US-Iran tensions spike; 85 die in Somali bombing; Afghanistan cease-fire?; Best of 2019 lists; And a bit more.

Iran is “not moving toward a war,” but is also “not afraid of any conflict” with the U.S., a top Iranian commander said today via state-run Tasnim news agency and relayed to Western press via Reuters. That’s the latest in U.S.-Iran tensions, which spiked dramatically on Tuesday when Iran-backed militias and their supporters stormed the outer perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — setting fires, throwing rocks and smashing surveillance cameras on the facilities. Those militia supporters are gone today, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Get to better know the involved Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah via this analysis from the Washington Institute's Bilal Wahab, published Tuesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said Wednesday (Reuters) “all public consular operations are suspended until further notice. All future appointments are canceled. U.S. citizens are advised to not approach the embassy.” View damage to the embassy, as seen this morning by AP photographer Khalil Mohammed, here.

BTW: The State Department advised Wednesday that if you decide to travel to Iraq, “draft a will.”

Speaking of traveling, about 100 Marines headed to Baghdad and at least 750 U.S. paratroopers headed to Kuwait on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced via Twitter dispatching the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team — with more deployments possible “over the next several days.” 

  • Video: airborne soldiers shipping out to Kuwait, via DVIDS.
  • Video: Marines heading out to bolster security at the Baghdad embassy.

CBS News’s David Martin reports today: “an additional 3,000 troops were preparing to deploy to Kuwait, but orders for that deployment had not been issued as of Thursday morning.” (Reuters reports separately there could be as many as 4,000 more U.S. forces headed to the region.) 

Esper’s justification: "This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today. The United States will protect our people and interests anywhere they are found around the world."

Sending these troops is a “prudent” measure “based on lessons learned over the past that we deploy additional forces to either reinforce that site or other sites in Iraq, and frankly any other location in the Middle East as this thing escalates, if it does indeed escalate,” Esper told Fox News this morning.

Already, “More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces,” Reuters writes. “The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.”

What now? Esper told Fox, “I think it’s time for the international community to come together and stand up to Iran.” He didn’t elaborate on how or when any such resistance to Iran might take shape.

How all this started: 

  • Dec. 27: A U.S. contractor was killed in a rocket attack at an Iraqi base near Kirkuk on Friday (CNN). It was the latest of nearly a dozen such attacks in recent months, as this Iraq tab reveals over at The Long War Journal.
  • Dec. 29: Pentagon officials said the U.S. blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militias under the banner Kata'ib Hizbollah, and dispatched airstrikes on five of those militias' bases in Iraq and Syria. More than two dozen of KH’s fighters are believed to have been killed in those U.S. airstrikes. (CBS)
  • The airstrikes then triggered some 48 hours of protests and increasingly violent demonstrations at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In that time, “An undetermined number of demonstrators reached the reception area, where guards screen all visitors to the embassy, before they were prevented from breaching the compound,” a U.S. official told NBC News.
  • Then about 100 Marines flew to the embassy via V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. 
  • Dec. 31: Tweeted President Trump: “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
  • Tweeted Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in response: "You can’t do anything."
  • Jan. 1: State Department issues “draft a will” travel advisory.

Said one protestor today: “Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever.” (Reuters)

SecState Mike Pompeo postponed a trip to Ukraine this week in order to keep a closer eye on developments in Iraq, the State Department said Wednesday. (For what it’s worth, that was Pompeo’s second cancelled trip to Ukraine to speak with Kyiv’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky.)

ICYMI: Pompeo, Esper and former National Security Adviser John Bolton met with President Trump in the Oval Office back in August to try to convince him it was in U.S. interests to release the ~$400 million in military aid to Ukraine — but Trump refused, the New York Times reported on December 29. 

From Defense One

In Iraq, the U.S. Gets Hit Where It Hurts // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: The storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad demonstrated that America doesn’t have a monopoly on pressure.

Progress, Peril, Hope: The Nuclear Decade in Review // Joe Cirincione and Michelle Dover: U.S. policies that restrained and shrank atomic arsenals have been abandoned. Yet there are hopeful trends as well.

Boeing Has Relieved CEO Muilenburg. Now What? // Marcus Weisgerber: The next CEO will have to right the 737 program, keep the tanker on track, and figure out why a recent rocket launch went awry.

Why Trump and Biden Can’t Cut Troops in Afghanistan Much More // Katie Bo Williams: Even ‘bare minimum’ counterterrorism forces require critical intelligence only U.S. personnel can provide, officials warn.

Pentagon Remains Bullish on 3D Printing, Despite Regulatory ‘Slog’ // Marcus Weisgerber, Government Executive: Military officials want to put additive manufacturing to broader use, but barriers remain.

Best of 2019: Editor's Choice // Kevin Baron: Even with several best-of lists, it's hard to choose among the thousands of articles we published this year. Here are a few notables that we haven't noted elsewhere.

Best of 2019: Ideas // Defense One Staff: Revisit some of the best op-eds and commentary we had the privilege of publishing over the past year.

Best of 2019: Defense One Radio // Ben Watson: Review the year that was — and consider what's next — with episodes from our award-winning podcast.

Best of 2019: The Technology of Defense // Patrick Tucker

Best of 2019: The Business of Defense // Marcus Weisgerber

Most-Read of 2020 (So Far) // Defense One Staff: We're three months into the next year already, if you go by the fiscal calendar. Here's the most-clicked posts on our site since Oct. 1.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1942, the U.S. naval base at Cavite, Philippines, fell to Japanese forces — who would hold it for the next three years until the U.S. Seventh Fleet pushed them out in March 1945. 

Taiwan's military chief died in a helicopter crash today along with three major-generals, AFP reports, and “just days before the island goes to the polls to elect a new president” on January 11. The 62-year-old chief of the general staff, Gen. Shen Yi-ming, was one of eight senior officers “who died when their Black Hawk helicopter smashed into mountains near Taipei,” AFP writes. 
Shen “served as Taiwan’s air force chief and deputy defense minister before his appointment as chief of the general staff in July,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “In those roles, he helped oversee efforts to modernize the island’s air force, including the upgrading of its fleet of fighter jets and the planned purchase of advanced F-16V fighters from the U.S.”
“The UH-60M helicopter carrying 13 people disappeared from radar less than 15 minutes after taking off,” according to AFP. Five people survived the crash, including two-star general Tsao Ching-ping. A bit more, here.

An al-Shabab truck bomb killed 85 people in the capital city of Mogadishu on Saturday, CNN reported this week. AP called it “the worst attack in Mogadishu since the devastating 2017 bombing” that killed a staggering 587 people. A modest number of demonstrators have taken to the streets of the capital today in protest against al-Shabab, the BBC reports.
BTW: A Somali college teacher was found guilty of leading al-Shabab's operations in Mogadishu “for several years,” Voice of America’s Harun Maruf reported Wednesday. The man, Mohamed Haji Ahmed, was sentenced to death on Tuesday. He reportedly "taught English for two years as a part-time teacher. He left in March 2019, two months before he was arrested." More here.

The Taliban have reportedly agreed to a 10-day ceasefire in Afghanistan, but no one knows when it might begin, AP reported on December 29 from Kabul. 
The following day, the Taliban killed 14 Afghan security force members in northern Jawzjan province — the same day “Afghan forces said that 30 Taliban fighter were killed across the country.”
Two days later, the Taliban killed 26 more of the country’s security forces across northern Kunduz (10), Balkh (9) and Takhar (7) provinces. More from AP, here.

And finally today: A chance to take a few moments to remember the 22 U.S. service members who died in Afghanistan in 2019, via Stars and Stripes, which reminds us “All but four of the military fatalities in Afghanistan in 2019 were combat-related.”
For the record, “Roughly 13,000 American troops were deployed to Afghanistan at the start of 2020.” Read on, here.