Syrian pullout timeline unclear; Navy rethinks 355-ship goal; Russia using US courts; Icemelt threatens Asian water supply; And a bit more.

When will U.S. troops come home from Syria — in a matter of months, as Trump suggested in December? CBS News’ Margaret Brennan asked President Trump in a Super Bowl-weekend interview with the president in the Blue Room of the White House. The quick answer to the question above: Trump wouldn’t say. But he did express his concern over how much money America is spending in relation to its military.

Trump’s full reply: "We have to protect Israel. We have to protect other things that we have. But we’re — yeah, they’ll be coming back in a matter of time. Look, we’re protecting the world. We’re spending more money than anybody’s ever spent in history, by a lot. We spent, over the last five years, close to $50 billion a year in Afghanistan. That’s more than most countries spend for everything including education, medical, and everything else, other than a few countries.” (Full transcript, here.)

And on Afghanistan, Brennan asked, “Is there a scenario where you would keep troops in Afghanistan? A smaller number?”

POTUS45: “Yes. And I’ll leave intelligence there. Real intelligence, by the way. I’ll leave intelligence there and if I see nests forming, I’ll do something about it. But for us to be spending $51 billion, like last year, or if you average the cost it’s — I mean you’re talking about numbers that nobody’s ever heard of before… It’s a terrible thing. We’ve been there close to 19 years. And it’s time. And we’ll see what happens with the Taliban. They want peace. They’re tired. Everybody’s tired. We’d like to have — I don’t like endless wars. This war. What we’re doing is got to stop at some point.”

And this one got the White House in a bit of trouble with Baghdad today: Trump said the U.S. is keeping troops in Iraq “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem…I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up. And this is what a lot of people don’t understand. We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”

The reply from Baghdad this morning: “It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran,” Iraqi President Barham Salih said. “The U.S. is a major power... but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here.” That via Reuters, here.

From Defense One

Russia Is Attacking the US System From Within // Natasha Bertrand, The Atlantic: A new filing by Special Counsel Robert Mueller shows how Russia uses the federal courts to go after its adversaries.

The Jury Is Still Out on the Pentagon’s Audit // Rep. Rob Wittman: The real failure will happen if lawmakers and defense officials don’t implement its lessons.

Trump Administration Downplays Fears of Post-Treaty Arms Race // Katie Bo Williams: Nothing the U.S. is currently looking at is nuclear in character,” a senior administration official says, after announcing INF withdrawal.

US Navy Re-Evaluating 355-Ship Goal // Marcus Weisgerber: The number could go up or down or include different types of ships.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1982, President Ronald Reagan continued his months-long pursuit of Moscow’s consent to the INF treaty, asking Russian “President Brezhnev to join us in this important first step to reduce the nuclear shadow that hangs over the peoples of the world.”

The U.S. Navy is re-evaluating its goal of a 355-ship fleet. When U.S. Navy leaders announced in 2016 that they would seek to increase the number of its warships and submarines from the low 200s to 355, they received huzzahs from analysts who noted that the Navy was having trouble keeping up with the demands from the combatant commanders around the world.
But plenty of people pointed out the low likelihood that the service would receive the billions upon billions of extra dollars needed to make it happen. Now, it seems, the Chief of Naval Operations is acknowledging fiscal gravity, telling reporters on Friday: “In light of the new National Defense Strategy and changes in the security environment since that was put out, we’re doing a new force structure assessment,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, told reporters at the Pentagon. “We’ll see where that goes.”
Drones? Navy officials had always declined to say whether unmanned ships or subs might be counted among the 355. Richardson seemed to open the door a bit wider to such accounting: “Technology is starting to come to play, so what counts as a naval platform is going to be an interesting discussion in this new force structure assessment.” Marcus Weisgerber has more, here.

We have a few new names to consider for the next Pentagon chief, via The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef:

  • David McCormick, the financier who is married to Dina Powell, is one of them.
  • ODNI Dan Coats is another.

And there is still, of course, the current Acting Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan. His chances of staying on seem best, due in part to Trump’s noted love of corporate executives, and Shanahan’s background with Boeing.
One more thing about Shanahan, via Gordon Lubold: “Pat Shanahan tried to inject Japanese corporate culture into the Pentagon but it didn’t work.”

BTW: Trump enjoys having acting Cabinet members, “saying interim leaders are more beholden to him,” the Journal’s Lubold and Michael Bender reported this weekend.  
How this could affect (some of) what lies ahead: “Shanahan’s extended try-out as Defsec may soon include forking over Pentagon cash to build POTUS’s border wall,” Lubold and Bender write.

And that border mission just formally added “approximately 3,750 additional U.S. forces to provide the additional support to CBP at the southwest border,” according to a Pentagon statement released moments before Super Bowl 53. The numbers were in an approval from Shanahan’s desk dated January 11.
More C-wire! “That support includes a mobile surveillance capability through the end of September 2019, as well as the emplacement of approximately 150 miles of concertina wire between ports of entry,” the statement reads.
For the record, the order “will raise the total Active Duty forces supporting CBP at the border to approximately 4,350.” As well, “Additional units are being deployed for 90 days, and we will continue to evaluate the force composition required to meet the mission to protect and secure the southern border.” Which means there could be more in the weeks ahead. Or there could be less.
The next deadline to watch: Feb. 15, when the current spending bill to fund the U.S. government is set to expire. Bloomberg has more on where that stands, here.

The path to peace in Afghanistan is “littered with obstacles,” the AP reports this morning in a sort of negotiations sitrep.
One of those obstacles: Russia’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a separate “peace” with the Taliban in Afghanistan and former Kabul officials like former President Hamid Karzai. That report, also from AP, here.

Here’s the latest in U.S.-China tech tensions: A Bloomberg journalist watched from a gelato stand in Vegas while a few U.S. startup founders wore a bug for the FBI in talks with Chinese executives from the tech firm Huawei. The goal of the sting: get those Huawei execs to admit they sent a U.S.-made breakthrough technology back to China, which could be a violation of U.S. export controls.
Bloomberg’s tease: “Diamond glass could make your phone’s screen nearly unbreakable—and its inventor says the FBI enlisted him after Huawei tried to steal his secrets.” Recall the U.S. Department of Justice alleged (PDF) Chinese officials rewarded the theft of trade secrets with money going back to at least 2013.

At least one-third of the Himalayan ice cap will vanish within two generations — reducing the flow of water that today is relied upon by 1.65 billion people in India, Pakistan, China, and other nations. That’s the conclusion of more than 200 scientists, whose new report was peer-reviewed by 125 more experts.
That’s the best-case scenario, by the way. It depends on the world’s governments moving quickly to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temps. We’re actually on a path to see the Himalayan cap — the world largest fresh-water repository outside the poles — shrink to just a third of its current size. The Guardian has more, here.

And finally today in behavior unbecoming of a sailor, 11 Russian sailors were detained Friday in Cape Verde (off the NW coast of Africa) while onboard a commercial vessel carrying 9.5 tons of cocaine, Germany’s DW reported this weekend off this initial alert. Writes DW: “Officials said the ship came from South America and was heading towards Morocco, but the crew had to dock in Cape Verde's capital, Praia, over ‘the death of a crew member.’”
Remember when: $60 million of cocaine “was found” at the Russian Embassy in Argentina about a year ago? The New York Times has that recollection, here.