The Early Edition: May 24, 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

The death of the Taliban’s leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike on Saturday was approved because he was planning new attacks on US targets in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said yesterday. [Reuters’ Jibran Ahmad and Jonathan Landay]

Mansour’s killing has caused a rift between the US military and the White House over what action to take next: the military wants to use its aircraft to prevent the Taliban’s advance this summer – which would require an overhaul of the rules of engagement, amended last January as part of President Obama’s plan to reduce US involvement – while the White House wants to wait to see what effect Mansour’s death has on the Taliban. Gordon Lubold et al report. [Wall Street Journal]

The Wall Street Journal editorial board calls on the Obama administration to “hit the Taliban harder” in the wake of the drone strike that killed the group’s leader, suggesting that if US bombing to prevent Taliban gains is not escalated, “that could leave [Obama’s] successor with another security crisis to clean up.”

The US “crossed a red line” when it ordered the drone strike in Pakistan, according to Pakistan’s politicians, who are worried that it is a signal that the US is readying itself to bring the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. [Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Greg Miller]

Iran’s involvement with the Taliban is also exposed by Mansour’s death, write Jon Boone and Saeed Kamali Dehghan. It is known that Iran provides “weapons, cash and sanctuary” to the Taliban, despite “deep ideological antipathy.” Lending support to this, Mansour died on the main highway leading from the Iran border; Mansour’s passport shows he had only just returned from crossing the border between Iran and Pakistan when he was killed. [The Guardian]

“True” peace in Afghanistan will require President Obama to address “his own reluctance to provide adequate support to the Afghan military,” says the Washington Post editorial board. While the death of Taliban leader Mansour “eliminates one roadblock to peace,” as Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said, it was by no means the biggest one.

On the contrary, the death of a credible Taliban leader “can only add to the instability in Afghanistan,” a country that has long been “a battlefield for competing vested interests,” mainly among warlords, observes Tom Hussain. [Al Jazeera]

A roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province has killed at least five, according to a local official. No group has yet claimed responsibility. [AP]

IRAQ and SYRIA

Battle for Fallujah. Iraqi troops supported by airstrikes from the US-led coalition “pounded” Fallujah from above and on the ground yesterday, the start of the offensive announced over the weekend to reclaim the city in Anbar province from Islamic State. [Wall Street Journal’s Asa Fitch and Ghassan Adnan]  Ben Wedeman assesses the challenges Iraq will face in taking the city back from the militant group, at CNN.

Despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s “triumphant” announcement of the offensive to retake Fallujah, faith in the government is low among residents of Baghdad “still reeling from a stunning barrage of suicide attacks” last week, which took more than 200 lives. [AP’s Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George]

The Assad regime has blamed Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia for a string of bombings which hit Tartous and Jableh on the Syrian Mediterranean coast yesterday, state-run news agency Sana saying the attacks constituted a “serious escalation” and were intended to derail peace negotiations. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which some reports say killed almost 150 people. [BBC]

Moscow has called for a temporary ceasefire to start in two towns outside of Damascus in the wake of yesterday’s attacks. The announcement comes as the US continues to push Russia to pressure the Assad government to stop attacking rebel forces and civilian populations in the capital, Damascus and Aleppo. [Al Jazeera]

A spokesperson for the US State Department said that Russia “has a special responsibility in this regard to press the regime to end its offensive attacks and strikes that kill civilians.” [Politico’s Nahal Toosi]

Islamic State has “almost completely destroyed” a Russia-occupied Syrian airbase, the Tiyas facility, according to new satellite imagery. [BBC]

The UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, is coming under pressure to defend the “twin” military objectives in Syria, to oust both president Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State from that country, amid indications that British lawmakers are considering a decentralized model that would not guarantee Assad’s removal. Patrick Wintour has the details at the Guardian.

A fourth member of a group of British Islamic State “jailers” has been identified as 27-year-old Londoner El Shafee Elsheikh. The group, dubbed “the Beatles” on account of their British accents, were responsible for the torture and killing of Western hostages of Islamic State in Syria. Another member, Mohammed Emwazi – or “Jihadi John” – was killed in a US drone strike last year.  Others include Alexanda Kotey, whereabouts unknown, and Aine Davis, arrested in Turkey last year. [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman and Souad Mekhennet; The Guardian’s Shiv Malik]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out seven strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on May 22. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 10 strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

“That’s like a patient who ignored a cancer diagnosis bragging that he finally reduced the tumor in his lung – glossing over the fact that he let it spread and metastasize to his other organs.” Marc A. Thiessen accuses the Obama administration of letting the “terrorist cancer” grow and spread, noting the proliferation of attacks across the world. [Washington Post]

EGYPTAIR FLIGHT INVESTIGATION

Human remains from crashed EgyptAir Flight 804 indicate that there was an explosion onboard, an Egyptian forensics official has said. [The Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and Ben Quinn; Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham]

Concerns that evidence collected from debris from EgyptAir Flight 804 is being mishandled by Egypt have been voiced by aviation-safety experts tasked with using that evidence to work out what caused the plane to crash. [Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Michaels et al]  Investigators are also faced with conflicting information about the last few moments of the flight, Greek authorities stating that the jet swerved shortly before it lost radio contact, Egyptian authorities challenging that. [CNN’s Michael Pearson]

Longstanding concerns that Paris airport employees may have terrorist sympathies have been exacerbated by the crash of EgyptAir 804, which took off from Charles de Gaulle Airport last Wednesday evening. Police have “quietly” broken up “several” criminal networks among radicalized baggage handlers in the past few years, but worries about racial, ethnic or religious profiling, and French labor law, makes addressing these concerns a challenge. [The Daily Beast’s Erin Zaleski and Christopher Dickey]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

China warned the US “not to start a fire” in Asia following Obama’s announcement yesterday that the arms embargo against Vietnam, with which China “enjoys a complex relationship,” will be lifted. Obama has insisted that the move was “not based on China.” [Washington Post’s Simon Denyer]

Obama’s lifting of the embargo “sends an unmistakeable signal to Beijing’s leaders that their efforts to bully its neighbors have backfired,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board. China has reclaimed land on disputed islets in the South China Sea and built military bases there, threatening Vietnam’s claims in the area. While the US can now supply arms to Vietnam’s already formidable military presence in the South China Sea, boosting future joint military operations, Vietnam can offer the US and its allies access to its deep-water naval base at Cam Ranh Bay – assuming the US and Vietnam can maintain a stable relationship.

UK anti-radicalization plans are “so flawed they risk creating a “thought police” in Britain,” warns the police chief in charge of the “Prevent” program, under which, he says, police will become judges of “what people can and cannot say.” The proposals include a widening of the definition of who can be said to hold “unacceptable views,” and who can therefore be banned, gagged or shut down. [The Guardian’s Vikram Dodd]

Increased fighting in east Ukraine has resulted in the deaths of seven soldiers today, the result of attacks by pro-Russian separatists. It is the highest reported daily casualty figure since August last year. [Reuters]

Romanian hacker “Guccifer” is anticipated to plead guilty to US criminal charges on Wednesday morning during a hearing in Alexandria, Va. It is not clear which out of the nine felony counts Guccifer – real name Marcel Lehel Lazar – is charged with he will be pleading guilty to, or whether the plea changes are part of a deal to cooperate with federal officials on other cases. All counts relate to his hacking of senior US officials, including George W Bush and ex-secretary of state Colin Powell. Guccifer also claims to have hacked former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s private email server. [The Hill’s Julian Hattem]

The economic gains arising from the Iran nuclear deal are proving slow to appear, hopes of investment and opportunities for the young turning to frustration, report Samia Nakhoul and Richard Mably. [Reuters] 

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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