AIRPOWER UNLEASHED IN AFGHANISTAN: The strategy that took down the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now on full display in Afghanistan. U.S. Afghanistan commander Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson says that in the first “significant” use of expanded authorities he is now able to target the source of the Taliban’s power: Its estimated $200 million annual income from opium sales. Under President Barack Obama, U.S. commanders were barred from conducting offensive airstrikes against the Taliban. Airstrikes had to be defensive and conducted in proximity to Afghan forces on the ground. Under President Trump’s new strategy, the U.S. is free to seek and destroy the drug labs that are the lifeblood of the Taliban, in the same way the U.S. targeted oil trucks, refineries and cash storage that provided a steady stream of revenue for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.

“These new authorities give me the ability to go after the enemy in ways that I couldn't before … to use airpower in the most effective way, going forward,” Nicholson told Pentagon reporters in a live briefing from his headquarters in Afghanistan. “We're hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances.”

BREAKING THE CYCLE, BREAKING THEIR WILL: The war in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year, has followed an unproductive pattern of a spring/summer “fighting season,” followed by a winter lull, where both sides lick their wounds and get ready for next year. But under the new strategy, the U.S. will methodically target drug production facilities over the winter to put increasing pressure on the Taliban. “Our message to the enemy is that you cannot win the war. It's time to lay down your arms and enter into a reconciliation process,” Nicholson said. “If they don't, they're going to be consigned to irrelevance as the Afghans expand their control of the country, or death.”

Nicholson sees three lines of increasing pressure on the Taliban: On the battlefield as Afghan forces are backed by the kind of air support that defeated ISIS; economic pressure by squeezing its revenue stream from opium; and social pressure from upcoming elections. “These forms of pressure is what will compel them to join the reconciliation process,” Nicholson said.

BY THE NUMBERS: Nicholson says the Taliban has become a full-fledged “narco-insurgency,” a criminal enterprise that makes its money by drug trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping for hire and murder. “Profits from narcotics now exceed their operating expenses,” Nicholson said. “We find that the leadership of the Taliban fight over the money, and it's often divided along tribal lines.”

  • Percentage of world’s heroin linked to Taliban: 85 percent
  • Percentage of heroin in the U.S. from Afghanistan: 4 percent
  • Street value of Afghanistan opium: $60 billion
  • Estimated profit to Taliban: $200 million
  • Number of Taliban drug labs: 400-500
  • Number of Taliban drug labs destroyed Sunday: 10

F-22’S DEBUT: The first round of strikes followed three months of planning to make sure the U.S. knew the precise locations of Taliban drug production facilities, and matched the right muntion to each target. That resulted in the first airstrike by the F-22 stealth fighter in Afghanistan. Because the Raptor is an air superiority fighter, its use raised some eyebrows, but Nicholson explained the F-22 was pressed into service because it can carry a small diameter 250-pound bomb that was needed to avoid collateral damage.

AFGHANISTAN’S SUPER TUCANOS: While U.S. B-52s did the heavy bombing, Afghanistan’s fledging air force was technically leading the Sunday attacks. The service bombed two of the drug labs with its A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, and the U.S. destroyed eight other targets with B-52s and an F-22. In one case, Nicholson said a B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on a facility where over 50 barrels of opium were cooking at the time of the strike, worth millions of dollars. The claim reflects the level of intelligence the U.S. has about what was going on at the target.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE? Nicholson noted that only about 66 percent of the population of Afghanistan is under government control, with the rest of the country either under the Taliban or control is contested. “So we would like to see that increase to at least 80 percent,” Nicholson said. “Why 80 percent? Because we think that gives them a critical mass where they control 80, the Taliban are driven to less than 10 percent of the population, maybe the rest is contested.” It’s going to take time to build up Afghanistan’s air forces and special operations commandos. “We think, it’s going to take about two years to get to this 80 percent. Could go faster than that, but, again, I think it's, my best military judgment right now is, going to take a couple years to get there.”

MOSCOW PULLING OUT? The AP is reporting this morning that during a surprise visit with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the seaside resort of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to lay the groundwork for ending its Syria intervention. “Assad was asked to come to Russia to get him to agree to potential peace initiatives drafted by Russia, Iran and Turkey as Russia prepares to scale down its military presence in the country’s 6-year war,” the AP reported citing a Kremlin announcement. Assad was summoned to Sochi ahead of a summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran and a new round of Syria peace talks in Geneva.

A photo shows the two leaders hugging. “I passed to [Putin] and all Russian people our greetings and gratitude for all of the efforts that Russia made to save our country,” Assad was quoted as saying.

Good Tuesday 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.



BACK ON THE BLACKLIST: After hinting he might do it during his Asia trip, President Trump waited until he got back home to redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Speaking to reporters at the top of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Trump said the designation "should have happened a long time ago." It was president George W. Bush who took Pyongyang off the list in 2008 in a failed gesture to try to restart talks.

The White House expects the move to put further pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear and ballistic missile programs. "This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea ... and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime," the president told reporters, noting that the Treasury Department is set to announce additional sanctions against North Korea today.

MOSTLY SYMBOLIC: After the president’s announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded the move was largely symbolic, but said it still “makes a strong statement” about the brutality of the rogue regime. “The practical effects may be limited but hopefully we're closing off a few loopholes with this,” Tillerson told reporters at a White House briefing.

One factor in restoring North Korea to the official terrorism blacklist was the February assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of Kim Jong Un, as he was about to board a plane at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. “The assassination in Malaysia was a significant event that caused us to really begin to look carefully at what else they might have been doing,” Tillerson said. “As you know, that assassination involved the use of a chemical agent, a very dangerous agent in a public place. And so that really got our attention.”

Two women are on trial in Malaysia for the murder, accused of smearing VX nerve agent on the unsuspecting Kim. The women say they were told they were playing a harmless prank for a hidden-camera show.

INCREASING PRESSURE: As for the sanctions to be announced today, Tillerson said they are similar to past sanctions but applied more broadly to more entities. The real key to squeezing the Kim regime would be for China to enforce an oil embargo, but Tillerson admitted the U.S. does not have much clarity on that point. “Whether they're doing that or not, we don't know and it's very difficult for us to know whether they're taking actions to curtail oil supplies to them,” Tillerson said.

There are already signs of fuel shortages, with long lines at stations in the capital of Pyongyang, but it’s affecting civilians more than the military. “I don't know that the cutting off of oil is the magic wand or the silver bullet that is going to bring them to the table,” Tillerson said. “The North Koreans have demonstrated in the past they have an enormous capacity to withstand a lot.”

NORTH KOREA’S RESPONSE: So far Pyongyang has not reacted specifically to the state sponsor designation, although today’s edition of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper hurls more insults at Trump, calling him a “lunatic president” guilty of “hideous crimes” that “are a blatant challenge to the dignity of the supreme leadership” of North Korea. “Trump is a heinous criminal who should be sternly punished,” the paper said, according to KCNA Watch.

HAPPENING TODAY: Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller provides remarks this morning at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaign engravings on the Marine Corps War Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima memorial.

DEFENSE FUNDING BILL COMING: Congress has sent a $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act to Trump, but for now it has no plan to fund the annual policy legislation. Money to pay for the NDAA hike in aircraft, ships and troops remains uncertain even as the continuing budget resolution is set to expire Dec. 8. Sen. Thad Cochran, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is hoping to jumpstart work on a funding deal as the deadline looms. The committee is poised to sidestep hearings and release a stalled defense appropriations bill as soon as today. “A budget agreement is necessary for the Senate to approve responsible appropriations legislation,” Cochran said last week. “I urge all parties to those negotiations to redouble their efforts to reach agreement.”

For now, the Senate committee is hemmed in by the Budget Control Act, which caps defense funding at $549 billion for 2018. Cochran says it will be “hard-pressed” to write a budget bill that would meet U.S. national security needs if the cap remains in place. Defense hawks such as Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry have been foot-stomping that same point all year. Congress overwhelmingly approved a cap-busting $634 billion in base defense spending in the NDAA. Cochran’s soon-to-be-released “chairman’s mark” bill is likely to underscore that fiscal conundrum and could put pressure on Republican and Democratic leadership to reach an annual funding deal. They have less than three weeks, including the Thanksgiving break, until the current stopgap budget expires. “We cannot afford to extend that continuing resolution into next year,” Cochran said.

ABOUT THAT CR: Military leaders have made it crystal clear for months that they want Congress to lift that BCA spending cap and pass a 2018 budget in December when the continuing resolution expires. Another stopgap budget would block the services from starting new programs, buying spare parts and contracting for hardware such as the 90 F-35 joint strike fighter jets in the NDAA. “We at every opportunity try to convince people that BCA and CRs are not the way to go here,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, told the Washington Examiner. Despite the efforts, Congress seems almost certain to hand the Pentagon another continuing resolution on Dec. 8, budget analysts say. “I think the most likely outcome is we get another CR because they [Congress] are not going to have a budget deal ready,” said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Basically, the CR will fall into one of two options: It’ll either be a short-term of two or three weeks up until around Christmas if they think they can get [a deal] done by then,” Harrison said. “If they don’t think they are going to get it done by then, they probably go for about a two-month CR and kick it into February.” Harrison said another two- or three-week measure will not cause the Pentagon any heartburn. “If it extends past the New Year, that starts to become a long-term CR and that is when it does start to create problems in planning and execution,” he said. Since September, the Pentagon has made a mantra of calling for a predictable budget and opposing another CR. “It just prolongs the pain, kicks the can down the road,” former acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the Washington Examiner.

WHAT’S HARMING THE TROOPS: Retired Gen. Carter Ham, president of the Association of the U.S. Army, is out with an op-ed in the Washington Examiner this morning calling on Congress to pass a real budget and not another continuing resolution next month.

“This is the ninth consecutive year Congress has been unable to pass a defense appropriations bill by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. There simply is no excuse to not have an approved budget. ‘Taking care of the troops’ begins with assured, adequate, and predictable funding.”

Read his op-ed here.

DID HE REALLY SAY IT? Only one member of Trump’s Cabinet is barred by law from criticizing the president, even in private. National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as a military officer still on active duty, is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which prohibits any officer from speaking “contemptuous words” against the commander in chief.

Article 88 of the UCMJ states: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

McMaster is the subject of a BuzzFeed report that quotes anonymous sources as saying Trump had the intelligence of a "kindergartner" and called him an "idiot" and a "dope" during a private dinner over the summer in Washington. McMaster also reportedly mocked the president’s intelligence to another source in private, saying Trump didn’t have the brain power needed to grasp the issues the National Security Council addresses.

The report has some calling for McMaster’s head. “His many acts of insubordination and malfeasance should have cost McMaster his job long ago,” said Frank Gaffney of the conservative Center for Security Policy. “McMaster has made it a habit to publicly disrespect the president, and his contempt for Donald Trump disqualifies him from future service.”

But others are suspicious of the BuzzFeed report. McMaster supporters say they find it hard to believe a seasoned officer, who is well aware of the military rules barring contemptuous speech, would make such statements. And BuzzFeed also quotes Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, as saying “Actual participants in the dinner deny that Gen. McMaster made any of the comments attributed to him by anonymous sources. Those false comments represent the diametric opposite of Gen. McMaster's actual views.”

ANTI-TANK MISSILES TO GEORGIA: The country of Georgia has been cleared by the State Department to buy $75 million worth of U.S. Javelin missiles and command launch units. The former Soviet republic, whose defense minister Levan Izoria met last week with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, has asked for 410 of the portable anti-tank missiles and 72 of the launch units, which are jointly made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. But the actual hardware that may be sold to Georgia will come from Army’s existing inventory.

THE RUNDOWN

AP: Prosecutor seeks probe of US personnel in Afghanistan

Wall Street Journal: Russia Charts Course for Syria's Future

USA Today: North Korea's 'ballistic submarine': Will Kim Jong Un's gamble pay off?

USNI News: Report: Coast Guard Should Focus on Buying Heavy Icebreakers

Task and Purpose: ISIS Just Lost Its Last Town In Iraq. Here’s How To Stop The Next Terror Group From Taking Its Place

Stars and Stripes: Air Force aims for laser weapons on a fighter jet by 2021

Foreign Policy: Rex Tillerson Is Underrated

New York Times: Kim Jong-un Disciplines North Korea’s Top Military Organization

Navy Times: Court-martialing retirees? Fat Leonard cloud still looms for many current and former sailors

Bloomberg: Pentagon’s Inspector General Praises Secret $80 Billion Bomber

Air Force Times: Air Force: Mechanical failure caused Predator crash

Marine Corps Times: The Corps needs an anti-ship, coastal defense missile system

Defense One: Don’t Kill the Nuclear Cruise Missile

Fox News: From Trump to Clinton, how US presidents have dealt with North Korea

Army Times: Is the most significant military robot slinking around a lab in Massachusetts?

Daily Beast: Lawyer Arrested and Forced to Testify on Guantanamo Case Sues U.S. Marshals

Calendar

TUESDAY | NOV. 21

10 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. U.S. policy on Iran and the way forward after IRGC terror designation with former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gen. Chuck Wald, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. Press.org

11 a.m. Iwo Jima Memorial. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller provides remarks at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaign engravings on the Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia.

2:30 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Kings and presidents: Whither the special relationship with Saudi Arabia? brookings.edu

MONDAY | NOV. 27

1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Private Sector Engagement in Afghanistan. csis.org

4 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. A book discussion of “Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring” with author Kathleen Smith. wilsoncenter.org

TUESDAY | NOV. 28

11 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Address by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: "The U.S. And Europe: Strengthening Western Alliances." wilsoncenter.org

1 p.m. 1152 15th St. NW. Quantum technology: What every national security professional needs to know. cnas.org