Trump talks Afghanistan, Iraq, downplays troops’ injuries; Saudi phone hacking; Doomsday clock, more dire than ever; And a bit more.

There must be a “significant” reduction in violence across Afghanistan before the U.S. will support a ceasefire with the Taliban, President Donald Trump said Wednesday (al-Jazeera) during a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Find photos of the exchange via Ghani’s Twitter account, here.

By the way: Ghani said Afghanistan is “totally ready for a withdrawal of 4,000 troops any time [President Trump] decides,” Business Insider reports today. Ghani continued, “That’s an internal US policy — as far as Afghanistan is concerned we have factored this in and we are ready to be able to see the departure of 4,000 troops.”

And the U.S. can’t use Afghan bases for attacks against Iran, Ghani reminded reporters. “We have a binding treaty, the bilateral security agreement — US bases in Afghanistan cannot be used against a third party. We have been assured of that,” he said. Read on, here.

Also in Davos: Trump met Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Nechirvan Barzani — then proceeded to confuse the Syrian Kurds with the Iraqi Kurds, Syrian-born Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan noted on Twitter Wednesday morning. 

Lest anyone forget what’s on Trump’s mind when it comes to the Middle East: “Very importantly, as you know, we have the oil,” he said to reporters while seated next to Barzani. “And we left soldiers for the oil because we take the oil and — we’re working on that, and we have it very nicely secured.” 

BTW: Here are five other instances when Trump has told the public he has ordered American soldiers to stay inside Syria to take Syria’s oil (an order which, if actually taken, would very likely constitute the war crime of pillage). 


From Defense One

As Toll Mounts, Trump Downplays Injuries Suffered in Iranian Attack // Katie Bo Williams: The president’s dismissive statements about the brain trauma suffered by U.S. troops at Al Assad may reflect a considered attempt to de-escalate – or not.

Saudi Arabia’s Phone Hacking Shows We Need Better Encryption — Not Backdoors // Patrick Tucker, Government Executive: End-to-end encryption isn’t good enough. Files and cloud backups need strong crypto as well.

To Prove Trump’s Bad Faith, Don’t Argue Policy. Show He Subverted the Process // Lawfare’s Scott R. Anderson: On Ukraine, the president dodged processes designed to ensure that U.S. foreign policy serves the public interest.

As ‘Arctic Exceptionalism’ Melts Away, the US Isn’t Sure What It Wants Next // CNA’s Joshua Tallis: As global competitors begin to engage in the northern polar region, U.S. policymakers are not clear on a fundamental question about its future.

Inside America’s First All-Biometric Airline Terminal // Brandi Vincent, Nextgov: At Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, facial-recognition cameras and other ID systems plug into a data backbone installed by Customs and Border Patrol.

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 1968, North Korean forces captured the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence ship. The crew was held for 11 months and tortured before being released.


JUST IN: The threat of nuclear war has never been closer now that the Doomsday Clock moved to “100 seconds to midnight.” Today the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the minute hand on their signature nuclear-threat tracker up from two minutes to midnight. 
Said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.” Read on, here.

Libya’s neighbors meet in Algeria to brace for what’s next. Officials from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Mali and Germany met today in Algeria, Reuters reports from Algiers. 
Recall that Germany hosted a summit on Libya just four days ago in Berlin. That meeting involved Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Berlin conference produced a communiqué from all of those leaders “declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs,” Jeffrey Feltman of the Brookings Institution wrote on Tuesday, and it presented a roadmap of sorts for a possible future ceasefire. For those reasons, Germany deserves some credit for hosting what Feltman called “the most serious attempt in years to address the international factors behind Libya’s woes.” 
It will take at least a few weeks to know whether the Berlin communiqué proves consequential or instead becomes, as Feltman warns, a mere “footnote in the annals of Libya’s externally exacerbated post-2011 violence.” As before, the key question remains what will Gen. Khalifa Haftar — who rejected last week’s Russian-Turkish ceasefire proposal — decide to do next? Read on, here.

Burkina Faso lawmakers just ok’d a plan to arm civilians in the fight against Islamic extremists, AP reports from the capital city of Ouagadougou. “Volunteers must be 18 years old and will undergo a ‘moral investigation’ before being allowed to serve.” No word on what that investigation looks like.
One reason why the plan seems to make sense: “Deaths from attacks have risen dramatically in the last few years, from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019.”
Of course, “The tactic is not without risk,” AP warns. “Burkina Faso’s military has been criticized for killings carried out during its crackdown on extremism, and placing arms in the hands of minimally trained civilians could lead to more allegations of human rights abuses.”  More here.

From the region: AP has an explainer out this morning all about “Why US troop cuts in Africa would cause alarm.” Of particular note in that report: 

  • U.S. officials have expressed concern about another looming military withdrawal that could jolt security in East Africa — the planned pullout of nearly 20,000 African Union forces from Somalia by next year. Somali forces are meant to take over security but are widely seen as not ready.” Read on, here; or listen to our podcast about the difficulty of rebuilding Somalia’s army, here.

A “secret domestic terrorism investigation” has revealed the violent neo-Nazi group “the Base” was recruiting cells across the U.S., the New York Times reports
Highlights: 

  • Experts “describe the Base as an ‘accelerationist’ organization, seeking to speed the collapse of the country and give rise to a state of its own in the Pacific Northwest by killing minorities, particularly African-Americans and Jews.” 
  • “One weekend gathering organized by several people who identified as members of the Base took place in Silver Creek, Ga., last August. It included firearms training, grappling, first aid lessons and a pagan ritual that included a goat sacrifice, according to court documents.”
  • Recruiters are also going after former members of the military. Read on, here.

Newly released emails show White House imposed Ukraine freeze despite Pentagon objections. The Office of Management and Budget released more than 190 pages of documents on Tuesday in response to a FOIA request. “The same morning last July when President Trump had his fateful call with Ukraine’s president, White House officials were working behind the scenes to impose the freeze sought by the president on military assistance to Ukraine,” the New York Times reported Wednesday. The emails “offer new evidence of the friction between the Defense Department and the White House as the aid freeze dragged on through the summer, and the confusion and surprise when members of Congress, including some prominent Republicans, learned that the military assistance to Ukraine had been held up.” Read on, here.

And finally today: view the U.S. military’s shifting priorities through the lens of the Defense Language Institute, the Monterey, Calif.-based school that has trained tens of thousands of troops to speak dozens of languages since 1963. The Monterey County Weekly crunched the numbers and put together a nifty animation that shows how enrollment in various languages has changed over nearly six decades. Watch and read, here.

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