The D Brief: Is “Iraq first” the right way?; An about face for the Army; Avril Haines gets the nod; The wars cost $1.6 trillion; Does Elf on a Shelf create a spy culture?: And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

Is the ‘Iraq first’ way of going to war with ISIS actually working? With 97 percent of December’s coalition airstrikes in Syria carried out by U.S. forces, the attention paid to American war generals like Lt. Gen. James Terry is growing more urgent and pointed. Defense One’s Stephanie Gaskell and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: “The idea behind the politically palatable policy has been to stand up the Iraqi Army and security forces for the fight in Iraq and to do what America could to help in Syria without getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East—or anything resembling it.

“There’s no real choice on one level. In Iraq there’s a government, hopefully, that we can work with … In Syria, we’re lucky we can find a few hundred on our side,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brooking Institution.

“‘…the main effort of the campaign for the moment is in Iraq,’” retired Gen. John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, reminded an audience at the Wilson Center in Washington earlier this week... ‘It has been the reason that the number of our troops and coalition troops has been increasing in Iraq…’

“The most likely outcome is that the slow, stalemated, bloody war that has now displaced half the Syrian nation and created refugees equivalent to the population of Chicago…will become the next administration’s problem.”

Kurdish fighters take some ground against the Islamic State. The NYT’s Tim Arango: Kurdish forces, backed by a surge of American airstrikes in recent days, recaptured a large swath of territory from Islamic State militants on Thursday, opening a path from the autonomous Kurdish region to Mount Sinjar in the west, near the Syrian border.” More here.

American airstrikes have killed three military leaders of the Islamic State in recent weeks, Marty Dempsey says. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes: “…Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that the strikes that killed the military leaders were designed to hamper Islamic State’s ability to conduct attacks, supply fighters and finance operations… officials and military analysts also cautioned that militant groups such as Islamic State are able to replace commanders killed in battle. That leaves it unclear whether recent strikes will have a lingering impact on the group’s ability to command and control its forces.” Read the rest here.

The World Health Organization says one million people have been wounded in Syria’s civil war—and disease is spreading while vaccinations plummet. Reuters this morning, here.

The U.N. seeks $8.4 billion to help Syrian victims of war. That story in the NYT, here.

Wanna know how much the wars have cost since 9/11? The answer, according to the Congressional Research Service and reported this morning by Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio is: $1.6 trillion-with-a-T. Capaccio, here.

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Despite litigation from a defense contractor to halt the process, the Army is going full-steam ahead with their Apache-Blackhawk helo swap with the National Guard. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber has more on the contentious decision that the Guard is none-too-crazy about: “The Army’s plans to shift Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard to the active-duty in exchange for Blackhawks, retire all of its Bell OH-58 Kiowas and buy Airbus Lakota helicopters for training without holding a competition for new aircraft…will save billion of dollars over the long term. The decision has been driven by defense budget cuts.

“‘To bring another aircraft in is just not economical, feasible or affordable,’ Col. Walter Rugen, chief of Army aviation force development at the Pentagon, said.”

Belarus is stocking up on helicopters and surface-to-air missile systems. Russia announced plans this week to add four S-300 (NATO name: SA10) missile systems and a dozen additional aircraft to its Belarusian comrades “to defend major facilities from air attacks.” More from Russian news agency Itar-Tass, here.

About face: The Army finally did the right thing for those officers it was pushing out of the service and to whom it was extending only sergeants’ retirement benefits. The Army notified more than 120 officers that they could retire at their current rank instead of being forced to accept retirement benefits based on their enlisted service which would have meant hundreds of dollars less for them.

The NYT’s Dave Philipps: “The change could mean $1 million more in benefits over a lifetime for 120 officers, according to lawmakers who pushed for the change.

“The Army cut 1,188 captains and 550 majors this summer as part of a larger postwar drawdown that will shrink the force to about 450,000 — its smallest size since World War II. Many of those people had been enlisted soldiers who became officers between 2006 and 2009 when the Iraq war was raging and the Pentagon was struggling to replace junior officers who were leaving the Army.” Read the rest here.

Read the full statement of Army Sec John McHugh, here.

On the presidential nightstand right now? Turns out that President Obama is reading former Marine PAO’s critically-acclaimed book “Redeployment” that is doing very well. Obama: "I'm in the middle of a wonderful book that was recently released called Redeployment, by Phil Klay… He's an Iraq War veteran who's written a series of short stories. Really good. Really powerful." That, in People, here.

A Pakistan court grants bail to the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack. The BBC, here.

Pakistani security forces say they just killed 62 militants in multiple battles in the Khyber region and near the border with Afghanistan. Ismail Khan for the NYTs, here.

The Taliban have reportedly shelled the eastern province of Laghman this morning, killing a woman and 6 children, Afghanistan’s Tolo News, here.

Avril Haines gets the nod to be Obama’s new deputy National Security Adviser.  FP’s Simon Engler: “[her selection will] put an Obama administration veteran with a long record in the intelligence and foreign-policy worlds into a powerful role in a White House working to burnish its legacy while battling accusations that it has centralized power and micromanaged key decisions.

“Haines, the current deputy director of the CIA, will join Rice and Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco as one of three women in the White House’s top national security and foreign-policy positions… Rice said her new deputy was known for “her keen intellect, her intense dedication to serving the American people, and her proven ability to get things done.” Read the rest here.

Movin’ on: William Wechsler, DASD Special Operations and Combating Terrorism told his staff yesterday that he will be leaving the Pentagon after six years in the administration, and we’re told he’ll be joining Capitol Peak Asset Management as Vice Chairman early next year.

State's first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, just joined the Council on Foreign Relations as an adjunct senior fellow. She’s been on Dubya’s National Security Council, was chief of staff for USAID in Asia and the Near East, and maintained an affiliation with Harvard U’s Kennedy School of Government since leaving State this past January. On Wednesday she talked violence in Pakistan, and you can catch that here.

Mattis and Roughead are headed to CNAS. The Center for a New American Security has added retired Marine general and former CENTCOM commander Jim “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” Mattis—along with former CNO, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, to CNAS’ board of directors. CNAS also gets former Pandora Radio founder and chief strategy officer, Tim Westergren. More on those new additions, here.

Boko Haram has reportedly kidnapped 200 villagers in northeastern Nigeria. BBC, here.

There are a number of angles to the story on Cuba, but perhaps the most interesting national security angle is the one pertaining to the spy exchanged under the deal. The NYT’s Mark Mazzetti and Michael Schmidt and Frances Robles on Page One: “He was, in many ways, a perfect spy — a man so important to Cuba’s intelligence apparatus that the information he gave to the Central Intelligence Agency paid dividends long after Cuban authorities arrested him and threw him in prison for nearly two decades. Rolando Sarraff Trujillo has now been released from prison and flown out of Cuba as part of the swap for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States that President Obama announced Wednesday.

“…With Wednesday’s exchange of imprisoned spies and the leaders of the United States and Cuba talking in a substantive way for the first time in more than 50 years, some people who were part of the spy games between the two countries now wonder just how much it was worth it.” Read the rest here.

Speaking of spies: Is Elf on a Shelf teaching children to accept a surveillance state? Unclear, but click here for a story by NextGov on that very question.  Here’s a sample: “…the elf encourages children ‘to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures.’ And though the little guy is not, as hoax-busting website Snopes assured the Internet this week, secretly a popular program instituted by the NSA, he still normalizes "dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures."

More spying: JIEDDO went too far, a report says, in gathering intel on American businesses working in South Asia then apparently denied it was doing so to investigators. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum on the DOD Inspector General report released to the public yesterday, here.

Wikileaks released a 2009 CIA memo assessing drone strikes in and around Afghanistan. There’s little that’s terribly ground-breaking, but current critics of the drone and targeted killing programs are apt to latch onto the line that the programs "may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders' lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent." Philip Dorling for The Sydney Morning Herald has more on the memo, here.

How more normalized relations with Cuba will now complicate border security issues, CFR blog by Pat DeQuattro for Janine Davidson, here.

Another announcement from Cuba—though not by Cuba: Colombia’s FARC rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire that begins tomorrow. BBC with more, here.

And here’s this FARC explainer from CFR’s Danielle Renwick and Stephanie Hanson, posted in early December at Defense One.

Did former WaPo Pentagon correspondent Ernesto Londono, now an editorial page writer at the NYT, push the White House to normalize relations with Cuba? Maybe, hard to say. But some folks think he may have. The WaPo’s Paul Farhi: “In a series of bylined and unbylined pieces published since October, Londoño spelled out why President Obama should end sanctions against the communist nation and normalize relations with it.

Londono: “Frankly, we were startled by the scope of what happened [Wednesday] and pretty pleasantly surprised… I think you’d have to ask [U.S. officials] how much of a role we played. But I think it’s fair to say senior officials in both countries were reading the editorials closely and, more important, were gauging the response to them.” Read the rest here.

Another black eye for the Navy’s NCIS? Navy Times’ Meghann Myers on some investigations, especially ones pertaining to sexual assault, that NCIS has been bumbling, according to reports. Read that here.

New York lawyer Stanley Cohen, who represented bin Laden’s son-in-law in court, tried to save American ISIS hostage Peter Kassig, who was executed in mid-November. The Guardian’s Ali Younes, Shiv Malik, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili with the scoop: “Emails seen by the Guardian show how tentative talks with the spiritual leadership of Isis to secure the release of Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig began in mid-October and ran for several weeks, with the knowledge of the FBI…

“FBI staff confirmed that senior officials at its headquarters were kept abreast of Cohen’s actions. The bureau also confirmed it would pay $24,000 (£15,000) of expenses incurred by Cohen and his Arabic translator during 17 days in the Middle East… In return for renouncing hostage-taking, Isis was offered a clerical détente: Maqdisi, Abu Qatada and other senior religious figures in al-Qaida’s sphere of influence would stop publicly denouncing Isis as extremists without proper Islamic qualifications…

“Cohen said Isis gave him assurances through intermediaries that Kassig would be kept alive while talks were ongoing. The lawyer said Maqdisi told him on 26 October that he was confident Kassig would be released, based on the continuing dialogue with the Isis cleric. But the next day, Jordanian security services arrested Maqdisi for ‘using the internet to promote and incite views of jihadi terrorist organisations’ and the negotiations collapsed.” Read the rest, here.

The U.S. is weighing its retaliatory options in response to the Sony Pictures hack, which officials acknowledge could be an entity other than Pyongyang seeking to provoke an American response. Reuters’ David Brunnstrom and Jim Finkle, here.

More than 100 members of the U.N. General Assembly want North Korea to stand trial at the ICC for human rights abuses. But the measure—which passed 116 to 20, with 50 abstentions—could be halted by China or Russia during Monday’s Security Council session. BBC with more, here.

Actor George Clooney: “We cannot be told we can't see something by Kim Jong-un, of all ****ing people." More on a petition Clooney tried to circulate, but which no one wanted to sign, at Deadline Hollywood, here.

Is Hollywood jumping the shark now by banning Team America? Yesterday we mentioned how reporters on the Defense Secretary’s plane some years ago watched Team America, another movie about the North Korean family, to which people were going in solidarity after Sony decided not to release The Interview. Now we hear Team America is getting yanked. From the Daily Beast, here.