Today's Headlines and Commentary

Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, July 8, 2015, 2:42 PM

The U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria continues to underperform, at least when it comes to training moderate Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State.

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The U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria continues to underperform, at least when it comes to training moderate Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State. Yesterday, in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter confirmed that the United States has trained no more than 60 fighters, well short of its goal of training 5,400 fighters within a year. Secretary Carter suggested there are 7,000 volunteers currently waiting to be vetted for training, yet conceded that the military does not know whether it will provide direct support to those fighters once they are in the field.

Yet the Islamic State has suffered significant setbacks over the last few weeks, as ISIS fighters have lost a third of Raqqa province in Syria and more than 10 villages under the weight of a Kurdish-led offensive. The Washington Post writes that the collapse of ISIS fighters has “exposed vulnerabilities in the ranks of the militants---and also the limits of the U.S.-led strategy." Even as ISIS retreats, the U.S. does not have a reliable force to press deeper into their territory. Moreover, with no Sunni alternative to take the lead, tensions between Kurdish fighters and Sunni Arabs may jeopardize gains.

In Iraq, the New York Times reports that Iraqi security forces are preparing a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi. The assault will be led by Iraq’s counterterrorism service, and according to American and Iraqi officials, the Iran-backed Shiite militias will not take part. Instead, the militias will “set blocking positions south and west of the city” in order to prevent ISIS fighters from escaping.

Finally, the Associated Press brings us a look at the secret to ISIS’s success: “fanatical and disciplined” elite shock troops who fight to the death, “wearing explosive belts to blow themselves up among their opponents if they face defeat.”

Foreign Policy provides a handy map of the current battlefield.

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and so they keep talking in Vienna as world powers attempt to finalize a long-sought nuclear deal with Iran. Negotiators have agreed to extend talks until Friday. With that decision, Congress will now get an additional 30 days to review the deal under legislation passed in May, as the Administration will fail to present a draft of the final agreement to legislators before the deadline of July 9th.

Even so, the Wall Street Journal indicates that the Obama administration may be considering indefinitely extending the talks under the November 2013 interim agreement. Such a move would allow negotiators to avoid ending talks while withholding sanctions relief and keeping the pressure on Iran to finalize a permanent accord. This “methodical approach,” as outlined by Politico, could placate critics who have suggested Secretary of State John Kerry is desperate for a deal by demonstrating he is willing to accept a little more scrutiny in exchange for more leverage against Iran.

In Afghanistan, it’s jaw-jaw and war-war. The New York Times reports that a delegation from the Afghan government met with Taliban officials in Islamabad for the first time yesterday. The Times calls the meeting the “most promising contact between the two warring sides in years,” and follows months of concerted efforts by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to get Pakistan centrally involved in the peace process.

No matter how promising, it quickly became apparent that Taliban officials are divided on the efforts, with the group’s political office in Qatar issuing a statement that the delegates were “not authorized” to attend such a meeting. Earlier in the day in Afghanistan, a Taliban suicide bomber rammed a NATO convoy in Kabul while three militants separately tried to raid an Afghan intelligence office, killing one police officer.

The war against the Islamic State is also stepping up inside Afghanistan. Today come reports from the Long War Journal that a U.S. drone strike along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border killed Gull Zaman, ISIS’s deputy emir of “Khorasan province.” Reuters and the AFP report that two drone strikes killed between 25 and 49 other ISIS insurgents. That high casualty number is reflective of ISIS’s increasing presence in the country, with U.S. and Afghan officials saying the group is now active in three provinces. The group’s growing activity has prompted a flurry of calls for President Barack Obama to extend the U.S. drawdown timeline in the country. Retired Army General David Petraeus and Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon add their names to that list in today’s Washington Post.

Two car bombs rocked the Yemeni capital of Sanaa yesterday, killing at least 10 people, according to the Wall Street Journal. A group affiliated with the Islamic State claimed responsibility for one attack, which targeted a Mosque frequented by Houthis. The second bomb exploded in the southern city of Al Bayda. The Islamic State’s turn to bombing mosques in Yemen marks a departure from terrorist attacks by AQAP, which has traditionally eschewed attacks on religious locations.

A female suicide bomber blew herself up in a crowd of Nigerian government workers yesterday, killing at least 20 people. The workers were lined up to have their fingerprints taken for a new government payroll system. The Wall Street Journal notes that if the attack is confirmed to be the work of Boko Haram, it will be the group’s eighth consecutive day of attacks.

A new battlefield and a new war for Chechen Muslims: the New York Times reports that Islamic Chechen fighters have joined the battle in eastern Ukraine, attempting to push Russian-backed separatists from cities like Maripol. “We like to fight the Russians,” said one Chechen. For their part, the Times reports, the Ukrainians are happy for any help they can get. According to Ukrainian commanders, the Chechens have frequently slipped into “no man’s land to patrol and skirmish.”

Chinese state media, quoting defense experts, has called for the People’s Republic to develop a long-range strategic bomber so that the country can strike adversaries far away from its coastline, including the “second island chain,” which consists of a number of Pacific islands including Guam.

Today, FBI Director James Comey climbed the Hill to discuss his concerns with encryption, the balance of privacy and national security, and the threat of “going dark.” His remarks come one day after a group of elite security technologists released a report entitled “Keys Under Doormats: Mandating Insecurity”, which claims that American and British governments cannot gain special access through backdoors to encrypted communications without compromising most of the world’s data and critical infrastructure. Susan Landau, a co-author of the paper, previewed its findings for Lawfare as part of our ongoing coverage of the encryption debate. In DefenseOne, Mieke Eoyang also argues that Comey is wrong: “Stronger encryption makes us all safer.”

Just now catching up on the Crypto War 2.0? Sara Sorcher at the Christian Science Monitor has got you covered with today’s long read on “the battle between Washington and Silicon Valley over encryption.”

Elsewhere, a report from the University of Cambridge Center for Risk Studies and Lloyd’s of London says that a cyber attack on the U.S. power grid could cost the economy $1 trillion dollars.

The United States Army is set to cut 40,000 soldiers from its ranks over the next two years, one year earlier than previously forecast, reports the AFP. A senior defense official disclosed that 17,000 civilians will also be laid off.

Parting Shot: Just when you thought things couldn’t go any lower in Libya, there’s this video of a Free Libya Air Force Mig-23 flying at roughly 10 feet above the ground. It’s an impressive stunt, but it leaves one wondering: with growing insurgencies and insolvable instability, how do they have the time?

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

As part of Lawfare’s coverage of the ongoing encryption debate, Paul Rosenzweig brought us a modest proposal for testing encryption insecurity.

In response to FBI Director Comey’s earlier piece on Lawfare, Susan Landau broke down the problems with backdoor keys into encryption: in her view, it’s “mandating insecurity.”

Jennifer Williams and Yishai Schwartz shared the latest round-up of Middle East news.

Daniel Byman reviewed Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

Ben added a correction and a reiteration to his earlier piece on the OPM hack suggesting that the intelligence community shares some responsibility.

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Cody Poplin is a student at Yale Law School. Prior to law school, Cody worked at the Brookings Institution and served as an editor of Lawfare. He graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science & Peace, War, and Defense.

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