The Soufan Group Morning Brief



In his first prime-time address Monday night, President Donald Trump put forward a long-awaited strategy for resolving the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. Trump said that while his original instinct was to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, he decided to keep troops there in order to “fight to win” and avoid leaving a vacuum for terrorists in the region. He did not specify the number of additional troops that the U.S. will commit to the war, saying, “we will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans.” Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has requested an additional 4,000 troops.

Trump said he plans to shift from a time-based approach in Afghanistan to one based on conditions on the ground. He said the U.S. will not set deadlines for withdrawal, but warned that it will not write a “blank check” for American engagement in Afghanistan. “America will work with the Afghan government, so long as we see commitment and progress,” he said. He called his approach “principled realism” and portrayed it as in keeping with the “America First” approach of his administration. New York Times, Washington Post,  Buzzfeed

Trump’s decision reflects mounting concerns among U.S. military leadership that battlefield setbacks for Afghan government forces against the Taliban and al Qaeda have led to a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Trump pledged to end a strategy of “nation-building” and to focus instead on countering terror threats. He also said his administration will put pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist safe havens and that India will play a greater role in providing economic and developmental support to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Afghan officials welcomed Trump’s announcement. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described himself as “grateful to President Trump and the American people for this affirmation of support for our efforts to achieve self reliance.” BBC News, CNN, Washington Post
Politico: America Is Out of Ideas in Afghanistan
NBC News: The War in Afghanistan: By The Numbers
LA Times: Trump’s New Afghanistan Policy is More of the Same
USA Today: World Reacts to Trump's Revised Afghanistan Strategy
New York Times: Trump’s Strategy May Help in Afghanistan, but Few Expect ‘Outright Victory’
Washington Post: Most Americans Oppose Sending More Troops to Afghanistan — Except in Trump’s Base

The Navy’s top admiral on Monday ordered a fleetwide review of seamanship and training in the Pacific after a collision of the USS John S. McCain off Singapore that left 10 sailors missing, marking the service’s fourth major accident at sea this year. Adm. John Richardson said he ordered an “operational pause” for Navy fleet commanders to review teamwork, safety, seamanship and other “fundamentals” aboard all 277 Navy vessels. He also ordered a broader, months-long review to examine the specific problems with the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan. Divers searched the flooded compartments of the destroyer on Tuesday in the hope of finding the 10 missing sailors. New York Times, Washington Post, McClatchy

Prosecutor calls 2009 proclamation a Guantanamo confession to 9/11 attacks: A war court prosecutor argued Monday that an incendiary statement made in 2009 and attributed to five alleged 9/11 plotters is evidence that amounts to a confession suitable for use at their death-penalty trial. Lawyers for one of the accused, Mustafa al Hawsawi, say the document, titled “The Islamic Response to the Government’s Nine Accusations,” is prejudicial. They want the trial judge to seal the document, order prosecutors not to distribute it, and exclude it as evidence from a pretrial hearing on whether Hawsawi is an Alien Unprivileged Enemy Belligerent—the category of captive who can be tried at the war court. Prosecutor Ed Ryan noted that a Bush-era trial judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, accepted the document in March 2009, and that it is now available on the Pentagon’s war court website and on news sites. Miami Herald

Lobbyist at Trump campaign meeting has a web of Russian connections: Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian lobbyist who met last summer with senior Trump campaign officials and is under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, has much deeper ties to the Russian government and Kremlin-backed oligarchs than previously known. Akhmetshin’s projects over two decades in Washington appear to have routinely advanced the Kremlin’s interests, especially after he became an American citizen in 2009. Akhmetshin also appears to have the most direct ties to Russian intelligence of those who attended the June 2016 meeting at the Trump tower. He has said he was a last-minute guest at an inconsequential meeting. New York Times

Houston man charged after trying to plant bomb on Confederate statue: Federal authorities said Monday that a Houston man was charged with attempting to bomb a statue in the city honoring a Confederate military figure. According to an FBI affidavit, Andrew Schneck was spotted by a Houston Park Ranger late Saturday night kneeling in front of the General Dowling Monument, a marble statue honoring military leader and Confederacy recruiter Richard Dowling, with materials capable of creating “a viable explosive device.” Schneck was charged with attempting to maliciously damage or destroy property receiving federal financial assistance. He made his initial court appearance on Monday and will remain in federal custody until a detention hearing on Thursday. Associated Press, Washington Post, NBC News

Charlottesville city council meeting erupts over white nationalist rally: A city council meeting in Charlottesville, Va., erupted in chaos on Monday night over the authorities’ handling of a white nationalist rally that left a woman dead and 19 people injured. At one point, the mayor, vice mayor, and three council members fled and two people holding a sign that said “blood on your hands” jumped on the chamber’s dais. The council ultimately voted unanimously in favor of expediting the removal and relocation of both the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments in the city. The council also voted unanimously to drape the statues “in recognition of the city’s mourning.” NBC News

Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons program were intercepted in the past six months, according to a confidential UN report. The report, which was submitted to the UN Security Council earlier this month, gave no details on when or where the interdictions occurred or what the shipments contained. “The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea),” the report’s authors wrote.

“Two member states interdicted shipments destined for Syria. Another Member state informed the panel that it had reasons to believe that the goods were part of a KOMID contract with Syria,” the UN report said. KOMID, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, was blacklisted by the Security Council in 2009 and is described as Pyongyang's key arms dealer and exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. Reuters

Russia on Monday hailed what it said was “a dramatic shift” in Syria’s conflict. “With the support of the Russian air force, Syrian forces have notched up a series of significant successes and won a major defeat over a big group of Islamic State fighters in the central part of Syria,” Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi said. Russia had stepped up its reconnaissance and bombing runs against ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor, he added. The Defense Ministry said Russian fighter jets killed more than 200 ISIS fighters in a recent air attack in an attempt to help Syrian government forces take back Deir Ezzor. Reuters, BBC News, Al Jazeera

Lebanese army finds anti-aircraft missiles in ISIS cache: Lebanon's army has found anti-aircraft missiles among a cache of weapons in an area abandoned by ISIS militants. The arms cache also included mortars, medium and heavy machine guns, assault rifles, grenades, anti-tank weapons, anti-personnel mines, improvised explosive devices, and ammunition. The find came following the start of an operation by Lebanon’s army to dislodge ISIS from its small enclave in Lebanon’s mountains straddling the border with Syria. Reuters

Yemen, Saudi blame Iran for war, say it cannot be part of solution: Yemen’s foreign minister blamed Iran and its support for Houthi Shiite rebels on Monday for causing the country’s civil war and said Tehran cannot be part of the solution. Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi said at a press conference that Iranian weapons are still being smuggled into Yemen. For his part, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said Iran “should get the hell out of the area, period.” Yemeni and Saudi officials spoke to reporters after a presentation to UN diplomats on the path to peace and humanitarian aid to Yemen. Associated Press

The driver of a van that rammed through a crowd on on Barcelona’s La Ramblas last week was killed by police on Monday afternoon. Police confronted Moroccan-born Younes Abouyaaqoub after receiving a tip from locals around the village of Subirats, west of Barcelona. Josep Lluís Trapero, chief of the Catalan National Police, said Abouyaaqoub threw open his shirt to reveal what officers believed was a suicide bomb belt around his waist before police shot him dead.

Authorities said Monday that forensic evidence, security camera images, and a witness led them to conclude that Abouyaaqoub was the driver of the van. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Barcelona attack, and Catalan police said it is possible that the terrorist cell, composed of Moroccan-born young men, was inspired or steered by ISIS actors. Trapero said Monday the investigation had gained an international dimension, implying that other countries’ police and intelligence agencies were involved, but he did not provide details. New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News

Four men accused of belonging to the 12-person terror cell behind last week’s attacks in and around Barcelona are appearing at the high court in Madrid today. Investigating judge Fernando Andreu is expected to read out the charges against them, which will likely span counts of terrorism, murder, and possession of arms. The hearing is likely to conclude with the suspects being remanded in custody for the duration of the investigation. BBC News
Foreign Policy: The Long Shadow of Al Andalus
NPR: Spanish Police Focus On Imam Linked To Perpetrators Of Barcelona Attack

Pope Francis urged political leaders on Monday to defend the rights of migrants, saying their safety should take precedence over national security concerns and that they should not be subjected to collective deportations. “Solidarity must be concretely expressed at every stage of the migratory experience – from departure through journey to arrival and return,” he said in a message ahead of the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. He said the human rights and dignity of all migrants must be respected regardless of their legal status and called for “broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.” His challenge to politicians, made in a comprehensive position paper on migrants and refugees, appeared to put him at odds with the restrictive policies of a number of governments dealing with growing popular anti-immigrant sentiment. Reuters, Associated Press

U.S. scales back Russian visa operations after Putin cuts embassy staff: The U.S. began scaling back its visa services in Russia on Monday, drawing an angry reaction from Moscow three weeks after President Vladimir Putin ordered Washington to more than halve its embassy and consular staff. The U.S. Embassy said it was suspending all non-immigrant visa operations across Russia starting on Wednesday and that the operations will be offered “on a greatly reduced scale” starting September 1. “The American authors of these decisions have come up with another attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded. Meanwhile on Monday, Putin appointed Anatoly Antonov as the new ambassador to the U.S. Reuters, Associated Press

Iran says only 5 days needed to ramp up uranium enrichment: Iran’s atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi warned Tuesday that Tehran needs only five days to ramp up its uranium enrichment to 20 percent, a level at which the material could be used for a nuclear weapon. The comments come as U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to renegotiate or walk away from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Salehi’s warning, along with recent comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, show Iran is willing to push back against Trump while still acknowledging a desire to maintain the deal, which lifted crippling economic sanctions on Tehran. “Definitely, we are not interested in such a thing happening. We have not achieved the deal easily to let it go easily,” Salehi said. Associated Press

Lebanon monitored Australia bomb plot suspects: Lebanon monitored brothers Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat, who are accused of plotting to blow up a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, for more than a year and coordinated with the Australian government, Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said. Machnouk told a news conference that one of the men’s brothers had moved to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria and become a commander in the terror group more than a year ago. Lebanon’s Internal Security Force then placed the three brothers under surveillance. “We have a close and cooperative relationship with the Lebanese authorities and are working closely on this investigation,” an Australian Federal Police spokeswoman said. Reuters, BBC News
After Barcelona, a new message for the terrorists — and politicians — who exploit fear: “The atmosphere in Europe, and particularly in Europe’s most heterogenous, most “cosmopolitan” cities, has changed in recent months. More people understand that the goal of jihadist terrorism is not just death but also chaos. More people fear not terrorism, but the possible political aftermath of terrorism, the anger and hysteria that can be manipulated by populist politicians seeking support, or by tabloid media seeking sales,” Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post. “Increasingly, this mood is at odds with the reaction of more distant outsiders to the same events.”

Criminal law should treat domestic terrorism as the moral equivalent of international terrorism: “While the Attorney General’s labeling of the [Charlottesville] attack as domestic terrorism was does not change the fact that there is no federal crime of domestic terrorism with which [James] Fields can be charged,” Mary B. McCord writes in Lawfare. “Neither state-law murder charges nor hate crime charges call what happened in Charlottesville what it was—domestic terrorism—and they fail to equate it under federal law, as it deserves to be equated, with the actions of ISIS-inspired terrorists who engage in violence in pursuit of their equally insidious goals.”

The real threat to America comes from Americans: “The hard truth is that those who perpetrate terrorism are a product of their societies, even if they’re a minority. They’re the result of unresolved issues, deep-seated problems that have been glossed over,” Kim Ghattas writes in Foreign Policy. “In the United States, the focus can’t just be on Trump and statues of Confederate leaders but on the reason why the discourse of white supremacy resonates with some and leads them to violence.”

This is why young European Muslims are joining ISIS: “It is not by choice that the vast majority of European Muslims live in social enclaves, rather this segregation is largely a product of social and economic exclusion. Isis offer these disenfranchised young people a highly seductive subculture – a cultural community and a new life that is emotionally rewarding,” Imam Qari Asim writes in The Independent. “States across Europe needs to invest in young Muslims, create job opportunities and bring prosperity to their lives, leading to better economic and social integration.”

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