DELEGATION OF DUTY: It’s official. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has informed Congress that as of noon Tuesday, the president has delegated to him the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan. “The delegation of this authority, consistent with the authority President Trump granted me two months ago for Iraq and Syria does not, at this time, change the troop numbers for Afghanistan,” Mattis testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee yesterday. Mattis explained that while he can move the troop numbers up and down, he doesn’t have carte blanche to do whatever he wants. The U.S. commitment must match the overarching strategy that Mattis is developing with the State Department and other agencies, and which will be submitted to the president for his approval. “We will present that to the president, probably within the next several weeks. And that will guide me,” Mattis told senators. While the president will not be setting the force levels, Mattis said Trump is an “active participant” in the process. “There are frequent meetings, we go into a great deal of detail and the president is keenly interested — not in all the tactical details, but in getting the strategy right and knowing enough of the tactical details that he's informed.”
HOW IT’S PLAYING: If there are any concerns about the president giving too much power to the Pentagon, it appears to be assuaged by the confidence lawmakers have in Mattis and his team. “We have a president of the United States with no political or military background whatsoever,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who then praised Mattis as someone who has seen war and understands the “terrible responsibility” of sending brave men and women into battle knowing that not all of them would come home. “That’s why I voted for you,” Durbin said.
Later in the hearing, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham played off Durbin’s theme that in his words Trump doesn't know a whole lot. “I'm glad that Trump is smart enough to understand that you know more than he does and he's empowering you to make us safe,” Graham told Mattis. “What a novel idea for the commander in chief to turn to his commanders and say, ‘what you need to win?’ ”
Over on the PBS NewsHour, retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Obama, expressed a similar sentiment. “It is unusual, but I think we should first appreciate that we should have confidence in the entire Pentagon chain of command,” Lute told PBS last night. “This is a very experienced team, responsible individuals. They're going to take this, this new authority seriously. I also think there is a logic. There is a rationale to providing the Pentagon some flexibility. It gives them more agility to fit the number of troops to the task in Afghanistan, and that all makes sense.”
That was also the takeaway from Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, who called the delegation of more authority to Mattis “a welcome change from his predecessor.” “This new authority will allow the Pentagon to more quickly respond to urgent requests from field commanders, and it conveys more trust in the president’s senior officials, which in turn fosters more accountability and a shared sense of responsibility,” Spoehr said.
IT’S MATTIS’ WAR NOW: With more authority comes more responsibility. For better or worse, Afghanistan is Mattis’ war now, and in a statement yesterday he vowed not to “repeat the mistakes of the past.” In his Senate testimony Mattis laid out his vision for a new “refreshed” strategy that corrects what he called “a misguided application of our forces” in the past. Mattis laid much of the blame for the current downward trend in Afghanistan on the doorstep of the Obama White House, for declaring the war against the Taliban over in 2014 when it clearly was not, and thereby essentially abandoning the Afghan forces in their time of greatest need. “We restricted them from using our air support with some idea that we would wean them off the need of it,” Mattis said. “That meant, in the mountain country, these troops were often fighting at a disadvantage.” The result was heavy Afghan casualties, loss of confidence in the central government, and an emboldened and resurgent Taliban.
Or as Graham put it later in the hearing: “General Obama was a pretty lousy general. He withdrew all of our forces against sound military advice in Iraq. He got to 8,600 [troops in Afghanistan] because he just picked the number, he could have helped the free Syrian Army when they needed our help the most and there would've been no massacre of the Syrian people.”
One thing Mattis made clear in previewing his strategy: There will be no return to the days of the U.S. having tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, the international community will have to play a significant role, and any drawdown of U.S. troops will be based on “conditions on the ground, not on an arbitrary timeline.”
PURELY SELF-DEFENSE: Mattis also gave his version of what’s going on in southern Syria, where the U.S. and coalition troops have set up a training base for Syrian fighters, and declared “off limits” a 35-mile ring around the border crossing of al-Tanf. Three times in past month, the U.S. has bombed Iranian-backed militias who have encroached on the buffer zone, despite repeated warnings to back off.
“As far as al-Tanf goes, again, these forces that came inside and established an agreed upon deconfliction zone against our warning and against the Russians who tried to dissuade them and, at that point, they became vulnerable only to legitimate self-defense fires,” Mattis explained to the senators. “We did not chase them down. Once they were beaten back they were done and they have now hovered [around] the deconfliction zone, having learned a lesson that if they'd listened to the Russians they wouldn't of had to learn the hard way. But we are not engaging in a broadened war at all. That was purely self-defense.”
Good Thursday 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.
HAPPENING TODAY: The defense secretary and his Joint Chiefs chairman are back at it today for their fourth and final command performance of the week. Today the arena is the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Mattis and Dunford will read a version of the opening statement they have already read three times, and then take questions. These hearing are ostensibly about the budget, but the lawmakers can and do ask about a range of national security concerns and pet crusades, such as ...
DOES THE AF NEED A NEW NUKE? California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been waging a one-woman campaign to try to kill the next generation nuclear cruise missile, known as the LRSO, for Long Range Stand-Off. Yesterday, she got Mattis to agree to meet privately with her in a classified setting to discuss her concerns about the cost and capabilities of the replacement cruise missile, which the Air Force says is vital to keeping the bomber leg of the nuclear triad a credible deterrent. Feinstein hinted that her classified briefing confirm the LRSO is not just an improved version of the old air-launched cruise missile, but an entirely new nuclear weapon. Mattis agreed to the sit-down and said a review of the LRSO, which is still in the early stages, is part of the Pentagon’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review. "I register loud and clear the potential destabilizing view that some people see this weapon bringing and I'm taking that on board," Mattis said. "But I've got to do more study."
SELLING F-15s TO QATAR: Qatar agreed on Wednesday to purchase up to 36 Boeing F-15 jets from the U.S. despite a recent strain in relations between both nations. Mattis and Qatari Defense Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah finalized the $12 billion deal in Washington, according to Bloomberg.
The sale "will give Qatar a state of the art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar," the Defense Department said in a statement. Last year, Qatar was cleared to purchase up to 72 of the jets. However, last week, the Middle Eastern nation's neighbors broke trade, transportation and diplomatic ties with the country over its link to terrorist groups.
While Trump hailed the diplomatic rift as "the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis worked to smooth over rising tensions with Qatar, where the the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command is located. The deal is expected to create as many as 60,000 U.S. jobs while the jets are built, according to Al-Attiyah.
RUSSIA SANCTIONS: The Senate has voted to impose sanctions against Russia, in response to Moscow’s attempts to interfere with and influence the 2016 election, Susan Ferrechio writes. Lawmakers voted 97-2 yesterday to attach the sanctions language to a bill sanctioning Iran over its ballistic missile program and sponsorship of terrorism. The measure includes language that would prevent the president from lifting the sanctions without congressional approval. Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul were the only senators to vote against the amendment. The final vote in the Senate is set for today.
“For too long, the message to Vladimir Putin has been that Russia can invade its neighbors, threaten U.S. allies, intensify its cyberattacks, and interfere with foreign elections with very little repercussion,” said Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain in a statement issued after the vote. “Unless and until Russia pays a price for its actions, these destabilizing activities will continue.”
NOW TRUMP IS UNDER INVESTIGATION: Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice into the federal probe of Russian interference in the presidential election last year. While the FBI originally said Trump was not being investigated for possible collusion between his campaign associates and Russia, the president is now under scrutiny for his actions in response to the probe, according to five unnamed officials quoted by the Washington Post. The news broke in the early evening on Wednesday, which also happened to be Trump's 71st birthday. Former FBI Director James Comey previously assured Trump in private that he was not under investigation, but officials say that changed days after Trump fired Comey May 9.
Trump tweeted this morning: “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice.”
JOHNSON TO TESTIFY: The next big name to testify on Russian meddling in last year's election will be former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is expected to provide testimony to the House Intelligence Committee next Wednesday, according to a report. Johnson's appearance will have greater importance after recent revelations that Russian interference in the 2016 elections may have gone past simple attempts to spread disinformation, and may have included efforts to directly hack into the election systems of numerous states. The report by Politico said the hearing would be conducted publicly.
NORTH KOREA TRAVEL BAN? Trump is considering whether to impose a ban on all American travel to North Korea, the administration's top diplomat told lawmakers. "We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea," Tillerson told a House panel on Wednesday. "We have not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it."
Three Americans are detained in North Korea. Tillerson announced the release of a fourth on Tuesday, which drew celebration but also anger from lawmakers who learned that the University of Virginia student is in a coma following 15 months of detention for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster.
TURKEY ARRESTS COMING: A dozen members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security team will be charged for attacking protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington last month, according to the New York Times. The Metropolitan Police Department along with the State Department and the Secret Service have been investigating the May 16 incident. The Times says police plan to announce the charges at a news conference this morning. Authorities have already announced charges against two Americans and two Canadians for their roles in the assault. Two Turkish nationals were arrested Wednesday for their involvement in the brawl.
A SOLDIER'S VIEW: In his last briefing as the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin said some of the positive news out of Mosul is being overshadowed by the grim daily reports of deadly urban combat. “I recently walked the streets of East and West Mosul and I saw for myself that markets and their businesses are reopening. Civilians are moving around the city and living their lives,” Martin told Pentagon reporters in a briefing piped in from Baghdad. “East Mosul has just rebounded beyond my expectations. I was amazed when I saw the resiliency of the people on the east side of the city,” Martin said.
Martin’s main parting point was that, however long it takes, the defeat of the Islamic State is inevitable, and the Iraqi military, criticized for a lack of will to fight, has stepped up impressively. “Thinking just a little over two years ago, Daesh [ISIS] was at the gates of Baghdad about to seize the capital, and how much [the Iraqi army has] turned it around, liberating 3 million people, tens of thousands of square kilometers liberated, and hundreds and hundreds of cities. It's an amazing accomplishment,” Martin said in his closing remarks.
ENCOUNTER OF THE UNSAFE KIND: The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is reporting another “unsafe and unprofessional” encounter between an Iranian Navy vessel and three U.S. warships and a Marine helicopter in the Strait of Hormuz two days ago. The U.S. ships were transiting the strait in international waters, when the Iranian vessel pulled up alongside the U.S. ships and trained a spotlight on the destroyer USS Cole, according to Navy spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban. Shortly thereafter the Iranians aimed a laser at a CH-53E helicopter that was accompanying the formation. The Iranian vessel came within 800 yards of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan.
“Naval Forces Central Command assesses this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional due to the Iranian vessel shining a laser on one of the formation's helicopters,” Urban said. “Illuminating helicopters with lasers at night is dangerous as it creates a navigational hazard that can impair vision and can be disorienting to pilots using night vision goggles.”
HAPPY 242ND! Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer hosts a cake cutting ceremony in the Pentagon’s Center Courtyard to celebrate the Army's 242nd birthday today. The official Army video from Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is here.
New York Times: ISIS captures Tora Bora, once Bin Laden’s Afghan fortress
DoD Buzz: Cuts at Boeing spurred by ‘not winning,’ executive says
USA Today: Analysis: Trump and Pentagon search for way to end America's longest war
Foreign Policy: U.N. notes ‘staggering’ loss of civilian life caused by U.S.-led strikes in Syria
Air Force Times: The bombing campaign against ISIS is growing
Task and Purpose: Here’s an inside look at the Navy’s newest high-tech destroyer
Washington Post: ‘What’s your end game?’ Trump delegating Afghan war decisions to the Pentagon faces scrutiny
New York Times: U.S. Troops Aiding Military Action In Philippines
War on the Rocks: Moscow’s assaults on American democracy began 80 years ago
Wall Street Journal: Qatar seeks new air, sea links amid rift
Defense One: It’s getting harder to draw lessons from today’s wars
THURSDAY | JUNE 15
8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. The next ballistic missile defense review with retired Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov, former deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency. michelleaerospacepower.org
9 a.m. Rayburn 2359. Defense Department budget for 2018 with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. appropriations.house.gov
9:30 p.m. Dirksen G-50. Posture of the Navy with Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, and Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps. armed-services.senate.gov
10 A.M. Rayburn 2172. The process and policy of foreign military sales with Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. foreignaffairs.house.gov
10 a.m. Senate Visitor Center 209-08. Study release on optimizing the potential of remotely piloted aircraft with Sen. John Boozman and retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula. mitchellaerospacepower.org
2 p.m. Rayburn 2172. Russia’s strategic objectives in the Middle East and North Africa. foreignaffairs.house.gov
FRIDAY | JUNE 16
9:30 a.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. American and Japanese perspectives on a Eurasia security strategy. stimson.org
10 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. New administrations and the challenges and way forward for the U.S.-South Korea alliance with Chung-in Moon, special adviser to the South Korean president for unification and national security affairs. wilsoncenter.org
MONDAY | JUNE 19
7 a.m. 2201 Cooperative Way. The climate for small businesses operating in the national security environment of a Trump presidency. ndia.org
11 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Discussion of the book The Forgotten Flight: Terrorism, Diplomacy and the Pursuit of Justice. wilsoncenter.org
11:30 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. Luncheon with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. press.org
12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Documentary screening of “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.” heritage.org
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The promise and momentum of U.S.-India defense and security cooperation. csis.org
2 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Book launch for Dean Acheson and the Obligations of Power. wilsoncenter.org
TUESDAY | JUNE 20
9:30 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Nomination of Pat Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary. armed-services.senate.gov
9:30 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. China’s emerging role in the world and U.S.-China relations. heritage.org
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The Russian military-industrial complex. csis.org
10 a.m. Dirksen 419. Reviewing congressional authorizations for the use of military force. foreign.senate.gov
12:30 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. The origins and evolution of ISIS in Libya. atlanticcouncil.org
5:30 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Debate on North Korea's nuclear program. csis.org
WEDNESDAY | JUNE 21
8 a.m. 2101 Wilson Blvd. Insider threat workshop. ndia.org
8:30 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Day 1 of a forum on the United States and Russia in the Arctic. wilsoncenter.org
9 a.m. Russell 232-A. Navy shipbuilding programs. armed-services.senate.gov
10:30 a.m. Dirksen 342. Cybersecurity regulation harmonization. hsgac.senate.gov
2:30 p.m. Rayburn 2212. Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities budget markup. armedservices.house.gov
4 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces budget markup. armedservices.house.gov
THURSDAY | JUNE 22
8:30 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Day 2 of a forum on the United States and Russia in the Arctic. wilsoncenter.org
9 a.m. Rayburn 2212. Subcommittee on Readiness budget markup. armedservices.house.gov
9:30 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Nomination of Richard V. Spencer to be Navy secretary. armed-services.senate.gov
9:30 a.m. 1501 Lee Highway. State of electronic warfare in the DOD with William Conley, deputy director of electronic warfare, office of the under secretary of defense. mitchellaerospacepower.org
10:30 a.m. Rayburn 2118. Subcommittee on Strategic Forces budget markup. armedservices.house.gov
11:30 a.m. Rayburn 2212. Subcommittee on Military Personnel budget markup. armedservices.house.gov
12:30 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces budget markup. armedservices.house.gov