Taliban control a third of Afghanistan; Iran launches two test missiles; Has North Korea built a warhead?; Bye-bye, Bitchin’ Betty; and a bit more.

The Taliban attacked police and intelligence offices in southern Helmand province this morning, killing three officers before seven attackers were killed. Helmand remains a stronghold for the group, and a recent report on the status of the Afghan security forces suggests that situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Indeed, U.S. and allied officials say the Taliban now control nearly a third of the country.

What’s more: “The independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit… said the army has suffered from the theft of assets, disloyalty among troops, as well as poor equipment and logistics,” the Associated Press reports. “Its report (PDF) said a ‘culture of dependence’ pervaded the army, left over from years in which international troops provided air cover and logistical support.”

The results are particularly pronounced in Helmand now, where “the army is struggling to develop an offensive capacity, which it has lacked throughout the 15-year war, when U.S. and British troops took the fight to the insurgents.”

Flashback: Take a look at what Helmand once was, before all the “evil” and “misfortune” took hold of the province’s namesake river valley in this report from The New York Times.  

Flashforward: China is offering Afghanistan “expanded military aid to combat the Taliban, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry, a move that reflects Beijing’s readiness to deepen its engagement with the war-torn country,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “The sum is small ($70 million) compared with aid provided by other countries, including the U.S., which has invested tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s security forces. But China’s stakes in Afghanistan’s future are growing fast. China has substantial investments planned in Pakistan and faces a rising threat of terrorism at home, which it fears could be aggravated by chaos across its western border in Afghanistan.” More here.

Iran does its best North Korea impression, launching two Qadr ballistic missiles for the second consecutive day in defiance of criticism from Washington—and right as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Tel Aviv. But it was the manner in which Wednesday’s launch was carried out that was clearly designed to send a message to its rival, Israel, Reuters reports. “Iranian agencies said the missiles tested on Wednesday were stamped with the words ‘Israel should be wiped from the pages of history’ in Hebrew, though the inscription could not be seen on any photographs.”

Said an Iranian military general on state TV: “The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2,000 km is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance.”

Notes Reuters: “The nearest point in Iran is around 1,000 km from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

For what it’s worth, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, said “Iran would not fire the missiles in anger or start a war with Israel,” the Associated Press adds.

The Israeli reax: “To my regret there are some in the West who are misled by the honeyed words of part of the Iranian leadership while the other part continues to procure equipment and weaponry, to arm terrorist groups,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israeli radio.

The Biden reax: “A nuclear-armed Iran is an absolutely unacceptable threat to Israel, to the region and the United States. And I want to reiterate which I know people still doubt here. If in fact they break the deal, we will act.”

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it planned to bring up Iran’s Monday launch before the U.N. Security Council soon. Looks like now they’ve got a little bit more work to do.

Where do things stand on U.S.-Israel defense relations? Reuters does the math from various proposals on the docket during Biden’s visit, here.

Worth the click: Don’t miss this excellent video review of Iran’s missile capabilities, compiled by the folks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last June, here.

North Korea (again) says it has miniaturized nuclear warheads. “While the North has boasted of mastering miniaturisation before, this is the first time Kim has directly claimed the breakthrough that experts see as a game-changing step towards a credible North Korean nuclear threat to the US mainland,” Agence France-Press reports.

“The nuclear warheads have been standardised to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturising them…This can be called a true nuclear deterrent,” Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-Un said on state media this morning.

The North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran a frontpage spread of “Kim and nuclear scientists standing beside what outside analysts say appears to be a model warhead part — a small, silverish globe with a ballistic missile or a model ballistic missile in the background,” AP reports.

A cursory assessment of North Korea’s footage suggests a reasonable degree of concern, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in California. “Obviously we only have the picture to go on, but it looks as you would expect for a compact nuclear warhead.”

Why this matters: “The miniaturisation issue is key because, while North Korea is known to have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, its ability to deliver them accurately to a chosen target on the tip of a ballistic missile has been a subject of heated debate.”

Need a quick review of Kim’s nuclear ambitions since taking office? AFP whipped up a timeline, here.

From Defense One

Thanks, America! How China’s newest software could track, predict, and crush dissent. Armed with data from spying on its citizens, Beijing could turn “predictive policing” into an AI-powered tool of repression. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports, here.

So that thumbprint thing on your phone is useless now. Researchers found a cheap, easy way to copy your fingerprints a few months after millions of Americans had theirs stolen by hackers. From Quartz, here.

What would it take to build Trump’s border wall with Mexico? The presidential candidate is pledging the largest infrastructure project since the U.S. highway system. And it makes no sense at all. CityLab crunches the numbers, here.

The Pentagon’s new grading system for civilians may take even longer to get started. Six years after Congress mandated it, the U.S. military says it’s ready to test a new way to assess its civilian workers. But a federal union claims the test-run will be deeply flawed. From NextGov, here.

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1925, the RAF launched “Pink’s War” in South Waziristan. Send your friends The D Brief: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. Got news? Let us know: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.

Bitchin’ Betty bids adieu. Every F/A-18E/F pilot knows her, even if they never met her. Leslie Shook, the voice of the Super Hornet’s cockpit warning system that barks commands in dangerous situations, retired recently; Boeing put together this tribute video. More on “Bitchin’ Betty” here.

An American airstrike killed the Islamic State’s “secretary of defense,” the Pentagon said Tuesday. However, reports have emerged from Syria that the senior leader, Abu Umar al-Shishani, isn’t dead yet but was taken to a hospital after the strike near Kurdish-held turf.

“Waves of manned and unmanned aircraft targeted the commander on Friday near the town of al-Shaddadi in eastern Syria,” WSJ reported. “Mr. al-Shishani, known widely as ‘Omar the Chechen,’ likely was killed along with 12 other Islamic State fighters,” a Pentagon official said, calling it “unusual and noteworthy” that Shishani had visited al-Shaddadi from ISIS HQ in Raqqa.

Who was this guy? “Mr. al-Shishani, 30 years old, joined Islamic State after being discharged from an elite intelligence unit in the U.S.-backed army of the former Soviet state of Georgia. Born in northern Georgia to a Christian father and Muslim mother, his real name was Tarkhan Batirasihvili, and he served with distinction in the Georgian armed forces, until his country’s defeat by Russia in a short war in 2008. Disillusioned with the army and then jailed on a weapons charge, he was released from prison in 2012 and left for Syria, where he quickly distinguished himself within Islamist ranks, running his own brigade, Jaysh al Muhajireen, that he turned into an effective fighting force by mixing Syrians who knew the local terrain and ethnic Chechens like himself who were experienced fighters. In 2013, his group captured the strategically important Menagh Air Base from the Syrian government, which had held out against repeated rebel assaults. In 2013, he joined Islamic State and pledged his allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Read the rest, here.

Night raid in Somalia—but by whom? “In a raid that bore the hallmarks of a foreign special forces unit, soldiers dropped off by helicopters hiked through the nighttime dark to a town controlled by Islamic militants. Then a firefight erupted,” the AP reports from Mogadishu. “The foreign forces parked their helicopters outside the town and walked at least 3 kilometers (1.9 miles), sneaking into the town to avoid detection by the Islamic fighters and launch a surprise raid. He said there was gunfire between militants and al-Shabab foot soldiers that started near the police station. The exact target of the raid, if any, remains unclear.” More here.

Libya is a “failed state” and a lot more needs to be done to counter ISIS there, U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. David Rodriguez told lawmakers Tuesday. He also said it would take a decade to bring order to Libya, Stars and Stripes reports. “This will be a long time coming,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to take 10 years to build that society up.”

During his testimony, Rodriguez was flanked by outgoing SOCOM chief, Gen. Joseph Votel, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee the U.S. still has no long-term plan for what to do with the ISIS fighters it sweeps off the battlefield. “That is a policy decision that I think is being debated,” he said. That, here.

And Votel’s confirmation for a possible new gig as CENTCOM chief goes before SASC today at 10 a.m. EDT, along with his slated successor, Lt. Gen. Ray Thomas. Catch the livestream of that, here.

Lastly today—get your A-10 fix with a nifty video courtesy of the folks at War Is Boring. It’s pretty much a recent history of the cheap, slow, low-flying aircraft the U.S. Air Force has been trying to ditch in favor of the F-35 for years. The problem, of course, is that only one of those planes works like it should right now. But you probably knew all that. Enough yammering—watch the clip.

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