Carter in Afghanistan, contemplates a new plan; Why did CENTCOM brief Mosul?; Should you stay or should you go?; Carter helped plan the layout on the Doomsday plane; And a bit more.
Pardon our interruption of your Saturday, but welcome to a special Saturday edition of The D Brief, where we are coming to you today from Kabul, Afghanistan. We are traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter on his 10th trip to this beautiful country – but his first trip here Secretary of Defense.
Carter is greasing the skids for possibly changing the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, potentially leaving more forces here, longer. Carter met in Kabul with top U.S. and Afghan officials, and Topic A is the White House’s drawdown plans for Afghanistan that would leave only a handful of American troops assigned to the U.S. embassy by the end of next year.
With security here still fragile, and a new unity government in Afghanistan under President Ashrah Ghani much friendlier to Washington, it is now very likely that Obama’s drawdown plans will be slowed down and otherwise tweaked.
Ash and Ash: In a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace on Saturday, Carter and Ghani outlined new thinking and left open the distinct possibility that when Ghani visits President Obama next month, the two could announce a new plan for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
To safeguard “hard won” progress, Obama “is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes tot he timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops,” Carter said. “That could mean taking anohter look at the timing and sequencing of base closures to ensure we have the right array of coalition capabilities.”
The specifics of what is under consideration is still unclear, but Gen. John Campbell, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters in a headquarters conference room in Kabul just an hour or so ago that while everything is up for review, any change would stay within the “framework” of President Obama’s plan to end the war.
Campbell: “I’m not looking for an increase in numbers here. That’s not part of my equation. I’m looking at what we have and how to make it better.”
But you could drive a truck through the interpretation of “framework,” meaning a much broader interpretation of that could be on the table. Though the focus of the current debate is on this year and next, it seems possible that by 2017, Obama’s plan could well be scrapped. Campbell didn’t say that, but he did leave the door open for flexibility beyond the time when most U.S. troops are supposed to be out. And he said that for now, the timing of the drawdown, the number of forces and the authorities under which those troops operate could all change.
Noting: Informed experts who observe the Afghanistan war have often noted that there is little political downside for the Obama White House to agree to leaving more troops in Afghanistan. After first announcing publicly his intention to draw down forces in Afghanistan last year and ending the war, Obama angered Republicans, some Democrats and quietly infuriated senior military leaders who generally don’t like to “telegraph war plans” to the enemy.
The White House, angry with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his mercurial behavior toward Washington until he left last year, founded a drawdown plan last year that today, under new Afghan leadership that is much friendlier to Washington, seems to make little sense. And most security analysts believe that whatever American electorate Obama had hoped to reach by bringing home almost all American troops by the end of 2016 likely won’t even notice if Obama decides to side with the military and either slow down the drawdown of forces – or leave more there after the end of next year.
More on Carter’s trip – who’s on it and what he knows about the Doomsday plane – below.
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Defense One on the road! Meantime, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber is in Abu Dhabi at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference, also called IDEX. Check out his special report from the massive international tradeshow—including an interview with the Sudanese defense minister—later today here.
Meantime, Weisgerber sends this dispatch from Day One: “More than 80,000 attendees are expected to pass through 375,000 square feet of exhibits at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre… ‘We have an obligation to change and modify our export restrictions to countries like UAE,’ said former Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Cohen. ‘[T]hat means the possibility of F-35 at some time in the future; it means the possibility of exporting [drone] technology that we have, because we know that UAE is in the forefront of this battle.’…[Philip Dunne, British defense procurement chief] said he will announce “further air-to-ground strike capabilities” for the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet at IDEX on Sunday.” Read the rest, here.
And back at home, U.S. Central Command caused a stir on Friday night about Iraq war plans. Under pressure to better articulate operations and strategy in Iraq and Syria, Tampa-based CENTCOM allowed a military official to brief reporters by phone Thursday on how Iraq and the U.S. was planning on re-taking the northern Iraq city of Mosul, which the Islamic State took over last year. For a military that prides itself on not talking about future operations, the official provided information about the size of the Iraqi force that would conduct the operation in Mosul this spring and talked other details.
The information wasn’t exactly the “attack plan” for Mosul. But it caught the attention of Republican duo Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The two wrote a letter to President Obama decrying the decision to have the official brief the plan was “deeply disturbing.” They wrote: “Never in our memory can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our own war plans to our enemies. These disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces.” The two demanded to know the name of the individual who briefed reporters.
The briefing may have stemmed from the notion that the U.S. was not “countering the narrative” the propaganda-savvy Islamic State has been able to establish that it is gaining ground and taking names. The briefing about the major operation could amount to sophisticated “psy-ops,” telegraphing the notion that Iraqi forces will retake the city in the hopes that some Islamic State forces, who may be on the fence, will abandon the city early, before fighting even begins.
Defense Secretary Carter, who was sworn in just three days earlier, was not specifically aware of the contents of the briefing. “The secretary is always mindful of operational security,” a senior defense official told reporters on Carter’s plane. “The secretary is aware of the letter, the Defense Department will reply appropriately, and in an expeditious manner,” the official said, adding that the White House was in no way involved with coordinating the briefing.
Noting: While it’s true that the Pentagon rarely talks about “future military operations,” it’s also true that such operations have been detailed before. The much-publicized Battle for Marjah, in Afghanistan in 2010, comes to mind. Military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, previewed this operation broadly for months leading up to it.
CSIS’ Tony Cordesman, per “The Evening CSIS” on Friday: “The US has not released any meaningful unclassified data on the ISIL threat, its assessment of local support for ISIL, or the impact of airstrikes. It is possible that the coalition may believe that announcing the campaign can actually catalyze a successful campaign. At the same time, it is unclear that ISIL will benefit from the ‘warning’ such a general statement provides since it will see any serious Iraqi buildup for such an attack weeks before such an attack can occur.”
Read the McCain-Graham letter here.
The WaPo’s Greg Jaffe’s take on why the Pentagon wants you to know about the Mosul operation, here.
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un inspects his military. AP, here.
Some of Russia’s conscripts are reporting strong-arm tactics by the military to get them to fight near—and reportedly for some, inside—Ukraine. AP’s Laura Mills from Moscow, here.
State Secretary Kerry floated the possibility of still more sanctions against Russia in a meeting with his U.K counterpart in London this morning. Reuters’ Lesley Wroughton from London, here.
Kiev’s military is bracing for a rebel assault on the port city of Mariupol. Reuters’s Natalia Zinets and Anton Zverev from Kiev and Sakhanka: “The Kiev military accused Russia on Friday of sending more tanks and troops towards the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk, further east along the Sea of Azov coast from Mariupol, expanding their presence on what it fears could be the next battlefront.
“A rebel attack on Mariupol, a city of half a million people and potentially a gateway to Crimea, which Russia annexed last March, would almost certainly kill off a European-brokered ceasefire.” More here.
Yemen’s former president left Sanaa for Aden the moment Houthis, under increasing international pressure, released him from house arrest, officials said today. But, AP’s Ahmed Al-Haj reports from Sanaa, “…his press secretary had been detained. Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, said Friday that rival factions, including the Houthis, have agreed on a new legislative body consisting of former and new lawmakers to serve during the country's upcoming transition period.” Parties at the talks had previously “told the Houthis that they would not participate in the process until Hadi was freed.” More, here.
WaPo’s Hugh Naylor adds: “The Houthi rebels who have seized control of northern Yemen are systematically targeting peaceful protesters in the capital with death threats, abductions and severe beatings, according to activists and human rights groups.” More here.
Boko Haram killed 21 Friday night in another cross-border village attack in Niger. AFP, here.
And: Nigeria’s military says they’ve retaken the Boko Haram-ravaged town of Baga. Al-Jazeera’s Yvonne Nedge reports from Abuja, here. For more on the way satellite imagery revealed Baga’s devastation, head over here.
When Carter boards a military jet, he just so happens to know its history. On Friday, Carter jumped for the first time on the modified 747 military jet known as the E-4B or so-called “Doomsday plane” that typically ferries defense secretaries around the world. Then Carter, who first served in the Pentagon in his twenties, proceeded to tell reporters about the history of designing the Cold War-era plane - something in which he himself played a role when he worked for then SecDef Caspar Weinberger.
The layout of the interior - and the size of the spaces for communications personnel on the plane, designed to be used as an aerial communications center in case of a nuclear attack, was a key issue. Ultimately, a compromise was settled on that gave more room to comms types, still a little for a cabin now used by the press, and enough space up front for the SecDef’s staff and his personal areas, including a bunk and a bathroom. We wonder now if he wishes he woudl have made the front of the plane more comfortable for its principal - which is now him. He laughed off that question from another reporter and walked into his secure conference room after briefing reporters on Afghanistan.
Staffers on a plane – Chief of Staff Eric Fanning, Senior Military Assistant Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Affairs Matt Spence, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Brent Colburn, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Kathryn Harris, Director of Travel Operations JP Eby, Flight Surgeon Dr. John Baxter, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific David Shear, Principal Deputy, Assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Af-Pak Christine Abizaid.
Reporters on a plane – AP’s Bob Burns, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, AFP’s Dan De Luce, Bloomberg’s David Lerman, WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum, NYT’s Michael Schmidt, the WaPo’s Craig Whitlock, CBS’s Cami McCormick, Stripes’ Jon Harper, Reuters’ Ernst, the Pentagon’s Glenn Fawcett, TV pool: ABC’s Justin Fishel, Hank Disselkamp and Nick Greiner; and Defense One’s Lubold.
Defense One in repeats: Why Ash Carter turned to Mike Bloomberg, Eric Cantor, Elisa Massimino, Christine Lagarde and Denny Blair as he prepared for the job of his life. Read Lubold’s story from Friday on Defense One here.