Congress subpoenas Afghan peace envoy; Trump relents on Ukraine aid; Too many Gulf ops?; USN & Africa; And a bit more.

The White House’s top envoy for Afghan peace talks has been ordered to testify at an open hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next Thursday, Democratic Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel of New York tweeted Thursday — the same day the Taliban asked the U.S. to come back to the negotiating table, according to the Wall Street Journal

Engel subpoenaed Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Thursday after he says the State Department “ignored numerous requests for briefings about the Afghanistan peace plan.” 

“We need to hear directly from the Administration’s point person on #Afghanistan to understand how this process went off the rails,” Engel tweeted immediately after the announcement. “I expect to see Ambassador Khalilzad in our hearing room next Thursday at 10 o’clock sharp.”

What questions would you ask Khalilzad? Feel free to let us know ahead of our discussion next week with longtime Afghan-watcher Kevin Maurer

And the Taliban’s position? “We want resolution, not escalation of the issue—that is why we concluded the peace agreement with [the] U.S.,” a spokesman told the Journal in an interview from Qatar. “In our view, peaceful solution of the Afghan issue is the best solution. But if U.S. opts for continuation of the war, they will find us in the field strong and unwavering as ever.”

As for America’s military operations in Afghanistan, President Trump said in a Monday tweet: “We have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!” 

Fact check: the New York Times’ Thomas Gibbons-Neff did his best to check that claim on Thursday: “[T]he president, the military’s Central Command and the American-led mission in Kabul have offered no statistics to back up the statements.” 

For the record: “A survey of the scope of military operations over the course of the 18-year war seems to indicate that, at best, the president is exaggerating the pace of current operations, even if they have increased in recent weeks to counter the uptick in Taliban attacks across Afghanistan.” Read on, here

ICYMI on Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe broke down the U.S. military’s “Afghanistan military deployments by the numbers,” and for each service, to tell the story of “How 775,000 U.S. troops fought in one war.” Find that here

And Forbes chimed in this week with a total bill for America’s war in Afghanistan, using data from Brown University: “$975 billion when 2019 estimates are factored in.” Find an interactive chart with that and more, here

From Defense One

Trump Will Release Suspended Military Aid to Ukraine, Lawmaker Says // Patrick Tucker: Money to help Ukraine fight a war against Russia has sparked a political battle in D.C.

SecAF Pick: No Need to Ban Military Use of Trump Properties // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: Any regulations “should not be specific to any particular owner,” says Barbara Barrett.

Ep. 55: Doomsday machines, nuclear hurricanes and Russian spies, with Vince Houghton // Defense One Staff: An interview with the author of ‘Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board.’

Africa, Great Power Competition, and the US Navy // Adm. James Foggo III: Russia and China want to leverage Africa’s people and resources. U.S. Naval Forces Africa aspires to work with African partners to bring about a secure and prosperous continent.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Pratt & Whitney prototyping shop; Poland & F-35s; More KC-46 problems and more.

Trump OKs Ukraine Aid — But That’s Not the Right Choice // Daniel DePetris: America doesn’t gain anything by escalating an unwinnable war on Russia’s border.

US Might Still Sanction Turkey For Buying S-400 From Russia // Marcus Weisgerber: Any punishments would supplement Ankara’s ejection from the F-35 program.

The Problem at the Core of Progressive Foreign Policy // Thomas Wright, The Atlantic: Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have ambitious plans but seem unwilling to make the trade-offs they would require.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1860, John Joseph Pershing was born near Laclede, Missouri. Pershing entered West Point in 1882, and 35 years later, would be appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to command American troops sent to Europe, where they helped bring about an end to the war with Germany.

The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer through the South China Sea today, Reuters’ Idrees Ali reports from the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. The transi, was designed to challenge “the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” and also to contest “China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” a Seventh Fleet spox told Ali. (Note: “Innocent passage” is not the same as a freedom of navigation operation, aka FONOP. Joseph Bosco, a former OSD China desk officer, explains the difference.)
The U.S. Navy vessel involved: Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108). This ship and its crew conducted a FONOP in the region about two weeks ago, coming within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by China in the Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs of the South China Sea, Reuters reported on August 28. 
Worth noting: This additional quote from the Seventh Fleet’s Commander Reann Mommsen: 

  • “China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled under international law.” 
  • Ordinarily, the statements are more along the lines of, e.g. this one from a FONOP back in February: “FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

And ICYMI: Review why all this matters in our South China Sea tensions podcast, starting here

Too many multinational naval missions in the Gulf? The UK’s decision to join the U.S.-led counter-Iran naval operation in the Hormuz Strait is slowing down a separate European naval force with pretty much the same mission, Reuters reports today from Brussels and Paris. 
About that European mission: France, which has a naval base in the UAE, aims to start ops on Sept. 16 to “protect merchant shipping in the Strait” and is “hoping to gather some 15 European countries in Paris to discuss a way forward.” However, “Now it’s all on hold because Britain sided with the Americans,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters. A bit more here.

Take a dangerous trip to northwestern Syria with the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Quentin Sommerville and cameraman Mughira Alsharif. He filed a fairly incredible report Thursday from the rebel-held province of Idlib, where Syrian and Russian “Air strikes have been targeting hospitals in Syria, despite the fact that it is a war crime.” 
In Idlib, he reports, “Medics have been forced underground in order to survive.” So he went underground with them, visiting one hospital in a secret location. That nearly three-minute report begins here
One more thing about Idlib and the future: ISIS’s weakness in the area along with Russia’s work to keep the U.S. out of the northwestern airspace could very well pave the way for al-Qaeda to reassert itself on the global stage, Charles Lister and Colin P. Clarke write in a new assessment this week from RAND

ICYMI: $695 billion for the U.S. military in FY2020? The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense “on Tuesday easily advanced the $694.9 billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2020 despite Democratic concerns that it does not constrain the administration’s ability to dip into Pentagon coffers to build a border wall,” The Hill reported Tuesday. 
As for what’s inside: The $695B total “would be broken down into $622.5 billion for the base defense budget, $70.7 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account and $1.7 billion in emergency funding to help facilities hit by natural disasters.” In addition, “The money would go toward a 3.1 percent pay raise for troops, an active-duty end strength of 1.3 million service members, 96 F-35 fighter jets and 14 battleships, among other expenses.”
And procedurally, “Advancing the defense spending bill marks the Senate’s first movement on the fiscal 2020 appropriations bills, a milestone coming just weeks before government funding expires after Sept. 30. The Senate was in a holding pattern until Congress passed a two-year budget agreement last month.” More here

Why the extra cash? Ukraine’s president says the U.S. will give the country not only the $250 million in aid it was due, and which was reportedly held up for unclear reasons by the Trump administration; but Ukraine will also receive an extra $140 million, AP reports today from Kyiv. 
Confirmed: R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the U.S. State Department, confirmed the extra $140 million.
But good luck getting more information this early, since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s deputy chief of staff “wouldn’t give detail on the source or designation of the funds” to AP.
A second opinion: Trump shouldn’t have released the funds, argues Defense Priorities’ Dan DePetris in Defense One, here.

And finally today: USAID launched a new program to help European countries counter Russian influence, AP reports from Warsaw, Poland. It’s known as Countering Malign Kremlin Influence, and AP describes it “as a framework to help democratic institutions safeguard elections, counter propaganda and misinformation, and avoid dependence on Russian energy.”
Involved: “supporting independent journalism and fact-checking in Moldova and the Balkans, as well as helping countries diversify their energy supplies so that Russian energy doesn’t remain a tool of political control,” USAID’s Brock Bierman said in Warsaw. Tiny bit more, here

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!

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