US resumes fighting ISIS in Iraq; Esper’s big reform push; Putin’s power move; WH broke law with Ukraine aid, GAO says; And a bit more.

After a 10-day pause, the U.S. military is back to fighting ISIS in Iraq alongside their Iraqi counterparts, two U.S. military officials told the New York Times on Wednesday. “It was unclear on Wednesday whether anyone in the Iraqi government approved the resumption of joint missions — it was the Americans who stopped them, not the Iraqis — and Iraqi officials could not be reached for comment.”

Another thing that happened about 10 days ago: The Iraqi parliament voted to expel the U.S. military from their country, a decision that put the acting prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in an awkward spot.  

Today PM Mahdi punted that U.S. troop decision to his successor. “In a cabinet meeting, Mr. Abdul-Mahdi urged the president, speaker of Parliament and political blocs to nominate a candidate for his position and form a new government to resolve the status of U.S. troops,” the Wall Street Journal reports

Reminder: U.S. officials informed the Iraqi government last week that the country’s access to its central bank account at the New York Federal Reserve could be denied if American troops are kicked out,” the Journal writes. “The Trump administration is also preparing possible cuts of $250 million in military aid to Iraq, funds already approved by Congress, if the government expels U.S. troops.”

Should the U.S. and its allies fighting ISIS leave Iraq, the Times writes, “the Iraqis could continue to fight the extremists on their own, but would likely be hampered by a lack of drone-based intelligence and air cover, according to senior coalition military officials.”

What’s more, booting the U.S. out “would take more than a vote in Parliament. According to American officials, it would require the Iraqi government to annul the agreements it has made allowing the American and coalition forces to train, advise and assist in the fight against the Islamic State.” More here

We now know a bit more about Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases eight days ago. Three days ago, AP toured the Ain al-Asad base and observed large impact craters, “damaged military trailers” and “portable housing units destroyed in the attack.”

AP also learned “several troops were treated for concussions from the blast and are being assessed,” according to Col. Myles Caggins, a spokesman at the base for the counter-ISIS coalition. That would complicate President Donald Trump’s declaration that “We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe” on January 8. 

Said one soldier of the concrete blast walls on the base: “When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror… You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.” More from Reuters, here.

Read an account of a destroyed U.S. drone operation via this on-base reporting from AFP’s Maya Gebeily.

ICYMI: “re-establishing deterrence” has been U.S. officials’ latest and possibly final justification (AP) for the strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr gave voice to the broader rationale on Monday, saying deterrence was a key component of the strike,” AP writes. “Trump himself implicitly acknowledged the deterrence aim, telling reporters Monday that the strike against Soleimani ‘should have been done 20 years ago.’”

On the other hand: “If firing missiles into bases housing U.S. soldiers is ‘restoring deterrence,’ I don’t know what the word means anymore,” said Ali Vaez to the NYTs. 

The Taliban just pitched a seven- to 10-day ceasefire to the U.S., AP reports today from Islamabad. “A U.S. official confirmed [Zalmay Khalilzad] had received a Taliban response and said the U.S. was evaluating, without offering any details.”

About a “ceasefire,” AP notes “While the term has been tossed around, including by the U.S., it isn’t clear exactly what would constitute a reduction or how it would be defined. For example, it’s not clear if it would mean no high profile attacks or no attacks inside cities.” Read on, here.

Related: “The Taliban have shown their willingness to reduce the violence, which was a demand… it’s a step towards the peace agreement,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a video statement today, Agence France-Presse reports.

By the way: who will be the next prez is still up in the air. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah “are currently fighting over who won last year’s presidential elections,” AFP writes. That’s because “The initial vote count gave Ghani the win but Abdullah, who came in second, is contesting the count. A final outcome has yet to be announced by Afghanistan’s election commission.”

One last thing: “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue,” John F. Sopko said in testimony Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“When we talk about mendacity, when we talk about lying, it’s not just lying about a particular program. It’s lying by omissions,” Sopko said. “It turns out that everything that is bad news has been classified for the last few years.” Read on at the Washington Post, here.

Another headline from that hearing, via Task & Purpose: “US government officials are encouraged to lie about progress in Afghanistan, special inspector general says


From Defense One

As Putin Schemes to Extend His Reign, Expect New Forms of Internet Repression // Patrick Tucker: Russia under a president-for-life will likely grow more insular and less open to Western influence.

Esper Is Attempting the Biggest Defense Reform in a Generation // Mackenzie Eaglen: In two recent memos, the SecDef reveals his intention to change how the Pentagon uses its money, people, and time.

Ep. 62: Wagner and Russian private military contractors // Defense One Staff: How much do we understand about what these groups are up to? And how much should the U.S. and its allies be concerned?

Amazon Will File Injunction to Stop JEDI Work // Frank Konkel, Nextgov: The latest twist in the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud contract could halt further action.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1547, Ivan Vasilyevich (aka Ivan IV and “Ivan the Terrible”) was crowned Russia’s first czar. He would rule for 37 years before dying from a stroke while playing chess.


Happening now: The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering the nominations of James McPherson for under secretary of the Army, and Charles Williams as assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations, and environment. Catch the livestream here.

GAO: OMB broke the law in withholding Ukraine aid. In a report released Thursday morning, the Government Accountability Office concludes that the White House’s Office of Management and the Budget acted illegally when it delayed the transfer of congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine last year. 
Key sentence: “An appropriations act is a law like any other; therefore, unless Congress has enacted a law providing otherwise, the President must take care to ensure that appropriations are prudently obligated during their period of availability.”  (via CNN’s Jeremy Diamond).
Reminder: Trump admitted holding up the aid in September.
Giuliani associate: Trump was in on Ukraine pressure campaign. Lev Parnas’ efforts to press the government of Ukraine to smear one of Trump’s 2020 rivals were further detailed in documents released this week by the House. On Wednesday, he spoke with MSNBC and the New York Times. Via AP: “’President Trump knew exactly what was going on,’ said Parnas, a Soviet-born Florida businessman facing a raft of criminal charges related to campaign finance violations. ‘He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of [Trump lawyer] Rudy Giuliani, or the President.’”
Related: Ukraine opens investigations — into 1) allegations that Parnas and Giuliani were involved in illegal surveillance of the soon-to-be-recalled U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and 2) allegations that Russia hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company. AP, here.
Apparently uninterested (so far) in claims around Yovanovitch: The U.S. State Department, AP’s Matt Lee reported.  
Very interested: the House Foreign Affairs Committee, whose Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., sent a strongly worded letter to the State Department demanding documents on Wednesday, Just Security’s Ryan Goodman noted on Twitter.

Meanwhile, an historic day in Washington. AP’s headline for the day reads “Senate takes over Trump’s impeachment after House handoff.” That, here.

Russia’s constitution says Vladimir Putin must step down in 2024, so he’s changing that. That’s the upshot of what one Moscow daily newspaper called the “January revolution”: Tuesday’s one-two punch that saw the Russian president hint at constitutional reforms, then the mass resignation of his prime minister and cabinet. 
Defense One’s Patrick Tucker explains: “On Tuesday, in a televised address, Putin announced reforms to shift authority to the State Council, a part of the Russian parliament,” a move that, on its face, would seem to be devolving power from his presidential office. “But then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned, along with his cabinet. That clears the way for Putin to stack government bodies with loyalists whom he has empowered to amend the constitution and give him the permanent control he’s seeking, either by allowing him to remain president or elevating whatever new role he takes to de facto leader.”
“This wasn’t much of a surprise. We knew the Kremlin would have to put a plan in motion,” said Alina Polyakova, director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology at the Brookings Institution. 
Putin has been president since 2000, minus a 2008-12 hiatus as prime minister, that is regarded as a simple Potemkin ploy to retain power.
Meet the new PM: On Wednesday, Putin named a new prime minister: 53-year-old Mikhail Mishustin, a 22-year government employee who “has a kept low profile while serving as the head of the Federal Tax Service since 2010,” AP writes
Adds the WSJ: Putin’s choice “underscores his preference for sharing authority with technocrats who have proven themselves effective, but who pose little threat and have a limited power base of their own.” 
What’s next? Predicts Dmitri Alperovitch: “Medvedev comes back into a now-much-weakened position of President. Putin steps back to a now very powerful position of Chairman of Security Council, a General Secretary of the Politburo of sorts.”
And expect expanding efforts to control the country’s internet, Tucker writes. Authoritarian governments — and even some democratic ones — are watching closely for ideas, as Duke’s Justin Sherman and CNA’s Sam Bendett noted earlier this week.

Saudi Arabia hasn’t paid $1 billion to house U.S. troops. Last week, the U.S. president told Fox, “I said, listen, you’re a very rich country. You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us. They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank.” 
That’s not how it works, said Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich. “The Saudi government has agreed to contribute to the costs of these activities, and discussions are ongoing to formalize these contributions. Contributions of this nature do not lead to the deployment of additional U.S. forces, and they do not drive DOD to take on new missions or responsibilities,” she told CNN in a statement. A bit more, here.

Apropos of nothing: Here are “8 truths to remember before starting another military campaign” from Marine Col. Eric Reid, writing at Brookings. Among them: “Wars take longer than advertised” and “Wars cost more than advertised.” Read on, here.

China is reportedly waging a propaganda war to silence critics around the world. The nonprofit Freedom House pulls various threads into a look at Xi Jingping’s efforts to control not just how China’s population but the world’s talk and think about the country and its government. Democratic governments should wise up to — and try to thwart — China’s attempts to shape the global narrative about its actions at home and abroad,” begins the Washington Post’s coverage of the report, titled “Beijing’s Global Megaphone.”
This effort isn’t going to come as a surprise to Defense One readers. Cf: 

Turning now to China’s hard power: The Drive has photos and thoughs about the massive desert installation that is the PLA’s version of America’s Nellis Air Force Base, here

And finally today: Who wants a mustache on a stick? Because Ambassador Harry Harris had them for reporters at a press availability today in Seoul. (h/t Voice of America’s William Gallo)

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