MATTIS SIGNS ORDERS FOR AFGHANISTAN: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has signed some orders, and plans to sign more, beginning the deployment of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan as he moves ahead with the revamped strategy approved by President Trump. Under a new Pentagon policy that avoids disclosing troop movements that could help the enemy, Mattis won’t say exactly how many troops are going, but promised transparency once they get there. The Pentagon admitted this week that the U.S. has approximately 11,000 troops deployed in the war zone, not the 8,400 number given out by the Obama Pentagon. “I owed the American people transparency and frankly honestly on what's there now,” Mattis said, “because I inherited the number that I could not look you in the eye and say that's what's there.”
Mattis said “by and large” the additional forces are trainers for the NATO Resolute Support “train, advise and assist” mission. “It's more advisers. It's more enablers, fire support, for example,” Mattis said. “Don't get me wrong. The fight will still be carried by the Afghan security forces plus the 38 other allies who are there alongside us.” Mattis says U.S. troops already in theater will also be “realigned” to better carry out the new strategy, which is designed to break the will of the Taliban and drive them into peace talks by convincing them they cannot win militarily.
LUDICROUS: Mattis’ announcement of deployment orders came at another one of his surprise media engagements in the Pentagon’s C-ring press pen, in which he expressed bemusement that anyone had taken his recent comments about Korea as a break with his boss. “I'm not trying to make fun of the people who write along those lines,” Mattis said while labeling the notion that he was contradicting the president “ludicrous.”
Take Mattis’ statement that the U.S. is “never out of diplomatic solutions,” which he made when asked about Trump’s tweet that “Talking is not the answer!” with North Korea. The two things are not in conflict, Mattis said. “Diplomatic is a lot more than just the narrow slice of talking to North Korea,” he said, explaining it includes talking to other countries and increasing economic pressure. “There was no contradiction,” Mattis said. “I agree with the president we should not be talking right now to a nation that's firing missiles over the top of Japan.”
And then there was the Facebook video in which Mattis told U.S. troops in Jordan to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.” Mattis said he was channeling the president’s remarks, which he had just heard a few hours earlier. In that primetime address on Afghanistan Monday night, Trump said, “The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
“Literally, I’m using the president’s thoughts, and they thought that I was distancing from the president, so I mean it shows how ludicrous this really is,” Mattis said. “I can't help people who misinterpret things. I'll do my best to call it like I see it, but right now, if I say six and the president says half a dozen, they're going to say I disagree with him.”
NORTH KOREA NUKE TEST: Mattis would not disclose if U.S. intelligence has corroborated South Korean reports suggesting the North appears to be making plans for a sixth nuclear test, possibly as soon as this month. “They could do something like that on relatively short notice,” Mattis said. “I won't get into what we're able to identify.” According to the South Korean media, the country’s National Intelligence Service briefed lawmakers in a closed session that the spy agency has detected indications of preparations for another nuclear test at North Korea’s Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site.
The authoritative 38North website says commercial satellite imagery from Sunday “does not provide observable corroborative evidence” that North Korea is about to conduct another underground nuclear test. “The situation is reminiscent of when we responded to similar reports in mid-June that a nuclear test was imminent at that time,” the site says. “Nonetheless, we remain firm in our previous assessments that the DPRK has, since April 2017, continued to maintain the site at a high state of readiness such that it could conduct a test on short notice, whenever the political decision is made to proceed with another test or tests.”
Mattis also confirmed that the U.S. knew within minutes that the latest North Korea missile launch would soar over Japan and land in the Pacific. Mattis said he would not telegraph the conditions that would prompt the U.S. to shoot down a North Korean missile and noted he was not among the voices in the administration speculating that Kim Jong Un was backing down. “It was a reckless, provocative act, firing that over Hokkaido,” Mattis said. “We were watching what they were doing, but I did not know what, in fact, they were thinking, whether or not they were really throttling back or not.”
ROOM FOR NEGOTIATIONS: The White House was asked yesterday whether, in light of Trump’s tweet that "talking is not the answer,” if negotiating with North Korea is still on the table. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “Absolutely. All includes all. So I think that would certainly include diplomatic, economic and military options.”
Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
NOT HAPPENING MONDAY: We will not be publishing on Monday due to the holiday. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!
BUDGET UNCERTAINTY: Mattis heads to the Hill next week, not just to explain his Afghanistan moves, but also to try to help resolve the budget uncertainty that is still hamstringing the Pentagon’s ability to plan for the future and rebuild an overstretched military showing serious readiness cracks. “We will work with them. We've already got meetings scheduled to sit down with them and talk with them about the way forward,” Mattis said yesterday, but stopped short of expressing confidence that Congress would resolve the budget in a way that was favorable to the Pentagon, or even find the votes for a short-term continuing resolution. “No, this is up to Congress,” Mattis said. “That's why I need to sit down and talk with them. Is it going to be a budget? Is it going to be a CR? It'd be a short-term CR – all those things, we've got to work with Congress on.”
THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT: In his last briefing as commander of the U.S.-led counter-Islamic State coalition, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend gave voice to a common frustration of military commanders who served under President Barack Obama, who was widely seen as micromanaging his generals in the field. In that respect, Trump has turned out to be sunshine after the rain. “We don't get second-guessed a lot. Our judgment here on the battlefield in the forward areas is trusted. And we don't get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take,” Townsend said. “I don't know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn't appreciate that.”
One of Trump’s first tweaks to the strategy designed to defeat ISIS more quickly was to delegate more authority to commanders in the field to make tactical decisions, without having to call back to Washington for permission. Under Obama, the review process for even simple requests, such as moving forces around on the battlefield, could take days, and required the preparation of lengthy decision memos for Obama’s appraisal.
WANTED: DEAD OR NOT SO ALIVE: Townsend seemed to be feeling liberated in his farewell briefing, opining at one point that if he had his druthers, he’d just as soon kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than go to all the trouble of taking him prisoner. "I would be happy to capture Baghdadi. I don't know who wouldn't. I think I would be just as equally satisfied just killing him," Townsend said. "If he's alive out there somewhere, we are looking for him every day. When we find him I think we will just try to kill him first. Probably not worth all the trouble to try to capture him." Actually capturing Baghdadi alive would likely be an intelligence coup.
TAL AFAR NOT THE MODEL: Townsend congratulated Iraqi forces for what he called “a stunningly decisive victory” over ISIS in the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul. But he warned that ISIS would likely not collapse so spectacularly elsewhere, that Tal Afar was a sort of special case. “Tal Afar was largely isolated from the rest of Iraq and Syria for about seven or eight months. Since early in the Mosul fight, Tal Afar was surrounded,” Townsend said. “There was strife between local ISIS fighters and foreign ISIS fighters.” That, combined with the ability of the Iraqi forces to advance simultaneously on five axes, made quick work of the dispirited enemy forces. “I'd like to say that we would see this elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, we're not really planning for that,” Townsend said. “We're planning for tough fights ahead. We think that's probably the best way to approach it.”
DECONFLICTING ISIS’ LAST STAND: The ultimate defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is expected the come down to a last stand, where the all the armies fighting ISIS will converge. It’s going to happen in what’s been dubbed the “MERV,” an acronym for Middle Euphrates River Valley, an area of roughly 100 square miles that lies on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border, from Deir ez-Zor in Syria down to Rawah in Iraq. Townsend says the U.S. has been working on deconfliction plans, figuring that Syrian regime, Russian, and Iran-backed militias will all be been converging on ISIS’ last redoubt.
“We'd actually had some practice doing this,” Townsend said. “You may recall back in February, all the same actors converged around the town called al-Bab, up to the east of Aleppo. And we deconflicted that successfully… So we're having a conversation with the Russians. We're trying to deconflict this in the future. And we have lines that are agreed to that will cover much of the Middle Euphrates River Valley now; not all of it yet, but we'll get to that when the time comes,” Townsend said.
OBAMA OFFICIALS BACK TRANSGENDER INJUNCTION: Three Obama administration service secretaries are stepping into the legal fray over Trump’s plan to ban transgender military service and are backing a motion filed by transgender troops requesting a court injunction. Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, former Army Secretary Eric Fanning, and Brad Carson, who served as undersecretary of personnel and readiness, all provided statements as part of the motion saying a ban would eliminate qualified personnel and erode trust in leadership. Trump’s rationales for the ban “have no basis in fact and are refuted by the comprehensive analysis of relevant data and information that was carefully, thoroughly and deliberately conducted” by the prior administration, Mabus said.
The motion for a preliminary injunction, filed in federal court in Washington D.C. as part of a lawsuit by a group of active-duty troops, a Naval Academy midshipman and a teenage ROTC member, seeks to halt any moves by the Pentagon and Coast Guard that could harm the careers of transgender service members while the case is being heard, said Shannon Minter, a lead attorney on the lawsuit. On Monday, two other federal lawsuits against Trump, Mattis and other top administration officials were filed in Maryland and Washington state. Attorneys in one of those suits told the Washington Examiner they too could soon seek an injunction to halt the administration from moving forward. "That is a strategy we are considering now and we are considering what scope of relief we would ask for," said Peter Perkowski, counsel for OutServe-SLDN.
MATTIS’ MESSAGE TO TRANS TROOPS: “Hold the line!” Now that the transgender policy is in the hands of the Pentagon, defense secretary Mattis is urging transgender service members not to panic. “We're going to study the issue. Everyone, stay focused,” Mattis said yesterday, reprising parts of the pep talk he gave U.S. troops in his now famous Facebook video. “As I said … hold the line, hold the line, hold the line. Everyone, just keep holding on until we get through all the fights we’re in and all.” Mattis said the six-month study by a panel of civilian and military experts would look at the balance between the desire of anybody, male or female, “who’s a patriot,” who wants to serve in the military, with the need for everyone to “carry their load” and “contribute to lethality.”
“The president gave me the time to look at this. And obviously he wanted me to do something, or he would have said, ‘I want something done tomorrow.’ ” Mattis said. “He's told me what he wants, in theory — in broad terms, and now he's leaving it up to me.”
RUSSIA FLOATS HIGH-LEVEL TALKS: Russia's new ambassador says it’s time for Moscow and Washington to resume top-level diplomatic talks between defense and foreign policy chiefs, according to a report. Renewed cooperation between the two countries could help fight terrorism and cyber threats as well as foster stability, Anatoly Antonov told a Russian-language newspaper, according to Reuters. "The time has come to resume joint meetings of Russia's and the United States' foreign and defense ministers in a ‘two-plus-two' format," he said. Antonov, who is seen as a hardliner, also suggested Russia's security and foreign intelligence services meet with the FBI and CIA.The U.S. holds so-called two-plus-two meetings with other countries and allies such as Japan that include the defense secretary, secretary of state, and their foreign counterparts.
AND ALSO THREATENS RETALIATION: Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to retaliate against the State Department's latest rebuke of his policies, his spokesman warned. "We regret the unconstructive stance taken by our counterparts in the United States and, of course, we cannot afford to leave unfriendly, and sometimes hostile steps towards us without retaliation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday, according to state-run media. That statement suggests that the diplomatic feud will escalate following the State Department's decision to close three Russian facilities in the United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's team justified that move as a response to Putin's requirement that the United States cut hundreds of personnel operating in Russia. But the State Department called for an end to the tit-for-tat, saying that the two sides had reached "parity" in the fight.
DUSTWUN SOLDIER IDENTIFIED: A soldier who went missing last week after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed off the coast of Yemen has been identified by the Defense Department. Staff Sgt. Emil Rivera-Lopez is still listed as "whereabouts unknown" and the Aug. 25 crash about 20 miles off the Yemen coast is still being investigated, the department said. He was part of elite special operations forces conducting a training mission over the ocean, the Washington Post reported. The U.S. has waged special operations missions in the country, which is embroiled in a civil war that has drawn in Saudi Arabia to fight Iranian-backed rebel forces. A Navy SEAL, Chief Special Warfare Operator Ryan Owens, was killed during a raid in Yemen against al Qaeda in January, sparking controversy during the early days of Trump's administration.
FINAL AIRCREW ACCOUNTED FOR: The Army announced Thursday that the two remaining crew members who had been missing since a Black Hawk helicopter went missing near Oahu, Hawaii, Aug. 15 are deceased. "Army officials changed the duty status of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian Woeber and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stephen T. Cantrell from whereabouts unknown to deceased after the Army Adjutant General, Brig. Gen. James Iacocca, approved the results of a 25th Infantry Division administrative investigation into their personnel status," the 25th Infantry Division's Public Affairs Office said in a statement.
MATTIS’ RELATIONSHIP WITH TRUMP: During his flash gaggle with reporters, Mattis was asked to address critics who say he and the administration’s other generals should resign when Trump makes divisive remarks.
“You know, when a president of the United States asks you to do something, I come — I don't think it's an old-fashioned school at all I don't think it's old-fashioned or anything. I don't care if it's Republican or Democrat, we all have an obligation to serve. That's all there is to it.
“And so you serve, and you — I mean, the first time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him, on NATO, on torture and something else, and he hired me. This is not a man who's immune to being persuaded if he thinks you've got an argument.
“So anyway, press on.”
Wall Street Journal: U.N. Nuclear Watchdog Certifies Iran’s Compliance With Nuclear Deal
New York Times: Trump says he will not talk to North Korea. Experts fear he will.
Wall Street Journal: U.S. to hold up military aid to Pakistan, citing terror havens
USNI News: MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker could almost double strike range of U.S. carrier air wing
USA Today: South Korea's 'indifference' toward North Korea is really complicated
Defense One: The quite rational basis for North Korea’s Japan overfly
UPI: Raytheon receives contract to develop anti-ship Tomahawk cruise missile
Stars and Stripes: A-10 Warthog drops 2,000-pound bunker-buster on ISIS sniper nest in Raqqa
Defense News: U.S. Air Force announces date for X-37B launch
Fox News: To deter North Korea, we can't pussyfoot around
DSCA: Australia – Upgrade program for MH-60R multi-mission helicopters
Foreign Policy: The U.S. is in denial about the civilians it’s killing in Syria
TUESDAY | SEPT. 5
9:30 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Republic of Korea and U.S. strategic forum 2017: Now and the future of the alliance with Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Mark Lippert, former U.S. ambassador to Korea. csis.org
10:30 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. A discussion on BRAC and responsibly adjusting DoD’s infrastructure to meet current and future needs with Lucian Niemeyer, assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment. heritage.org
WEDNESDAY | SEPT. 6
7 a.m. 1250 S Hayes St. Defense News conference on defining the military agenda with Rep. Mac Thornberry, Rep. Kay Granger, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, and DoD Comptroller David Norquist. defensenews.com
8:30 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. How to organize military space with Rep. Mike Rogers and former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. csis.org
10 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. Headliners newsmaker: CIA analysis of Soviet navy. press.org
3 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Launch of the State Department reform report with Rep. Ed Royce. atlanticcouncil.org
THURSDAY | SEPT. 7
9:30 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Asia’s reckoning: China, Japan, and the fate of U.S. power in the Pacific century. wilsoncenter.org
2 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Navy readiness and the underlying problems associated with the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain with John H. Pendleton, director of defense force structure and readiness issues at the Government Accountability Office, and Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces. armedservices.house.gov
2 p.m. House Visitor Center 210. Subcommittee hearing on the challenges of recruiting and retaining a cybersecurity workforce. homeland.house.gov
FRIDAY | SEPT. 8
10:30 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. N.W. National security imperative of addressing foreign cyber interference in U.S. elections. brookings.edu
12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. The current state of Islamist terrorism 16 years after 9/11. heritage.org
3:30 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. A world history of the Cold War with author Odd Arne Westad. wilsoncenter.org