New surge in Afghanistan?; Concerns about Syrian safe zones; Cyberattacking ISIS; Kremlinology in the age of social media; and just a bit more...

Surge “lite” in Afghanistan? A “major shift” in America’s Afghan war strategy is one signature away from moving forward, the Washington Post reported Monday. The signature? President Trump’s, of course.

The likely result: it “would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban,” write the Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe.

It already has a nickname, too, according to White House officials opposed to the plus-up of the U.S. presence: “McMaster’s War,” referring to National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, “who once led anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan and was one of the architects of President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq.” The Post writes that McMaster “is the driving force behind the new strategy.”

The known knowns: “The plan envisions an increase of at least 3,000 U.S. troops to an existing force of about 8,400. The U.S. force would also be bolstered by requests for matching troops from NATO nations. But, in keeping with the Trump administration’s desire to empower military decision-making, the Pentagon would have final say on troop levels and how those forces are employed on the battlefield. The plan would also increase spending on Afghanistan’s troubled government in an effort to improve its capacity.”

A rather large uncertainty: “Officials said it is unclear whether Trump, who has spoken little about the United States’ longest war, will look favorably upon expanding the U.S. role in Afghanistan.” Read the rest, here.

Update from Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, where Afghan and possibly U.S. forces are fighting the Islamic State group’s Afghan (Khorasan) wing: “As Afghan forces have advanced into some villages for the first time in months, Islamic State fighters are pushing back amid heavy fighting in several adjacent districts, officials said. Afghan officials said at least 34 militants had been killed by Afghan airstrikes since Sunday but gave no figures on Afghan casualties. The role of U.S.-led coalition forces in the latest phase of the offensive was not immediately clear,” the Washington Post reports from Kabul. Story—and a recent history of ISIS-K high-value targets killed by U.S. and Afghan forces—here.

Update from Helmand, where 300 U.S. Marines just returned to fight the Taliban: Marines aren’t on the “front lines” of Helmand fighting, but they’re pretty darn close as they train Afghan soldiers, and not just Afghan trainers. Story from Marine Corps Times, here.

The Taliban is trying to play a card from Hamas’s playbook and provide an alternative to the power brokers in Kabul, The Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Donati and Habib Khan Totakhil report from Logar province’s Muhammed Agha district, just south of Kabul.

The situation: “More local Taliban groups are now functioning as governing entities, administering services for which the state pays, such as education and electricity, and collecting their own taxes from farmers and sometimes protection money from businesses. The growing influence is helping them generate revenue for recruits and spread distrust in Afghanistan’s shaky government.”

Also noteworthy: the profitable rise of mining. “Global Witness, an investigative nonprofit organization, says mining has become Taliban’s second-largest source of revenue [first: opium sales]. It found that in Badakhshan province alone, the Taliban raise several million dollars a year from illegal mining of lapis lazuli. The blue semiprecious stone is largely exported to China and Pakistan, traders say, helping to fund the insurgency.” More, here.

From Defense One

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De-escalation zones in Syria? The Pentagon has already found more than a few reasons for concern, the Associated Press reports. The deal, which the U.S. is not a signatory to and which went into effect last weekend, appears to include “a number of loopholes, raising questions about what exactly it will allow Moscow, Iran or the Syrian government to do,” a nameless U.S. official told AP, reporting alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis in Copenhagen on Tuesday. “One section, said the official, appears to say that Iran, for example, could deploy troops to the wider security zone that encircles the cease-fire area.” More here.

Syria’s caveat: No foreign international troops can patrol those four de-escalation zones. Well, none except Russia, AP reports.

"There will be no presence by any international forces supervised by the United Nations," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in Damascus on Monday. "The Russian guarantor has clarified that there will be military police and observation centers." More here.

SecState Tillerson will meet with his Russian counterpart tomorrow in Washington. To be discussed: the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. The meeting will be Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s first in the capital since 2013, The Wall Street Journal reports in a short preview.

SecDef Mattis vs. the White House — at least that’s what it looks like to Breaking Defense, which dives into the drama and confusion surrounding the dearth of Trump appointees in place at the Pentagon, extensively citing “a source familiar with the Trump personnel team.”

Speaking of: Three and a half months into the Trump administration, one of the services finally has a political appointee to lead it. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was confirmed yesterday by a Senate vote of 76-22. Reuters, here.

ICYMI: It’s also McMaster vs. the White House, according to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who cites his own unnamed sources as saying that the president’s national security adviser has been accused of “undermining” President Trump by none other than President Trump.

“McMaster's allies and adversaries inside the White House tell me that Trump is disillusioned with him,” Lake writes. “This professional military officer has failed to read the president—by not giving him a chance to ask questions during briefings, at times even lecturing Trump.”

And yet: “Presented with the evidence of this buyer's remorse, the White House on Sunday evening issued a statement from Trump: ‘I couldn't be happier with H.R. He's doing a terrific job.’” Insider intrigue, here.

Whatever happened to that plan to defeat ISIS President Trump ordered within 30 days of taking office? asks Slate’s Fred Kaplan. “In the 70 days since it landed on his desk [on Feb. 27], Trump has not responded to it, modified it, or approved it as policy.”

What—me worry? “All the other players in this politico-military fight—the leaders of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf States, the Sunni powers (especially Saudi Arabia), and the various militias, whether jihadist or anti-jihadist—know what their interests are and how they want the game to play out,” writes Kaplan. “Only the United States doesn’t know, or hasn’t clearly expressed, its interests and desires.”

The bottom line, he writes: “Trump is escalating U.S.–military involvement in all the battles of the region, but without a strategy—without an ‘articulated end-point’—escalation is senseless.” Read the rest, here.

On the difficulty of cyber-attacking ISIS. When the Pentagon wanted to “sabotage the Islamic State’s online videos and propaganda” with a series of cyber attacks in 2016—what the Washington Post reports was dubbed Operation Glowing Symphony, carried out by Cybercom’s Joint Task Force Ares—it raised a serious new question for 21st-century warfare: Should the U.S. “notify countries that are home to computer hosting services” that ISIS used—countries that are in fact allies with the U.S.?  

The question was reportedly never fully answered—even though “about 15 countries were notified,” and action taken in “about five or six”—WaPo’s Ellen Nakashima reports. But now that question confronts the Trump White House, “which is conducting a broad review of what powers to give the military in countering the Islamic State, including in the cyber realm.” Worth the click, here.

New missile batteries in the South China Sea. The Chinese are still expanding their artificial islands in disputed waters; new satellite imagery apparently shows a few new launchers for anti-ship missiles. Defense News, here.

Iran tests another high-speed torpedo. Unnamed Pentagon officials tell NBC News that the supercavitating antiship weapon, last tested in 2015, may have a range of about six miles and a top speed of some 250 miles an hour if and when it becomes operational. The test happened Sunday in the Strait of Hormuz. Read, here.

And finally: ‘Kremlinology’ in the age of social media. In the 1980s, Tom Nichols scrutinized the official photos and statements released by Moscow, hoping to divine snippets of information that would allow American leaders to understand, anticipate, and, ultimately, outmaneuver their Soviet counterparts. Now, Nichols says in a much-retweeted thread, President Donald Trump’s tweets are giving the world a minute-by-minute look at his thoughts and emotions. The former CIA consultant suggests this is unwise. Read, here.