Afghan drawdown latest; INF, dead; FBI names a new domestic-terror threat; More DPRK missiles; And a bit more.

The U.S. wants to remove almost half of its troops from Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire with the Taliban, the Washington Post reported Thursday. “The agreement, which would require the Taliban to begin negotiating a larger peace deal directly with the Afghan government, could cut the number of American troops in the country from roughly 14,000 to between 8,000 and 9,000,” U.S. officials said. But the Taliban would have to break with al-Qaeda and stand up to the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch, and few experts expect either of those things to happen with much, if any, urgency.

That number would return American troop levels to “nearly the same as when President Trump took office,” the Post writes. Which is to say, by the numbers, the additional troops sent under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis back in August 2017 would be sent back home. And in that time, the Taliban’s international profile has risen sharply — openly courting Russia while engaging in at least eight rounds of talks with the U.S. completely separate from Kabul — while in just the last several months, civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes have outpaced civilian casualties from Taliban attacks, as the BBC reported this week. 

“I would say that they are 80 or 90 percent of the way there,” that is, toward finalizing an agreement, one nameless U.S. official told the Post. “But there is still a long way to go on that last 10 or 20 percent.”

Said Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, to the Post: “Things look promising that there will be a breakthrough. We hope there won’t be any obstacle, but it also depends on the seriousness of the Americans.”

Kabul officials, too, seem to be optimistic, establishing a 15-member team two days ago for direct talks with the Taliban — talks that could take place in Norway after the U.S. talks, Reuters reported Wednesday. 

America’s top Afghan negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, dropped by Pakistan Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Associated Press reported from Islamabad. According to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the parties chatted over “the positive momentum in the Afghan peace process and next steps” in the peace process. “They also discussed the role Pakistan has played in support of the process and additional positive steps Pakistan can take.” Today, Khalilzad is flying to Qatar for more talks with the Taliban. 

Otherwise in Afghanistan, “The Taliban targeted a police checkpoint in Afghanistan’s central province of Day Kundi” today, killing at least 10 police and wounding 15 others, AP reports separately. 

Worth noting, “The Taliban now effectively control half the country and stage near-daily attacks, mainly targeting Afghan security forces and government officials or those they see as siding with the government,” AP writes in that Day Kundi report.

Get to better know "a crucial and fundamental factor" in the Afghan economy, appointments, livelihoods and the insurgency” via a new report on Afghanistan opium, cannabis and methamphetamine production from the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The group just released a 10-year dossier of its reports on drugs, as well as a dispatch on the latest trends in all three illicit substances, here

In case you missed it, there’s a new film shot almost entirely in and around the Afghan cities of Kabul and Kandahar, the New York Times reports.

The title: “Jirga,” which is a term immediately resonant with U.S. troops who’ve deployed to the country over the past 18 years. The plot concerns “a traumatized Australian soldier returning to the scene of his war crime to attempt amends,” the Times writes. Catch the trailer here

That film reminds us of another filmed in the country and released in 2008 called “Opium War.” Catch a review of that one from Time back in February 2009, here

From Defense One

Esper Puts JEDI Contract on Hold for Review // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: It’s unclear whether the new defense secretary's review will affect the contract’s timeline.

But What About China? // Peter Beinart, The Atlantic: To treat great-power competition as an afterthought is irresponsible, even dangerous. The 2020 presidential candidates did just that.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: M&A, slowing?; One-on-one with SAIC’s new CEO; Saudi arms sales, and more.

FBI Seeks Tools to Help Track Criminals and Terrorists via Social Media // Brandi Vincent, Nextgov: Proposals from interested vendors are due later this month.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt urging the formation of an atomic weapons research program.

The world has lost “an invaluable brake on nuclear war” with the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, UN Secretary General António Guterres told reporters on Friday. “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles.” Plenty of backstory, here.
U.S. Secretary of State: it’s Russia’s fault. Read Mike Pompeo’s Friday statement, here.
Now what? The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor discusses how nuclear security could unravel.

The Senate confirmed Vice Adm. Michael Gilday to be the next Chief of Naval Operations, Military Times’ Leo Shane III reported moments later. Shane reminds us that “Gilday, who has previously served as the head of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and 10th Fleet commander, was thrust into the path for the top Navy job after the sudden retirement of Adm. Bill Moran.” Read on, here

North Korea launched more missiles on Thursday, which is now the third time in a week that has happened. 
Said Trump Thursday in response: "Short range missiles, we never made an agreement on that. I have no problem. We'll see what happens, but these are short range missiles, they're very standard."
Replied Abraham Denmark of the Wilson Center, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia: “We SHOULD have a problem with these tests. These weapons threaten tens of thousands of Americans — civilians and military — and our allies. The tests violate UN Security Council Resolutions. If our reaction is just a shrug, expect Pyongyang to keep testing, and possibly escalate.”
The North is also getting savvier about the imagery it releases, now selectively blurring out apparently sensitive details, 38 North’s Maryn Williams noticed from the latest batch of photos out of Pyongyang.

An attack by al-Shabaab has killed the mayor of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, Agence France-Presse reported Thursday — following up on an attack that occurred nine days ago. The mayor, Abdirahman Omar Osman, died Thursday “while doctors were treating his wounds at a hospital in Doha,” Qatar, the president’s spokesman announced. 

The FBI calls conspiracy theorists a new domestic-terrorism threat. In a May 30 memo, the bureau’s Phoenix bureau reports that “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” are a growing threat, noting that violence connected to fringe theories have led to a number of arrests. 
The intelligence bulletin “specifically mentions QAnon, a shadowy network that believes in a deep state conspiracy against President Trump, and Pizzagate, the theory that a pedophile ring including Clinton associates was being run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant (which didn’t actually have a basement),” writes Yahoo News, which obtained and posted the memo.
The FBI has wrestled with the changing nature of domestic terrorism in recent years. In 2017, it invented a new category, “black identity extremists,” which it was forced to abandon “since no group or even any specific individuals actually identify” as such, Yahoo writes. Then it abandoned its longstanding category of “white supremacists,” whose violence is on the rise, in favor of a general “racially motivated” category. Yet in a Senate hearing last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
Pushback? Among the most prominent promulgators of conspiracy theories is the FBI’s boss’ boss’ boss, who campaigned on the Obama-wasn’t-born-here lie, tweets about the “deep state,” and has praised Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones.

Ratcliffe’s big fib. Trump’s new pick to lead America’s spy agencies is “misrepresenting his role in ‘overseeing terrorism cases’ entirely, and DOJ attorneys know it,” Katrina Mulligan of the Center for American Progress explained Thursday in a 14-tweet thread. 

Former CIA man from the Lonestar State, Rep. Will Hurd, announced that he will not seek re-election in his swing district, Axios reported Thursday. 
“Look, I’m the only black Republican in the House of Representatives,” Hurd told CNN two weeks ago (at the 3:20 mark of that video link). "If the Republican Party in Texas doesn't start looking like Texas, there won't be a Republican Party in Texas. And I think that goes for the rest of the country."

“We have a problem.” America’s top Navy SEAL, Rear Adm. Collin Green of Naval Special Warfare Command, “has given [SEAL] commanders until August 7 to detail the problems they see and provide recommendations on how they will ensure troops are engaging in ethical and professional behavior,” CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Thursday. 
“I don't know yet if we have a culture problem,” he wrote in his letter. “I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately." Story and background, if you’ve been out of the loop for a few months, here

Aviator died in crash near Death Valley, Navy confirms. The F-18E Super Hornet, part of Strike Fighter Squadron 151 out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, was on a training run when it crashed on Wednesday. The aviator’s name has not yet been released, the Los Angeles Times reports.

This week in “be afraid of technology” news: Hackers Could Use Connected Cars to Gridlock Whole Cities, researchers at Georgia Tech have learned. 

Safety tip for future travel: “Military weapons are not allowed in either checked or carry-on baggage,” NBC reported this week from Baltimore after a “man said he was returning home from military duty and wanted to keep the weapon as a souvenir from his time stationed in Kuwait.”
Update: “an Air Force sergeant tried bringing home a rocket launcher tube as a souvenir at the same airport” mentioned above, AP reported Thursday from Baltimore. 
So, what happens to these things? They’re “confiscated and turned over to the Maryland fire marshal for disposal,” according to NBC.

And finally this week, thirty-nine years ago yesterday, the U.S. Navy time travel film, “The Final Countdown,” starring Kirk Douglas, was released in theaters. (h/t to the U.S. Naval Institute) Catch the trailer on YouTube, here. If we can find time this weekend, at least one of your D Brief-ers will try to watch this one at long last. Got recommendations for other overlooked military-themed films from the 70s and earlier that we shouldn’t miss? Feel free to drop us a line
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!