Back to Tora Bora; No peacekeepers to Syria just yet; Another South China Sea sail-by; Death of the GRU commander; and a bit more.

America’s fight against the Islamic State is lighting up Osama bin Laden’s old terrain in the Tora Bora mountains bordering Pakistan. The past three weeks have seen a sharp rise in raids and airstrikes carried out against the group in Nangarhar province, with 90 to 100 fighters believed to have been killed there out of an estimated 1,000 or so roaming the area, the New York Times reported last night. The big worry, as the generals see it—and as it’s been in Afghanistan for more than a decade of NATO intervention—is that “a resilient militant organization [like ISIS] can recruit new fighters to replace those killed in American attacks.” Indeed, as Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the military’s deputy chief of staff for operations in Afghanistan, told the Times: “Just because you take a bunch of guys off the battlefield doesn’t mean you will stop this organization.”

The Pentagon’s escalated counter-ISIS work in Afghanistan follows “newly relaxed rules [that] the White House sent to the Pentagon last month” that require the military “to show only that a proposed target is related to Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Before, such a target could be struck only if it had significant ties to Al Qaeda.” The new rules have clear implications for the other big ISIS fight looming over in Libya, as the Times explains here.

ICYMI this weekend: “Welcome to the Age of the Commando,” from Iraq vet and former U.S. Army Capt. Matt Gallagher, writing the Times’ op-ed pages. It’s a murky, cautionary take on the White House’s preferred way to go to war—just don’t call it “combat.”

At least 9 Afghans were killed, including two police officers, and a dozen others wounded this morning when a suicide bomber detonated in a queue at a police base in Kabul, the Associated Press reports.

Unrealistic expectations in Syria? The main opposition bloc has at last agreed to join peace talks on Syria, but the UN’s envoy for the talks says he can’t enforce any that’s ultimately deal struck, Foreign Policy reported after getting their hands on a confidential memo.

“The current international and national political context and the current operational environment strongly suggest that a U.N. peacekeeping response relying on international troops or military observers would be an unsuitable modality for ceasefire monitoring,” reads the “Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper” from Staffan de Mistura. “In plain English,” FP writes, “that means Syria will be far too dangerous for some time for traditional U.N. peacekeepers to handle.”

While de Mistura met with opposition members on Sunday, a triple bombing struck Damascus, killing nearly 70. ISIS claimed responsibility. More here.

Crisis averted? Turkey said Russia violated its airspace again on Friday. But given the reaction to the last airspace violation back in November—the first time a NATO nation downed a Russian jet in more than 60 years—fortunately tensions did not rise to that worrisome level this time.

What happened: “A Russian Su-34 jet entered Turkey’s airspace at 11:46 a.m. local time on Friday, despite repeated warnings from Turkish radar operators in Russian and English, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said in an emailed statement Saturday,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg threw his support behind Ankara’s account of what happened, while Moscow called it “unsubstantiated propaganda.” More here.

The White House’s Special Envoy for the counter-ISIS fight, Brett McGurk, dropped in on the Syrian border town of Kobane over the weekend, “the first known visit by a senior U.S. official to Syrian territory since the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign against IS in August 2014,” the AP writes. McGurk was joined by British and French officials. That short hit, here.

The U.S. Navy sent another ship within 12 nautical miles of an island in the South China Sea, but this time it was meant to send a message to more than just Beijing, Reuters reports. “The guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur passed near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, in what the Pentagon said was a challenge to attempts by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights and freedoms.”

China condemned the move this morning; a defense ministry statement called it “unprofessional and irresponsible” and said it “severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region’s peace and stability.” More on that predictable response, here.

From Defense One

USAF stands up Space Mission Force to counter Russia, China. The service is reorganizing for battle in space, but threats may be progressing faster than fixes. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker has the story, here.

Want peace in Syria? Put women at the negotiating table. That’s what the Balkan experience tells us, say UK ambassador to the UN and a former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Read their op-ed, here.

Death of the GRU commander. An American general remembers Russia’s complex military intelligence chief, Igor Sergun, who shaped the Ukraine incursion — and worked hard to bridge the East-West gap. Read this fascinating piece by Peter Zwack, here.

Afghanistan growing more dangerous for U.S. rebuilders. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001, the inspector general noted in just one of many downward trends for a country now in its 16th year of fighting. From GovExec, here.

The three worst national security ideas out of the GOP’s Iowa debate. A closer look at the candidates’ remarks on foreign policy reveal plenty of bumper-sticker slogans, but few serious proposals that could actually help keep the country safe. Quartz, here.

The Republican conflation of ISIS and immigration. Politically, this serves a purpose. But as public policy, it makes little sense, writes The Atlantic’s Peter Beinert, here.

The Americans who volunteer to fight ISIS. “A lot of people come over here thinking they’re going to be Rambo. It’s not like that.” The Atlantic reports, here.

Video: “Maintaining Force Readiness in the New Era of Global Threats.” If you missed last Thursday’s livestream, here’s the video of a conversation between Brig. Gen. Thomas Murphy, deputy commander of Air Forces Cyber; Robert Naething, deputy to the Commanding General of U.S. Army North; and Brig. Gen. Peter Lambert, vice commander of 25th Air Force, ISR and Air Combat. Moderated by Defense One’s deputy editor, Bradley Peniston. Watch, here.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Help your friends beat the February blues by sending them this subscription link: Got news? Let us know:

The African extremists of Boko Haram spent four hours torching a village in the northeast of Nigeria, burning women and children alive as the death toll climbed to nearly 90, AP reported Sunday. Nigerian security forces eventually responded, but had to call it heavy weapons before the militants could be routed from the scene.  

Another army is trying to get off its feet, this one in eastern Europe as American, Canadian and Lithuanian troops putting Ukraine troops through a 55-day course to sharpen their baseline defensive infantry skills, CBS News’ reports from Ukraine’s Yavoriv Training Area. That dispatch, here.

Defense industry giant Boeing just won a new contract to build new Air Force One. “The U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing an initial contract worth $25.8 million to reduce risk and lower the cost of the program by looking at the tradeoffs between the requirements and design of the new plane,” Reuters reports. “Details about the total value of the new contract have not been released, but the Air Force has previously said that it had earmarked $1.65 billion for two replacement jets.”

ICYMI: F-35 combat tests just got pushed back another year, to 2018, Bloomberg reported. There remains a raft of still-to-be-determined “modifications” on the jet before it gets a clean bill of health, Michael Gilmore, the U.S. Defense Department’s top weapons tester, said in his annual report on major programs. “However, these modifications may be unaffordable for the services as they consider the cost of upgrading these early lots of aircraft while the program continues to increase production rates in a fiscally constrained environment.” That, here.

U.S. Navy enlisted sailors will get to participate in its industry exchange program, Navy Times reports. “The program is expanding in its second year, increasing opportunities from five lieutenants and lieutenant commanders in 2015 to 33 spots in 2016, along with enlisted sailors E-6 and above from throughout the Navy.” Details and specializations, here.

Lastly today—the U.S. Marines are teaming up with sci-fi authors to lay out the contours of tomorrow’s battlefield, Marine Corps Times reported. “The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab will team three acclaimed science fiction authors with 17 service members who demonstrate creative skill in the genre. Organizers are teaming them up to create a compelling, credible narrative of what the world might look like in 30 years. Marine leaders will then use the insight to better understand — and prepare for — the future fight.”

Ultimately, a dozen Marines were chosen along with four sailors and a Coast Guardsman, MCT writes. “The Science Fiction Futures Workshop will be held in Quantico on Feb. 3. Participants will work with ‘Ghost Fleet’ author August Cole, ‘World War Z’ author Max Brooks, and Charles E. Gannon, who wrote ‘Fire with Fire’ and ‘Trial by Fire.’” That, here.

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