US may ramp up anti-Taliban ops; 2 more North Korean launches; Restoring civilian control of DOD; Fuel-cell breakthrough?; And a bit more.

After President Trump declared U.S. talks with the Taliban “dead” on Monday, the commander of CENTCOM told Reuters that the U.S. military is likely to ramp up operations against Taliban fighters across the country. Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, speaking at Bagram Air Base: “We’re certainly not going to sit still and let them carry out some self-described race to victory. That’s not going to happen.” 

On possible U.S. responses: “I think we’re talking a total spectrum…whatever targets can be lawfully and ethically struck, I think we’re going to pursue those targets.”

On the Taliban: “They overplayed their hand. They misjudged the character of the American people. I think they misjudged the character of the president of the United States.”

His advice to Americans in Afghanistan: “We just have to hold the line right now...We’re going to make some decisions, I think, back in our nation’s capital over the next few days and that will give us increased guidance going ahead."

One Taliban commander told NBC News: "Our position is far better than in the past. Let's see who can win this war."

Meanwhile, Afghan special forces captured 11 suspected Taliban fighters and killed another 14 across Oruzgan, Herat, Farah, Kunduz and Wardak provinces on Monday, Afghanistan’s Khaama News reports today. 

C-RAM in action: Bagram’s defenders showed off how their Phalanx CIWS would shoot down an incoming rocket. Reuters’ Phil Stewart shot a short video, here

For the record: U.S. aircraft have dropped more bombs on Afghanistan this year (to date) than all of 2009 and almost as many as surge-era 2010. (h/t Breaking Defense’s Paul McCleary)

The busiest three years by rank: (1) 2018 with 7,362 bombs dropped; (2) 2011 with 5,411; and (3) 2010 with 5,100. So far this year, 2019 is in 4th place with 4,483 bombs dropped — and we’ve got three months to go.

Peruse the data for yourself via U.S. Air Forces Central Command, here for the older stats, and here for 2019 numbers.

ICYMI: Defense Priorities’ Bonnie Kristian noted the trend back in March, when she wrote “Escalating the US Air War in Afghanistan Isn’t Working.” 

Worth an extended moment this week: This #LongRead on Afghanistan, from longtime Afghanistan-watcher Kevin Maurer, writing in the Washington Post on Monday. The subhed for that essay: “I started covering Afghanistan in 2004. I’m still trying to figure out if the war was worth the sacrifices and costs.”

Do you have questions about Afghanistan — for us, or for Kevin? Let us know since we’ll be speaking to him for an upcoming episode of Defense One Radio. (One of your D Brief-ers escorted Mr. Maurer for two months with U.S. Army special forces in southern Afghanistan nine years ago this week. The result was the 2013 book “Gentlemen Bastards.”) 

From Defense One

Once Again, Trump Lurches to End a War, But Troops Remain // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The collapse of talks with the Taliban raises questions about the president’s willingness to bring troops home from costly engagements overseas.

Two Cheers for Esper’s Plan to Reassert Civilian Control of the Pentagon // Loren Dejonge Schulman, Alice Friend, Mara Karlin: One might believe that leaving more decisions to uniformed experts would depoliticize policy. The opposite is true.

A Rocket-Fuel Additive Could Be the Next Great Power Breakthrough // Patrick Tucker, Government Executive: Aluminum hydride promises to make nonpolluting fuel cells far safer and more powerful.

70 Percent of Americans Say Arms Sales Make US Less Safe // Marcus Weisgerber: A recent Chicago Council survey shows the Trump administration out of step with public opinion.

The Writing Was on the Wall With Afghanistan // Uri Friedman and Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: The latest bout of bloodshed may have played some role in the actions Trump just took, but it is also a convenient out for an administration that had gone all in on a floundering initiative.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 2002, the U.S. military launchedOperation Champion Strike” with about 1,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. special forces and Afghan militiamen operating in the Bermail valley of Paktika Province.

North Korea launched two more objects into the waters dividing Japan and South Korea — just hours after declaring that it is ready once again to begin “comprehensive discussions” with the U.S. as early as this month, Reuters reported Monday evening. 
Launch data: The first object was fired about 6:53 a.m. local time, the second about 20 minutes later. Both traveled nearly 330 km, classifying them as “short-range” launches possibly forbidden by UN sanctions but okay by President Trump, as he’s repeatedly said over the past two months. 
For the record: Today’s launches marked the 10th North Korean missile test since May, CNN’s Jim Sciutto tweeted
Noted Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies: “It’s remarkable the free hand the North Koreans have to test while talking.”
Added MIT’s Vipin Narang: “I would say these short range tests are becoming so routine— just as Kim wants them to be, to desensitize us and to operationalize them for deployment, as he said he would. But I don’t want to tempt fate and have NK turn up the volume and range.”

The U.S. Navy conducted a "freedom of navigation operation” today near Taiwan, challenging Taipei's "excessive straight baseline claims," CNN’s Ryan Browne tweeted this morning. 
The vessel involved: USS Lake Erie, one of two U.S. ships that was denied a port visit to Hong Kong in mid-August, and again when it was denied a visit to China’s Qingdao port in late August amid the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.

The White House finally sent its formal nominations for USAF and Army secretaries to the Senate on Monday. They are:

  • Barbara Barrett, of Arizona, to be Secretary of the Air Force, replacing Heather Wilson, who resigned at the end of May.
  • Ryan McCarthy, of Illinois, to be Secretary of the Army, replacing Mark Esper, who resigned to become defense secretary in July.

Happening today on Capitol Hill: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy B. Edwin Wilson is to testify before a joint hearing of the — House Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities and the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 
The hearing’s theme: “Securing the Nation's Internet Architecture.” That gets started at 2 p.m. EDT. Catch the livestream here

How Americans feel about U.S. foreign policy. Here’s Richard Fontaine, writing in Foreign Affairs on Great Power Competition and the ordinary American: "There is a striking disconnect, however, between the consensus in Washington and the views of most Americans. Survey after survey shows that while concerns about China are gradually rising, the vast majority of Americans are relatively unconcerned with great-power competition and much more focused on other threats."
Related: Here’s The Atlantic’s James Fallows on how "The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad," such that "Maybe the end of the American one won’t be either." (Note: The piece is less pessimistic than you might think going in.)

U.S. Air Force crews visited Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland two more times than previously reported, Politico’s Natasha Bertrand reported Monday, updating her initial Friday report on the matter. 
Also in that update: More than 60 U.S. service members have stayed overnight at the Trump property on at least four occasions. And staff at the nearby Prestwick Airport arranged for free rides to and from the resort — along with packed lunches — on at least one occasion.
President Trump spoke up, er tweeted, about the Turnberry allegations Monday morning, writing: “I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!). NOTHING TO DO WITH ME”
And ICYMI: Here’s a reminder of why the allegations are ethically troubling for any POTUS, according to POTUS44’s ethics czar.

The U.S. reportedly pulled its top spy from Russia in 2017, multiple news agencies reported this week, beginning with CNN on Sunday evening and followed first by the New York Times, then NBC, and then still more from CNN’s Jim Sciutto.  
NYT: “The informant, according to people familiar with the matter, was outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.”
Information provided by the informant, the Times wrote, helped the CIA conclude that Vladimir Putin favored presidential candidate Trump in the 2016 election, and personally directed hacking and disinformation campaigns to help him win.
CNN: “A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.”
Reax from former CIA-er Ned Price: “The successful exfiltration of an intelligence source may be a tactical victory, but it almost always comes at a high cost. Adversaries will scour the individual’s history for clues to US tradecraft, as we lose a valuable information source.”

Today’s new IO term: information gerrymandering. You may recall the idea of “astroturfing” from our “Cyberwarfare: Today” podcast episode in July. That, as cybersecurity researcher The Grugq told us, is when a person or organization has gone online to create “fake users who said, you know, like, ‘I’ve never had a problem with the Ford Pinto; mine didn’t blow up.’ It would be like 17 people saying that all at once in the exact same way, and you’d suddenly go, ‘Wait a minute.’”
Research now tells us that astroturfing in that cyber realm influences voter behavior. And the new term for this is called “information gerrymandering.” This piece from Nature last week describes how it works.

Related: In case you wondered how difficult it is to create “fake media,” NPR National Security Editor Philip Ewing offers this explainer on “deep fakes” as well as fake video and audio. 
And the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy just last week launched Hamilton 2.0, which — if you’ve forgotten about iteration 1.0, aka Hamilton 68 — is “an interactive dashboard that tracks official Russian government messaging and information ops across its state-run media outlets and key government social media handles.”
You may want to look at Hamilton 2.0 if you’re “Tired of clicking around to see what all those Russian news sites are saying and what's being shared,” Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute tweeted in explanation as the new project launched. 
Initial key findings include

  • Russia is China's cheerleader;
  • Russian state-sponsored media rarely covers...Russia;
  • Russia routinely paints the West as a dystopian, big-brother state. Read on at GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, here

And lastly today: Former CIA-er Valerie Plame is running for Congress in New Mexico. On Monday, she released a campaign video that shows her zooming down a dusty desert road in a late-model Camaro — backwards. If that’s your thing — and it’s racked up a half-million views in less than a day — watch it here.