Coronavirus spreads; Taliban attacks hit decade high; Brexit begins; USS Ford goes to sea; And a bit more.

Coronovirus hits Russia, UK as death toll passes 200. Two cases have been found in Britain, whose government has upgraded the risk from “low” to “moderate”; and two in Russia, where one senior official said there’s no risk that the infection will spread.

UN’s WHO declared the outbreak a global public health emergency on Thursday as the total worldwide incidence passed 9,000 cases, the vast majority in China.

The U.S. State Department is letting all “non-emergency employees” and their families leave China, “one step down from an order for personnel to leave the country,” Axios reports

Do not travel to China”. That’s State’s official advice to travelers, as of Thursday. 

Meanwhile, in DC today:

  • Politico reports that President Trump will unveil an extension of his controversial travel ban Friday morning. 
  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper is hosting his Italian counterpart at the Pentagon; the two are slated to hold a press conference at 11 a.m.
  • Ellen Lord, defense undersecretary for acquisition, is slated to hold a press conference this morning about cybersecurity standards for contractors

From Defense One

Now It’s 64. Wounded Troop Tally from Iran Missile Strike Rises Again // Kevin Baron: Trump “understands the nature” of brain injuries, says Defense Secretary Esper after the president downplayed Americans’ wounds as not “serious.”

Sailors Work to Bring the USS Ford to Life — and Fix Its Remaining Glitches // Marcus Weisgerber: The $13 billion carrier hosted five types of aircraft — and about 100 very busy elevator technicians — on a key voyage off the Virginia coast.

What We Learned from the House Vote to Limit Trump’s Power to Fight Iran // Katie Bo Williams: Democrats, and some Trump allies, challenged the White House’s latest interpretation of presidential warmaking powers.

US Expected to Loosen Restrictions on Land Mines — Smart Ones, Anyway // Patrick Tucker: The new rule could pave the way for the Army to deploy networked, sensor-packed remote-controllable mines far from the Korean peninsula.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: New Boeing tanker charge; Hypersonics outlook; M&A news; and more.

Britain and America Have a China Problem // Tom McTague, The Atlantic: London’s and Washington’s differing assessments of Beijing’s rise point to deeper issues between the two countries.

A Marine Squadron Leader Begged for Help Before a Deadly Midair Crash. Now Congress Wants Answers // Robert Faturechi, Government Executive: DOD’s secret investigation into the 2018 collision shows the squadron leader had repeatedly asked for more training time, senior enlisted, and gear.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here


Taliban-led attacks in Afghanistan are at a 10-year high, according to the latest quarterly report to Congress (PDF) from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. You may remember that “The agency previously has released other data, such as Afghan security force casualties and battle readiness, but those numbers are now classified,” the Wall Street Journal reports. But from this latest report, we’ve learned that “The Taliban and other insurgents launched 8,204 attacks in the last quarter of 2019, the highest number since the military began keeping records in 2010.”
The POV from Kabul officials is, as you might imagine, a little bit different. “The Taliban are no longer able to carry out offensive operations. Their war machine is seriously damaged,” Farwan Aman, a defense ministry spokesman said, according to the Journal. And to that point, SIGAR wrote in its report, “Sigar remains concerned that the Afghan government is more interested in checking off boxes for the international community than in actually uprooting its corruption problem.” Read more at the Journal, here.
An alternate view: 

  • America’s “tidal wave of air power” is not working in Afghanistan, The Daily Beast writes off the SIGAR report. 
  • “Taliban’s Continued Attacks Show Limits of U.S. Strategy,” the New York Times writes.

BTW: An explosion in Kabul killed two people and wounded one other today, AP reports from the capital. 
Related: CENTCOM sees an “increased Iran threat in Afghanistan,” AP’s Lita Baldor reports, traveling with Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie in an unannounced trip to Kabul. While there, the general said he’s worried about Iran-backed proxies and militias in Afghanistan — especially since the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early January. 
Neither McKenzie nor AP detailed who Iran is allegedly backing today in Afghanistan, a nation where one-fifth of the population is Shi’a, like the majority of Iran. But earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out Iran’s alleged “relationship with the Taliban and related groups, such as the Haqqanis, the Tora Bora, and the Mullah Dadullah group.”
McKenzie declined to claim the U.S. has turned any corners lately in Afghanistan. However, with many parties at least publicly interested in peace talks of some kind for the country, that alone “is new, it’s different and it offers a path if the parties would be responsive and wise enough to grasp it,” the general said. Read on, here.

Fighting has resumed in Libya, where Khalifa Haftar’s forces “shelled the Libyan capital’s only functioning airport this week as they attempted to take control of Tripoli from the United Nations-backed government,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday from Cairo. Haftar’s men have also helped to collapse Libya’s oil production, closing ports as well as an export pipeline. As a result, “The international community is now trying to halt plans by Mr. Haftar’s faction to sell oil under its control.”
The U.S. stance: UN Ambassador Kelly Craft told the Security Council on Thursday that it’s “past time” for whoever is continuing to send weapons and fighters into Libya “to face real consequences.” Craft did not specify whom she was referring to. 
But French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey’s Recep Erdogan of failing “to keep his word” on Libya by sending in ships with Syrian mercenaries, AFP reported Wednesday. 
In addition, a former U.S. intelligence official told the WSJ that “Dozens of flights from the U.A.E. believed to be carrying weapons to support Mr. Haftar’s forces have arrived in Libya during the past three weeks.”
Why that matters: “The heavy fighting comes after a brief lull around the time of the peace conference in Berlin on Jan. 19,” the Journal writes. In Berlin, “Leaders of Germany, France, Russia, China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and others agreed to back the cease-fire and uphold an existing U.N. ban on sending weapons to Libya.”
“This war is over oil,” said the chairman of Libya’s internationally-recognized National Oil Corp. Meantime, Haftar is believed to be trying to sell seized oil illicitly, in part through a company called NOC Benghazi. More, here

Turkey’s Erdogan says he may launch a new offensive into Syria after regime forces escalated a recent offensive in northwestern Idlib province, Reuters reports. That’s because one of the last things Erdogan wants now is a new wave of refugees from Syria, which was reportedly the impetus for Turkey’s last big offensive into Syria — setting the stage for resettling one million Syrians displaced into Turkey already (Foreign Policy).
In Idlib, Turkey has 12 military observation posts, Reuters writes, all of them “set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.”
“We will have no choice but to resort to the same path again if the situation in Idlib is not returned to normal quickly,” Erdogan warned Friday, adding, “We will not allow the regime to put our country under the constant threat of migrants by tormenting, attacking, spilling the blood of… its people.” But for Russia and the Assad regime, Idlib is “a haven for militants targeting Syrian troops and a Russian airbase in Syria,” Reuters writes. More here

The U.S.“will soon run out of money to pay 9,000 local workers” at military bases across South Korea, the Wall Street Journal reports today off of a “letter sent by the U.S. Forces Korea to South Korean workers.” This hiccup is part of the ongoing “impasse over shared military costs for the 28,500 U.S. military personnel stationed” on the peninsula, aka the Special Measures Agreement. 
Background: “President Trump and other senior officials have repeatedly said South Korea is capable of paying more for its defense. U.S. negotiators last year started by asking Seoul for a five-fold increase in payment for the U.S. military.”
On the bases, “Local workers serve as firefighters, ambulance drivers, nurses and utility-service providers, among other tasks… Some South Korean workers have offered to work without pay to ensure American military installations function smoothly, a representative of the workers said. But U.S. officials rejected the proposal, due to U.S. labor laws that prevent employing workers without pay.” More behind the paywall, here.

History in the making: UK says, “Bye, bye, EU,” and MPs sang “Auld Lang Syne” to mark the occasion. “Britain officially departs the EU at 11 p.m. local time Friday,” that is 6 p.m. EST this evening, ABC News reports. “The departure comes 3½ years after the country voted by a margin of 52%-48% to walk away from the club that it had joined in 1973.”
Said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “As the sun rises tomorrow a new chapter for our union of 27 will start.”
According to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brexit is “not an end but a beginning,” and “a moment of real national renewal and change.” He’s set to deliver remarks on the occasion later this evening. More ABC News, here

Poland just inked a $4.6 billion deal for 32 F-35s, AP reports today from Warsaw. “Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak signed the deal and handed the document to the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, during a ceremony at an air force academy in the central town of Deblin.”
Poland “will be the 10th NATO member nation to have F-35 fighters,” with delivery not expected until at least 2024. Tiny bit more, here.

The FBI is investigating spyware allegedly used to hack Americans, Reuters reported Thursday. Israeli spyware vendor NSO Group Technologies is front and center in this probe, which may have begun as early as 2017. “NSO is known in the cybersecurity world for its ‘Pegasus’ software other tools that can be delivered in several ways. The software can capture everything on a phone, including the plain text of encrypted messages, and commandeer it to record audio.”
FWIW: “Suppliers of hacking tools could be prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) or the Wiretap Act, if they had enough knowledge of or involvement in improper use,” Reuters writes. Read on, here.  

Greece wants to build a floating seawall to keep migrants out, AP reports from Athens. The defense ministry “has invited private contractors to bid on supplying a 2.7-kilometer (1.7-mile) long floating fence within three months.” Human rights groups like Amnesty International are not enthused by the plan. More here
Meanwhile back stateside, President Trump’s border wall is vulnerable to flash floods “and needs large storm gates left open for months” at a time for the summer monsoon season, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported Thursday from Naco, Ariz. 
What this means: “Though Trump has boasted that his new ‘border wall system’ will be an impermeable force against illegal crossings and drug trafficking, the need for open gates is another notable weakness that smugglers and migrants can exploit to slip through the barrier and evade capture.” More here.

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

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