US, Taliban near deal; Space Force’s first soldiers; Trump hints at witness retribution; Huawei exploits police backdoors, US says; And a bit more.

The U.S. and the Taliban could announce a new deal as soon as today, the Wall Street Journal reports today after rumors surfaced Tuesday in the New York Times. According to the Times, “President Trump has conditionally approved a peace deal with the Taliban that would withdraw the last American troops from the country, potentially beginning the end of America’s longest war.”

The catch: The Taliban have to “prove their commitment to a durable reduction of violence over a test period of about seven days later this month.” 

U.S. officials are already preparing for a signing ceremony around the weekend of Feb. 23, according to the Journal and supported by Reuters reporting this morning. The Times writes “A senior diplomat in Washington described the deal as 95 percent agreed to in principle, but that the possibility of a final agreement will become clearer in a matter of couple weeks.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed news of “notable progress made in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban” in a Twitter thread on Tuesday. Said Ghani, “Our primary objective is to end the senseless bloodshed. To do so, the Afghan people stand with us with their full consensus and I assure them that their leadership maintains the courage, competence, and the necessary resources to achieve this objective. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will manage the next steps in a manner that positively supports the overall peace process and will report to the public.”

Worth noting: Ghani wrote it’s the Kabul government that “will manage the next steps” in the process. So far, Kabul officials have been sidelined during the U.S.-Taliban talks.

To that end, the peace deal reportedly contains four main parts, the Journal writes:

  1. “the U.S. will withdraw all its forces”; 
  2. “the Taliban will renounce ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups”;
  3. “there will be a reduction in violence”; 
  4. “and talks between Afghan parties must take place to decide on the country’s future.”

Should points one through three occur, which is a big if, then “talks among Afghans to decide on the country’s future are expected to start within weeks. The location for the talks has yet to be finalized, but Oslo is one of the front runners.”

Meanwhile in NE Syria, U.S. forces were in a brief gunfight with pro-regime troops, the Wall Street Journal reports while traveling with the Defense Secretary to NATO HQs in Brussels. The episode happened near the northern Syrian city of Qamishli.

"After coalition troops issued a series of warnings and de-escalation attempts, the patrol came under small-arms fire from unknown individuals,” said Col. Myles Caggins III, a military spokesman. “In self-defense, coalition troops returned fire. The situation was de-escalated and is under investigation.”

FWIW: Syrian state news painted a slightly different picture, Reuters reports. “Syria’s state news agency SANA said one civilian was killed and another wounded when U.S. forces opened fire on people after their vehicles were stopped at a checkpoint, in the village of Kherbat Amo, east of Qamishli.”

BTW: There’s a new academic study assessing “U.S. Military Deployments and Public Opinion in Host States,” in the American Political Science Review. In particular, the authors look into “how social and economic interactions with U.S. military personnel affect individuals’ views of the U.S. military presence, the U.S. population, and the U.S. government.” 

Among the findings: “[T]he economic benefits that flow from the U.S. military presence in a state correlate with a reduced probability that individuals express negative views of various U.S. actors, and in some cases also correlate with a higher probability that individuals express positive views.” Worth the click, here

From Defense One

100 US Soldiers to Transfer into Space Force in 2021 // Marcus Weisgerber: The Army is the first branch outside the Air Force to announce initial plans regarding the new branch of service.

Where Could the US Put Its Post-INF Missiles? // Samantha Bowers: It would be a hard slog to get allies to agree to any sort of basing agreement.

The US Military Is Not Ready for a Constitutional Crisis // Ken Harbaugh, The Atlantic: In nine years on duty, I received no training in how to uphold my oath to defend the Constitution. Today's troops need to know how.

DOD Civilians Would Get 1% Pay Raise Under 2021 Budget Proposal // Erich Wagner, GovExec: That's more than the Trump administration's 2020 request, which would have frozen wages, but less than the 3.1% average pay increase enacted by Congress.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. Seventy years ago this week, “McCarthyism” burst out into the open among American post-war political culture. Said the infamous Republican Senator from Wisconsin, “The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral.” The senator would escalate his search until he was censured by the Senate four years later. As Politico remembers, “It did so after McCarthy had crossed a political red line by attacking Dwight Eisenhower, the popular Republican president.”

U.S. says Huawei can access mobile networks through backdoors meant for law enforcement. In a bid to convince allies not to use gear made by the Chinese company, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told the Wall Street Journal that Huawei had preserved its ability to use the backdoors that telecommunications manufacturers are required to build into equipment sold to U.S. cellphone carriers.
“Intelligence shows Huawei has had this secret capability for more than a decade, U.S. officials said. Huawei rejected the allegations,” the WSJ wrote. “The U.S. kept the intelligence highly classified until late last year, when U.S. officials provided details to allies including the U.K. and Germany, according to officials from the three countries.” Read on, here.
Undermining Barr’s backdoor plea. Last year, Attorney General William Barr renewed the U.S. government’s on-again, off-again attack on Americans’ access to strong cryptography, arguing that public safety requires backdoors in every security system. So far, every such attempt has been beaten back by the evidence, which now includes the Huawei revelations, that backdoors make everyone less safe.
Viewpoint:The Arguments for Weakening Encryption Aren’t Any Better Under Trump,” by Johns Hopkins crypto professor Matthew Green. 

President Trump “suggested that Army officials should look into punishment for the officer who testified against him as part of the House impeachment inquiry last fall,” Military Times reported Tuesday. 
Speaking from the Oval Office during a bill-signing ceremony, Trump said he sent U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council “to a much different location and the military can handle him any way they want. Gen. Milley has him now. I congratulate Gen. Milley. He can have him and his brother also." 
“Vindman was scheduled to rotate out of the NSC post this summer,” Military Times writes, adding, “White House officials characterized his early move not as retribution for his testimony, but as downsizing bureaucracy and restructuring the office.” More here.
Not SOP: National Security Adviser O’Brien claimed Vindman’s exit under escort from his office was “standard procedure.” Retorts former NSC staffer Loren DeJonge Schulman, “The national security advisor openly lying doesn’t speak well of his competence.”

Acting Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker is still on track to become comptroller and chief financial officer, despite a report Tuesday from the New York Post, Defense News reports from Capitol Hill. According to the Post, McCusker’s nomination was going to be pulled because she reportedly “resisted the president’s directive to stall about $250 million in military aid to Ukraine and her emails protesting the delay were leaked in January to the blog Just Security ahead of Trump’s Senate trial.”
However, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe poured cold water on that idea, telling Defense News “he had not received any word that administration officials have had a change of heart,” and as a result, he “believed her nomination would proceed." Read on, here.  

Will the USAF retire the U-2 in five years? Budget proposal says yes, officials say no. Air Force Magazine notes that the service’s Jan. 10 spending plan says, “Currently, the Air Force plans to divest the U-2 in FY ’25.” Asked about it the following day, service spokeswoman Laura McAndrews told the industry-organization mag, “The Air Force FY ’21 budget position is to fully fund the U-2 through FY ’25.” Read here, and stay tuned.
But does it even matter? Congress has rarely hesitated to force the Air Force to keep flying aircraft that lawmakers like. And this year, Congress appears in little mood to take the 2021 White House budget proposal as more than an interesting suggestion. 
The Senate Budget Committee will hold no hearing on Trump’s budget proposal, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, said Tuesday. “Nobody has listened to the president in the 23 years that I’ve been here,” the committee chair told Politico. “Congress doesn’t pay attention to the president’s budget exercise. I don’t know why we put him through that.” Enzi noted that he also did not hold a hearing for President Barack Obama’s last budget. Read, here.

And finally today: Did somebody say ‘Biden’? U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Monday that his Justice Department created an “intake process” to vet Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s allegations about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. “That is true for all information that comes to the department relating to the Ukraine, including anything Mr. Giuliani might provide,” Barr said Monday. More at the Washington Post, here
Reminder: The elder Biden was dispatched to Ukraine during the Obama administration to fight corruption (The Atlantic). No evidence has emerged that he did anything wrong, as Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said last May (New York Post).
ICYMI: “New Unredacted Emails Show How Deeply OMB Misled Congress on Ukraine.” That’s the Tuesday headline at Just Security, where Kate Brannen has obtained the unredacted versions of emails sent between senior officials at the White House’s Office of Management and the Budget about DOD’s concerns about the hold on aid to Ukraine. “They confirm that OMB, including the general counsel’s office, was fully in the loop about the Pentagon’s concerns and took active steps to bury them. 
They also expose the extent to which OMB misled, and even lied to, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional investigative body, as the GAO tried to understand the circumstances surrounding the funding hold.” More, here.