Afghanistan's big week; USFK ups coronavirus risk; New Army team to Africa; Does US need influence ops chief? And a bit more.

Can the Afghanistan “reduction in violence” deal hold? That’s the big question this week as we live through what could be the most consequential seven days for Afghanistan in more than 18 years. Afghanistan’s Tolo News reports there have been just three violent incidents so far today. The violence — which is believed to have killed at least seven Afghans, including a woman — hit Balkh and Samangan in the north, and Helmand in the south. 

“Eight Taliban clashes were reported in the first day of the reduction in violence,” Tolo writes, “while two confirmed incidents were reported on the second day.” The New York Times has numbers very close to those.

So far this RIV plan seems to be working. The NYT’s Mujib Marshal tweets this: 

  • “On average in previous months, we had anywhere between 50 and 80 attacks a day across Afghanistan. You’d have anywhere 30-40 or more cumulative deaths. Our data is incomplete, but a rough sense: no more than half a dozen attacks a day past 3 days of RIV. That’s a major drop.”

Don’t look now but the man who lost the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, appears to be trying to set up a parallel government in the north. According to Tolo News, Abdullah’s team appointed two “acting governors” of the Sar-e-Pul and Jowzjan provinces. Northern Baghlan province could be next. 

BTW: U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was reportedly in Jowzjan this weekend meeting with the influential Abdul Rashid Dostum. FWIW: Khalilzad has not tweeted since the RIV began. 

Oh, and Afghanistan just got its first confirmed case of COVID-19. More from around the world below the fold

From Defense One

Should The U.S. Have a Secretary For Influence Operations? // Patrick Tucker: Two former top special operations officials say their job was too junior and the Pentagon isn’t taking information warfare seriously enough.

The West Can’t Even Agree on Itself, Much Less China // Kevin Baron: At the Munich Security Conference, allies argued with each other as much as their adversaries, rejecting Trump administration views on issue after issue.

Esper Plays Nuclear War: Russia Nukes Europe, US Fires Back // Marcus Weisgerber: The defense secretary took part in a classified drill at U.S. Strategic Command this week.

Trump’s New Spy Chief Worked for a Foreign Politician Accused by the US of Corruption // Isaac Arnsdorf: Richard Grenell did not disclose payments for advocacy work on behalf of a Moldovan politician whom the U.S. later accused of corruption. His own office’s policy says that could leave him vulnerable to blackmail.

The American Public Wants a Sustainable Middle East Policy // Emma Moore and Kaleigh Thomas: Despite the mainstream narrative presenting a deep lack of appetite for another war in the Middle East, the United States will never be able to ignore the region completely.

DISA Data Breach Affected 200,000 People, Officials Confirm // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: Defense officials provided few details but said the affected systems have since been secured.

Welcome to this Monday 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 1942, the Battle of Los Angeles began when anti-aircraft batteries in California’s largest city fired hundreds of rounds at what was believed to be a nighttime attack by Japanese forces. Just seven years later, and decades before it inspired the 2011 film, the episode was revealed to in fact have been triggered by a U.S. Air Force weather balloon.

Today at the Pentagon: SecDef Esper hosts his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, at 4:30 p.m., with a joint presser scheduled for about an hour afterward in the Pentagon Briefing Room. 
The two might announce a deal on RoK hosting U.S. forces, known as the U.S. ROK Special Measures Agreement (or, SMA). The last one, the 10th, lapsed on Dec. 31, 2019. Ahead of today’s meeting, the Pentagon was unusually forthcoming about the impacts of the 10th SMA lapsing at the end of last year. 
So far in 2020, the cost of operations have been offset “by programming U.S. funds to sustain the salaries of its Korean National workforce,” the Pentagon said in its statement. 
The problem? All that money “will be exhausted on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, unless the ROK government agrees to materially increase its support for U.S. forces committed to the defense of the ROK,” the Pentagon says. 
As a result, “most” Korean employees will have to be furloughed “on April 1, 2020”  and “many construction and logistics activities” would also have to be suspended immediately. Catch the full Esper-Kyeong-doo press conference live on the Pentagon’s website this afternoon, here.

The U.S. military in South Korea raised its risk level to high as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country rose to 833, the highest of any country outside China. In a Monday morning statement, the command confirmed a Reuters report that a dependent of a U.S. service member in Korea tested positive for the virus. Read U.S. Forces-Korea’s statement about the elevated risk level, the restrictions that come with it, and hygiene recommendations — here.
South Korea, Iran and Italy seized headlines for a concerning spike in cases and deaths from the virus in each country, leading to descriptions like the New York Times’Outbreaks Raise Fears of Pandemic.” So far, there have been 12 deaths from the virus in Iran (Fox News reports 50, citing a Monday report by Iran's semiofficial ILNA news agency); eight in South Korea, and five in Italy. 
Global totals, via Johns Hopkins: nearly 80,000 cases and 2,600 deaths, the vast majority in China.
Markets slumped with the rise in cases outside China. The Dow opened down 900 points, or 3%, though it had recovered some 250 points at press time. Other markets opened lower as well: S&P 500, -3%; Nasdaq, -3.7%; Britain’s FTSE 100, -3.8%; Germany’s DAX, 4.2%; Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, -1.8%; Nikkei 225, -0.4%. Washington Post is monitoring, here.
Hopeful sign: infection rate falls in Wuhan. WHO officials said things are looking up in the epidemic’s epicenter. “They’re at a point now where the number of cured people coming out of hospitals each day is much more than the sick going in,” Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO delegation in China, said Monday. (Reuters)
In U.S., squabbling over quarantines. Last Tuesday, 328 American citizens — including 14 diagnosed with the virus and others whose infections had yet to be discovered — were flown home from Japan, where they had been quarantined aboard a cruise ship with hundreds of other passengers. The decision to bring them home was made by Trump administration officials in the State Department, Quartz reports, a decision that was firmly but ultimately ineffectively opposed by officials with the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. President Trump, a noted germophobe, was reportedly outraged at the decision. 
Scrapped: a proposal to quarantine the Americans at an Army facility in Alabama after the state’s governor complained to Trump. It is unclear where they will go now, Quartz reports, noting that the chaos may reflect how the Trump administration has reduced the country’s ability to deal with such outbreaks. Read on, here.

The U.S. Army is about to send an entirely new training team to Africa, AP’s Lita Baldor reports this morning. If you’re a Defense One reader, you’ll know that this involves the the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade — which we wrote about in our State of the Army feature from last week. “Under current plans, about one-third of the training brigade will deploy to various countries in Africa,” Baldor writes. 
That means “roughly 200 soldiers from the 1st SFAB will replace soldiers from the 101st Airborne who are returning home from Africa… The remainder of the brigade will continue to reset and train in the U.S., and then those team would be available to rotate into Africa to replace the first group when it comes home.” And this new deployment could be close to nine months, but nobody is saying precisely just yet. More here

The U.S. military has hit al-Shabaab with airstrikes at least six times over the past three weeks in Somalia, according to U.S. Africa Command. Eleven fighters are believed to have been killed in those strikes, which wounded three others since Feb. 2. 
ICYMI: The U.S. sent a B-52 over east Africa about a week ago. AFRICOM has some video of that, here
FWIW: Statements on recent U.S. strikes in Somalia are beginning to resemble the counter-ISIS war, with multiple compounds targeted and fighters wounded, as well as of course fighters killed. 
And as usual with AFRICOM, no civilians are believed to have been killed in any of the strikes described in initial releases. (h/t NYT’s Charlie Savage)

Trump’s “deep state” purge. Axios: “The Trump White House and its allies, over the past 18 months, assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust — and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them — according to more than a dozen sources familiar with the effort who spoke to Axios.” The list includes people at national-security agencies, including the Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Justice Departments. Read on, here. And Washington Post has more, here.

  • McRaven: “We should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation.”  That’s William McRaven, who as leader of U.S. Special Operations Command oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. McRaven criticized Trump’s dismissal of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph McGuire in favor of Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, who has little experience with intelligence and none in leading large organizations. Read his oped, published Friday in the Washington Post. 
  • Grennell himself, to a TV interviewer: We don’t need an embassy staff reporting on political events in other countries is unnecessary because "we can get that information off the internet.”
  • Brennan: “We are now in a full-blown national security crisis.” Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted Thursday after lawmakers were briefed on Russian efforts to meddle in America’s upcoming election.

Lastly today: U.S. Marine rescues pregnant woman in heavy seas off Okinawa. Marine Maj. William Easter heard calls for help and dashed into the waves, where he fought 35-mpg winds and 10-foot seas to rescue a local woman caught in the surf. Marine Corps Times has the story, here.