An extraordinary meeting in Kuwait?; Mueller’s parents: U.S. put policy over lives; Ash Carter found his press secretary; Troops are like taxi divers; And a bit more.
Welcome once again to a special weekend edition of The D Brief, where we are traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and have touched down in beautiful downtown Kuwait City for the next couple days before returning to Washington Tuesday afternoon. We are thankful for arriving in one piece despite the harrowing motorcade ride through town from the airport – again. You laugh, but some day, someone’s gonna get hurt.
Ash Carter is convening an unusual meeting tomorrow here in Kuwait that will bring together three- and four-star generals, ambassadors, and other top officials – but, maybe, no hot air. On his sixth day in office, Carter asked his staff to put together a big meeting in Kuwait on U.S. strategy on ISIS. But Carter does not envision it as just any kind of meeting, where high-ranking military officers and others hold forth about their commands and their perspectives, and the conversation all becomes about them and nothing gets done. Instead, the 30 or so folks who will assemble tomorrow at Camp Arifjan for a six-hour meeting called the “Counter ISIL Political-Military Consultations” and they’ll be speaking off the cuff, not on script, and taking the questions from Carter. “This is reversing that paradigm, straight up,” a senior defense official told reporters.
A kicking of the tires, according to the senior defense official, explaining the purpose of the meeting: “The point of the meeting is really to give the new secretary an opportunity to hear from a cross-disciplinary group of people, around the room, hearing the cross talk, and really just kicking the tires on the current counter ISIL strategy, both in Iraq and Syria, getting his head around it, very free and open discussion.”
But check your PowerPoints – and your rank - at the door: Typically, generals show up with PowerPoint slides and aides and scripted answers. But Carter, said the defense official, is turning that practice on its head. He wants a free and flowing discussion regardless of rank and stature. But in what to the outside world may seem like a small thing but to the military culture could be a big deal – there will be no PowerPoints allowed in the meeting. Generals will have to think and respond on their feet without the aid of the notoriously ubiquitous slide presentations.
“We made that explicit requirement, for the very purpose of fostering discussion, instead of just presentation after presentation… “it’s driven from [Carter’s] style, and his very very different approach,” the defense official said.
Expectation management: no deliverables. Reporters on Carter’s plane were told that there won’t be any particular outcomes – at least not yet. The purpose of the consultation is not to rethink the strategy, but to give Carter, in office for six days, a clear understanding of the issue at hand. “It is really purely to foster educating and strategic conversation for the secretary,” the official said.
What will Carter be asking? Everything from soup to nuts on Syria and Iraq, including the Syria train-and-equip program, the nature of the Syrian opposition, the coalition of 60 nations, what they’re doing and maybe what more they could do, and how the U.S. military campaign fits into all this; on Iraq, Carter will want to know more about building the capacity of the Iraqi forces, Sunni mobilization and reconciliation and Carter will also want to know more about how the U.S. air campaign is going.
“Cancel whatever you’ve got, the secretary needs you in Kuwait City.” The ISIL meeting has forced Carter’s staff – and the staffs of all those invited - to scramble. Although the seed for this big meeting may have been planted a few weeks ago, planning for the meeting did not really begin to take shape until Feb. 14, a Saturday, when Carter asked folks from his front office and top policy officials to start to put it all together.
Who’s going? So far, it’s Gen. Lloyd Austin, U.S. commander of Central Command, Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the Joint Task Force to counter ISIL, Lt. Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata, who oversees the train-and-assist program for Syria, Gen. Phil Breedlove, commander of NATO forces, Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of Africa Command and Gen. Joe Votel, head of Special Operations Command.
And, the ambassadors and other State officials - they include Special Envoy to Syria Daniel Rubinstein, State’s Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL, and John Allen, the retired Marine four-star, who is coordinating the effort against ISIL. The meeting also includes U.S. Ambs. Alice Wells (Jordan); Doug Silliman (Kuwait); Joe Westphal (Saudi Arabia); Barbara Leaf (UAE); and Stephen Beecroft (Egypt).
Would Carter hold such a meeting again? It’s likely he will begin to hold a series of these kinds of meetings on this and other topics in the future, the defense official said.
Heard: “I don’t know how I’m going to compete with artichoke dip, frankly.” - the senior defense official on the cramped E-4B, joking how the plane’s crew began serving a snack just as the briefing for reporters began on the flight from Kandahar to Kuwait.
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More than 115 U.S. companies are displaying American armored trucks, tanks, helicopters, missiles and drones at Abu Dhabi’s IDEX 2015 expo. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber, on location, says their primary goal is to sell items overseas—although this year execs also want some face time with Pentagon leadership, many on-site for the first time after a 2012 lavish spending scandal. More on that, here.
Ash Carter found his new civilian press secretary – his name is Ash Carter. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby confirmed last week that he would be soon leaving as the Pentagon’s top spokesman and indicating Defense Secretary Ash Carter wanted a civilian to be the face of the Pentagon, not someone in uniform.
But it’s becoming very clear that Carter wants to raise the profile of the SecDef.
Kirby, widely thought to be an effective mouthpiece who provided information and not spin, was the perfect spokesman for former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who eschewed the spotlight to a fault. With Hagel sometimes absent from the cameras for weeks at a time, Kirby became the face of the Pentagon, conducting regular briefings and appearing numerous times each week on cable news.
But Carter is different. He has wanted this job for years, and this is his big moment. His depth of knowledge and the consensus view that he has the ability to speak authoritatively about all things defense may mean that he, not a press secretary, will become the Pentagon’s new public face. “I intend to be myself very accessible to you, as I do now, so you can count on that,” Carter told reporters in a gaggle after an event in Kandahar Saturday.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a press secretary. Pentagon officials are scrambling to find someone, a civilian, to replace Kirby, though there is no expectation someone will be named soon. But there remains legitimate fear among the press corps that it will be hard to replace someone like Kirby, whose experience and deep knowledge is hard to replicate. That, and he was available 25-8 (typos intended). And despite Carter’s assurances that he will be accessible, it’s hard to imagine that he will rush to speak with reporters any time there is a need – especially since he has a rather big day job.
More on the trip, why troops are like cabbies, and who Barney and Fred are, if you scroll below.
Carter calls the Afghan army “a powerful force.” AP’s Bob Burns, who is also traveling with Carter: “…Carter on Sunday called Afghanistan’s army “a powerful force in their own right” but declined to say whether he thinks the U.S. can scale back military training and advising this year as planned.” More here.
Slain captive Kayla Mueller’s dad says the U.S. put policy in front of lives. An NBC exclusive, here.
“New Russia?” Ukraine fears the spread of war after a blast in eastern city. Reuters’ Anton Zverev and Vitaly Gnidy this hour: “Ukraine said on Sunday it feared unrest could spread beyond territory held by pro-Russian separatists, after an explosion killed two people at a memorial rally in an eastern city far from the front line.
“…A week after a ceasefire agreement that Moscow-backed rebels ignored to capture a strategic town, Kiev and its Western allies are trying to determine whether the separatists will now halt, or advance deeper into territory the Kremlin calls ‘New Russia’. More here.
DHS’s Jeh Johnson worries about the mall threat in the wake of what al-Shabab said. “The U.S. homeland security chief said on Sunday he takes seriously an apparent threat by Somali-based Islamist militants against prominent shopping sites in the West including the Mall of America in Minnesota and urged people there to be careful.” More here.
A top Muslim sheikh calls for a greater understanding to fight terror. AP: “The grand sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most respected seat of learning, says a historical misreading of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad have led to extremism among Muslims. Speaking at the opening of a conference titled ‘Islam and the fight against terrorism,’ Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb condemned terrorism and called for religious curricula to be reformed to emphasize greater tolerance.” More here.
The battle for Mosul is a test of Obama’s strategy. The NYT’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt: “…American intelligence agencies say they do not yet know whether Islamic State fighters will dig in and defend Mosul to the death or whether, fearing encirclement, most fighters will slip out of the city for other Iraqi towns or cross the border into Syria, leaving behind a smaller force and booby-trapping buildings with bombs to tie down and bloody thousands of Iraqi troops.” Read the rest here.
A good read: Why James Fallows thinks fighting ISIS is an impossibility. Fallows: “I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution.” Read that piece here.
ICYMI: Is the military faced with impossible missions? PBS’ News Hour’s Judy Woodruff interviews James Jeffrey and John Ullyot, here.
Thank you for not saying thank you. From the NYT today on how vets can’t stand hearing folks tell them “thank you for your service.”
Matt Richtel: “…The issue has been percolating for a few years… The idea of giving thanks while not participating themselves is one of the core vet quibbles, said Mr. Freedman, the Green Beret. The joke has become so prevalent, he said, that servicemen and women sometimes walk up to one another pretending to be ‘misty-eyed’ and mockingly say ‘Thanks for your service.’” More here.
War story: For the Marine who urinated on the body of a dead Taliban, a hero’s burial in Arlington. The WaPo’s Greg Jaffe: “…Almost everything about war is complicated, messy or morally fraught; in this case even more so. A Marine vilified by his country’s leaders and court-martialed for “bringing discredit to the armed forces” would soon be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the country’s most hallowed ground. On this mid-February night before the funeral, dozens who knew Richards beyond those 38 seconds gathered to celebrate his life.” Read the rest here.
Trip notes on Carter’s trip to Afghanistan and Kuwait thus far: After an overnight at the U.S. military base for “Resolute Support” in Kabul, Carter and company jumped on a C-17 at the airbase to fly to Kandahar Air Field, in southern Afghanistan, where he held meetings on the train, assist and advise mission there. Carter got a briefing on the Afghan National Army in the late morning, had lunch with the troops – 10 handpicked junior noncommissioned officers, that was not open press – before heading to a “troop event” with about a hundred airmen and soldiers that we detail below. Then he had a “press gaggle” with members of the traveling press.
Dress code for Sunday: “rugged casual.” (No Rumsfeld-era combat boots with Brooks Brothers suit, in other words. Carter wore a black fleece over khakis and Merrill-like hiking shoes).
Noting: The C-17 we flew to Kandahar is a plane that is based in Charleston, S.C. that follows Carter as he is ferried in the E-4B Doomsday plane from one stop to another on his overseas trip in case the E-4B breaks down (it can happen). But this tactical aircraft is better for the hop from the Kabul airfield to the one in Kandahar, and so in using it as his primary jet for this leg of the trip, there is yet another C-17 that accompanies that plane.
The C-17 cargo jet, by the way, which are nicknamed “Barney” because of its diminutive size compared to the much larger (and if you ask a C-17 crewman, far less reliable) C-5 brother, whose nickname is, appropriately, “Fred.” The SecDef’s C-17 is typically equipped with a big Airstream trailer rolled and latched down inside the belly of the plane known as the “Silver Bullet.”
Meantime, the troops in Kandahar are a little like taxi drivers. Carter held his first public town hall-style meeting with the troops inside a pavilion on the sprawling (yet shrinking) Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. These affairs can be tedious, with the troops asking forced questions that aren’t always suitable for the secretary of defense to even answer. But the questions the group of one hundred or so soldiers and airmen at the event on Sunday were pretty sophisticated for troops stuck halfway around the world in on a dusty, big base. By the way, we don’t mean to suggest troops aren’t sophisticated. By no means.
But the caliber of the questions – and the range of topics – struck us. It included one about cybersecurity, another about transgender service, another about the recent report released in Washington about the military compensation review panel and yet another on Japan’s push to change its constitution to have a more robust military capability. Then there was the one from one who asked about the White House micromanaging the Pentagon. Whoa.
Carter, on the question of alleged micromanagement of DoD: “I think the president deserves from me and I pledge to him… [to give him] my most candid advice. I’m not going to pull any punches, I’m going to say it exactly the way I see it. He won’t necessarily do what I recommend… fair enough, he’s the president, I’m not. But he deserves to hear what I say and what I think. That’s one of the reasons why he hired me.”
(Interestingly, no one at the town hall asked about the future of the U.S. military in Afghanistan – which is one of the main reasons why Carter appeared here this weekend.)
So why are troops like taxi drivers? Because they apparently have enough time on their hands to read the papers, watch the news, and be pretty well-informed about the issues of the day – just like cabbies.
Click here for the Pentagon’s special feature, “Travels with Carter,” including stories and pics.
Hash tag hurryupandwait: The troops who participated in Carter’s first troop town hall waited about an hour and a half before Carter arrived. No matter what anyone does, these kinds of events force troops to wait and wait for the big cheese to arrive. One participant Sunday explained that the more layers of rank there are that are involved, the more time troops wait. Example: say the SecDef is paying a visit and wants to talk to troops. His staff conveys that to a senior officer’s command, who relays it down the chain. By the time it gets to the battalion or company commander, those troops are told to show up sometimes two hours or more in advance. One advance person told us that no matter what commands are told, troops always end up being forced to arrive hours in advance. The irony, officials have said, is that the less time the troops wait, the fresher they are, and the better the event.
And: Military.com has their Top 12 Military Movies in Oscar History list, here -- a list Defense One's Kevin Baron says should've had "Deer Hunter" in the #1 spot.