Today's D Brief: Sweden’s PM to the WH; Erdogan still blocking NATO expansion; Israel buys more F-35s; State’s Afghan withdrawal review; And a bit more.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is expected to visit the White House this afternoon for talks with President Joe Biden. Kristersson’s arrival is planned for 2 p.m ET. Sweden’s bid to join the NATO alliance is perhaps the biggest short-term goal for the two leaders.
Also on the agenda: “our shared commitment to supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal war of aggression and to closer transatlantic coordination on the People’s Republic of China,” as well as climate change and “emerging technologies,” the White House said in a preview.
By the way: Turkey and Hungary were the only two NATO members who had not yet approved Sweden’s request to join the alliance. But now officials in Budapest say they’re ready to approve the bid—as soon as Turkey does the same, Bloomberg reported Tuesday.
“If there's movement there, then of course we'll keep the promise that Hungary won't delay any country in terms of membership,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said in a press conference broadcast on Facebook.
Fine print: Hungary’s parliament meets for the last time before its summer recess on Friday. That means unless lawmakers in Budapest vote on Sweden’s bid by then, it’s unlikely Stockholm will get Hungary’s formal ratification in time for next week’s annual NATO summit in Lithuania.
Update: Turkey’s combative president still hasn’t softened his tone when it comes to Sweden’s NATO bid, he confirmed in public remarks Monday. It doesn’t help that protesters in Stockholm last week burned a Koran on the first day of Muslim Eid al Adha holiday, which additionally angered Turkish President Recep Erdogan. The Associated Press has a bit more on all that, reporting from Ankara on Monday, here.
New: NATO chief Stoltenberg gets another 15 months. In lieu of no particularly strong candidates to replace him, 64-year-old NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s term was extended yet again Tuesday—carrying him one year closer to the alliance record, held by Dutch diplomat Joseph Luns, whose time as secretary-general ran for nearly 13 years ending in 1984.
Stoltenberg’s first year on the job began in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula. His time as NATO chief has already been extended three times since 2018. His current term is set to expire on Oct. 2024.
“With his steady leadership, experience, and judgment, Secretary General Stoltenberg has brought our Alliance through the most significant challenges in European security since World War II,” President Biden said in a statement Tuesday. “Today, our Alliance is stronger, more united and purposeful than it has ever been,” he added.
- “What Sweden's submarines bring to NATO,” Reuters reported Monday from Sweden;
- And “Pope condemns Quran burning in Sweden and calls for respect,” al-Jazeera reported Monday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is planning to visit Maryland’s Fort Meade on Wednesday, where he’ll visit an enlistment processing station and swear in new recruits, according to the Pentagon.
Saturday was the 50th anniversary of America’s all-volunteer military, because that’s when the country’s draft for the Vietnam war finally ended. “Moving to an All-Volunteer Force was a bold step: No other military with such formidable capabilities had operated on a voluntary basis,” Pentagon chief Austin said in a statement this weekend. “But history has proven the wisdom of relying on our All-Volunteer Force, and the combination of moral and military power that it has brought has strengthened our armed forces,” he added.
“Fifty years ago, there were questions as to whether we could attract the talent our military needed, or whether Americans would answer the call to serve,” President Biden said in his own statement Saturday. “But today, we see so clearly that the eleven million women and men who have joined active-duty service over the last five decades—and the four million more who have joined our National Guard and Reserve forces—are the reason why our military remains the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Not the only milestone this year: “[W]e are also honoring the 75th anniversary of the desegregation of our Armed Forces and the 75th anniversary of women’s full integration into our military,” Biden said, and stressed “the undeniable truth that the diversity of our military, like our nation, is our greatest strength.”
New: Israel will buy 25 more F-35s, bringing its total fleet to 75 stealth fighters, Reuters reported on Sunday. The $3 billion buy would be financed through funding Israel receives from the United States, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry.
The announcement comes just days after the U.S. State Department approved the sale of 24 F-35s and hundreds of missiles and bombs for the jets. The deal is worth more than $5.6 billion. More than 200 F-35s are in Europe right now and more than 550 are expected to be flying in the region by the early 2023, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Executive Vice President Greg Ulmer told Defense One last month at the Paris Air Show.
There are more than 200 F-35s in Europe right now; but by the early 2030s, there are expected to be more than 550 F-35s on the continent, with only 50 of those jets belonging to the U.S. Air Force, Ulmer said.
Spotted near Taiwan and Okinawa last week: two Russian navy frigates. The ships were first seen about 40 miles southwest of the Japanese island of Yonaguni, which is part of the Okinawa island chain. A few days later they were spotted between the islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima, Reuters reported from Tokyo last Saturday. The island of Okinawa, of course, is home to thousands of U.S. troops from all five military services.
Russian navy ships (and planes) were also spotted in an unexpected place this week: the Twitter page of U.S. Pacific Fleet. The command inadvertently included silhouettes of Russian military aircraft and a Russian-made ship in the graphic it used for its Fourth of July post. The post was eventually deleted.
- “China’s defense minister and Russia’s navy chief meet for 1st military talks since Wagner revolt,” AP reported Monday from Beijing;
- “CIA's Burns: U.S. needs to de-risk and diversify away from China,” Reuters reported Saturday;
- “Chinese military delegation visited UK, France,” Reuters reported separately Saturday from Beijing;
- See also “Vietnam bans 'Barbie' movie due to an illustration showing China's territorial claim,” via AP, reporting Tuesday from Hanoi.
Lastly today: Just before the July 4th weekend, the State Department published its own review (PDF) of the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Below are some of the most notable takeaways from that 24-page report, which we have broken into three categories—excuses, finger pointing, and recommendations.
Among the apparent excuses:
- “While the Department and Embassy Kabul had prepared for various scenarios, including the possibility of a full evacuation from Afghanistan, there was not a sufficient sense of urgency.”
- “With many Washington personnel engaged in telework [due to Covid], there were initial difficulties in staffing and running the Department’s in-person crisis response.”
- “Such a highly complex operation had never been attempted in U.S. resettlement history.”
- “The rapid fall of Kabul occurred while the embassy was experiencing a major staff transition. Because Foreign Service tours in Afghanistan typically were one-year assignments, many officers who had served in 2020-2021 departed in late-July and early-August.”
- “During the period covered by this review, many critical domestic and overseas Department positions were not filled by Senate-confirmed appointees, but rather career employees serving in an acting capacity…No matter how qualified the ‘acting’ person is, it is not the same as having a confirmed official in position.”
- “[T]here was a plan to retain some U.S. forces to provide critical security, but the details of that—and what stay-behind force the Taliban would accept as consistent with the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban Agreement—had not been clearly established by the time Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.”
- The State “Department’s participation in the NEO [noncombatant evacuation operation] planning process was hindered by the fact that it was unclear who in the Department had the lead. Coordination with DoD worked better on the ground in Kabul.”
- “The lack of a centralized case management system to track and collate inquiries and a number of other communications and information management challenges added to the difficulties the Department faced.”
- The State “Department could have better identified, prepared, and equipped volunteers for the situation they encountered” at the “so-called ‘lily pads’ where those who were evacuated were taken for temporary shelter and further vetting and screening before onward travel to the United States.”
In terms of more direct finger pointing, the State Department says:
- “[D]uring both [Trump and Biden] administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow.”
- “When the Trump administration left office, key questions remained unanswered about how the United States would meet the May 2021 deadline for a full military withdrawal…”
- “[T]he speed of [Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline for withdrawal, aka] retrograde compounded the difficulties the Department faced in mitigating the loss of the military’s key enablers. Critically, the decision to hand over Bagram Air Base to the Afghan government meant that Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) would be the only avenue for a possible noncombatant evacuation operation.”
- “At the time the Trump administration signed the agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, there was a significant backlog in the Afghan SIV process. That administration made no senior-level or interagency effort to address the backlog or consider options for other at- risk Afghans despite its commitment to a military withdrawal.”
- “In examining these efforts spanning two administrations, the AAR team was struck by the differences in style and decision making, most notably the relative lack of an interagency process in the Trump administration and the intense interagency process that characterized the initial period of the Biden Administration.”
And when it comes to recommendations:
- “[T]he Department can better prepare for future crisis scenarios, including the establishment of a red team capacity to challenge underlying assumptions.” That should probably fall to the department’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy that’s fully staffed and “led by a Civil Service SES with substantial crisis management experience.”
- “The Department must insulate contingency planning and emergency preparedness from political concerns.”
- State also needs its own single strategic communications officer “to draft public messages and hold regular background briefings for Congress and others.”
- “The Department should actively support mobile-friendly communication platforms such as non-enterprise apps like WhatsApp and Signal.”
- There should also be “more explicit information as to when and under what circumstances the Department would evacuate local staff.”
- Relatedly, “for U.S. contractors and contractors from third countries, consider including a clause that bolsters employment companies’ responsibility for evacuation planning and resources for its staff in high-risk areas, including a return to the home of record.”
- Appointing one person “to oversee all elements of the crisis response would have improved coordination across different lines of effort…Consistently staffing the task forces with experienced people during a pandemic also proved challenging.”
- “The Department demonstrated great agility in funding, staffing, and provisioning the reception center at the Dulles Expo Center with virtually no notice, as well as staffing and supporting other processing sites, including on U.S. military bases. These activities, however, are well outside the Department’s normal areas of responsibility and should not serve as a precedent for future crises.”
- “The Department should invest in crisis management software that can provide a common operating picture and synthesize appropriate information from across the organization. Most important, it needs a case management system that is compatible with other relevant Department systems, is interoperable with interagency platforms, and allows for tracking Congressional and other special interest cases while ensuring privacy safeguards and protection of [personally identifiable information].”
- There should also be “increased crisis training and exercises” among State staff in future, including “frequent tabletop exercises/simulations in Washington on international and hybrid crises.”
- And apparently the State Department may need its own evacuation/emergency SWAT-like teams. “The Department should establish flyaway teams that are able to deploy at short notice to posts in crisis. The teams would include individuals specially trained for high threat environments and with critical expertise in the core missions of the Department.”
There is also a touching narrative from encounters at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base on page 7 of the report. Read it over in its entirety (PDF), here.
It’s tempting to ask: “Will America’s Afghan withdrawal be a major focus of the next U.S. general election?” But that seems very unlikely, said Afghan analyst Jonathan Schroden, writing Saturday on Twitter. The war in Afghanistan “wasn’t an issue in 2016, [it] definitely was not in 2020, and it won’t be in 2024 either,” he said. “Americans (generally speaking) stopped caring about Afghanistan somewhere around 2010,” Schroden added. And we don’t see any significant reasons to disagree with him.