US troops join Afghan battalions; Trump rolling out new Iran strategy; NATO’s 2% benchmark is about 98% misleading; Only 1 in 10 Puerto Ricans has electricity; and just a bit more…

CENTCOM’s Gen. Joseph Votel says American troops are newly working at the battalion level in the Afghan military — one of the changes to the Trump administration’s own approach toward the longest war in U.S. history, which includes adding a 3,800 service members to the 11,000 or so still in place. Also newly in place: six more U.S. Air Force F-16s, the Associated Press reported Thursday from Tampa.

Votel: “I think we’re still very keen to break the stalemate and that’s what this effort is about here.”

The overall idea, in brief: more beef. Defense Secretary Mattis’s new direction aims to “beef up military support to the Afghan units,” put  “American troops closer to the fight,” and “beef up U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and a growing Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban and other extremist groups,” according to AP.

Don’t expect too many more details, AP writes, since the Pentagon “has repeatedly refused to even provide estimates of how many of the additional troops have deployed, despite promises that the department will be more transparent with the American people about how many U.S. service members are serving there, in harm’s way.” Read on, here.

And here’s Votel on another concern about his AO: “Iran is kind of a long-term destabilizing actor in the region and so we remain concerned about their activities as well,” he told reporters in Tampa. “Leadership will make the decisions and we will be prepared to do what we need to do to continue to protect ourselves and particularity to protect our interests in the region,” he added. That, via Reuters, here.

Trump to unveil new Iran approach today. The wraps are already off an embargoed list of bullet points released last night, but stay tuned for more news at 11:30 a.m., followed by a scheduled TV appearance by President Trump at 12:45 p.m.

NYT: “President Trump will make good on Friday on a long-running threat to disavow the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. But he will stop short, for now, of unraveling the accord or even rewriting it, as the deal’s defenders had once feared. In a speech on Friday afternoon, Mr. Trump will declare his intention not to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement. Doing so essentially kicks to Congress a decision about whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, which would blow up the agreement.” Read on, here.

While you’re waiting: catch up with these recent analyses of the option on Defense One:

From Defense One

If War with Russia Breaks Out, Borders and Bureaucracy Could Slow the West’s Response // Caroline Houck: In a summer of multinational exercises in Europe, the first thing the U.S. Army learned was: ‘Borders are hard.’

Ending America’s Paralyzed Iran Policy // Jonathan Schanzer: Decertifying the nuclear deal without walking away gives the Trump administration an opening to confront the Islamic Republic’s foreign meddling.

The 2% Benchmark Is Blinding Us to NATO Members’ Actual Contributions // Elisabeth Braw: It is far more revealing to look at the forces and capabilities each country sends abroad on alliance missions.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Vendors upgun for AUSA; How spies target US firms; Elbit’s plans for growth; and more.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Happy 242, U.S. Navy. And 70 years ago tomorrow, Air Force Maj. Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 past the speed of sound. Email us. And if you don’t subscribe already, consider subscribing. It’s free.

Harrowing stories are emerging from California, where the state is now experiencing its deadliest wildfire week ever — at least 31 have been reported killed so far, according to NPR this morning. “Firefighting crews — more than 8,000 strong — have been working for days with little rest on tough terrain with no real idea when it will end.”
The stories include one couple who hid for protection in their pool while the home around them burned to the ground for six hours, according to the LA Times.
Another couple didn’t survive together attempting the same: “just before daybreak, just as the worst of the inferno had passed, Carmen Berriz stopped breathing. She died in the arms of her husband of 55 years,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
An area the size of New York City — 190,000 acres — has been burned, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Thursday, the Washington Post reported.
Also burned to the ground: the house of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. That from CNN.
For its part, the California National Guard has been chipping in since Tuesday with helicopters and MPs.

And in Puerto Rico, according to the Pentagon’s latest read on Thursday: 10.6% of residents have electricity and 64% have water. “Grid instability during restoration” was cited as the reason for a 5% reduction in electricity from the day prior.
On the military side, “Approximately 13,600 U.S. troops, the Navy hospital ship Comfort, 19 fixed-wing aircraft and 88 rotary wing aircraft are involved in the relief effort,” Military Times reported Thursday.
Despite the president’s tweets on Thursday, FEMA said it “will be w/Puerto Rico, [U.S. Virgin Islands], every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery.” That, via spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, who used to work in the Pentagon public affairs shop not so long ago.

More questions on that ambush in Niger. The joint Nigerien and U.S. units had just completed “29 patrols without contact over the previous six months or so” ahead of the October 4 attack that killed four American soldiers, Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Thursday at the Pentagon. From a soldiering perspective, this raises the question of how varied was each patrol — route, stops, etc. But McKenzie didn’t go into any of those more operational details.
Where he pointed the finger, at this juncture: self-radicalized wanna-be ISIS affiliates. “ISIS still have a powerful message in the cyber world, self radicalization occurs around the world, that is an enduring problem,” he said. “Clearly, I think we believe probably some form of ISIS affiliation, the group that we’re talking about. We’re still looking into specific details with them… So if I had to guess, and I’m guessing, I would say these are probably self-radicalized.” More on that exchange, via The Hill, here.

The Navy is sending two anti-ballistic missile ships to cover for the loss of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and the USS McCain (DDG-56), U.S. Naval Institute News reported Thursday.
The new ones: the USS Monterey (CG-61) from Norfolk, Va., and the destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG-77), moving out of Pearl Harbor.
The mission(s): O’Kane is now “tasked to U.S. 7th Fleet for BMD operations in the Western Pacific” while the “Monterey will conduct an independent BMD deployment in the U.S. 6th and 5th Fleet areas of operation in Europe and the Middle East…Both deployments will last about six months.” More here.

Marine Corps Times shines a light on Corps values tested by a lightning-rod issue: YWNRU, or “You Will Not Replace Us,” a rallying cry of white supremacists since the emergence of the Trump presidency.
The backstory: “Sgt. Michael Chesny and fellow Marine Staff Sgt. Joseph Manning were arrested on May 20 after they climbed a building in Graham, North Carolina, and unfurled a banner” with those five capital letters. “Both men pleaded guilty to trespassing on Tuesday and were sentenced to pay fines and court fees,” MCTs writes. But “Chesny, an explosive ordnance technician, was selected to be promoted by a staff sergeant promotion board that met on July 12,” and now he’s in the spotlight.   
As it stands, service officials said he’s eligible for promotion, “pending the command’s decision to terminate the hold.”
Notes one Army JAG officer, speaking for himself only: “I know this is an easy fix in the Army. The [commanding officer] initiates involuntary separation for misconduct. Not sure what the USMC equivalent is.”
Recall that after Charlottesville, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said on Twitter there’s “No place for racial hatred or extremism in [the Corps]. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.”
Lots of other military officials spoke out at the time, too, of course. And those voices can be found here. Read the rest of the Marine Corps Times story, here.

FWIW: It will be some time before we can better assess military demographic changes in the Trump era, or if any of the culture’s white supremacy/anti-immigrant rhetoric impacts recruiting across the services. That aside, using the latest Army annual active duty recruiting data ending September 30, e.g., Caucasian enlistees increased after three years of percentage declines. And the number of females to enlist dropped back to 2013 levels, reversing four years of percent increases. Hispanics continue to enlist at increasing rates, while African-Americans and Asia/Pacific Islanders declined this past year after gains the fiscal year prior. So that’s the story for just the Army so far, by the numbers.
Next year a better look across all five services with nearly two years of data from the Trump era is almost certainly a more proper time to run any firm takeaways up the flagpole.

Ever wondered what U.S. diplomats heard when allegedly subjected to “sonic weapons” in Cuba? AP has just your thing. Listen, here. (If you’re worried, the frequencies from computers and phones for this clip are harmless to your ears. We only listened for two seconds. That was enough for us.)

What to watch for next week: “The latest U.S.-South Korea drills kick off on Monday,” CNN’s Will Ripley reminds us this morning — adding it’s also “the same day the Cuban missile crisis began 55 years ago, in 1962.”

And finally this week: Vodka on a horse in the mountains. Take a trip to the border of Iran and Iraq — where Iranian Peshmerga live among some truly beautiful mountains that Al-Aan’s Jenan Moussa reported from this week in video and photos.

Some of the things you’ll see: RPGs, machine guns, and “100s of smugglers & horses bringing alcohol into Iran.” Check it out for yourself, beginning here.

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