Deadly explosions near Kabul; Defiant Turkey vows S-400 buy; CIA’s murkier drone strikes; R&D to rise; And a bit more.

Several explosions rocked a celebration just outside of Kabul today “attended by Afghanistan’s chief executive and the former president” Hamid Karzai, AP reports from the capital. Both men were unharmed; however, so far three people are believed to have been killed and 32 wounded — but those numbers are expected to rise.

The blasts are said to have come from mortar shells hitting the ground outside facilities housing hundreds of Afghans. Writes AP, “The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack on an affiliated website, saying it targeted a ‘Shiite celebration attended by senior government officials.’” More here.

On one other side of that Afghan war, “Nabi Mohammadi, who spent years risking his life for Americans, became an American last week,” the Des Moines Register reported this week. “The soft-spoken native of Afghanistan, who helped Iowa National Guard troops patrol a violent region of his homeland, took the U.S. citizenship oath at the federal courthouse in Des Moines.” Story, here.

From the region: Pakistan is cracking down on extremists. Under "pressure from global powers to act against groups carrying out attacks in India," Reuters reports Pakistani officials seized 182 religious schools and more than 100 people, according to an announcement from the interior ministry this morning.

What to do with the facilities — which include “34 schools or colleges, 163 dispensaries, 184 ambulances, five hospitals” — is still anybody’s guess. A bit more here.

In the city of Baghouz, Syria, “There were no signs of combat and calm prevailed for a fourth day to allow for evacuations.” AP’s Gabriel Chaim has photos from ISIS’s last Syrian pocket, here.

From Defense One

How Many Civilians Die in Covert US Drone Strikes? It Just Got Harder to Say // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: Trump has revoked an Obama-era reporting requirement even as the CIA has resumed lethal strikes.

NSA-Cyber Command Chief Recommends No Split Until 2020 // Patrick Tucker: That’s another delay for a separation planned several Defense Secretaries ago.

The US-China Tech War Is Being Fought in Central Europe // Philip Heijmans, The Atlantic: The Czech Republic’s complicated relationship with the Chinese giant Huawei offers a lesson in the benefits and pitfalls of courting Beijing.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Bradley Peniston and Katie Bo Williams. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1911, President William Howard Taft ordered 20,000 troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the Mexican Revolution.

Expect biggest R&D request ever for 2020, Bloomberg reports. In a particular boost for satellites and hypersonic weapons, the Defense Department will ask for $104 billion, some $9 billion more than appropriated this year and the most in the department’s history, according to defense officials, speaking ahead of the March 11 release of the request. Read, here.
But missile defense funding will remain flat, Foreign Policy reports.
Want to know more? Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber rounds up the 2020 known knowns in his next Global Business Brief newsletter, out later this morning. Subscribe to GBB here.
One other thing: “The XQ-58A Valkyrie, a jet-powered drone designed to fly alongside manned fighter jets and navigate autonomously, completed its first test flight Tuesday at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona,” the Washington Post reported off an Air Force announcement Wednesday.

New activity in North Korea is seen as “missile-related,” according to South Korea’s spy chief, and “the U.S. and South Korean militaries are closely coordinating intelligence over the developments,” the Associated Press reports this morning from Seoul.  
Where this comes from: “Movement of cargo vehicles was spotted recently around a factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States,” Reuters reports.
The Sanumdong factory is different from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (also referred to as Tongchang-ri) that’s been in the news this week, too, for new restoration work.
Bigger picture: “Some analysts see the work at Sohae as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.” More from Reuters, here.

WH message to the Saudis: I’m sticking with you. President Trump's pick for ambassador to Saudi Arabia — a post that has been vacant for two years — on Wednesday defended the importance of the U.S.-Riyadh relationship in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
John Abizaid, the retired four-star up for the post, told senators that he was not "unaware of the challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi partnership," including the war in Yemen and "the senseless killing of Jamal Khashoggi," the Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last year. But, he said: "In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia."
Sound familiar? Lawmakers continue to clamor for Trump to hold Saudi Arabia's young ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, accountable for any role he may have had in the murder. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Wednesday that MBS had gone "full gangster," asserting: "Obviously, we know, he's ordered, I believe, and all the evidence, I believe, strongly indicates he ordered or knew of efforts to murder Jamal Khashoggi." But the Trump administration has already signaled it intends to stick with Riyadh. Read more, from Defense One's Katie Bo Williams, here.

Turkey: We’re buying S-400. The purchase of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles is a “done deal,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a TV news station Wednesday. That follows a warning by NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who told lawmakers on Tuesday that Ankara should not be allowed to also buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Scaparrotti is worried that the S-400 might send Russia information about NATO’s latest jet.
Eject Ankara from the F-35?: This is no small thing. Turkey is the largest Tier 3 partner in the F-35 program and has contributed close to $200 million to the fifth-generation fighter jet’s development,” wrote Selim Sazak and Caglar Kurc last year in Defense One. “If the crisis escalates further, it is likely to have severe reverberations.”

Chinese telecom Huawei is trying to sue the U.S. government over access to American military contractors, AP reports this morning.
Quick background there: “Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, is at the center of U.S.-Chinese tensions over technology competition and cyberspying. The company has spent years trying to put to rest accusations it facilitates Chinese spying or is controlled by the ruling Communist Party.” Read on, here.
Extra reading:

Spotted in Beijing today: “a kidnapping in broad daylight,” Financial Times’ deputy bureau chief in Beijing, Lucy Hornby tweeted today. "Three men in black caps and tight black jackets with yellow insignia grabbed a low-income woman. She ran into the street to avoid them, sobbing. They dragged her across the road by her coat and shoved her into a grey van with Tianjin plates. The good citizens who witnessed this event were visibly shaken and upset. About 50 people from all classes stopped to witness this event, many trying to photograph or impede the operation but none daring to intervene directly." (This is apparently not without recent precedent in Beijing.)

A Russian jet intercepted a USAF RC-135A somewhere over the Baltic Sea, The Aviationist reported Wednesday after the video was released by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The gist: First, the date is unclear. Beyond that, David Cenciotti writes, "Close encounters between Russian fighters and U.S. spyplanes and bombers (and vice versa) have occurred for decades now... we have often published shots of U.S. spyplanes during unsafe intercepts by Su-27 but we have never seen footage filmed from inside the cockpit of the Russian fighters dispatched to visually identify and escort the American aircraft. Until yesterday... Interesting, even though it does not show anything nefarious."

Russians who ‘disrespect’ government are now criminals, thanks to lawmakers “pass[ing] legislation Thursday that imposes restrictions on online media and criminalizes anyone who insults the state,” AP reported from Moscow. “The bill introduces fines for publishing materials showing disrespect to the state, its symbols and government organs. Repeat offenders could face a 15-day jail sentence... The bills are expected to quickly pass in the upper house before President Vladimir Putin signs them into laws.”

Meanwhile, China’s Communist Party is warning against “erroneous thoughts” as Reuters reports party “officials [are] fall[ing] over themselves to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and his philosophy.”
This year’s milestones for China:

  • “30 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square;”
  • “60 years since the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet into exile;”
  • “70 years since the founding of Communist China.” Reuters has more on ideological crackdowns in the Middle Kingdom, here.

Sen. Martha McSally: sexual assault in the ranks threatens U.S. national security. The squadron commander-turned-Arizona senator said that Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” one day after she stunned a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the issue by revealing that she had been raped by a superior officer when she was in the Air Force. Reuters, here.

Lastly today: classified U.S. Navy nuclear-reactor manual found on British beach. Or part of it, anyway; the MSN story is a bit vague. But photos posted by Ian Le Breton, who said he found the manual while walking his dog along the English Channel, clearly show the cover of “Book 2” of a classified casualty manual for the A4W/A1G reactor, two of which power the Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers. Le Breton told MSN: “It is impossible to say if it is still in use. The regulations it refers to were created in 1954 so it is from sometime after that.” Read, here.