The Early Edition: May 23, 2016

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

AFGHANISTAN

Leader of the Taliban, Mullah Makhtar Mansour was killed by a US airstrike in a remote area of Pakistan on Saturday morning, President Obama has confirmed. Mansour was targeted because he was “specifically targeting US personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan,” the President said, comments he has echoed in a White House statement released this morning. Obama also confirmed that the killing was not a signal that the US’ approach in Afghanistan has changed: “we are not re-entering day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces.” [Wall Street Journal’s Carol E Lee]

The strike – which directly targeted Mansour – marks “the most aggressive US military action in Pakistan” since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, and “represents another escalation in US involvement in the war in Afghanistan,” say Tim Craig et al. [Washington Post]

Pakistan has accused the US of “violating its sovereignty,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif telling reporters that he had not been forewarned that the strike was to take place. An anonymous US official has confirmed that Pakistan was not notified until after the strike. [Reuters]

The hit will “inevitably” mark another “blow” to US-Pakistan relations, suggests Bruce Riedel, though hopes among Afghan security forces that this is the beginning of increased aggression against Taliban safe havens in Pakistan are likely “misplaced:” the strike was “a discreet operation in the border region” and “not the equivalent of hitting targets deeper inside Pakistani territory.” [The Daily Beast]

Pakistan was instrumental in helping Mansour to secure the Taliban leadership following the announcement in late 2015 that previous leader Mullah Omar had been dead for over two years, which then precipitated a power struggle within the organization. While Pakistan has been arguing that peace talks involving a united Taliban is the only way to end the war in Afghanistan, Afghanistan has been growing increasingly impatient with its neighbor’s unwillingness to take military action against the insurgents, which are able to operate freely in Pakistan. [The Guardian’s Jon Boone and Sune Engel Rasmussen]

The Afghan government is providing financial and military support to a breakaway faction of the Taliban, Afghan and US coalition officials have claimed. The aim is to encourage splits within the group and push its leaders toward peace talks. [Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Donati and Habib Khan Totakhil]

IRAQ and SYRIA

Battle to retake Fallujah. Iraqi security forces have launched a military offensive aimed at reclaiming the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah, to the west of Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in a televised address over the weekend. The operation comes after months of planning and preparation in coordination with the US-led coalition. [Wall Street Journal’s Ghassan Adnan and Asa Fitch; AP]

Explosions have killed more than 100 people in the coastal cities of Jableh and Tartous, Syria, today. The targeted area is government-controlled and hosts Russian forces. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Mediterranean coast, which included at least five suicide attacks and two car bombs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [Reuters and AP]

Syrian rebels set ultimatum. Syrian opposition groups have put out a statement saying that they will no longer abide by a ceasefire agreement if the Syrian military doesn’t halt a major offensive on their positions in the suburbs of Damascus within 48 hours. The signatories to the statement include Western and Turkish-backed rebel factions. [Al Jazeera]

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, made a secret trip to Syria this weekend. Votel is the highest ranking US military official to have made a visit to the country since 2014. Robert Burns provides further details at the AP.

A top Islamic State commander gave a rare speech on Saturday, presenting a defensive tone which suggests that the militant group is “feeling the pinch” of US-coalition efforts against the group, according to Liz Sly. [Washington Post]

“It does not require hindsight to appreciate the recklessness of his decision.” Fred Hiatt comments on President Obama’s “fatal fatalism” in the Middle East, at the Washington Post.

An American ISIS defector has given an exclusive interview with NBC News, footage and excerpts from which are available here.

EGYPTAIR FLIGHT INVESTIGATION

The investigation into what caused EgyptAir Flight 804 to crash into the Mediterranean Sea last Thursday, killing 66, has focused on its movements in the hours leading up to the crash. [Wall Street Journal’s Jon Ostrower et al]

Egyptian investigators have deployed a submarine in an effort to locate the “black boxes,” which contain flight data and an audio recording of the cockpit, and should provide the best evidence as to what caused the jet to crash. [Wall Street Journal’s Tamer el-Ghobashy et al]

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Guantánamo Bay parole board has approved the release of Afghan prisoner “Obaidullah,” who has been held captive in the detention center since 2002. There are nine further parole board hearings scheduled this month. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Congress has stepped into the dispute over whether female guards at Guantánamo Bay should be banned from touching defendants, introducing new legislation that seeks to prevent war court judges from issuing such orders. [AP’s Alex Brandon]

Defense lawyers are to return to Guantánamo Bay’s Camp Justice trailer park, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker having lifted the ban on attorneys sleeping at the Camp he imposed earlier this year on the ground that a variety of cancer-causing agents had been found on the site. Baker said that he is satisfied with remediation efforts. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has called for a total overhaul of American whistleblower protections, following revelations from a new Pentagon source highlighting how the system became a “trap” for those hoping to expose wrongdoing. Spencer Ackerman and Ewen MacAskill provide the details at the Guardian.

John Crane, a former senior Pentagon investigator, accused his old office of “retaliating against a major surveillance whistleblower,” Thomas Drake. Spencer Ackerman and Ewen MacAskill have the story, and an interview with Crane. [The Guardian]

“How the Pentagon punished NSA whistleblowers.” Mark Herstgaard provides a detailed account of how lives were ruined by the Pentagon for trying to report on wrongdoing, in an extract from his book, ‘Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden.”

YEMEN

A suicide bombing in the Yemeni city of Aden has killed at least 40 today, Islamic State claiming responsibility. [Reuters’ Mohammed Mukhashaf; Al Jazeera]

Peace talks aimed at ending the fighting in Yemen are “making progress,” according to the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. The peace talks began on Saturday. Meanwhile, more Saudi-led airstrikes have hit Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. [AP’s Adam Schreck]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Libyan Prime Minister Faiez Serraj has requested EU assistance in training his security services, naval forces and coast guard, the EU’s foreign policy chief said yesterday, confirming she will discuss it at today’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting, with “a view to making this operational as soon as possible.” [Wall Street Journal’s Valentina Pop]

The United States has agreed to completely lift its arms embargo on Vietnam, which has been in place for some 50 years, said President Obama at a news conference today in Hanoi. [New York Times’ Gardiner Harris and Austin Ramzy; Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee]  The AP has the latest on the president’s first visit to Vietnam.

China has said that it hopes developing ties between Vietnam and the US will contribute to regional peace and stability; Beijing resents American efforts to strengthen military ties with its neighbors amid mounting tensions in the South China Sea. [Reuters]

The US has sent tanks to take part in drills just 45 miles from the Russian-Georgian border as part of Exercise Noble Partner, involving US, British and Georgian troops, due to run till Thursday. Russia has branded the move “a provocative step.” [NBC News’ Carlo Angerer]

“We will do everything to stop these terrorists.” Belgium’s prime minister vowed to defeat Islamic State on Sunday, speaking at a ceremony to mark two months since the Brussels bombings. [AFP]

The Israeli defense minister officially stood down yesterday, “capping a tumultuous week of politics” which is predicted to lead to the replacement of the former military chief with an “inexperienced hard-liner.” Aron Heller has the story at the AP.

Soon-to-be-published stats on the numbers of militants and noncombatant civilians killed by US forces since 2009 “may be defined as much by what is left out as by what is included,” writes Karen DeYoung. Release of this information is part of guidelines for the US’ use of drones to battle terrorism abroad, which Obama said in 2013 would be “subject to new transparency and oversight.” [Washington Post]

World leaders gathered for the start of the first UN World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul today. The Summit has attracted criticism from aid groups such as Médècins Sans Frontièrs, which has called it little more than a show. [BBC]

Philippines-based terror group Abu Sayyaf has released a “final” video featuring three hostages pleading for assistance from their embassies and from Filipino president-elect Rodrigo Duterte. The Islamic State-affiliated group claims it will execute the prisoners on June 13. [CNN’s Euan McKirdy]

A North Korean proposal to engage in military talks was dismissed by South Korea today, which it branded “a bogus peace offensive.” [Reuters’ Jack Kim] 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE