Trump, Erdogan and Raqqa; Mattis on Afghanistan; The ‘next big fight’ in Iraq; The future of counterterrorism; $1.3B in arms to Taiwan; And a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Marcus Weisgerber

June 30, 2017

President Trump’s busy morning. The U.S. president likely just finished speaking to his Turkish counterpart right about now, if the White House is sticking to its schedule. That phone call takes place just hours after Trump’s envoy to the ISIS war, Brett McGurk, settled into Ankara this morning after a series of days spent on the frontlines in Syria.

McGurk visited U.S. forces fighting ISIS in Raqqa, and U.S.-backed Kurds in the north who are reportedly taking occasional fire from apparent Turkish troops across the border. Turkey, of course, maintains steadfast opposition to the Kurds, and to the U.S. supporting them. The U.S.-backed force inside Raqqa continues to make fast progress inside a city that is much smaller than Mosul, Iraq—where a counter-ISIS offensive is in its 256th day. Raqqa is in many ways much more complex than Mosul—with Russian and Syrian troops not far, as well as Iranian-backed soldiers, not to mention ISIS fighters south of Raqqa in Deir ez-Zour…and Turkey sitting out the fights almost entirely. So it will be interesting to see if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has any new demands of the Trump administration.
The bigger picture: Here's an 11-minute chat on the “ups and downs” of arming the Kurds, that aired Thursday on “Here and Now” from WBUR. They spoke with Ranj Alaaldin, of Brookings in Doha; and Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Their BLUF: There doesn’t seem to be any kind of political strategy the U.S. is working toward in Syria. And that continues to be a big, big problem in a country like Syria with so many militaries, fighters, and agendas (short- and long-term) overlapping and clashing.

President Trump later meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with a joint statement planned in the Rose Garden at 11:15 a.m. EDT.
For what it’s worth, Trump tweeted last night that the two talked trade and North Korea over dinner.

Next week: Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. On the agenda: “There’s no specific agenda,” National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster told reporters Thursday in a…well, sort of preview. But to this credit, McMaster went on to say: “Our relationship with Russia is not different from any other country in terms of us communicating to them what our concerns are, where we see problems in the relationship but also opportunities.” He also said the president has tasked his senior aides with finding ways to “confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior” including “political subversion here, in Europe and elsewhere.” More on McMaster’s chat, via Yahoo news, here.

ICYMI: Russia says it is preparing “retaliation” for the Obama-era seizure of Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland, Reuters reported Thursday.

From Defense One

How to Adapt Military Risk to an Era of Hypercompetition // Nathan Freier: DOD needs to change how the defense enterprise describes, identifies, and assesses risk in an age of persistent disruption.

US Lawmakers Call for Space Force, Boost to Military Drills in Europe // Caroline Houck: The House and Senate Armed Services committees want the Pentagon to better prepare for war in space, but there's disagreement on how to do it.

The Global Business Brief, June 29 // Marcus Weisgerber: Congress marks Pentagon budget; Raytheon's pitch for more missile interceptors; How Boeing will build a C-17 for India; and a bit more.

By Hoarding Bugs, the NSA Is Weakening Security for Everyone Else // Stanislav Shalunov: The NSA hordes exploits and bugs, a policy that imperils cyber security for everyone else.

The NSA Confronts a Problem of Its Own Making // Amy Zegart: Recent cyberattacks show what happens when America's secret-keepers can't keep their secrets.

Should the US Reassess Its Alliance with South Korea? // Michael Auslin: Washington's relationship with Seoul makes it a target for the Kim regime.

The Islamic State's Caliphate Is Finished in Iraq, Abadi Says // Ben Watson: In a symbolic victory, Iraqi security forces finally took back the ancient mosque where ISIS declared its caliphate back in 2014. Other operations throughout the country are still ongoing.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Marcus Weisgerber. Have something you want to share? Email us at (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)

Quote of the day: "I don’t put timelines on war, it is that simple, war is a fundamentally unpredictable phenomenon," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday at a NATO defense ministerial in Brussels.

The topic was Afghanistan, a war that is now 16 years old, The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman wrote Thursday, which means it is “filling out college applications, has a learner's permit, and lies to its parents about sex & drug use.”

More NATO troops will be coming; but exactly how many is still unknown. The Wall Street Journal from Brussels: “U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that allies have filled about 70% of the existing requirements for forces, and he was confident that more forces would be forthcoming.” More here.

After Mosul, Tal Afar becomes the Islamic State’s new capital in Iraq. Or at least that’s what Iraqi news Waradana reports this morning.

The WSJ calls Tal Afar “the next big fight” in the ISIS war. But the key unknown is whose men will retake the town, a tough question since Iranian-aligned militias have much of the city surrounded. More from the Journal’s Ali A. Nabhan and Tamer El-Ghobashy—Tamer’s last for WSJ before assuming his new job as the Washington Post’s new Baghdad bureau chief—here.  

Extra reading: The next stages of the war on ISIS. West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published a new CTC Sentinel, with a feature article from Hassan Hassan on what must be known at the tribal level(s) to wisely liberate and secure Raqqa. Note: This article falls into the #LongRead category; so bookmark it for your weekend.

Also: The future of counterterrorism? CTC spoke with Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, of the National Counterterrorism Center and formerly of the train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels just a few years ago, on just that theme.

Some pull-outs:

Find the entire new edition of the Sentinel, here.

New nominations from the White House. Trump nominated former Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to be the next Ambassador to NATO.

President Trump also nominated Matt Donovan, a former F-15C pilot and now adviser to Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. More on Donovan from Air Force Times here.

State Department clears $1.3 billion in arms for Taiwan. Congress was formally notified of the deal on Thursday. It includes missiles, torpedos and electronic warfare suites for its destroyers. “These sales primarily represent upgrades to existing defense capabilities aimed at converting current legacy systems from analog to digital,” a State Department official said who notes there is there is “no change to our longstanding ‘one China’ policy.”

Also on the foreign arms sales front: “The United States plans to sell four Black Hawk helicopters to Thailand after initially suspending their sale following a 2014 military coup,” Reuters reports. Thailand already has 12 Black Hawks. More here.

Surprise, surprise: Basing soldiers in Europe and South Korea would be cheaper than rotations, a new study finds. “We’ve got some actual hard data now,” said the report’s author, John R. Deni, a U.S. Army War College professor. “There seems to be universal agreement that the rotational modal has cost us more than it would to forward station an [armored brigade combat team].”

To the numbers: “A U.S.-based armored brigade rotating to Europe costs about $1.19 billion compared with $1.05 billion to position that brigade in Germany, the report stated.” Which means, “For armored brigades, it costs about $135 million more annually to maintain a continuous presence of soldiers on rotation from the United States to Europe.”

What’s more, “There also is evidence that the long rotations are taking a toll on troop morale, with units deployed to Europe and South Korea showing lower re-enlistment rates than their counterparts, the report found.” The report won’t be released to the public until July. More from Stars and Stripes, here.

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you all next week, when the country turns 241.

By Ben Watson and Marcus Weisgerber // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge. // Marcus Weisgerber is the global business editor for Defense One, where he writes about the intersection of business and national security. He has been covering defense and national security issues for more than a decade, previously as Pentagon correspondent for Defense News and chief editor of Inside the Air Force. He has reported from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and often travels with the defense secretary and other senior military officials.

June 30, 2017