Mattis quits; Trump orders Afghan drawdown; Space Force under Air Force; Chinese hackers indicted; And a bit more.

SecDef Mattis has resigned over multiple disagreements with POTUS45. To begin, President Donald Trump announced Defense Secretary James Mattis’s “retirement” on Twitter Thursday afternoon. Moments later, the Pentagon released a letter Mattis hand-delivered to the president at the White House.

Trump’s farewell tweet at 5:21 p.m. EDT: "General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years. During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment. General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!"

A few quick excerpts from Mattis’s resignation letter, sent at about 5:30 p.m. EDT:

  • “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
  • “It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.”
  • “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

And the key line, leaving no ambiguity about “retirement” versus resignation-on-principle: "Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019." Read his two-page letter in full.

Why February? you might ask. Evelyn Farkas has a good guess: The NATO defense ministerial.

Must have been some meeting. Here’s a remarkable detail from The New York Times: "His resignation already written, Mr. Mattis made a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to change his mind on Syria. Rebuffed, the retired 4-star Marine general asked aides hand out 50 copies of the letter at the Pentagon."

Unprecedented. Historian Michael Beschloss said a defense secretary has never resigned in protest before. See that from MSNBC.

In an unusual departure for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he wrote of Mattis’s departure, "I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the president on these and other key aspects of America’s global leadership...I urge him to select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding of these vital principles."

Another warning from Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla.: “Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter. It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries. I hope we who have supported this administrations initiatives over the last two years can persuade the President to choose a different direction. But we must also fulfill our constitutional duty to conduct oversight over the policies of the executive branch.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told CNN Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria "was the straw that broke the camel's back" for Mattis. "The policy was so wrongheaded, was so ill-conceived ... he just could not continue to serve."

Who’s to blame? Trump, certainly, but also the Americans who elected him, Defense One’s Kevin Baron writes in a look back at how the gains of by-with-and-through in Iraq and Syria were always shadowed by fears that the Trump administration would pull the rug out from under them.

Who’s the next SecDef? Politico’s guesses include:

  • Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan
  • Sen. Tom Cotton
  • Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane
  • Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats
  • Former Sen. Jim Talent
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham

Other unlikely guesses:

  • Erik Prince
  • Ryan Zinke
  • Sebastian Gorka

So what now? A massive troop reduction in Afghanistan, another massive headache for U.S. lawmakers. It’s been a busy week in national security news, so more on that later. First—

About that decision to pull the U.S. out of Syria, the Washington Post delivered this dismal reax Thursday: “In the Syrian town of Kobane, where the United States’ alliance with Syria’s Kurds began in 2014, thousands of Kurds marched in anger and dismay toward a U.S. military base, many clutching photographs of their children killed fighting the Islamic State alongside U.S. forces. They urged Trump to reverse his decision.”

Some recent history of America turning its back on the Kurds: “In 1975, the United States abandoned support for a Kurdish uprising in Iraq after President Saddam Hussein struck a deal with their ally, the Shah of Iran. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, but when Kurds in the north and Shiite Arabs in the south responded to the call, the U.S. military refrained from going to their aid.” Now these latest developments from Syria — which do not appear to be reversing. More from the Post, here.

How do citizens in Raqqa, Syria, feel about the U.S. exit? NPR’s Ruth Sherlock reports they feel ISIS will return soon, and the Turks will invade sooner to the north — an operation reportedly delayed slightly now that Trump has made his abrupt exit announcement.  

France’s reax: ISIS "has not been wiped from the map." More global reax at NPR, here; and from the Pacific region — where U.S. allies are “rattled” — via Reuters, here and (for Europe) here.

From Defense One

Mattis Resigns Over Disagreements with Trump // Katie Bo Williams: In two-page resignation letter, defense secretary cites need to treat allies with respect, potential adversaries with resolve.

The ‘Nightmare Scenario’ Has Happened and You’re to Blame // Defense One’s Kevin Baron: Trump’s withdrawal from from Syria is what military leaders feared — and exactly what he promised.

Congress Must Face the Truth about Trump // David Frum: Mattis is telling you that the president lacks respect for allies and a clear-eyed view of malign actors and strategic competitors.

DOJ Hits Chinese Hackers For Attacking U.S. Navy, Agencies, Companies // Patrick Tucker: Hackers with the Chinese government hit 45 targets in campaign going back years.

To Succeed in Syria, Don’t Withdraw — Rebrand // Hassan Hassan, The Atlantic: The president’s plan is a disaster. If he wants to claim victory, there’s a better way.

Trump’s Gifts to Turkey Repeat Mistakes and Set Bad Precedents // Aykan Erdemir and John Lechner: The withdrawal from Syria and sale of missiles to Ankara will undermine U.S. efforts to work with partners and rebuff Russian influence.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: What to expect in 2019; Patriots for Turkey; GD warns Canada, and lots more.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Bradley Peniston and Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you find this stuff useful, consider sharing it with somebody you think might find it useful, too. On this day in 1968, the first manned mission to the moon launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. On board this Apollo 8 mission: astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, Jr., and William Anders.

Trump has ordered nearly half of America’s troops removed from Afghanistan, The Wall Street Journal reported in the middle of the Mattis news tornado Thursday evening.
When? In “the coming weeks,” some 7,000 American troops will be coming home in the “first stage of a phased drawdown” of the entire war, the Journal’s Gordon Lubold reported. Reuters reports the number is “at least 5,000.”
And for the record, this new drawdown may not wrap for “at least many months” still — which is not as rapid as Trump’s desired Syrian exodus (at just 2,000 troops and 13 fewer years in-country, by comparison).
Worth noting: The White House’s Afghanistan exit announcement came shortly after the U.S. and the Taliban wrapped their latest two-day round of talks in Abu Dhabi. Reuters has a pretty good roundup of the immediate reaction from inside Afghanistan — mostly cautious, though some countries are reportedly anxious to pull out their militaries, too — here.
The Taliban’s reax to the news: “Frankly speaking we weren't expecting that immediate US response," AFP reports. “We are more than happy, they realised the truth. We are expecting more good news.”
Said one U.S. military official to The D Brief Thursday evening: “Odd there was no mention [by Trump or the White House] of the U.S. pulling out of Iraq…”
Said another: "None of us saw it coming. With Syria, Afghanistan, Mattis — what a way to end a sloppy year."
Said Rep. Mac Thornberry of the House Armed Services Committee in a statement this morning:

  • "I am deeply disturbed by reports that the Administration is planning to cut the number of American troops in Afghanistan by half. Among my concerns are that such a move would: complicate the remaining troops ability to protect themselves; cause coalition partners to reduce their presence as well; set back progress in helping the Afghan security forces be able to provide for their country's security; relieve pressure on the Taliban at a critical juncture in peace negotiations; and allow ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan to rebuild and eventually launch terrorist attacks against Americans. Considerable progress has been made in the last two years against terrorist organizations in a variety of places around the world. Reducing the American presence in Afghanistan and removing our presence in Syria will reverse that progress, encourage our adversaries, and make America less safe."

Space Force to reside under Air Force. Military Times quotes a draft of the legislative proposal to be sent with the 2020 budget proposal: “There is established a United States Space Force as an armed force within the Department of the Air Force.”
Is that your final answer? A Marine Corps-like arrangement has long been the lowest-impact answer to Trump’s June order to create a Space Force. It also most closely mimics last year’s proposal by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. But Congress must still approve the move. Stay tuned.

Boeing to deliver first tanker by year’s end. That’s what “people familiar with the process” tell Reuters about the long-delayed KC-46 program. Boeing won the $49 billion deal to supply 179 tankers based on the 767 commercial jet way back in 2011 — and has since eaten more than $3 billion in unexpected development costs. But the handover — if it happens — won’t be official until SecDef Mattis signs off on it.
ICYMI: The KC-46 delays have emboldened Airbus, which lost the competition for the 179-plane contract, to take aim at the next batch of tanker purchases. D1’s Marcus Weisgerber had that, here.

For your ears only: Stay tuned to Defense One Radio over the holiday break. We’ll be posting three episodes over the next couple weeks on what we learned in 2018. The first posts later today. So subscribe today on Google Play, iTunes, or Overcast — or wherever you listen to podcasts...

We’ll see you all again on Wednesday, Jan. 2. Have a great holiday, everyone — and here’s to a safe and productive 2019!