US, Taliban near deal; White House drafts emergency order; Shutdown delays NYC, Philly air traffic; Tiny nuclear reactors; And a bit more.

The U.S. may be about to strike a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. What the U.S. wants: “a pledge by the Taliban not to allow the country to host terrorist groups like Al Qaeda,” senior Taliban officials and Western diplomats told The New York Times Thursday from the Afghan capital.

And the Taliban appear poised to take it, “reassur[ing] the U.S. that it opposes any attempts by militant groups to use Afghanistan to stage terrorist attacks abroad,” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday as well from Kabul.

The biggest unanswered question in these talks remains “how many American troops would be pulled out and over what period of time.”

Admin note: Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House’s Afghan war envoy, leads talks for the U.S. side. Lisa Curtis, deputy assistant to President Trump and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, is traveling with Khalilzad.

Soon to be negotiating for the Taliban: a veteran of the group who just got out of prison in Pakistan in October, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Taliban announced Thursday he’s the new chief of their office in Qatar.

Baradar is referred to as a co-founder of the Taliban. He later “coordinated the insurgent group’s military operations in southern Afghanistan, [and] was arrested in 2010 by a team from Pakistan’s military-controlled intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” The Taliban sent him to Doha yesterday. Read on at Reuters, here.

One speed bump in all this Doha chatter: Kabul’s participation since the Taliban insist the government of President Ashraf Ghani is illegitimate not worthy of dialogue much less negotiation. Still, the Times writes Kabul officials insist on involvement in any deals on the fate of Afghanistan’s future; and so it’s unclear what Khalilzad will do next.

Said one Western diplomat to the Times: “the final sticking points were over the timing of any American withdrawal, and whether it would take place over more or less than a year’s time.” That would sync well with Trump’s reported desire to end the Afghan war before the 2020 election.

Meantime, a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed an ISIS fighter, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press reports.Targeted: Qari Naqibullah, a “key member” of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Khurasan, or ISIS-K. Location: in Aghez area, Chaparhar district, in eastern Nangarhar province.
And Afghanistan’s spy agency says it has killed the man behind the death of dozens of its trainees in Wardak province this week. Reuters has that, here.

From Defense One

The US Military Wants Tiny Nuclear Reactors for Deployed Troops // Patrick Tucker: The Strategic Capabilities Office wants to fund prototypes, picking up on decades of intermittent research

US and Russia Eye Each Other Warily in the Baltic and Black Seas // Patrick Tucker: An uptick in Russian naval activity and U.S. freedom-of-navigation ops mean more tension in 2019.

An Admiral Slammed the Shutdown. Can He Do That? // Jim Golby: The Coast Guard commandant’s viral video reminds us that senior military officers can speak out, carefully — and probably should do so more often.

Shutdown ‘really impacting business’; Goldfein loves new T-X; Tech titans to talk at AFA; and more. // Marcus Weisgerber:

Russia, China Will Exploit West’s ‘Isolationist Tendencies,’ Says New Intel Strategy // Katie Bo Williams: The intelligence community’s warning arrived as the House rebuked President Trump for his attacks on NATO.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Bradley Peniston and Kevin Baron. On this day in 1981, 52 Americans held hostage by Iran for 444 days arrived back home to the United States.

Trump administration staff have drawn up a draft emergency order and identified $7 billion that could be used to extend barriers along the Mexican border. CNN: “As lawmakers discussed a short-term measure to fund the government Thursday, Trump again raised the prospect of other ways to fund a border wall without congressional approval. ‘I have other alternatives if I have to and I’ll use those alternatives if I have to,’ he told reporters. ‘A lot of people who wants this to happen. The military wants this to happen. This is a virtual invasion of our country,’ Trump said. The Defense Department referred a request for comment from CNN to the White House.”
Nonsense, replies The New York Times:

  • Illegal border crossings haven’t been this low since 1971.
  • Most illegal drugs are smuggled through ports of entry, not hauled across the open border.
  • There’s no evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans.

Shutdown, Day 34: Breaking: as we post this, FAA officials are telling CNN that air traffic is delayed at LaGuardia, Philadelphia, and Newark airports because of staffing issues.
For the record: Some 0.8 million federal workers, including ones with DHS, the Coast Guard, and FAA, will miss a second paycheck. (NPR)
And their out-of-pocket costs are going up: “The 800,000 federal employees furloughed by the partial government shutdown and working without pay were warned Wednesday that they must pay their dental and vision premiums beginning this week or they could lose their coverage.” (Washington Post)
Must-read: “How the government shutdown is flushing away federal cyber-talent,” from Ars Technica. “A recent survey by ZipRecruiter of 2,000 furloughed federal workers found that 67 percent were considering leaving their government jobs to seek work in the private sector. Fewer than 30 percent felt that the shutdown would end within the next 30 days, and 90 percent expected significant financial hardship.” Read, here.

ISIS is down to just two villages in Syria, The New York Times reports. The group that once “enforced its brutal version of Islamic rule over more than 60,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq” is “now squeezed into two villages occupying six square miles.” Though some ISIS fighters are still clashing with American-backed, Kurdish-led militia Syrian Democratic Forces, others “have been surrendering by the dozens, repeating a pattern observed in other cities shortly before the group was overrun.” Read on, here.
BTW: US military no longer announcing deaths, damage in Somalia airstrikes. “The United States has dramatically stepped up airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia since President Donald Trump took office, carrying out at least 47 last year to diminish the Islamic extremist group’s ‘safe havens,” Military Times reports. But after a Saturday strike killed 52 in the Middle Juba region, AFRICOM officials say they will no longer “give details on fighters killed or damage done…A spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command says those details are now up to Somalia’s government to share.” Read on, here.
Update: That didn’t last long. The AFRCICOM policy has now been reversed, as of noon EDT Friday. 
Pentagon secrecy on the rise. Whether or not it’s connected to other DoD changes that reduce the public’s ability to know what its military is doing, AFRICOM’s Thursday decision (before its take-back) fit a pattern of rising secrecy. Last fall, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, wrote, “These attempts to increase secrecy are unacceptable, and they do not enhance national security. In many of these cases, President Trump’s Pentagon leadership is seeking to roll back transparency norms that have been in effect and functioning well since the mid-twentieth century.”

Briefly, here are a few new details from the deadly January 2017 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen, which lasted 16 hours and used 27 air assets. That and a bit more via an Air Force Special Operations Command Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony notice.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s surprise presidential campaign is flying under the radar after announcements by fellow members of Congress Sens. Kamala Harris and Kristen Gillibrand, Defense One’s Kevin Baron writes. But it looks like the Iraq War veteran may make her message against unnecessary wars a central theme of her campaign.
In a video launching her campaign website, she asks, “Where is the conversation about peace? Every time we launch these interventionist, regime-change wars, it is not only our veterans who pay the price for them. Every one of us pays the price. We have spent trillions of your taxpayer dollars to pay for these wars, taking those taxpayer dollars away from our communities and our people who need them right here at home.” More where that came from, here.

The latest from America’s exit from the INF treaty: Europe is crossing its fingers for the next six months. Washington’s allies in Europe are holding out hope the U.S. and Russia can arrive at some new agreement during the six-month withdrawal period due to begin on February 2, Reuters reports from Brussels.
The quick review: “Russia stands accused of developing land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting European cities at short notice, breaching the Cold War-era pact that took such rockets out of Europe.”
At NATO HQs this week, alliance officials asked Russia to “destroy” its new cruise missile system, which the U.S. says violates the INF treaty — triggering the White House’s decision to withdraw, which is set for Feb. 2. There is no indication Russia will destroy the Novator 9M729/SSC-8 rockets. And what sort of terms Washington and Moscow would agree to is entirely unclear. Thus Brussels’ forecast of what you might call blind hope.
Surrounding this whole story is almost a tale of too many weapons. In review:

  • Russia says it created this new cruise missile because the U.S. violated the INF with a missile defense system in Romania in 2016.
  • The U.S. says that Aegis Ashore system sits in Romania to shoot down potential launches from Iran’s growing missile stocks.
  • Further, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told NATO officials this week that since the White House wants a missile defense shield in space, that’s an additional violation that justifies Russia’s missile.
  • What’s more, according to Reuters, some NATO officials are convinced Russia actually designed the missile — “which is mobile and easy to hide in forests and other strategic locations” — to counter the diverse missile threat from its neighbor, China.

BTW: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will be in Washington, D.C., this weekend for visits with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Lastly today: White House overruled security experts to give Kushner, 30 others security clearance. NBC News: The president’s son-in-law’s application for a top-secret clearance “was rejected by two career White House security specialists after an FBI background check raised concerns about potential foreign influence on him — but their supervisor overruled the recommendation and approved the clearance, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News…Kushner’s was one of at least 30 cases in which Kline overruled career security experts and approved a top-secret clearance for incoming Trump officials despite unfavorable information, the two sources said.” Read, here.

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