US bombs Afghan opium labs, lays out 2-year plan; Troop deaths rose in 2017; N. Korea back on terror list; Putin, Assad meet; and just a bit more…

President Trump wants to get rid of the Taliban’s drug supply. The U.S. military carried out airstrikes over the weekend in northern Helmand province — using B-52 bombers and F-22 stealth fighter jets (images here) — after Afghan A-29 Tucano jets laid down initial fire, Afghan war commander, Gen. John Nicholson said Monday from Kabul. The air attack complemented an Afghan special forces raid on a Taliban prison in central Helmand, the general said.

The strikes come as part of the White House’s “new South Asia strategy,” he said, calling the plan “not quite 90 days old. And under this strategy, I received new authorities — and this is for U.S. Forces Afghanistan… and these new authorities allowed us to attack the enemy across the breadth and the depth of the battle space, and also functionally, to attack their financial networks, their revenue streams.”

FWIW, Nicholson said those linked to the Taliban “are responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s opium,” part of a $60 billion network which puts “at least $200 million…into the Taliban’s bank accounts.”

How’s this fit into the overall situation in Afghanistan? “Two-thirds of the country, the population is under government control, and then about a third is either under Taliban control, or contested,” Nicholson said. And “of that one-third, maybe 20, 20 to 25 percent is contested. This is where most of the poppy is being grown.  Eighty — something like 80 to 85 percent of the poppy is being grown in these areas.”

However, he added, “As I said in February, in my testimony before the SASC, we’re at — we’re at a stalemate” broadly speaking in Afghanistan.

By the way, it could take two years to secure 80 percent of the country, Nicholson said: “Could go faster than that, but, again, I think it’s — my best military judgment right now is — going to take a couple years to get there.”

Expect more air raids: “in order to do these strikes,” Nicholson said, “they required hundreds of hours of preparation, our intelligence enterprise, ISR, as well as the actual sorties flown last night and in the coming days, because this will continue.”

The 300-meter target Nicholson is eyeing: Afghanistan elections, “coming up over the next two years. There will be several thousand polling places — between 7,000 and 8,000 polling places throughout the country,” and Nicholson needs those areas secure for all sorts of reasons, including a credible election. He also hopes to grow the Afghan air force and to have doubled the size of the Afghan commando force by that time as well.  

Noteworthy: The ongoing counternarcotics operation “is being conducted under the U.S. Forces Afghanistan authorities, and not NATO’s Resolute Support,” Pentagon officials said before Nicholson made his opening statement.  

The ICC wants to investigate the U.S. military and the CIA in a wide-ranging Afghanistan war crime probe. Washington Post: “In a statement, [Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian jurist who has been the ICC’s chief prosecutor since 2012] clarified that alleged ‘war crimes by members of the United States armed forces’ and ‘secret detention facilities in Afghanistan’ used by the CIA justified the court’s investigation.”

The inquest would cover “alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan after May 1, 2003, and on other alleged crimes with clear connections to the conflict in Afghanistan that were committed on the territories of other member states after July 1, 2002. In the case of the American targets, Bensouda said, the investigation would focus primarily on 2003 through 2004.” Read on, here. Or listen to Bensouda’s audio statement (in mp3 format), here.

Grim milestone: “For the first time in six years, the number of U.S. troops killed in overseas operations has increased over the previous year,” Army Times reported Monday. 2017 to date: 31 deaths. 2016: 28.

“The bottom line is we’re putting people in harm’s way,” said one unnamed Pentagon official. Read on, here.

From Defense One

Don’t Kill the Nuclear Cruise Missile // CNA’s Vincent Manzo: The CBO’s recent cost-cutting option discounts the loss of capability and risks of cancelling the next-generation ALCM.

Amazon’s New ‘Secret Region’ Promises Easier Sharing of Classified Data // Nextgov’s Frank Konkel: CIA info chief says the intelligence community has been eager for a way to put secret-level data in a secure cloud.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you don’t subscribe already, consider subscribing. It’s free. OTD1985: Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard is arrested for passing classified documents to Israel.

North Korea is back on the U.S. state-sponsors-of-terror list, nine years after the Bush administration pulled it off.
The thinking: President Trump cited murders committed by Pyongyang on foreign soil and the June death of an American student who had spent 17 months in North Korea captivity.
Why now…? Perhaps because two weeks ago, a bipartisan letter from House members urged it.
…And not earlier? Daniel Russel, Obama’s former NSC senior Asia director, said the previous administration “had deliberated over the North’s behavior but had been unable to cite a legal rationale for re-listing the country on the terror-sponsor list. He suggested that the Kim Jong Nam assassination provided such rationale for the Trump administration.”
What’s next: Rex Tillerson said that the move “continues to tighten the pressure on the Kim regime, all with an intention to have him to understand, ‘This is just going to get worse until you’re ready to come and talk.’” But he also acknowledged that there’s not much the listing can actually add to the stiff sanctions already in place. The Washington Post has that and more, here.
Japan, South Korea, Australia hailed the move, while China offered a studiously neutral statement. Via Reuters, here.

Full squadron of F-35Bs now in Japan. The U.S. Marine Corps has finished deploying the 16 jump jets of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to a base in Japan. The Diplomat has the story, here.

Putin and Assad met in Sochi Monday to prepare for a “political solution” in Syria, Reuters reports. “Assad’s visit to Russia was brief and closely-guarded. He flew in on Monday evening, held talks, and flew out four hours after landing, according to the Kremlin. Officials did not release word of the meeting until Tuesday morning.”
Putin: “We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up. Now the most important thing, of course, is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution (to the conflict).”
As you might expect, Assad largely agreed with Putin, according to the transcript from Reuters of the exchange broadcast on Russian state media Monday. “We don’t want to look backwards. We welcome all those who truly want to see a political solution. We are ready to have a dialogue with them,” said Assad. More here.  
But Putin’s not finished talking about Syria this week, Voice of America reports. “Putin is also set to host Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a summit Wednesday in Sochi that will also focus on the Syrian peace process…. Separate U.N.-led peace talks are scheduled for November 28 in Geneva.”

Poland will buy an advanced U.S. missile-defense system. How advanced? Even the U.S. Army doesn’t expect to usher it into service until 2022. We’re talking about the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, which when deployed — it’s currently four years behind schedule — is meant to be a plug-and-play, command-anything system. The Poles will buy it, along with Patriot missiles, for $10 billion, DoDBuzz reports.

A T-38 Talon crash near Del Rio, Texas, has killed one Air Force pilot and wounded another, WaPo reported Monday evening.

Army National Guard’s first cyber brigade goes live. The Virginia National Guard’s Bowling Green-based 91st Cyber Brigade was activated at a Sunday ceremony at Fort Belvoir, according to a NG release on Monday. “The 91st Cyber Brigade consists of approximately 950 traditional status Army National Guard officers, warrant officers and enlisted Soldiers across units in the 30 states, and the cyber battalion headquarters will each consist of approximately 25 personnel with each company consisting of about 35-40 personnel.” Story and photos, here.

And finally today: Is the sight of Marines driving humvees that odd? Or as Marine Corps Times puts it in their headline: “Why the hell are Marines still driving Humvees?” It actually stems from a budget question: how can the Marines replace their fleet of 17,000 Humvees, MCT’s Jeff Schogol reports.
The situation: “Facing budget cuts, the Marine Corps in 2015 canceled its program to upgrade 6,700 of its Humvees. The Corps plans to start replacing the Humvees with the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a faster and better-armored truck with a V-shaped hull to deflect blasts from below. But the first of those JLTVs won’t begin to arrive until 2019. Even then, they will come slowly. The first batch will include 69 new vehicles to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.”
It’s an important question — related, in part, to how safe Marines in danger zones with RPGs and IEDs actually are in these vehicles. And it’s particularly important, as Schogol writes, “the specter of a full-scale war is looming larger on the horizon.”
Echoes of Rumsfeld: “We have to fight with the gear we have, not the stuff we plan to get,” Lt. Col. Eric Dent, spokesman for Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, told MCTs. Read on, here.

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