Tag Archives: Joint Special Operations Command

As Syria crisis worsens, U.S., allies accelerate plans to secure chemical arsenal

By Joby Warrick,
The Obama administration is accelerating its planning with Middle Eastern allies for a series of potentially fast-moving crises in Syria in the coming months, including the possible loss of government control over some of the country’s scattered stocks of chemical weapons, U.S. and Middle Eastern security officials say.

The planning, involving intelligence and military officials from at least seven countries, includes detailed arrangements for securing chemical arms with special operations troops in the event that parts of Syria are seized by militants, the officials said. Western and regional intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Islamic extremists could attempt to seize control of whole towns and districts if the country slides into full-scale civil war.

The stepped-up preparations have coincided with increased military training in the region, including an unusually large multinational military exercise underway this month in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor. U.S. and Jordanian officials separately have been discussing possible permanent bases in the country for small units of Marines or special operations troops who could be deployed rapidly in a crisis anywhere in the region, from the Syria border to Iraq, according to current and former government officials familiar with the talks.

“There’s a big worry that things could fall apart quickly,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who has been briefed about the contingency plans and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatically sensitive preparations. “A big problem can turn up on your doorstep overnight.”

Western intelligence agencies made similar plans to safeguard chemical munitions in Libya last year during the uprising there, particularly during the chaotic final weeks as Libyan troops deserted their bases ahead of the rebels’ final advance on Tripoli.

The Libyan arsenal, consisting mainly of bulk containers of degraded mustard agent, was deemed less dangerous than Syria’s battlefield-ready stock of more powerful nerve agents. Libya’s chemical weapons depots remained intact during the uprising, though thousands of other weapons of all kinds — from ­rocket-propelled grenades to shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles — went missing.

While Syria’s arsenal of deadly nerve agents tops the list of worries, the planning group — which has included elements of the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command on the U.S. side — also has sought to map out a response to other emergencies, from pilot-rescue operations to massive refugee flights to border violence as tribes along the Syrian frontier are drawn into skirmishes with government forces or rival groups, the officials said.

“There are contingencies for everything, up to and including taking back a province that has been seized by al-Qaeda,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official who has participated in the discussions.

While U.S. intelligence officials have conducted their own planning exercises for Syria, the increased coordination began early this year and intensified in recent months. An early advocate, Western diplomats say, was Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose country has witnessed cross-border shootings in addition to masses of Syrian refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began 14 months ago.

The process evolved into a series of bilateral discussions that grew to include Britain, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to two Middle Eastern security officials who have participated.

“We drew on the lessons from Libya,” the second Middle Eastern official said. “Some of the countries involved have overlapping air defenses, so on a practical level there has to be coordination.”

The contingency planning for securing Syrian chemical weapons relies on early warning from U.S. spy agencies who have been closely monitoring Assad’s stockpiles for more than a year. Syria possesses one of the world’s largest arsenals of chemical munitions, including tons of nerve gases such as VX and sarin, as well as artillery shells and missile warheads for delivering them.

The weapons are kept in bunkers under heavy guard in at least five sites around the country, weapons experts say. While the stockpiles appear secure at the moment, they could be plundered or simply abandoned if Syria troops are beaten back by increasingly well-armed rebels or by al-Qaeda-allied militants who have been streaming into the country from Iraq in recent weeks, intelligence officials say.

It is against this backdrop that military forces from 19 countries gathered in Jordan last week for a military exercise dubbed Eager Lion 2012. The exercise, focused primarily on special operations and counterinsurgency training, was expected to draw as many as 12,000 troops to the Jordanian desert, making it one of the largest exercises of its kind in the region, Pentagon officials said.

U.S. and Jordanian officials have declined to link the training exercise to the crisis in Syria, a country with which Jordan maintains diplomatic relations. But Pentagon officials involved in the event stressed the importance of “strategic theater cooperation” among special operations troops.

The training “does not target anyone — none of the neighboring or world countries,” Jordanian Armed Forces training chief Major Gen. Awni El-Edwan told reporters.

Washington Post

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Terrorist Fishing in the Yemen

Last month, according to news accounts, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to widen the scope of drone attacks carried out against al Qaeda members in Yemen. Previously, strikes targeted only known individuals; henceforth, the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command will be permitted to target people whose patterns of behavior make them high-value targets. Many counterterrorism and Yemen experts think that the White House is opening up the gates of hell. They might be right, but I wish the alternatives they suggest were more convincing.

The White House’s decision is important not only in itself but as an indication of how Obama wishes to fight the war on terror. The president inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; whatever he did there was largely reactive. Americans are no longer fighting in Iraq, however, and they have begun to draw down in Afghanistan. The locus of terrorism has also moved on, to Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. These are the sites where Obama is free to choose his tactics — and make his mark. His strategy is complex; in places like Yemen and Nigeria, the Obama administration is trying to improve the ability of embattled governments to deliver services and is training militaries to stand up to terrorists. But drone warfare has moved to the very center of the White House’s strategy. Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky.

Obama has authorized not only a new policy but a new global infrastructure for drone warfare. Last year the Washington Post reported that the United States is “assembling a constellation of secret drone bases” in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Djibouti, and the Arabian Peninsula. After years of refusing to acknowledge the secret effort, the White House has decided to openly make the argument for drones. On April 30, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech in which he argued that targeted strikes from remote aircraft satisfy the criteria of just war and constitute a “wise” choice because they allow for immediate response, eliminate American casualties, and minimize — virtually to zero, according to Brennan though not to a multitude of skeptics — collateral damage to civilians. Brennan went into unusual detail in explaining the painstaking standards applied to each targeting decision.

If drones are the future of counterterrorism, Yemen is the laboratory. The country looks like a much more propitious setting for the effort than Pakistan, where Obama has also stepped up the pace of attacks. The Pakistani security establishment treats the Taliban not as a threat but as a strategic asset, while the current, admittedly extremely tenuous government of Yemen views al Qaeda as a threat to its sovereignty. Over the last year, as the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh disintegrated in the face of massive public demonstrations, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the local affiliate is known, occupied a swath of territory in southern Yemen. The new interim government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has welcomed the U.S. effort and used its own air force to supplement American drones. And while in Pakistan al Qaeda and Taliban forces mingle with the local population, AQAP, by staking out its own territory, has exposed itself to aerial attack. In the last few weeks, drone strikes have killed Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, fourth on Yemen’s most-wanted list, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, AQAP’s external operations director.

As military solutions go, drones really are hard to beat. As Brennan noted, “Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns.” By contrast, “there is the precision of targeted strikes.” The drone thus represents a lesson learned from the first generation of the war on terror: Precision limits popular backlash. But is that really true? By all accounts, drone strikes in Pakistan have become ever more accurate, but still inflame Pakistani public opinion almost as much as has the occasional incursion by U.S. or NATO forces. In March, Pakistan’s parliament voted to prohibit such strikes altogether. That outrage, in turn, has made it almost impossible for the United States to achieve its long-term goals of helping Pakistan become a stable, civilian-run state. Short-term success has jeopardized the long-term goal — though that price might still be worth paying.

That hasn’t happened yet in Yemen. And perhaps it won’t, so long as the drones hit al Qaeda terrorists rather than local insurgents, not to mention civilians. But that’s a leap of faith. As Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen, notes, “Right now we don’t have a Pakistan-like reaction. But at first we didn’t have that reaction with Pakistan either. This is something that builds. And folks in Yemen know what’s going on in Pakistan. This will play into the broader narrative of the drones we use in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Another lesson learned from Afghanistan is that even a counterinsurgency effort designed to protect civilians and promote good government will provoke nationalist resistance. People on the ground will see the intervention as against them, not for them (which explains why, according to WikiLeaks cables, President Saleh publicly insisted that the Yemeni air force had launched the strikes). Counterinsurgency, which seemed so promising all of two or three years ago, now looks like an illusory, or at least oversold, solution to the war on terror. How long before we say the same of drones?

The answer, in both cases, is not to abandon the approach but to acknowledge its inevitable costs. There are no cost-free military solutions. The drone strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two AQAP leaders, were well worth the effort; the same should be said of more recent attacks. But when does the cost exceed the value? Bodine said that she recently attended a conference at “an undisclosed location” in which this very question provoked furious debate among security officials. The White House, in fact, pushed back against a CIA request to set the same targeting rules in Yemen that it now operates under in Pakistan, where it is permitted to strike militants who pose a threat to U.S. forces whether or not they include a high-value target. So there is skepticism in high places, if not in the CIA or special operations forces. The new “pattern” rules may still be too broad.

The frequency of strikes is already much greater than most of us realize. A report by the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counts 21 definite or possible drone strikes in Yemen over the last two months; a Yemeni government official has said that the United States has been launching an average of two strikes a day since mid-April. The danger of producing more militants than we kill in Yemen hardly seems hypothetical.

The danger, more broadly, is that the United States will fall in love with drones and thus that targeted strikes become the U.S. strategy rather than an element of it. Of course, that raises the question of what that larger strategy should be — not only in Yemen but in the other places where al Qaeda seeks to exploit weak states to gain a territorial foothold. The answer, from most critics, is that the United States must not sacrifice the long term for the short term. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert who blogs at the site Waq al-Waq, argues that the United States must accept “the really difficult work of diplomacy and counter-terrorism.” The no-shortcut answer is capacity-building, democracy promotion, economic development. The only long-term solution to the al Qaeda exploitation of state failure is to cure state failure.

That’s true, of course. But that may not be a fair criticism of the Obama administration, which has been pursuing just such a strategy since 2009, though it was derailed by the political turmoil and violence of the last year. Only in recent months have many military and civilian programs in Yemen been restored. Beyond that, however, what grounds do we have for putting any faith in such a strategy? Experience in Afghanistan, which in some ways Yemen strongly resembles, has not been encouraging. The appeal of precision airstrikes is magnified by the failure of the less lethal alternatives.

I’ll devote next week’s column to the question of what, if anything, the United States and other partners can do, and should do, to help the Yemenis help themselves — and thus to put the drones in their proper place.BY JAMES TRAUB

CIA Reveals Admiral, Not Obama, In Charge of Bin Laden Raid

Approximately one year after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, a memo written by former CIA Director Leon Panetta has been obtained, revealing that President Obama was not, in fact, in charge of operation strategy in the hunt for the terrorist mastermind.

Panetta received a call from National Security Officer Tom Donilon confirming that President Obama had made the decision to “proceed with the assault” on bin Laden‘s compound in Pakistan after assessing a risk profile. However, the memo, released by Time Magazine, states that “the timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands.”

“The direction is to go in and get bin Laden, and if he is not there, get out,” read the memo. It does not clarify whether the intention was to kill bin Laden or to capture him.

However, the memo also shows that President Obama was not in charge of operation strategy as the mission was being carried out. Rather, Panetta noted that, “the timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands.”

“The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration,” said the memo.

President Obama has said that the decision was one of the “gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.” However, it seems that the “gutsy call,” was actually made by Admiral William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command.

Two days after the memo was written, bin Laden was assassinated by a team of Navy SEAL commandos.

celebrity bin laden morph
celebrity bin laden morph (Photo credit: mosilager)

Following the raid, Pakistan’s government claimed it had no knowledge of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. However, speculations have questioned how the terrorist’s presence in the compound could have been undetected by Pakistani officials when Abbottabad is home to a major Pakistani military base and only about 30 miles from the capital city of Islamabad.-By Rachel Hirshfeld