Whatever happened to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

The troops waging America’s 17-year-old war in Afghanistan are confronting a puzzle: What has become of the enemy who drew them there?

Al Qaeda, the group whose Sept. 11 terrorist attacks provoked the U.S. invasion in 2001, has shrunk to relative obscurity among the military’s other missions in Afghanistan, supplanted by newer threats such as a local branch of the Islamic State. And it is a matter of debate how much Al Qaeda’s remaining Afghan presence still focuses on launching attacks overseas, according to current and former military officers and government officials, experts, and Afghans from areas where the group operates.

Only a small portion of the 15,000 American troops in Afghanistan are involved in the counterterrorism mission that the military calls its “core objective” there. Even fewer of those are hunting al Qaeda, whose presence in the country has dwindled after years of drone strikes. Instead, U.S. Continue reading “Whatever happened to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?”

U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan was part of CIA operation

An Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this month was part of a secret program that helps the CIA hunt down militant leaders, according to three former special operations soldiers who knew him.

Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz, 32, a longtime member of the 1st Battalion of 75th Ranger Regiment, died on July 12 “of wounds sustained as a result of enemy small arms fire” in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktiya province, the Army announced the next day.

But he was part of a team of Army Rangers supporting the CIA in an intensifying effort to kill or capture top militant targets, even as the broader U.S. military mission focuses on training and advising Afghan security forces.

“They’re pretty active to say the least,” said a former special operations officer with detailed knowledge of the program, which previously went by the code name Omega and now goes by ANSOF. Continue reading “U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan was part of CIA operation”

Trump’s impulsive decrees weigh on Pentagon

President Donald Trump’s flare for the unpredictable has taken a toll on his defense leaders, handing them orders and major policy shifts with little or no notice — ranging from his transgender ban, a military parade and a separate Space Force to his musings about reducing U.S. troop strength in Europe or intervening in Venezuela.

This week added the specter that another capricious decree may be in the works, when the Russian military reported that President Vladimir Putin and Trump had reached a private agreement at their Helsinki summit to join forces to rebuild war-torn Syria. Such a deal would mark a major change for the U.S. troops battling the Islamic State, who are barred by law from cooperating with Russian troops fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

The top U.S. commander in the region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters he has received "no such Continue reading “Trump’s impulsive decrees weigh on Pentagon”

Feds don’t have enough beds for migrant families

The Trump administration has pledged to warehouse migrant families together. But at the moment, it has no place to put them.

An executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday calls for the Homeland Security Department to keep migrant children in custody with their parents during criminal proceedings for illegal entry and subsequent immigration proceedings. But the cases of asylum-seekers caught at the border can take months or years to resolve — and the federal government has only 3,326 beds for detained families in three facilities, according to a 2017 watchdog report.

The Border Patrol arrested 9,485 family members in May alone.

The hurdles are "pretty significant,” said John Sandweg, former acting ICE director under President Barack Obama. “They’re going to have to build some family detention centers quickly.”

Trump’s executive order calls on the Defense Department to “take all legally available measures” to provide detention space for Continue reading “Feds don’t have enough beds for migrant families”

Pentagon suspends Korea ‘war-game’ planning for August

The U.S. military has “suspended all planning” for a joint military exercise with South Korea that was scheduled for August, the Pentagon announced today.

The move comes a week after President Donald Trump pledged to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he would halt joint “wargames” on the Korean peninsula, calling them “provocative.”

In a departure from the military’s usual language, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White referred to the exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, as a “defensive ‘wargame’” in her statement, parroting Trump’s earlier description.

Some 17,500 American forces participated in last year’s iteration of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, including 3,000 troops who deployed to South Korea specifically for the exercise.

“We are still coordinating additional actions. No decisions on subsequent wargames have been made,” White said.

She added that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security adviser John Bolton plan to meet at the Continue reading “Pentagon suspends Korea ‘war-game’ planning for August”

Republicans buck Trump on Korea troop pullout talk

Republicans and defense experts are warning that President Donald Trump’s idea of pulling American troops from South Korea would undermine stability across Asia and weaken the U.S. against China.

One GOP senator, Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, is pushing legislative language touting the importance of the U.S. military presence in deterring North Korean aggression — in contrast to Trump’s repeated calls for withdrawing American forces someday. And other Republicans have sounded that theme since Tuesday’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, where the president expressed a desire to eventually “bring our soldiers back home.”

“There’s a reason we’ve had a U.S. presence there, and it’s always served its purpose,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a former Air Force B-1 bomber pilot, said in an interview Wednesday. Stewart said U.S. forces should leave only if something happens to ease the threat from Pyongyang, such as a future peace Continue reading “Republicans buck Trump on Korea troop pullout talk”

U.S. kicks China out of military exercise

The United States has revoked an invitation to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy to participate in a naval exercise, the Pentagon announced Wednesday, citing Beijing’s destabilizing moves in the South China Sea — including deploying weapons and other military equipment on contested islands and artificial reefs.

China announced in January that it had accepted a U.S. invitation to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest international maritime wargame.

The PLA Navy contributed five ships to the last one, in 2016, which included the militaries of 26 nations. China first participated in 2014, when it sent four ships along with an uninvited spy ship that skirted the exercise area.

“As an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea we have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan of the Marine Corps Continue reading “U.S. kicks China out of military exercise”

Medal of Honor recipient faced allegations of excessive force

President Donald Trump is presenting the nation’s top military honor on Thursday to a retired SEAL Team 6 operator who epitomizes the heroism of his unit, but also some of the lingering questions surrounding the secretive U.S. military special operations forces in Afghanistan.

Retired Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt Slabinski will receive the Medal of Honor at the White House for his actions in the 2002 battle of Takur Ghar. The award is a product of the Pentagon’s effort to recognize the heroism of service members in the war against terror, part of a multi-year push to review more than a thousand lower-level valor medals for possible upgrades.

In one of the first ground battles of the war against Al Qaeda, Slabinski led a reconnaissance element of Team 6 that came upon a group of heavily armed militants. After one of the Team 6 operators fell from a Continue reading “Medal of Honor recipient faced allegations of excessive force”

Pentagon claims Green Berets went rogue in Niger ambush

The Army special operations team that came under lethal attack last October in the African nation of Niger was initially conducting an unauthorized kill-or-capture mission whose true nature it concealed from higher headquarters, the Pentagon confirmed for the first time Thursday.

The findings of a monthslong probe highlight key inconsistencies with the public explanations at the time that it was a training mission gone horribly wrong when 12 American and 30 Nigerien soldiers were ambushed in the remote village of Tongo Tongo and four Americans killed — and not a combat operation.

To what extent the inaccurate information that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top officials provided flowed from the inaccurate information the Pentagon now says the team itself provided to its superiors is not clear.

But in a statement, Pentagon press secretary Dana White said Mattis has "concluded there are institutional and organizational issues, not isolated to this Continue reading “Pentagon claims Green Berets went rogue in Niger ambush”

Pentagon claims Green Berets went rogue in Niger ambush

The Army special operations team that came under lethal attack last October in the African nation of Niger was initially conducting an unauthorized kill-or-capture mission whose true nature it concealed from higher headquarters, the Pentagon confirmed for the first time Thursday.

The findings of a monthslong probe highlight key inconsistencies with the public explanations at the time that it was a training mission gone horribly wrong when 12 American and 30 Nigerien soldiers were ambushed in the remote village of Tongo Tongo and four Americans killed — and not a combat operation.

To what extent the inaccurate information that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top officials provided flowed from the inaccurate information the Pentagon now says the team itself provided to its superiors is not clear.

But in a statement, Pentagon press secretary Dana White said Mattis has "concluded there are institutional and organizational issues, not isolated to this Continue reading “Pentagon claims Green Berets went rogue in Niger ambush”

Former Joint Chiefs head fears Trump will lash out if North Korea summit fails

The potential for a war between the United States and North Korea will deepen if the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fails, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Tuesday.

Retired Adm. Mike Mullen told Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies he is “encouraged by the fact that the two leaders are going to talk" and gives Trump “a lot of credit for moving the needle on this.”

But Mullen, who served as the top military officer under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said he worries that Trump’s public tone on North Korea in recent months — including "casually threatening a nuclear holocaust over Twitter” — spells trouble if the summit does not succeed.

"If the talks do fall apart, the failure is likely to stir the president’s most bellicose and aggressive instincts," Continue reading “Former Joint Chiefs head fears Trump will lash out if North Korea summit fails”

Trump’s Afghanistan strategy stymied by vetting of local troops

The plan to turn around the war in Afghanistan may already be running into quicksand.

An extensive effort aimed at weeding out Taliban sympathizers and terrorist infiltrators from the Afghan army has slowed the work of a new unit of 1,000 military advisers, whose deployment was billed as a key part of the strategy President Donald Trump authorized in August.

The U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade — a pillar of the strategy, and created with this kind of mission in mind — arrived in Afghanistan in March and assumed its mission last month. But partly because of the decision to vet so many partners, the brigade has not yet been able to link up with Afghan army battalions across the country, according to military officials and contractors involved in the effort.

“They’ve got to screen everybody who’s going to be working directly with the [brigade],” said an Continue reading “Trump’s Afghanistan strategy stymied by vetting of local troops”

Pentagon: U.S. strike on Syria achieved its limited objectives

The U.S.-led cruise missile strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities Friday night destroyed their intended targets and did not provoke a feared response from Russian forces in the country, military officials said Saturday.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie described the operation as a success that would “set the Syrian chemical weapons program back by years.” He said it would also deter further chemical attacks on civilians, like the one the Pentagon believes Bashar Assad’s regime conducted a week ago.

Defense Department spokesperson Dana White stressed during the news conference that the operation “does not represent a change in U.S. policy, nor an attempt to depose the Syrian regime,” however.

“We’re still conducting a more detailed damage assessment, but initial indications are that we accomplished our military objectives without material interference from Syria,” McKenzie said. He noted Continue reading “Pentagon: U.S. strike on Syria achieved its limited objectives”

Aides try to focus Trump on Syria after raid

National Security Adviser John Bolton was supposed to lead a White House meeting of the president’s national security team on Monday afternoon, but a surprise visitor showed up and took the reins instead: Vice President Mike Pence.

The vice president doesn’t often attend the White House’s Principals Committee meetings, which are typically led by the national security adviser, but Pence guided Monday’s discussion as President Donald Trump’s senior aides debated how to respond to a gruesome chemical weapons attack in Syria, according to four senior administration officials.

Pence’s attendance wasn’t listed on his public schedule. While some meeting attendees viewed his appearance as an attempt to upstage Bolton on his first day as national security adviser, others saw it as an effort on the vice president’s part to offer as a steadying hand as Trump confronts a thorny national security dilemma with a foreign policy team in flux and amid Continue reading “Aides try to focus Trump on Syria after raid”

Coats: Haspel’s CIA record will be declassified ‘as much as possible’

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Wednesday that he expects to "declassify as much as possible" from the background of Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s controversial pick to lead the CIA.

Haspel’s close involvement in the use of harsh interrogation tactics on detained terrorism suspects has raised concerns among senators in both parties and cast a cloud on her confirmation prospects to lead the spy agency, where she is currently deputy director.

As political pressure mounts on intelligence officials to release more information about Haspel’s past, particularly her supervision of a CIA "black site" in Thailand, Coats offered relatively vague assurances.

"We want to declassify as much as possible without jeopardizing someone’s what we call sources and methods," Coats told a gathering of defense reporters. "Every effort will be made to explain fully what her role was."

Whether that explanation will be enough to get Haspel across Continue reading “Coats: Haspel’s CIA record will be declassified ‘as much as possible’”

Intel chief: Trump administration set to announce Syria troop decision

The Trump administration has decided the future of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and plans to announce its decision “shortly,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Wednesday morning.

He didn’t indicate what the decision was.

“All hands were on deck yesterday and discussed that subject and some decisions were made, but I can’t discuss” what those decisions were, Coats told reporters at a breakfast meeting, referring to deliberations at the White House following President Donald Trump’s remarks last week suggesting that U.S. forces would leave Syria “very soon.”

Asked directly whether a determination had been made on whether to pull forces out of Syria, Coats said, “Yes.”

Speaking Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Brett McGurk, the senior official overseeing the diplomatic side of the fight against the Islamic State, said, “We’re in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission. Our Continue reading “Intel chief: Trump administration set to announce Syria troop decision”

War zones still waiting for a visit from Trump

President Donald Trump wants a parade of tanks and warplanes, promises a huge defense buildup and rarely misses a chance to praise “our great military” and veterans — but he has yet to visit American troops fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Trump’s absence from the war zones more than a year into this presidency stands in contrast to his immediate predecessor: Former President Barack Obama made his first of four presidential trips to the front lines three months after taking office and he went to Afghanistan twice in 2010, including one visit just months after he announced a surge of forces against the Taliban. Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush went half a dozen times, including his surprise visit to troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day in 2003, eight months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Many former diplomats, Pentagon officials and retired military officers believe Trump Continue reading “War zones still waiting for a visit from Trump”

Mattis warns Syria not to use chemical weapons again

The Syrian regime should think carefully before using the chemical weapons again, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Friday, in an apparent reference to last year’s U.S. military strike on a regime airfield in retaliation for a previous chemical attack.

“You’ve all seen how we reacted to that,” Mattis said, adding that the Syrian regime “would be ill-advised” to launch more chemical attacks, as some reports from inside the country in recent days have suggested.

Mattis acknowledged those reports and said that the Pentagon was looking for evidence to confirm them. “Groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters have said" that the regime has used sarin gas in recent attacks, he said, but “we do not have evidence.”

The regime appears to have weaponized chlorine again, Mattis said, but “we are even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use.”

“We think that they didn’t carry out what they Continue reading “Mattis warns Syria not to use chemical weapons again”

The Army’s latest weapon to turn around the war in Afghanistan

FORT POLK, La. — The Army has a new tool it hopes will finally tip the scales in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — and potentially other Islamist insurgencies. But can it work?

Meet the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, the first of six units of roughly 1,000 soldiers each that are specially designed to “advise and assist” foreign armies so that they can contain guerrilla movements on their own.

The new brigades are the latest in a string of Pentagon attempts to prepare Afghan, Iraqi and other foreign security forces to secure their nations. They are also the most concrete acknowledgment that all the costly efforts to professionalize such ragtag armies have failed — and the need is as great as ever.

The 1st SFAB is rushing to complete its final rehearsals before deploying to Afghanistan this spring as part of President Donald Trump’s revamped war strategy Continue reading “The Army’s latest weapon to turn around the war in Afghanistan”

Afghan units implicated in ‘gross violations’ still get Pentagon support, IG finds

U.S. forces have used a loophole in the law to keep training and equipping units of the Afghan security forces that are implicated in "gross violations of humans rights," according to a new report from the Pentagon’s independent watchdog over the 17-year-old conflict.

The Pentagon used the clause to maintain assistance for 12 Afghan units “implicated in 14 gross violations of human rights in 2013,” The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found.

Normally, units with records of human rights abuses should see assistance withheld under the Pentagon’s version of the so-called Leahy law.

But the IG describes how, under the so-called “notwithstanding clause” in the appropriations act that funds security assistance in Afghanistan, the Pentagon can forgo the mandate when it is deemed “infeasible.”

Of a larger total of 75 reported gross human rights violations brought to light as of August 2016, six were found to involve Continue reading “Afghan units implicated in ‘gross violations’ still get Pentagon support, IG finds”