CLOSING IN ON AFGHANISTAN STRATEGY: President Trump huddles at Camp David today with his national security team (minus Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is in Japan) to try to nail down a way ahead in Afghanistan. The new strategy, promised by mid-July, has been delayed by the president, who has been dissatisfied with the option pushed by the Pentagon to add a few thousand more military trainers from the U.S. and other NATO nations. The plan would also unleash more allied airpower, which has proven to be the decisive factor in enabling U.S.-backed forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan to beat back the Islamic State.
“We will move this toward a decision,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday. “As I said, I think it was yesterday publicly we were coming very close to a decision, and I anticipate it in the very near future.” The Pentagon has been pushing back against others in the White House, notably chief strategist Steve Bannon, who seems to view Afghanistan as a lost cause that should be turned over to private, for-profit contractors to help the Afghan forces battle as America's longest war stretches into its 16th year.
Mattis was pressed by reporters at the Pentagon Monday as to whether Trump still has confidence in Gen. John “Mick Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “Ask the president,” Mattis replied. “I will tell you right now, he is our commander in the field, he has the confidence of NATO, he has the confidence of Afghanistan, he has the confidence of the United States; and the president, again, is looking at all aspects of our effort over there, as he must in his responsibilities as the commander in chief.”
A POLITICAL, NOT MILITARY STRATEGIST: Bannon, who is coming under increasing criticism after the violence in Charlottesville and the role he played in the president’s response, is not expected to attend the Camp David strategy session. Rep. Peter King is the latest, and the first congressional Republican, to call for his firing, telling WABC-TV, “He should go.” Trump has given Bannon a lukewarm endorsement, calling him “a good man” and “not a racist,” but has left his fate uncertain. “We'll see what happens,” he said on Tuesday.
And yesterday, while not mentioning him by name, both Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected Bannon’s assertion there is no military option in North Korea, an opinion Bannon offered in a conversation with the editor of The American Prospect, which Bannon apparently thought was off-the-record. “I can just assure that in close collaboration with our allies there are strong military consequences if [North Korea] initiates hostilities," Mattis said following a joint meeting with Japan's defense and foreign ministers at the State Department. Bannon later defended his controversial interview with the liberal magazine, saying it took the focus off of Trump following his remarks on violence in Charlottesville, and shifted the media's narrative. But a report in Buzzfeed suggests the president is losing patience with his once-trusted lieutenant. “That fucking Steve Bannon taking credit for my election," Trump reportedly told a confidant. And White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is also said to be irked by Bannon, The Daily Beast reported.
Both Mattis and Tillerson stressed the U.S. seeks a diplomatic solution, not a war. "Obviously, any diplomatic effort in any situation where you have this level of threat that we're confronted with, a threat of proportions that none of us like to contemplate, has to be backed by a strong military consequence if North Korea chooses wrongly," Tillerson said. And Mattis again warned North Korea that U.S. land and ship-based missile defenses are ready to shoot down any threatened missiles. “Very simply, in the event of a missile launch towards the territory of Japan, Guam, the United States, Korea, we would take immediate specific actions to take it down.” Mattis said.
VEHICULAR HOMICIDE: Spanish police are still looking for the driver of a van who drove down a busy tree-lined pedestrian walkway in the heart of Barcelona yesterday, killing more than a dozen, and injuring more than 100. The terror attack was followed hours later by a second vehicle attack at a seaside resort in Spain’s Catalonia region, where local police shot and killed five people who were wearing fake bomb belts.
ISIS is claiming responsibility through its Amaq news agency. “The perpetrators of the Barcelona attack are soldiers of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting coalition states,” a statement said.
The president tweeted his support for Spain yesterday. “The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and will do whatever is necessary to help. Be tough & strong, we love you!” Trump tweeted.
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.
HAPPENING TODAY — ASSIGNING ACCOUNTABILITY: While the collision of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald with a commercial container ship off the coast of Japan remains under investigation, the Navy has determined that the accident, which killed seven sailors, was clearly avoidable, so it’s officially relieving the ship’s leaders today. The Fitzgerald’s commanding officer was sleeping in his cabin in the early morning hours of June 17, when the freighter hit the ship’s starboard side, trapping him in the cabin. But a commanding officer is responsible for the operation of his ship 24/7, and relief of command almost always follows a major accident. Cmdr. Bryce Benson will face administrative action, known as nonjudicial punishment, which will likely end his Navy career. Executive Officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin also face NJP. As many as 12 more sailors could received career-ending letters of reprimand, the Navy said yesterday.
THE CREW’S HEROICS: At the same time, the Navy released a detailed account of the post-collision actions of the crew, describing in vivid prose a harrowing life-and-death struggle as crewmembers battled to save fellow sailors from fast rising sea water gushing through a 13-by-17 foot hole in the hull. The official investigative report eschews the usual dispassionate language of government reports, and instead provides a series of compelling vignettes of the courage and determination of sailors who saved dozens of lives.
One example is the description of sailor who was caught in the bathroom when the waters flooded his compartment. "Lockers were floating past him and he scrambled across them towards the main berthing area. At one point, he was pinned between the lockers and the ceiling of Berthing 2, but was able to reach for a pipe in the ceiling to pull himself free. He made his way to the only light he could see, which was coming from the port side watertight scuttle. He was swimming towards the watertight scuttle when he was pulled from the water, red-faced and with bloodshot eyes. He reported that when taking his final breath before being saved, he was already submerged and breathed in water."
You can read the entire report on our site. Scroll to the bottom.
FORT ______: House and Senate Democrats are pushing bills to strip the names of Confederate generals from Army base names and other military properties.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Congressional Black Caucus member from New York, is working on a bill that would mandate military installations be renamed in order to no longer celebrate men who fought for slavery's continuance. Ten House Democrats from New York and New Jersey have signed on. "Naming military property after armed insurrectionists with American blood on their hands is an affront to members of the Armed Forces, many of whom are people of color, who take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution," Clarke said. "There are an ample number of meritorious members of the Armed Forces, who loyally served the United States, for whom military property could and should be named."
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., also plans to introduce a bill that would require Confederate leaders be removed from inside the U.S. Capitol building, according to a McClatchy report Thursday.
FIGHTING THE TRANSGENDER BAN IN COURT: Five transgender troops will soon ask a federal court for an injunction to temporarily halt Trump from moving forward with any ban on their service, according to an attorney working on the case. The request for a preliminary injunction could come within weeks and will be the next step in their lawsuit against Trump, Mattis and other administration officials for the president's tweeted declaration in July that transgender military service will not be allowed in any capacity, said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is sponsoring the suit.
The five transgender troops at the center of the lawsuit — all identified as "Jane Doe" in the filing — are members of the Coast Guard, National Guard, Army and Air Force. "Any way I read the facts of this case, it seems like the standards for issuing an injunction are there" said Alex Wagner, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Wagner, who served as former Army Secretary Eric Fanning's chief of staff, said the court would be weighing a handful of legal criteria, including whether the transgender troops face irreparable harm and whether there is a public interest in blocking such service. "There doesn't seem to be any public interest for military leaders to … discharge transgender service members who are doing their jobs every single day and not creating any problems," he said.
MATTIS SAYS CHIEFS ON MESSAGE: Mattis appeared to shrug off any political overtones to statements from nearly all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff condemning racism and extremism following violence in Charlottesville, saying they were just repeating a long-held tenet of the military. "They were simply emphasizing on the battlefield we are one team and that is the way we stay," he said during the appearance Wednesday with Tillerson. As the statements condemning racism trickled out, Twitter users wondered whether the high-ranking officers were somehow criticizing Trump. “These are leaders of our diverse armed forces, they simply said the same message that we have lived by for decades,” Mattis said.
AFGHANISTAN KIA ID’D: The Pentagon has identified a soldier who died in Afghanistan this week as Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, 27, of Monticello, Utah. Butler died Wednesday in Nangarhar province due to "injuries suffered from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations."
HE’S TELLING THAT PERSHING STORY AGAIN: Trump resurrected what historians believe is an urban legend about Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing executing dozens of Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs' blood, telling people to read up on the history after a terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, left more than a dozen people dead Thursday.
"Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!" Trump tweeted after he condemned the attack and told Spain to be "tough and strong."
Trump first told the apocryphal anecdote about Pershing killing Muslim prisoners in the Philippines in the early 20th century while the presidential candidate was at a rally in Charleston, S.C., in February 2016. "He took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pig's blood," Trump said. "And he had his men load his rifles and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people and you tell them what happened.' And for 25 years there wasn't a problem." Urban legend website Snopes.com called the story "false" and fact-checking website Politifact rated the tale "pants on fire."
AP: Estimates of North Korea’s nuclear weapons hard to nail down
Reuters: As U.S. debates policy, Afghan pilots fear for families' lives
New York Times: Contradictory remarks by Bannon and Dunford deepen confusion over U.S. strategy for North Korea
Stars and Stripes: No Plans To ‘Dial Back’ Joint US-South Korean War Games, Dunford Says
Fox News: As US close to victory vs. ISIS in Syria, Al Qaeda takes territorial control
Reuters: Trump Mulling Lifting Status Of Cyber Command – Sources
USNI News: NAVSEA: Navy hybrid path to 355-ship fleet could only take 10 to 15 years
DoD Buzz: Auditors to Air Force: Don’t be short-sighted on nuclear comms
Defense News: OMB: Pentagon Should Emphasize Dual-Use R&D Spending
Stars and Stripes: 5 treated after Marine plane loses pressure in flight
AP: Search area expands for Army helicopter missing off Hawaii
War on the Rocks: The Islamic State may be failing, but its strategic communications legacy is here to stay
Foreign Policy: You aren’t wrong: Our military officers actually seem to be getting stoopider
MONDAY | AUG. 21
1 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Options and ways to respond to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. atlanticcouncil.org
WEDNESDAY | AUG. 23
12:30 p.m. 1152 15th St. NW. Reddit ‘ask me anything’ on artificial intelligence and global security. cnas.org
THURSDAY | AUG. 24
1:30 p.m. 1300 Wilson Blvd. PSA Captains of Industry roundtable lunch with Rear Adm. David Hahn, chief of naval research and director of innovation, technology requirements, and test and evaluation. ndia.org