Afghan president axes US visit; Esper on China, Russia; ISIS’ cow bombs; Mattis’ two-step; And a bit more.

Afghan President Ghani just cancelled a trip to the U.S. early next week to discuss the draft peace agreement between the Taliban and the White House, the Associated Press reports today from Kabul.

What’s going on here? AP learned of the news “after the U.S. envoy negotiating with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, abruptly returned to Qatar for unexpected talks with the insurgents on the deal that he had described as complete just days ago.”

BTW: the Taliban have attacked three different provincial capitals in less than a week, the latest (which happened today) hit the western city of Farah. (The other two capitals hit recently were Kunduz and Pul-eKhumri.) 

And multiple Taliban attacks Thursday in Logar province hit a group of U.S. special forces, prompting nine soldiers attached to the team to be medically evacuated with “traumatic brain injuries,” Newsweek reported Thursday. The evacuations occurred under a so-called "Category C" justification, which Newsweek’s Jim LaPorta writes is “a priority classification in the U.S. military medical system that applies when a soldier needs, ‘medical or surgical attention intervention within four hours for the preservation of life, limb, or eyesight.’”

And in a perhaps awful sign for reconciliation efforts, LaPorta writes that “Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission acting head Abdul Samad Amiri was reportedly kidnapped and executed Wednesday night as he made his way from Kabul to Ghor in Maidan Wardak province's Jalreez area.”

From Defense One

The Mattis Two-Step // Kevin Baron: The forever general’s attempt to stay out of politics is bringing him right into it.

With US Help, Africa’s Coastal Nations Are Learning to Work Together // Adm. James Foggo III: Maritime security only works when entire regions cooperate.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Slashing sustainment costs; Hypersonic contracts; Army picks vehicle prototypers; and more…

Why the 2020 Campaigns Are Still Soft Targets for Hackers // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: Three years ago, Hillary Clinton's campaign chief clicked on a link that allowed Russia into his Gmail account. It could easily happen again.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1700, English scientist Edmond Halley returned from a one-year voyage to South Africa. His trip that forever changed our understanding of the Earth's magnetic field thanks to Halley's comparisons of compass readings with the position of familiar stars along his way. Most folks, however, probably know Halley for something else: his study of a comet that returns to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years, and which later took on Edmond’s surname. It last appeared in 1986, and won’t return again until 2061.

Europe should be wary of China and it needs to do more to counter Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a think tank audience today in London. 
Wary of China how? By lessening its dependence on “Chinese investment and trade,” AP reports, which in turn will lessen European leaders’ susceptibility “to coercion and retribution when they act outside of Beijing’s wishes.”
“It is increasingly clear that Russia and China want to disrupt the international order by gaining a veto over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions,” Esper said, as quoted by Reuters. “The United States is facing this challenge head-on, but if we are to preserve the world all of us have created together through decades of shared sacrifice, we must all rise to the occasion.” 
About Moscow, Esper said, “To put it simply, Russia’s foreign policy continues to disregard international norms. This is why the United States in consultation with our NATO allies is expanding our presence in Poland and continuing our close collaboration with the Baltic states.”
And on Iran: “It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks,” Esper told the audience at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. A bit more at AP, here. Or read Esper’s full prepared remarks (PDF), here.

Here’s what some of the U.S.-Turkey joint patrols look like along Syria’s northern border, thanks to photos shared Thursday by U.S. European Command on Twitter. 
Before you click: These are not foot patrols, but rather aerial “reconnaissance flights” conducted from the relative safety of Black Hawk helicopters.  
Why are they flying these? It’s in accordance with “the establishment of the combined joint operations center (CJOC) last month,” writes EUCOM officials in an attached press release, “and demonstrates continued commitment to address Turkey's legitimate security concerns on their southern border, maintains security in northeast Syria so ISIS cannot reemerge, and allows the coalition to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

ISIS in Iraq has turned to cow-borne bombs to attack Afghan and coalition troops, the New York Times reported Thursday from developments out of eastern Iraq’s Diyala Province.
This is not a first, the Times notes. “During the civil war in Iraq from 2003 to 2009, the insurgents who called themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq placed bombs both inside and under dead livestock, counting on families to try to clear away the corpses. In Afghanistan, donkeys were occasionally pressed into service to carry bombs targeting NATO forces.”
And for the record, “Northeastern Diyala has seen almost weekly Islamic State attacks in the last year, including ones using mortars and roadside bombs, as well as small arms attacks and kidnappings. Some of those have targeted Al Islah, even though it is one of the areas that the Iraqi army claimed recently to have cleared of all Islamic State presence.” More here

Setback for supporters of America’s “terrorism watchlist,” aka the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database. Federal Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia “ruled on Wednesday that a federal government database that compiles people deemed to be ‘known or suspected terrorists’ violates the rights of American citizens who are on the watchlist,” the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reported.
Why this matters: “Being on the watchlist can restrict people from traveling or entering the country, subject them to greater scrutiny at airports and by the police, and deny them government benefits and contracts.”
Why Trenga opposed it: “The court concludes that the risk of erroneous deprivation of plaintiffs’ travel-related and reputational liberty interests is high, and the currently existing procedural safeguards are not sufficient to address that risk,” he wrote in his decision, which you can read in full, here

Happening next Thursday: Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Acting Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett will finally have their confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, SASC announced quietly Thursday. 
McCarthy "has acted as the service’s leader since Esper was promoted,” Defense News reports. “In his time with the Army, McCarthy drew positive reviews from Capitol Hill, both for his communication with members of Congress and his work with Esper on reforming the Army." 
“Barrett previously served as deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration in the 1980s and has held various positions in diplomacy and aerospace research,” Air Force Magazine writes in a preview. “If confirmed, she would take over the Air Force’s top civilian post from Matt Donovan, who has served as acting secretary since former Secretary Heather Wilson left for academia at the end of May.”
Not to be overlooked: Barrett is “the first civilian woman to land in an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier,” Defense News writes. More here

In spooky tech news this week, “Voice-mimicking software [was] reportedly used in a major theft” worth almost $250,000 inside Europe this past March, the Washington Post reported Wednesday — one week after the story broke at the Wall Street Journal.
The sensational quick read: “Thieves used voice-mimicking software to imitate a company executive’s speech and dupe his subordinate into sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a secret account… in a remarkable case that some researchers are calling one of the world’s first publicly reported artificial-intelligence heists.”
Advice to companies: Be alert, responsive and flexible, the Wall Street Journal writes, because “While it is hard to predict whether there might soon be an uptick in cyberattacks using AI… hackers are more likely to use the technology if it makes attacks more successful or profitable.”
“This is a technology that would have sounded exotic in the extreme 10 years ago, now being well within the range of any lay criminal who's got creativity to spare,” Andrew Grotto, a fellow at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, told the Post. Read on, here

Oops: A-10 accidentally launches rocket near Tucson. Air Force officials are investigating the accidental firing of an M-156 smoke rocket, usually used to mark targets, on Thursday in the Jackal Military Operations Area, about 60 miles northeast of Tucson, Arizona. From KOLD, here.

And finally today, we pause to remember an overlooked story of more than 100 Army Rangers trainees and Green Berets who were training a little north of Mount Saint Helens when it erupted 39 years ago. “It appears their story of survival has never been publicized until now,” writes Alex Bruell of Longview, Washington’s The Daily News.
What were they doing there? “Unconventional warfare training in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest,” Bruell reports. And the whole thing went even more unconventional when what seemed like hail began falling around 8 a.m. in the morning — and burned holes in soldiers’ ponchos. About 15 minutes later, a “storm of ash” turned the whole sky dark. Bruell picks up the story, here

Be safe, be good, and always plan ahead, wherever you go weekend. Thanks for reading us, and we’ll catch you again on Monday!