The D Brief: Hagel is in Baghdad; About 1,500 intl. troops to Iraq; The layers of Layer Cake; What almost scrubbed the Iraq trip; What concerns Joe Anderson?; And a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson
Chuck Hagel is in Baghdad. Defense Secretary Hagel arrived at the Baghdad International airport just a few hours ago after landing in a C-17 military jet he took from Kuwait City earlier this morning.
The Secretary’s visit to Baghdad is the first Pentagon chief to return here since 2011 and is decidedly a symbolic return of the military since the U.S. turned out the light and left all but a handful of troops in Baghdad three years ago. President Barack Obama wanted desperately to end the war and get out of the country, and he did, but the realities posed by the combination of the brutality of the Islamic State with the flat-footedness of the Iraqi Security Forces has brought Obama’s military back here, perhaps in a much smaller way than before, but likely for years to come. When a military planner told us here this morning about “restructuring” the Iraqi military, he talked about it in terms of three or four years and beyond.
This hour, Hagel met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Prime Minister’s offices – which is the old Saddam-era palace, as our pooler, the WaPo’s Missy Ryan, with Hagel in the Green Zone, points out. Her report: “Abadi told Hagel as their meeting began that ‘Daesh (ISIS) is on the descent at the moment.’ He said their capabilities had been reduced. ‘We are very thankful for the support that's been given to us,’ Abadi said. ‘Our forces are very much advancing on the ground. But they need more air power and more ... heavy weaponry. We need that.’”
Abadi said that “ISIS had acquired extensive weaponry and remained able to move back and forth between Iraq and Syria,” according to Ryan.
Hagel did what amounted to his last town hall with troops stationed here at the Baghdad International Airport – BIAP – surrounded by the vestiges of the Iraq war. There are still dozens of the big cement, pockmarked Alaska Barriers that dotted the Iraqi landscape by the tens of thousands, the contractors with the short-sleeved shirts, the stretch khaki pants and the I.D. holders hanging over their bellies, the dust is everywhere, there’s “Salsa Night” on Thursdays, and Hagel’s staff and the traveling press rode from the C-17 to the troop event in that iconic of Iraq vehicle, the ironclad Rhino Runner.
At the DFAC, the Iraq war all came home. The KBR cafeterias, now under a new contract, were central to anyone who lived, worked, fought, died or embedded here. For the first time again, we’re seeing the Las Vegas-style buffet tables, the rows of hot food trays with Homemade Beef Meatloaf, Fried Catfish and Chicken Landuri… the M-16s lying on the floor at the feet of security personnel, Oakleys perched atop their heads, the multiple sandwich stations and Fox News on the big flat screen TVs. At the dessert bar, there’s Lemon Crème Layer Cake, Chocolate Layer Cake and Classic Cheesecake with chewy cookies – sugar and oatmeal - and vats of ice cream. It’s all here.
Overheard in the DFAC, roasted curry chicken – and tongue - firmly in cheek: “I feel as if I’m at the tippy end of the spear.” #backtoIraq For “Operation Nostalgia,” check out @julianbarnes.
At the troop event earlier, Hagel took two questions from two officers, one on the size of the Army and another on one of the greatest challenges he faced as Secretary. Hagel met with troops here in an open pavilion. After some opening remarks where he touched on Iraq and thanked troops for their service, he took two questions, one on the challenges he faced as Secretary. Hagel, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran who cares deeply about the troops he’s led as Secretary, rarely talks about his own service meaningfully and can be self-effacing to a fault. He answered the officer’s question in typical Hagel fashion, without talking about himself or, it seemed, speaking from the heart.
Hagel, on the challenges he’s faced as Secretary: “Each of us has certain responsibilities, the Secretary of Defense has responsibilities, as all of our people in this enterprise do. You know, going in, as each of you do going in, as you assume your roles and assignments, that you’re going to have challenges.
“Those challenges, sometimes they float, and drift, sometimes they peak, sometimes they are status quo for some period of time, but never without challenges, it’s always how we respond to those challenges, and as Secretary of Defense I have a tremendous privilege of being part of everything you do, and listening to all of you and your leaders, and my ultimate responsibility is making some decisions.”
U.S. bases, embassies brace for blowback from CIA torture report to be released today. McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, Marisa Taylor and David Lightman with more, here.
More from NYTs' Mark Landler and Peter Baker on the mounting tensions between the White House and the GOP over the release of the report, here.
Welcome to Tuesday’s international edition of The D Brief, Defense One's new, first-read national security newsletter, coming to you again from Baghdad after Hagel’s first stop in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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Why Hagel’s trip to Iraq almost got scrubbed: On Friday, before Hagel left on his plane, the New York Times mistakenly broke the embargo for this trip, albeit temporarily, and reported that he was headed to Iraq as a footnote to another story. For all these years, reporters agree not to report publicly that the trip is being planned or underway until the embargo is lifted and the “principal” arrives on the ground. One veteran observer of these wars noted that no media outlet had ever once broken such an embargo. The Times deleted the offending few words immediately, as soon as they were informed about it, but the Tweets and the Retweets put a fear in Hagel’s security personnel initially. Ultimately, the trip into Iraq went forward.
Meantime, the new war commander in the fight against the Islamic State told us yesterday that the group is on the “defensive.” Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of what’s now called Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said the Islamic State is less on the offensive and more focused on holding ground, making it easier to target them.
Terry to reporters: “I would just characterize it as ISIL operationally probably on the defense trying to hold what they had gained yet still able to conduct some limited attacks.”
Meantime, Terry explained how a coalition of the willing is growing.
There are more than 30 nations contributing to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, with as many as a dozen of those nations conducting airstrikes along with the U.S.
But there are about to be more. More than 30 partner nations met last week for a “coalition integration conference” in the region and are making plans to commit a as many as 1,500 troops more to the war effort, primarily to conduct train-and-assist missions with Iraqi and Peshmerga forces. In total, that would amount to more than 3,000 American and international troops participating in the effort.
Terry: “What we’re trying to do is nail down specific numbers.”
The more you know: There are 500 international troops already in Iraq right now, we were told by a defense official.
Read the rest of our story about what Terry thinks, from Kuwait, here.
Role reversal: The Iraqis are pushing to take the fight against the Islamic State to Mosul, and it’s the U.S. that is urging restraint. The NYT’s Eric Schmitt, reporting from Manama, Bahrain: “Allied warplanes and Iraqi ground troops are increasingly isolating Islamic State militants in the captured city of Mosul, prompting Iraqi officials to push for a winter offensive to wrest control of the area months ahead of the previous schedule — and over American warnings.” More here.
A senior defense official told reporters here in Baghdad that the Mosul operation is still probably several months away. “There is a lot more work before they are ready… Mosul is not at the front of the plan.”
Again with this? There is yet another name for the Islamic State has crept into the lexicon, now of U.S. government officials. The new war command, Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve refers to the Islamic State now as “Da’Ish” in press releases. From the BBC: “…Some have also started referring to the group as ‘Da'ish’ or ‘Daesh’ a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.’” More on that here.
Yesterday, Hagel talked to troops at Udari airfield in Kuwait, where it was 10 years ago that Don Rumsfeld stood at the very base Hagel did and told troops: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Thanks to AP’s Bob Burns, who was there that day, and again this week, for reminding us of this bit of history. Read the transcript of that infamous town hall meeting, here.
Hagel and his traveling party jumped on Black Hawks (“Chalk 5! Chalk 6!”) to ride from Kuwait City to Udari and back again. There’s nothing like a Black Hawk.
The view from inside our Black Hawk – The Bedouins who live in the vast emptiness of the Kuwaiti desert live in small, square compounds dotted with tents and other little structures, and theirs is a fascinating culture. There are thought to be as many as 180,000 Bedouins who live in Kuwait. So incongruous are the bevy of loud, powerful Black Hawks whirling across the sky and the simple, hard lives of the people below. Still, it’s a funny perspective you have from up there: At night, on the return from Udari, we could see how the compounds are each lit up by what appear to be strings of lights making each compound. But it makes each look like a mini landing zone for helicopters, which of course they are not. But when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re in a helicopter, everything looks like a landing pad.
Seeing Hagel for the trees: more pics Tweets from the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs @cBrentColburn, who posted this photo of Hagel at the Udari air field troop talk amid Christmas trees, here and another one talking to us reporters here and guys around an M-1 tank here.
Hagel’s trip started out as one thing, but after his forced resignation, it became another: Sgt. Hagel bids adieu to the troops.
New-to-the-beat, W.J. (Bill) Hennigan of the LA Times: “…Hagel's trip, planned well before last month's resignation announcement, has morphed into an opportunity to meet with military commanders and heads of state for the last time, personally say goodbye to troops and reflect on his embattled tenure as the first U.S. enlisted combat veteran to serve in the office.
Hagel at a military base near Jalalabad: "There's always an emotional piece of this that you can't help but have…But I try not to think about that … when I stand up here and talk to these guys — that this will be my last time with them." More here.
Preppers: Before the pre-torture report, there are those who are prepping the battlefield: FP’s John Hudson has this exclusive: “With the Senate gearing up to release a sharply critical report about the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation and detention practices, a group of former senior intelligence officials is planning to rebut those criticisms with a flurry of op-eds, media interviews, and newly-declassified documents. The backbone of the media campaign will be a newly-launched website with a rather blunt and straightforward title: ‘CIASavedLives.com.’
Bill Harlow, a top CIA spokesman during the Bush 43 era: “It’s a one-stop shopping place for the other side… With the website … we’ll be able to put out newly declassified documents, documents that were previously released but not well read and host a repository for op-eds and media appearances by various officials.” Read the rest here.
Bidding adieu to “FOUO”: “Right now, there are around 120 different designations for information that does not reach the level of classified status, but requires some sort of safeguarding, such as personnel files. Next year, these labels -- examples include Sensitive but Unclassified, Law Enforcement Sensitive, and For Official Use Only -- will simply become "Controlled Unclassified Information," according to the National Archives and Records Administration.” Read the rest of this at Nextgov, here.
Back to the slowdown of the drawdown in Afghanistan: Hagel addressed the issue of what the Ghani government is thinking about in terms of the drawdown of U.S. forces. We ran an item in yesterday’s D Brief based on WSJ reporting that indicated the new Afghan government is eager for the U.S. to reconsider its drawdown plans. This was not exactly confirmed by Hagel or defense officials – but no one pushed back hard on it, either.
A senior defense official told The D Brief and other reporters that Hagel and Ghani – “talked about a lot of stuff and the transition time frame was discussed, but there were no formal requests… and there isn’t going to be any change.”
Hagel, to reporters at the gaggle after the troop talk about what he talked about with Ghani – “We talked about timelines, we talked about force protection, continued support, and these are areas that we -- we talked about. I think as any president -- and I'm glad he's taking time himself, that he's not deferring this with someone else. He's thinking through it. He's asking questions that I think he should ask. He's the new president of that country, and he has that responsibility.”
But there must be something to the story – Abdullah Abdullah, the former presidential candidate who is now the country’s chief executive told the Sunday Times U.S. troops are leaving too fast. From the Mail Online: “…Abdullah Abdullah, the number two in the Afghan government, said NATO-led troops were pulling out too soon, with all combat forces due to have left the country by the end of the month. He told the British weekly that a lot of time had been lost this year amid hostility between former president Hamid Karzai and Western leaders.”
Abdullah Abdullah to the paper: “It is too abrupt… Two years ago we had 150,000 international troops and lots of jets and helicopters. Within two months there will be just 12,000. We need air support for the medical evacuation of casualties, intelligence and fast jets." More here.
Leaving Afghanistan, Joe Anderson might not know if he is optimistic or pessimistic. The NYT’s Azam Ahmed in Kabul: “Shortly after the speeches concluded, the flags were folded and the band silenced, the last American general to lead combat operations in Afghanistan offered his candid assessment of the war.
‘I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or optimistic,’ said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the departing commander, considering the United States military’s reduced role next year. ‘The fact that we are in less places, the fact that there are less of us as a coalition, is obviously concerning.’” More here.
The V-22 Osprey’s makers just successfully test-fired rockets from the tilt-rotor aircraft beloved far more for its speed and agility than its offensive firepower. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber has more: “During the tests last month, an Osprey fired short-range guided and unguided rockets, including the BAE Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System and Raytheon Griffin B. The rockets were fired from launchers mounted on the left side of the aircraft, just outside the cockpit window. The pilot or co-pilot could fire the weapons. The pilots could spot targets outside their cockpit windows, unlike the remote controlled gun, where a Marine had to stare at a computer screen.” More here.
A humanitarian conference on nuclear weapons is being held in Vienna this week. It’s the largest meeting yet under such a banner, with more than 800 delegates from nearly 160 nations—including official delegations from the U.S., U.K., India and Pakistan, a first for each. Writing for Defense One, Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione is on location in Austria, and has this.
Widows versus a Navy CO: She was cited in a fatal mishap, but now she’s up for promotion. Read Navy Times’ Meghann Myers story, here.
Long read: Tom Ricks’ mental descent, as the war correspondent describes his struggles post-war in The New Yorker last week. Read that here.
Their numbers shrinking, survivors return to Pearl Harbor for yesterday’s anniversary. The WaPo, here.
NEXT STORY: The Failure of American Hostage Rescues