Afghan ‘fighting season’ begins; Shakeup in North Korea; Key research program, killed; Why US is escalating in Somalia; And a bit more.

The Taliban just announced the official start of the 2019 fighting season in Afghanistan with “a lengthy missive in five languages,” the Associated Press reports from Kabul.

Obligatory caveat: “The announcement is something the militant group does every year,” AP writes, “even though Taliban attacks never really ceased during the harsh winter months. The insurgents carry out daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces and NATO troops, and inflicting staggering casualties, including among civilians.”

Peace talks check-in. America’s Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, “spent nearly a week in Kabul urging Afghan leaders to unite around a negotiating team before he flew to Qatar this week,” The New York Times reports. “Although senior Afghan political leaders have been meeting to iron out their disagreements, they appear to be some distance from reaching a consensus, with election-season mistrust complicating the discussions.”

However, in a new first: “The Taliban and a large delegation from Afghanistan, including government representatives, are expected to meet next week in Qatar for what is being described as an icebreaker conference, one that could eventually lead to direct negotiations.”

Worth noting: After Khalilzad’s stop by the Afghan capital, the CIA’s Gina Haspel made an unannounced visit, too. A bit more from the Times, here.

A bomb in a potato sack detonated today in Quetta, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people at a vegetable market, the Times reports separately this morning. The militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the attack. More, including video of the aftermath, from Agence France-Presse, here.

From Defense One

The Pentagon Is Killing a Key Independent-Research Program // Patrick Tucker: For decades, JASON studies helped DOD and other agencies get outside perspectives on scientific and technical topics.

Trump Gives 2020 Democrats a National-Security ‘Opportunity,’ Says Rep. Moulton // Katie Bo Williams: Weighing his own bid, the Iraq vet wants presidential candidates to challenge Trump on global leadership, troops, and veterans.

Global Business Brief: // Marcus Weisgerber: Space Week’ friction, enthusiasm; Tanker deliveries resume; F-35 bits found on ocean floor

Tyndall and Offutt AFBs Need More Repair Money — and Fast // Bruce Wright: U.S. Air Force readiness will suffer if Congress doesn’t approve more funds by June.

The Plan to Resurrect the North Korea Nuclear Talks // The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman: Trump wants a “big deal” with North Korea. Seoul would like him to settle for something a little smaller.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died while vacationing at Warm Springs, Georgia, just two months after the Yalta conference that brought Roosevelt under the same roof as Russian leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to discuss Europe’s post-war future.

New Navy leaders nominated. Navy Adm. Bill Moran got the nod from President Trump to succeed current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced Thursday. Moran is currently Richardson’s vice chief.
And replacing Moran, if approved by Congress: Navy Vice Adm. Robert Burke. He’d get his fourth star, and would move up from his current slot as deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel, training and education.

The U.S. is sending its THAAD anti-missile system to Romania this summer, Defense News reported Thursday. Why Romania? To stand in “for the operational Aegis Ashore missile defense system while it undergoes a ‘limited period of scheduled maintenance and updates.’”
The unit bringing it: the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Fort Hood, Texas.
Worth noting: The THAAD system “has been deployed in Guam since 2013 and in South Korea since 2017.” It was also sent “to Israel last month.” Read on, here.
Recall that THAAD is the system China disliked so intensely in the run-up to the U.S. military’s eventual THAAD deployment to South Korea back in May 2017.

North Korea’s Kim is carrying out “one of the biggest leadership shake-ups in years,” with a new head of state, a new premier, and a new title for Kim called “supreme representative of all the Korean people.”
Perhaps most notably, “Choe Ryong Hae, one of Kim’s top lieutenants, was made president of the assembly’s Presidium,” AP writes. Choe's new gig "could allow him to oversee diplomacy with the United States while having the nuclear negotiators and others in the commission under his control."
For what it’s worth, China’s Xi Jinping was quick to congratulate the Hermit Kingdom on its new changes, Reuters reported.
AP’s read on the personnel changes: They “may be a sign of Kim’s desire to keep recent months of up-and-down nuclear diplomacy alive rather than returning to the threats and weapons tests that characterized 2017.” In addition, "Three of the senior officials involved in nuclear negotiations with the United States have been re-elected or newly elected to members of Kim Jong Un’s state commission, including former military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, who travelled to Washington and met Trump twice ahead of Kim Jong Un’s two summits with the U.S. president last year." Tiny bit more background, here.

Meanwhile, the presidents of the U.S. and South Korea want another summit with Kim Jong-un, Reuters reports off the Trump-Moon summit Thursday at the White House. However, “A South Korean official said nothing has been decided about the timing and location of a next inter-Korean summit.” Far more hopes than takeaways in Reuters’ take on Thursday’s meeting, here.

Ending today: Balikatan 2019 exercises, joint drills between the U.S., Australia and the Philippine militaries on the Philippine islands of on the islands of Luzon and Palawan. More — including considerations of China’s growing influence on all things in the region — from Defense News, here.
Bonus: Find more than 250 photo and video products from Balikatan 2019 over on DVIDS, here.

The Sudanese military has overthrown 30-year-ruler and convicted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir. That leaves Defense Minister Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf, "who announced al-Bashir’s ouster on Thursday on Sudanese state TV," as head of the new military transitional council currently in power in Sudan, the Associated Press reports from neighboring Cairo.  
Under Ouf’s guidance, the military “suspended the constitution, dissolved the government, declared a three-month state of emergency and closed the country’s borders and airspace. A nighttime curfew was also part of the measures.” But very few seemed to respect that overnight.
Today in Khartoum, Sudanese civilians are pushing for a civilian government, Reuters reports, which would run against “the army’s plans to rule the country for the next two years,” according to AP.
So where is al-Bashir? No one seems to know (or is willing to share) just yet. But Sudan’s military council promised this morning al-Bashir will not be extradited, Agence France-Presse reported.
From Washington’s POV, the U.S. State Department requested Ouf and his comrades “follow the will of the people” and “commit to the speedy handover to civilian rule.”

SecState Pompeo is spending the weekend in Latin America, with stop-offs in Chile, Paraguay, and Peru. Part of his agenda is curbing Beijing’s influence in those countries, Reuters writes, since China “is already the top trade partner for countries ranging from Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy and the world’s top soybean exporter, to tiny Uruguay.”
For the record: “Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region has risen by $70 billion since 2012,” Reuters writes. “While the United States remains the largest source of FDI, its share fell to 20 percent in 2016 from 25.7 percent in 2015 and 24 percent in 2012, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.” A bit more, here.

On live TV, Israel crashed its spacecraft into the Moon instead of landing it safely, “failing in an ambitious attempt to make history Thursday as the first privately funded lunar landing,” AP reports this morning from Yehud, Israel. “We definitely crashed on the surface of the moon,” said Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries.
Said one expert: “While it failed to land successfully, overall it was a path-breaking and innovative project.” Read on for why, here.

Al-Shabaab gunmen are suspected of kidnapping two Cuban doctors Thursday from Kenya, near the border with Somalia, AFP reports this morning. The gunmen also shot and killed a police officer guarding the doctors, Reuters reports.
ICYMI: Somalia’s Prime Minister Hassan Khayre dropped by the White House on Wednesday. CNN has the highlights (there weren’t many) from that visit, here.

For your ears only: Dive into why the U.S. military is escalating its airstrike campaign on al-Shabaab in Somalia in our 50-minute podcast on the subject, which we just posted on Wednesday.
You’ll hear from a professor who has been studying the Somali National Army for quite a while now (Dr. Paul Williams of George Washington University). You’ll also hear a former Air Force bomb disposal technician who now investigates alleged civilian casualties for the human rights group Amnesty International (Brian Castner). And you’ll hear a Pentagon official (Michelle Lenihan) on the long list of challenges ahead not just in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, but also Nigeria, Mali, and throughout the wider continent.
Find us on Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and more.

For your eyes only: Here’s a 20-minute documentary on the U.S. space force from Todd Harrison and his Aerospace teammates at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Involved: A bit of history and context to the current space debates, along with input from former senior defense officials, members of Congress, and outside experts.

Trump’s ban on transgender troops goes into effect today. Under a March 12 memo implementing the February 2018 policy written under then-SecDef James Mattis, “men and women who identify as transgender and come under the 2018 policy can dress as they like off duty, but on duty they must conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.” as the Washington Examiner’s Jamie McIntyre puts it. “The Pentagon argues this does not constutute a ban on service by transgender persons.”

And finally this weekend: What’s it like to practice deterring Russia in the Arctic? Bitterly cold, of course, The New York Times’ Helene Cooper reports in a feature from Resolute Bay, Canada, which is seriously far north.
The hook: “Last month, hundreds of troops from member countries and partners, including France, Norway, Finland and Sweden, joined Canadian soldiers, reservists and rangers for the Nanook-Nunalivut exercises that aimed in part to help alliance forces match Russian readiness in extreme-cold climes. (The United States sent observers but no troops this year.)”
Arctic trivia, great power edition: “Twenty percent of Russia’s gross domestic product is pulled from the Arctic, whether in minerals or through its shipping lanes,” Cooper writes. “By comparison, less than 1 percent of the United States’ economic output is derived from the Arctic.” Read on for Cooper’s reporting plus lots of great photos from her colleague, Andrew Testa, here.