“We’re here to stay,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told about 500 U.S. troops during a visit to Afghanistan on Thursday. “Pence arrived on a military plane at Bagram Airfield under the cover of darkness on Thursday night after leaving Washington on Wednesday night,” Reuters reports from the capital. “He then flew by helicopter to Kabul, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at the presidential palace.”
“Instead of Air Force Two, the vice president flew in an unmarked C-17 transport plane to Bagram Air Base, where he met with the senior civilian and military American leaders in Afghanistan,” The New York Times reports with a little scene-setting. “Bad weather made it uncertain until the last minute whether he would make the trip from the base to Kabul; his party’s helicopters were stuck on the tarmac for 20 minutes before departure, then circled a couple of times over the dark, smoky capital before landing.”
Said VPOTUS to the troops: “We’ve dramatically increased American airstrikes. And together with our Afghan partners, we’ve put the Taliban on the defensive. We’ve prevented them from launching a major campaign against a provincial capital for the first time in three years.”
On that durability of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Pence said, “Under President Donald Trump, the armed forces of the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland, our people once and for all.”
“Although the crowd cheered when Pence mentioned that service members just received a pay raise and promised that their taxes would go down under the tax cut plan passed this week, it was otherwise rather subdued,” the Washington Post adds. “After working a full day, the troops had to stand and wait for Pence for several hours. Several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.” (Your D-Brief-er can attest that this is common practice during VIP speeches.)
Pence also talked tough on Pakistan, saying the days of that country providing safe haven for Taliban and Haqqani fighters “are over.” That may not entirely be a view shared by those in Pakistan, however, judging by this report from Islamabad on December 6.
From Defense One
The Pentagon’s New Artificial Intelligence Is Already Hunting Terrorists // Marcus Weisgerber: After less than eight months of development, the algorithms are helping intel analysts exploit drove video over the battlefield.
Pentagon Launches New Push For Tunnel-Warfare Tech // Patrick Tucker: As potential adversaries build out sophisticated underground complexes, the U.S. military will try to keep up by going down.
Where is America Going in the South China Sea? // Hal Brands and Zack Cooper: The new National Security Strategy talks tough — but here are the options the United States actually has, and the pros and cons of each.
Take Small Steps to Advance the US-India Relationship // Sameer Lalwani and Liv Dowling: India got more mentions in the new National Security Strategy than Japan or South Korea. Here’s what should come next.
The Global Business Brief: December 21 // Marcus Weisgerber: What to watch for in 2018; How to run a successful Pentagon program; Boeing unveils new drone, and more.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador says American and Turkish troops should leave the country immediately, Reuters reports.
The ambassador echoed Russian remarks from Putin’s “envoy to Syria” earlier Thursday in Kazakhstan, where Russia leads talks — without a U.S. representative — supposedly about an end to violence and the future of Syria.
What lies ahead for Syria? “It may have shifted to a more stable and less violent phase, but the Syrian conflict is likely to bleed through 2018 and potentially longer, as prospects for new conflicts loom large,” the Associated Press reports in a year-end status check on the conflict, soon entering its eighth year in March.
Chinese foreign fighters from Syria’s battlefield are mulling a return home, the Associated Press reports from Istanbul after speaking to “nine Uighurs who had left China to train and fight in Syria.”
Background: “Since 2013, thousands of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from western China, have traveled to Syria to train with the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party and fight alongside al-Qaida, playing key roles in several battles.”
And winding back the clock even further, “Uighur militants have killed hundreds, if not thousands, in attacks inside China in a decades-long insurgency that initially targeted police and other symbols of Chinese authority but in recent years also included civilians.”
What next? Most of the fighters are staying put in Turkey, and only some expressed an interest in attacking locations inside China. However, one of the Uighurs AP interviewed said it would be “impossible for Uighurs militants to liberate Xinjiang, currently blanketed with paramilitary forces and riot police. But he said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious project to develop railway lines, ports, and other infrastructure linking various regions to China makes Beijing vulnerable to militant attacks abroad.” Read on, here.
Russia says 48,000 of its troops have fought in Syria, Reuters reports this morning in a one-sentence story from Moscow.
Speaking of Russia: Here’s an updated, interactive map of Ukraine turf shelled by Russian-backed separatists going back to summer 2014, via the open-source investigators at Bellingcat.
Moscow information operations update: Russian hackers from the GRU’s Fancy Bear unit have targeted “at least 200 journalists, publishers and bloggers…as early as mid-2014 and as recently as a few months ago,” the Associated Press reports this morning from Paris.
The short read: “The AP identified journalists as the third-largest group on a hacking hit list obtained from cybersecurity firm Secureworks, after diplomatic personnel and U.S. Democrats. About 50 of the journalists worked at The New York Times. Another 50 were either foreign correspondents based in Moscow or Russian reporters like Lobkov who worked for independent news outlets. Others were prominent media figures in Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics or Washington.” More here.
A new kind of cyberattack hit Saudi oil giant Aramco in August, Foreign Policy reported Thursday. “According to [cybersecurity researchers] FireEye, Triton attacked a safety system known as Triconex, which is manufactured by the German firm Schneider Electric. Triconex is used all over the world, and provides an emergency shutdown function. Triton attempted to alter one of these safety controllers, which resulted in the controller shutting down an unspecified industrial process. The shutdown prompted Aramco to investigate and discover the Triton software.”
So whodunnit? Some cybersecurity experts told FP Iran was behind it. Others were less sure. “This is probably one of the most difficult attribution cases that I’ve ever looked at,” one former American intelligence official told FP.
The reax from Riyadh: “Saudi Aramco corporate and plants networks were not part of any cyber security attack or breach,” the company — which is preparing for what FP says could be “the largest initial public offering of all time” — replied in a statement. Read on, here.
In case you’d forgotten: The U.S. military has detained an American citizen from the ISIS battlefield in Syria and is keeping him in Iraq. Now the U.S. is considering sending him to Saudi Arabia, where he was raised and holds dual citizenship, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
From the region: Former U.S. spies are hawking their skills abroad — particularly in the UAE, Foreign Policy reported Thursday.
The tease: “The UAE’s reliance on foreigners to build its security institutions is not new, but the Gulf state has usually tried to keep the details of that help out of public view, and when it comes to training its nascent intelligence operations, details have been kept particularly quiet. However, the use of former U.S. intelligence employees to build up foreign nations’ spying capabilities is still treading into new territory.” More here.
Big F-22 maintenance contract. The Air Force will pay Lockheed $13.7 billion to “sustain” its 180-plus Raptor jets over the next decade. That’s a bit more than $7 million per plane per year. (h/t Mark Thompson).
John Hamre on North Korea: “Everyone in Washington should just calm down.” In a Dec. 6 memo to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the former DepSecDef lays out the “real facts” of the situation, including that North Korea is not going to give up its nukes and that the U.S. can deter Pyongyang from launching them. “We are talking like frightened little rabbits, afraid of a wolf in the forest. We have nothing to be afraid of, and the more we act like frightened little critters, the more we reward North Korea for pursuing a dead-end strategy. We tried a policy of dissuasion for the past 15 years, and it has failed. But a strategy of deterrence has worked and will continue to work.” Via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, here.
Finally this year: “the greatest book in human history.” A man who played a Navy SEAL on film (at least twice) and who is tight with Putin wants to share his take on the “deep state” with us. Steven Seagal’s “The Way of the Shadow Wolves” is in bookstores now, promising to reveal how America was “hijacked.”
The cover is a real beauty, and prompted this review from NPR’s National Security correspondent Phil Ewing: “As a National Security Subject Matter Expert™ this is not only the greatest book in human history, but the greatest one that will ever be written for all time.”
Sidenote: When your D-Brief-er was first stationed at Fort Bragg, NCOs showed this Steven Seagal clip during one “sergeant’s time training” as an exercise in how not to run in the military.
Be safe out there this holiday season, gang. Thanks for reading in 2017. And we’ll see you again next year!