan officials and the troops. Then today, Sunday, we came to Kuwait for a visit with U.S. troops here. We came along with Hagel for the ride.
At a big presser with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Hagel announced that up to 1,000 U.S. troops would stay longer in Afghanistan past the Jan. 1 deadline. The delay in Afghanistan’s electoral process meant other nations who contribute to the mission in Afghanistan were unable to plan for the post-combat phase that begins in just a few weeks on Jan. 1. So the U.S., which had pledged to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 by January, will now keep up to 1,000 troops on top of that until those coalition forces can arrive – probably another few months or so.
Hagel: “This will mean the delayed withdrawal of up to 1,000 U.S. troops so that up to 10,800 troops, rather than 9,800, could remain in Afghanistan through the end of this year, and for the first few months next year. But the president's authorization will not change. It will not change our troops' missions or the long-term timeline for our withdrawal.”
Meantime, John Campbell is bullish on Afghanistan. Gen. John Campbell, the Afghan war commander who has extensive deployment time in Afghanistan, says he is realistic about Afghanistan’s future – but he’s also optimistic. He told reporters traveling with Hagel in a special briefing that he thinks the Afghan National Security Forces are up to the task at hand and that the U.S. and NATO’s train-advise-and-assist mission over the next two years will only underscore their abilities. But there remains some confusion about the role that U.S. forces assigned to the other U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the counter-terrorism mission, will play exactly.
The mission in Afghanistan for U.S. troops will be dual: one, to train advise and assist; the other is a “counter-terrorism” mission. But that’s where it gets a little tricky since President Barack Obama has made it clear U.S. troops will not participate in combat per se. But the U.S. military also has the authority to protect itself. The question is, just how do you define that. Depends on what your definition of is is.
Campbell, on how he defines the counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan and how close that comes to combat, but he’s wary of getting into particulars: “It’s sort of like [rules of engagement], because it gives an advantage to our adversaries… we have to make sure we have the inherent authority to protect ourselves… most of our force protection will be by with and through our Afghan partners…
"I lost two people about a week and a half ago, Specialist Riley and Sergeant Major Turner, and they were driving from here to the airport. After 1 January, this is still going to be an inherently dangerous place…”
Campbell said there was no U.S. military combat role in Afghanistan in 2015, but U.S. troops wouldn’t sit on their hands, either, when it comes to protecting forces like the two men killed last month. But what he did say is: “As far as I’ll go is, just sitting on a [Forward Operating Base] doesn’t always do that.”
Campbell on what he’ll tell President Obama if he thinks he needs more time, more troops or more money for Afghanistan given the current drawdown plan: “I absolutely owe it to the president, I owe it to [Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin] I owe it to Chairman Dempsey that if I don’t think we can do our mission because of resources or because of something else, then I have to go tell them… that’s what they expect. I’m not there yet.”
The NYT’s Editorial Board today on Obama’s “backslide” on Afghanistan. Their BLUF: “Administration officials are still insisting “the combat mission ends” by the end of this year, but that’s simply not credible. Mr. Obama should stick to his original plan to have the remaining troops focus on training and advising the Afghan army and going after Al Qaeda. Realistically, that seems the most the American-led military coalition can achieve.” Read the rest here.
Overheard in the DFAC in Kabul – Hagel slipped through the cafeteria at the ISAF HQ in Kabul, where he worked the room, shook hands, and thanked the troops and anyone else for their work in Afghanistan. A stocky man with a shaved head in civilian clothes approached Hagel and muttered a few things our Hagel spy couldn’t quite hear. But Hagel turned, shook his hand and as the man beamed, Hagel told a quick story about Vietnam: one time an Army sergeant major schooled Hagel after he returned from a patrol unshaven, and the sergeant major told him to clean up and quickly. Embracing the man in the DFAC, himself, it turned out, a retired Command Sergeant Major, Hagel told the story to those within earshot and then said: “I listen carefully to the generals… but I FEAR sergeants major!” The man beamed.
What we’re missing at home while traveling: Watching Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer with our kids; it’s 50 years old. More on the show here.
Staffers on Hagel’s plane (full list) – Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams, Kathryn Harris, Col. David Morris, Lt. Col. David Everly, Trip Director J.P Eby, Flight Surgeon Capt. Bill Cox, Brent Colburn, Rear Adm. John Kirby, Will Terry, David Plell, Kevin Vedder, Capt. Andy Rusnak, James Irvine, Roger Dalziel, Master Sgt. Daniel Whitby, Tech Sgt. Glenn Andrews, Valerie Tyburski, Alex Evans, Justo Robles, Lt. Col. Scott O’Neill, Brendan Sullivan, Tech Sgt. Ebony Rodriguez, Derek Chollet, David Shear, Christine Abizaid (yes, that Abizaid), Matt Spence, Lt. Col. Ryan Suttlemyre, Col. J.R. Clearfield, Kathleen Lloyd, Scott Roffman, Craig Seyfried.
Right Seat, Left Seat – This is the last trip for Lt. Meghan Isaac, the aide to Adm. Kirby. Isaac, otherwise known as “Task Force,” short for “Task Force Isaac,” who is training her replacement, Maj. Roger Cabiness, Kirby’s new aide, a quick study who’s also on the trip.
Reporters on a plane - AP’s Bob Burns and Sagar Meghani, Bloomberg’s David Lerman, AFP’s Dan De Luce, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, WSJ’s Julian Barnes, WaPo’s Missy Ryan, LAT’s Bill Hennigan, Getty’s Mark Wilson, CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo and Defense One’s Gordon Lubold
Who is “Ron Kuwait?” He’s a nobody. But on the trip schedule distributed to the traveling party, there’s an item at the end of each day to indicate where the party will be spending the night, thus: Remain OverNight, or RON. Last night it was RON Kabul. Tonight it’s RON Kuwait.
Photos from Hagel’s trip from Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, here.
Get us to the hotel on time! We survived a combat zone but barely survived Hagel's motorcade to the hotel in Kuwait City, where the drivers use sirens, lights and a very leaded foot, making for a harrowing ride… Overheard in the Press Van #2: "NOW we need body armor."
This is what winning looks like at Forward Operating Base Gamberi: In one of the meeting rooms at the Forward Operating Base near Jalalabad, Afghanistan where Hagel and company visited, there’s a poster that asks that very question. So we took a look… what does winning look like in Afghanistan? Here’s what the poster says is the “Endstate”: Security conditions set for the Afghans to exploit the decade of opportunity/transformation. Legitimate Afghan government in place that is acceptable to the Afghan people.” Take a looksee
More on what the American military is doing in Kuwait these days and more from trip on Monday…
During the trip to Afghanistan, the news broke that U.S. commandos had staged a raid in central Yemen to retrieve an American journalist held hostage there for more than a year. It didn’t go well, after the element of surprise was broken. “…For President Barack Obama, it’s a grim reminder of how even the best, most highly-skilled military force can’t always succeed as well as it did during the famed Osama bin Laden raid in 2011 or even the successful rescue of the American ship captain from Somali pirates in 2009.”
A defense official told us that the area was difficult and the terrorists holding Somers were likely expecting another raid: “This was difficult terrain to get to and a well-defended compound… . [members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the organization holding Somers, were likely] “on edge, were clearly more alert” because of the first attempt to rescue Somers last month.
Here’s Defense One’s story on the raid from Kabul, here.
There have been at least three botched raids in recent months. Should there be a review of how the intelligence is collected and the raids executed? Hagel told reporters with him in Kabul, no.
Hagel, to reporters at FOB Gamberi, on if there should be a review” “There is an immense amount of focus and review that goes into these operations. I don’t think it’s a matter of going back and having a review of our process, our process is about as thorough as there can be. Is it imperfect, yes, is there risk, yes. But we start with the fact that there is an American who is being held hostage and that that American’s life is in danger, that’s where we start, and then we proceed from there.”
Ash Carter already has a problem: it’s called the budget, says his weapons buyer, Frank Kendall. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio and John Hughes, with a bulleted story, here.
Jordan is quietly fighting the Islamic State at home. Al-Jazeera’s Arrej Abuqudairi: “…While Jordan has made public its participation in US-led air strikes against ISIL in Syria, it has launched a quieter war at home, as authorities crack down on social media users and religious leaders who allegedly promote ‘terrorist ideology’. More here.
U.K. embassy in Cairo closes due to security concerns, Reuters today, here.
The WaPo’s Jonathan Yardley is retiring from the Post after 33 years of reviewing books. On his list of favorite non-fiction? Rick Atkinson’s WWII trilogy, including “An Army at Dawn.” More on that, here.