Iraq: prepare to leave. US: no way; Army unveils anti-China plans; War Powers vote passes; Iran’s disinfo expands; And a bit more.

Iraq to U.S.: get ready to get out. In a Thursday phone call, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to set up a procedure for withdrawing forces, according to an early-Friday statement released by Mahdi’s office.

U.S. to Iraq: we’re staying. The U.S. State Department responded with a Friday statement saying that any delegation it sent would be there to discuss “how best to recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal.” (Via AP’s Matt Lee)

Back to that Thursday phone call. “The prime minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities, and this was a violation of the bilateral agreements,” the statement added. (AP

Mahdi set no timetable for either the planning or the eventual withdrawal, the New York Times reported. The call followed Sunday’s nonbinding declaration by the Iraqi parliament that the U.S. should leave, a vote that U.S. diplomats had been working to forestall for months. 

Of note: The U.S. State Department’s readout of the call, issued Thursday evening, did not mention Mahdi’s request, the Times said.

Iran denies downing the airliner that crashed soon after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport soon after Iranian missiles struck U.S.-occupied bases in Iraq on Wednesday. “What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s national aviation department, told reporters on Friday. 

That line was echoed in Moscow, where TASS quoted deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Russian officials see no evidence to blame Iran. (Reuters)

Canada: Iran shot it down. “Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, citing intelligence from Canada and other sources, has blamed an Iranian missile for bringing down the plane that had 63 Canadians on board, although he said it ‘may well have been unintentional,’” Reuters wrote on Thursday.

Unnamed U.S. officials concurred, telling the Washington Post of their “high confidence” that the Boeing 737-800, bound for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was targeted by air-defense systems as Iranian forces were on high alert.” 

Watch video of the missile hitting the plane, which the New York Times says it has verified as authentic.

How not to operate a SAM battery. “You scratch your head and go, ‘Holy cow, how could this happen?’” Dave Deptula, who led planning for the air component of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, told Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. Deptula outlines what’s supposed to happen in a surface-to-air missile team, and what might have transpired instead, here.

What Iran wants from the U.S. now: to leave the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reported from an unusual briefing by the new general in charge of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Unusual because of the many flags of Iran-backed proxy groups throughout the Middle East that he stood among, many of whom have spent years denying links to Tehran, including (h/t @abdullahawez): 

  • Basij (Iran Army) 
  • Hezbollah (Lebanon)
  • Ansarullah (Huthis - Yemen) 
  • Hashd Shabi (PMF - Iraq) 
  • Hamas (Palestine)
  • Liwa Fatemiyoun (Afghans)
  • Liwa Zainebiyoun (Pakistanis) 

What Trump wanted from the Soleimani killing: Support “from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate,” the Wall Street Journal also reported Thursday in an article titled “Trump’s New National Security Team Made Fast Work of Iran Strike.” 

The full excerpt of the above point about killing Soleimani, the four WSJ reporters write, “Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said." More behind the paywall, here.

From Defense One

House Passes War Powers Resolution to Limit War With Iran // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The measure is legally toothless, but could still have some political impact.

Iran Is Expanding Its Online Disinformation Operations // Patrick Tucker: Tehran isn’t as practiced as Moscow at purveying propaganda online, but they’re no slouches.

How Not to Operate a Surface-to-Air Missile Battery // Marcus Weisgerber: It’s not yet clear why a Ukrainian jetliner was shot down on Wednesday, but a lot had to go wrong.

Why US Officials Are Revealing More about Cyber Ops // Mark Grzegorzewski: It’s part of a “costly signaling” gambit. Will it deter America’s enemies?

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense spending & Iran; Ukraine’s next arms buy; F-35’s delivery curve; and just a bit more….

Trump’s Threat to Bomb Iran's Cultural Sites Isn’t Just About Art // David Elitzer: Throughout history, the destruction of culturally important sites has gone hand in hand with violence against civilians.

After Years of NATO-Bashing, Trump Asks Allies for Help with Iran // Klaus W. Larres, The Conversation: But Britain, Germany, and France believe that everyone's interests are best served by the nuclear deal Trump hates.

The US, Iran, and the Consequences of Breaking International Law // David Mednicoff, The Conversation: Some in the U.S. act as if only naked might matters in foreign policy. Yet American policy in Iran and Iraq illustrates something different.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here

The U.S. Army is ramping up to counter China. In an interview with Bloomberg ahead of a formal rollout of new strategy, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said his service will deploy a specialized task force to the Pacific equipped and trained to conduct information, electronic, cyber and missile operations against Beijing. 
Among its (future) arms: land-attack and anti-ship long-range precision weapons such as hypersonic missiles, “possibly clearing the way for Navy vessels in the event of conflict,” Bloomberg wrote.
Among the questions that raises for Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble

  1. Upon which islands east of Taiwan and the Philippines is the Army planning to base those hypersonic missiles? 
  2. Do they need host-nation support? 
  3. Have they gotten it? 
  4. Will this provoke rather than deter China?

President Trump just sent North Korea's Kim Jong-un a birthday message of some sort, South Korea’s national security adviser told reporters today in Seoul. In case you’re wondering, “Kim’s birthday is believed to be Jan. 8, though his secretive regime has never confirmed the date,” Reuters reports. And “The U.S. government lists Kim’s birth year as 1984, making him 36 years old this year.”
BTW: The U.S. still hasn’t finalized the bill to South Korea for hosting American forces on the peninsula. And no one seems to know exactly where denuclearization talks officially stand with North Korea. To that end, Reuters ended its noting “South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday there is an urgent need for practical ways to improve ties with North Korea, adding that he was ready to meet its reclusive leader in North Korea.” More here.

More than two dozen Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack by Islamist militants near the border with Mali, Reuters reported Thursday. And that attack follows “a raid by Islamic State insurgents on a military outpost last month that killed 71 soldiers.”
BTW: This is a trend we should not ignore, according to new analysis from the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. In short, “The Salafi-jihadi movement is strengthening across several regions of Africa and will grow more dangerous if global counterterrorism efforts rapidly recede,” the authors warn.
This movement has "four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them."
Key consideration: “Geopolitical competition and the Salafi-jihadi threat are not separate challenges but deeply connected ones. The Libya conflict is internationalizing. Foreign support—and now, direct foreign participation—is a key driver of a war now at risk of descending into unprecedented violence. Such conflict and grievance are exactly the conditions that, time and again, allow the Salafi-jihadi movement to manifest and grow.” Read on, here.
Related reading (published Christmas Eve), via the NYTs: “Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift” 

Won’t get fooled again? Russian state-backed hackers could afford to be sloppy in 2016 because they’d caught Americans off guard. But in 2020, those “hackers and trolls are working far harder to cover their tracks," the New York Times reports today in 2,500-word feature on election security ahead of this year’s presidential race.
A few key points:

  • “Millions of Americans are still primed to swallow fake news.”
  • "One of the two Russian intelligence units that hacked the Democrats in 2016, known as ‘Fancy Bear,’ has shifted some of its work to servers based in the United States in an apparent attempt to thwart the N.S.A. and other American spy agencies, which are limited by law to operating abroad... The other unit, known as ‘Cozy Bear,’ abandoned its hacking infrastructure six months ago and has dropped off the radar."
  • "The trolls at the Internet Research Agency... have ditched email accounts that were being tracked by Western intelligence agencies and moved to encrypted communication tools, like ProtonMail... They are also trying to exploit a hole in Facebook’s ban on foreigners buying political ads, paying American users to hand over personal pages and setting up offshore bank accounts."
  • "There are also weak points up and down the long chain of websites and databases used to tally and report [U.S.] votes."
  • "Security experts say they are witnessing a significant ramp-up in attempts to hack Democratic front-runners. In just the last two months, there were roughly a thousand phishing attempts against each of the leading Democratic candidates."
  • "More recently, Iranian hackers have been caught trying to compromise President Trump’s campaign and impersonating American political candidates on Twitter."

Sound familiar? We discussed many of the concerns flagged above in our three-part podcast series on cyberwarfare, especially in the today and tomorrow episodes. And we touched on some of the evolving tactics in our latest episode on influence operations in 2020.
The more things change. Despite the ongoing evolution in information warfare and America’s latest efforts at counter-information warfare that the Times reporters trace, there’s still one sure thing all hackers and disruptors can depend on in terms of the U.S. as a target: "America’s partisan divide." Much more, here.

And now for something completely different. Who wants to go to war with Iran? McSweeney’s offers a satirical “CASE FOR WAR, BY SOMEONE WHOSE KIDS WON’T DIE FIGHTING IN IT,” here
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!