Afghan ceasefire starts tonight; US intel warns of Russian election tampering; Worst Syrian bombardment in years; State of Defense 2020; And a bit more.

America’s seven-day ’’reduction in violence” plan with the Taliban will start tonight, the Associated Press reports this morning from Islamabad, Pakistan. Whether the plan will hold is of course a mystery, especially since it reportedly involves releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners and — according to the Taliban — a complete withdrawal of not just U.S., but “all international forces” from Afghanistan. 

Provided both sides make it through those seven days, “the long sought-after peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban will be signed on Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar, paving the way for a withdrawal of U.S. troops and intra- Afghan negotiations,” AP writes, citing a senior U.S. State Department official. 

As far as what AP knows of the plan, “U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the peace agreement will also lead to an eventual permanent cease-fire. The deal also envisions guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be used to attack the U.S. or its allies. It provides for the phased withdrawal of American and other foreign forces from the country over 18 months.”

Two big unknowns: 

  1. “who will represent Kabul at the negotiation table for the intra-Afghan talks”;
  2. And whether President Ghani’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, will drop his protest of the election results from September, unveiled this week, which named Ghani president for another term. 

A word on timing: No one knows yet precisely what hour tonight’s deal will begin, AP writes. Making this more complicated: Afghanistan time is a half-hour time zone — a point humorized (when one of your D Brief-ers was deployed there) in the joke “Afghanistan is 2,000 years and half an hour behind the rest of the world.”

The Taliban’s response to the news this morning: “Both parties will now create a suitable security situation in advance of agreement signing date, extend invitations to senior representatives of numerous countries and organizations to participate in the signing ceremony, make arrangements for the release of prisoners, structure a path for intra-Afghan negotiations with various political parties of the country and finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces.”

BTW: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to discuss the plan being hammered out between Khalilzad and the Taliban, Afghanistan’s Tolo News reports with a photo of that meeting. Not much else out of that meeting just yet. 

Said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a statement this morning: “I welcome today’s announcement that an understanding has been reached on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan. This is a critical test of the Taliban’s willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith.This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists.”

And don’t miss the Taliban’s op-ed in the NYTs Thursday, which we limned for yesterday’s D Brief, here

From Defense One

State of Defense 2020: Special Report // Defense One Staff : Our annual service-by-service look at the big questions facing the U.S. military.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: US Army’s hit list; More Boeing debris; Grumman’s pollution; and more...

Border Patrol Seeks Automated Sensors to Cover Watery Blindspots // Aaron Boyd, Nextgov: Homeland Security is looking for tech that can help border agents spot illegal watercraft — and decide what to do about them.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1916, the almost year-long Battle of Verdun began with a German artillery barrage that lasted 10 hours and involved more than 800 guns. The French finally pushed the Germans back one week before Christmas. More than 300,000 troops died in the fighting, which wounded another 216,000. 

State of Defense 2020: “As the dust settles from impeachment and a near-war with Iran, it has become clear that President Donald Trump plans to use his fourth year in office to push for dramatic changes to the Defense Department that focus the military on preparing for war with China and Russia — changes Defense Secretary Mark Esper aims to make ‘irreversible,’” write Kevin Baron and Katie Bo Williams in the introduction to Defense One’s annual service-by-service look at the U.S. military. “We’ll see about that. One thing is certain: under Trump, nothing is certain.” 
Will Trump ever end a U.S. war? “Pentagon officials continue to insist that U.S. troops will leave Syria as soon as they have ensured ‘the enduring defeat of ISIS,’ something the president has repeatedly and falsely claimed has already been done. But then there’s the question of all the other far-flung counterterrorism missions in which U.S. is engaged around the globe, like in Africa. As the administration tries to refocus its attention on great power competition with China and Russia, will more CT missions see reductions in 2020? What will that mean for the Pentagon?” Read on, here.
Or go straight to your service of interest:

  • Army by Ben Watson: “Army leaders predict "transformational changes" in 2020. But Middle East tensions are still slowing the pivot to great power competition.”
  • Navy by Bradley Peniston: “Esper’s ‘night court’ reviews are coming for a Navy that still says it needs 355 ships.”
  • Air Force by Marcus Weisgerber: “Service leaders want to retire partial fleets to fund new aircraft. Lawmakers and analysts alike are dubious.”
  • Marines by Kevin Baron: “The new Commandant is paring ‘big, heavy things’ to reorient the Corps toward great power competition.”
  • And yes, Space Force by Marcus Weisgerber: “The newest branch of the military is all about growing in 2020. But for now, it’s a Space Force of one.”

Happening now in Washington: Army, Navy and Air Force service secretaries are on one stage talking about “the state of their services, defense strategy, and key initiatives in the FY 2021 budget” over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The event runs an hour, beginning at 10 a.m. ET, and you can catch a livestream, here
And ICYMI: Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz delivered a "State of the Coast Guard" address Thursday afternoon. Catch that on reruns at DVIDS, here.
This afternoon at the Pentagon: The latest in AI initiatives at the Defense Department with Dana Deasy, the DoD’s chief information officer; and Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. Catch that live, here.

U.S. intelligence says Russia wants Trump to be president again, so naturally POTUS is terrified about what that will mean for him politically, the New York Times reported Thursday after a classified briefing to lawmakers on that intelligence and message. 
After the intel briefing to lawmakers, Trump reportedly "dressed down" acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, and then appointed loyalist Ambassador Richard Grennell to take his place, according to the Washington Post. (The WSJ says Maguire was “berated” and “rebuked.”) Trump also told reporters he might tap Rep. Douglas A. Collins as permanent DNI, a notion the Georgia Republican declined on TV this morning.
Another thing: Russia was also trying to raise questions about the integrity of U.S. elections, CNN reported after NYTs broke the intel story. AP has a bit more, here.
Related: Trump associate Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in jail on Thursday. A jury “found that Stone had lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his central role in finding out for the Trump campaign what was in computer files hacked by Russian intelligence, the files being leaked by Wikileaks strategically to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” as Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson put it.

Someone hacked DISA. Or, as Reuters puts it: “U.S. agency that handles Trump's secure communication suffered data breach.” In a Feb. 11 letter, DISA told employees that their Social Security Numbers and other personal information may have been stolen. Read, here. And Cyberscoop has a bit more, here.

Now Turkey wants U.S. air defense systems to protect its F-16s from Russian jets in Northern Syria, and Turkish officials made their request last week, Bloomberg reported Thursday. Over the past three weeks, Turkey has lost 15 soldiers to fighting in northern Syria. And “The [Patriot] disclosure was almost immediately followed on Thursday by a spasm of violence that left two Turkish soldiers dead and five wounded in Idlib, underscoring the risks as [Turkey and Russia] assert their influence in northwestern Syria.”
Too soon for Turkey to just plug in that S-400 it bought from Russia? Perhaps. One Turkish official told Bloomberg that couldn’t happen until at least the spring of this year. Recall that not so long ago, Turkey wanted to buy U.S. Patriot missile defense systems — then Ankara went and bought a Russian S-400 air defense system instead, tentatively hoping they could have it both ways. But the Russian S-400 system can’t quite get along with U.S.-made F-35 jets, as Defense One’s Patrick Tucker explained last July. 
So far, the U.S. response has been muted, Bloomberg reports. Meantime, “Turkey is determined to push back Syrian forces before the end of this month even at the cost of straining ties with Russia in tourism and trade.” Continue reading, here
Turkey’s Erdogan called up his German and French counterparts today “and called for an end to a Syrian government offensive” in Idlib, AP reports from Ankara. That chat “followed a similar call by Merkel and Macron to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, during which they proposed urgent talks with Erdogan to ease tensions.” Erdogan said he’d call Putin later today. 
For the record, the Idlib offensive has “led to the displacement of more than 900,000 people, half of them children, since Dec. 1,” AP writes, citing UN figures. More here
Dispatch: "Hemmed against a border wall in Somme-like mud and misery, more than 1 million Syrians are awaiting their fate,” The Guardian’s Martin Chulov reports today with some daunting scene-setting from the region. “Nearby, Iranian-backed militias and what remains of the national army are advancing towards them, as Russian jets pick them off in the crowded fields and ruined towns that are all that is left of opposition-held Syria.”
“Even in a war that has known few boundaries, the last month of brutality has been almost without precedent,” Chulov writes. “Up to 1 million people are again on the move in Idlib. With the Turkish frontier behind them and an ascendant, vengeful foe over the horizon, they have nowhere left to run or hide.” Continue reading, here.
Further south, the “worst bombardment in years.” Outside Damascus, Assad’s forces “vowed to show no quarter as they moved to wipe out rebels in the suburb of eastern Ghouta, with the assault this week ranking as the deadliest there in years,” the New York Times reported Thursday.

Post-Soleimani threat reduction for Saudi Arabia? The U.S. redeployed 800 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which was “rushed to Kuwait in early January… as the Immediate Response Force following Soleimani's death,” ABC News Luis Martinez reported Thursday. That leaves about 2,700 other paratroopers from the 1st BCT still back in the desert. 

Australians are spending about $1.6 billion to update a northern air base for hosting F-35s, B-52s and more, The Australian reports today behind a paywall.
Location: Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal­. And “The bulk of the Tindal redevelopment will go towards upgrading the airfield, extending the runway to handle the US B-52 long-range bombers and extra fuel storage facilities.”
Talking point takeaways: These updates, foreign editor Greg Sheridan writes separately, offer substantive pushback to “the three related falsehoods that the US under Donald Trump is retreating from the Indo-Pacific region; that it is declining in military capability; and that it has become less important as an ally to Australia.”
Should a conflict with China occur, these new upgrades will help disperse U.S. forces in the region, according to Sheridan, making “them harder to hit and less focused on the two islands of Okinawa and Guam.” 
Some U.S. and Aussie planners “held the quiet ambition that it might be possible to get US naval ships or a taskforce to be based in northern or Western Australia, with US crews being flown in and out as necessary.” However, “Any development like that is still some time away.” A bit more behind the paywall, here

Climate change is displacing more people around the world than war, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, which recently released its annual World Migration Report. More than 17 million people were displaced around the world in 2018 compared to nearly 11 million displaced from their homes by conflict and violence. 
One very vulnerable nation is India, Quartz reported Thursday. Why? “South Asian populations are particularly vulnerable to slow-onset and rapid-onset disasters related to natural hazards and climate change,” that WMR report asserts. And “India suffered the maximum brunt of rapid-onset disasters, with more than 2.7 million people displaced due to tropical storms and floods,” Quartz writes.
And ICYMI: “Global warming decreases the GDP of poor nations, like India, while it helps the economy of some of the rich nations,” Quartz writes, summarizing a study published last year in the Proceedings of National Academies of Sciences. 

Twitter has a couple of ideas on how to fight misinformation on its platform, but they’re not ready for prime time just yet, NBC News reported Thursday. 

Do U.S. military pilots have a higher risk for cancer? Lawmakers want to find out, and the work of McClatchy reporter Tara Copp has boosted that investigative effort. That story, here

And finally today: The MLB is coming to USNA on March 24. The Baltimore Orioles will play the New York Mets at Terwilliger Brothers Field at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Max Bishop Stadium in the Maryland capital. 
Critical caveat: “This event is not open to the public,” the Navy says on its website, “and ticket information for midshipmen and Naval Academy personnel will be announced at a later date.” The game is scheduled for 2:05 p.m. ET. A bit more, here.   

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!