Afghanistan’s big week, day 4; COVID-19, here to stay?; Australia’s top fears; SACEUR on Russia; And a bit more.

Afghanistan’s big week, day four: Now the U.S. wants President Ashraf Ghani to defer his second-term inauguration on fears it might anger defeated presidential challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. Reuters reported Monday that American officials want to avoid the event altogether on the grounds that it could continue to get in the way of delicate U.S.-led negotiations with the Taliban.

Part of why this is happening: President Ghani’s “opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s former deputy, also proclaimed himself the winner and is planning a parallel inauguration,” as we’d highlighted Monday via Afghanistan’s Tolo News

Ghani’s inauguration was scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 27. The signing ceremony for a U.S. troop withdrawal and other next steps toward peace in Afghanistan — should the current seven-day “reduction in violence” deal hold — is scheduled for Saturday. 

Should the RIV plan hold through Saturday, “The U.S.-Taliban agreement is to be followed by inter-Afghan talks on a political settlement to end decades of war,” Reuters writes. 

Ghani’s office knows it needs a negotiation team for possible talks with the Taliban; but with Abdullah not exactly leaving quietly, there’s no telling when such a team can really come together. 

Related headline, from Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news: “Former Taliban leaders regret reconciling with govt.

BTW: For a reminder of how delicate this “RIV” plan is, AP reported this weekend how just one militant or one airstrike could jeopardize an otherwise quite historic week. Such is the nature of fighting — or in this case, observing in a defensive position — in a distributed insurgent environment like Afghanistan’s.

“This is a first down, we’re at the 10-yard line,” Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AP. “We have 90 more to go and I don’t know that we’ll ever get the touchdown.” More here.

Dismal toll: The UN says it has documented now 100,000 civilian deaths in 10 years of recording such data, AP reported separately last week. Also from that report: “there was a 21% increase in civilian casualties by the Taliban and an 18% rise in casualties blamed on Afghan security forces and their U.S. allies who dropped more bombs last year than in any year since 2013.” More from the UN’s report, here

From the region: Pakistan just inaugurated its first-ever train service exclusively built for carrying cargo to the Afghanistan border — a project that’s coming in three years behind schedule. China’s Xinhua news reported this weekend that at least five trains will carry as many as 500 containers per month “depending on the availability of the cargo.” The route runs through the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi and to the border city of Chaman, which neighbor’s Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province.

From Defense One

Pentagon Defends Handling Of Traumatic Brain Injuries In Iranian Attack // Katie Bo Williams: TBI symptoms are often “nonspecific,” the Joint Staff surgeon said.

It’s Time to Talk About Taiwan // Michael Hunzeker  and Mark Christopher: Washington’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity is increasingly likely to inflame the kind of crisis it was meant to deter.

You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus // James Hamblin, The Atlantic: Most cases are not life-threatening, which is also what makes the virus a historic challenge to contain.

White-Supremacist Violence Is Terrorism // John R. Allen, The Atlantic: As commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, I fought America’s enemies abroad. Now we must fight violent, hateful ideologies at home.

Welcome to this Tuesday 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 1991, 28 Americans were killed when an Iraqi Scud missile struck a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Could Coronavirus be here to stay? The infection rate appears to be leveling off in China, but new clusters are being seen in Italy, South Korea, and elsewhere. And James Hamblin, The Atlantic’s physician-reporter, writes that COVID-19 may be here to stay. “The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth ‘endemic’ coronavirus.” Don’t miss his broad and deeply reported piece, here.
POTUS45, via Twitter: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
By the numbers: 80,346 cases, 2,705 deaths, the vast majority in China, according to Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard.
The Dow lost 1,032 points, the 3rd-most in a single day, on Monday. By percentage, its 3.54% drop was the 245th-worst in a day. (MarketWatch)
Meanwhile, Trump’s acting Homeland Security Secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, thought it was a good idea to speculate on Twitter about a momentary service disruption to Johns Hopkins’ dashboard. 

Happening now on Capitol Hill: NATO’s top military officer, U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters just told the Senate Armed Services Committee he knows NATO members are leaning toward Huawei for 5G infrastructure, but "My concern goes back to the soldiers,” said Wolters. “Without the appropriate network protection, there is a potential compromise to the technical data and personal data, and that is not to the good order and discipline of our U.S. soldiers and our NATO soldiers." 
And here is Wolters on the threat posed by Russia: “Over the past twelve years, Russia has invaded two neighboring states, violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, leading to the treaty’s termination, developed new strategic platforms resulting in the Skyfall to deliver for nuclear cruise missile accident that killed seven Russian scientists last year, weapons, and abrogated its responsibilities under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, all at the expense of strategic stability.” He has much, much more to say in his opening statement, (PDF) here
Or you can watch the SASC livestream with Wolters and U.S. Transportation Command’s Gen Stephen Lyons, here.
BTW: In case you were wondering if SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., will run for re-election, he said Monday that he’ll announce in about a week and a half, on March 6. (h/t Roxana Tiron)

What worries Australia. In his annual threat assessment, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation lists: 

  • Top concern: Violent Islamic extremism, e.g.., Islamic State and al Qaeda.
  • Highest concern since the Cold War: foreign espionage and interference activities.
  • Rising concern: “Small cells” of right-wing extremists who “regularly gather to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons and to disperse their ‘hateful ideology.’” Via ABC and Reuters.

And finally today: A special thanks from the Queen. The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II dropped in for a visit with her spies just to tell them “thanks,” Reuters reports today in a shorty from London. 
“You have always demonstrated the utmost commitment to your motto — ‘Regnum Defende’ [‘Defend the Realm’],” said the Queen. “Because of the nature of your work, it is without public recognition. So, it is on behalf of the country that I say to you all: thank you.”
Reminder: We’re about a month and a half from the new Bond movie, Daniel Craig’s last. Catch the trailer for “No Time to Die,” set for an April 10 stateside release, here.