Afghan peace? Not so fast; 1st Americans die of COVID-19; N. Korea tests missiles; Navy’s 355-ship fleet won’t count robots; And a bit more.

Speed bump on the road to Afghan peace. The Taliban in Afghanistan say they won’t put down their guns until 5,000 of their fighters are released from prison. The problem: “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, not [yet] involved in the [U.S.-Taliban] talks, has since rejected that demand,” Reuters reports today. 

What’s going on: The U.S. and the Taliban signed an historic agreement in Qatar on Saturday that Reuters says “calls for up to 5,000 jailed Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10.” After that happens, the two sides would meet for peace talks of some sort in Oslo, Norway by mid-March, NPR reports. 

“We have not made a commitment to release them,” President Ghani told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday. “It's a sovereign Afghan decision,” he said, adding, the prisoner release “can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition." 

"Just technically it's not possible to release 5,000 prisoners,” Ghani explained to reporters in Kabul on Sunday, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo News. “It's a painstaking process, each person needs to be checked, and in return — for what? We need to understand that the Afghan people have to see continuous commitment, not a sense of false claims of victory because all our forces and our government capabilities are intact.”

The deal could be seen as involving four main parts, Tolo reported separately: 

  1. “Assurance” from the Taliban “that Afghanistan's territory will not be used against the US and its allies”;
  2. “the full withdrawal of international forces within 14 months”;
  3. “a permanent ceasefire”;
  4. and “intra-Afghan negotiations,” which are contingent upon that prisoner release noted above. 

As for the status of a U.S. exit, "the United States is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 13,000 within 135 days of signing," Reuters reports. The rest of the drawdown would occur over the next nine and a half months, or by April of 2021 — which is not a full withdrawal before the 2020 U.S. general election in November, as President Trump reportedly (NBC News) desired as recently as August. 

And, of course, any progress toward peace depends on the Taliban sticking to its promises, and to the terms of the “permanent” ceasefire, which are big “if”s. 

Worth noting: The Taliban are referring to Saturday’s deal as a "Termination of Occupation Agreement with [the] U.S.,” Afghanistan-watcher Bill Roggio of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy think tank noted on Twitter this morning. 

How will the Taliban navigate the world of jihadi diplomacy now? Roggio’s FDD colleague, Thomas Joscelyn, has an eight-tweet reaction thread on Twitter that assesses what the Taliban agreed to — according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — on Saturday versus what the Taliban have previously agreed to (and lied about). Find that, here

Secret swagger. At least “two implementing elements” are included in the U.S.-Taliban deal that “are secret,” SecState Pompeo told CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday. 

“There are two implementing elements that will be provided,” Pompeo said. “They are secret. They are military implementation documents that are important to protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Every member of Congress will get a chance to see them. They're classified, secret.” Find the full transcript (secretive annex chatter is at the bottom), here.

BTW: That seven-day reduction in violence plan the U.S. and the Taliban worked out? The Taliban’s spokesman reminded Reuters that the seven days are up. “As we are receiving reports that people are enjoying the reduction in violence, we don’t want to spoil their happiness, but it does not mean that we will not take our normal military activities back to the level that we were before,” Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone. “It could be any time, it could be after an hour, tonight, tomorrow or the day after.”

And: Three civilians died today in eastern Khost province after explosives placed on a motorbike detonated near a soccer field. Seven others were also wounded, Tolo reports, and no group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing. Tiny bit more to that one, here.   

From Defense One

The US Once Wanted Peace in Afghanistan // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: Now it’s setting its sights much lower.

Acting Navy Secretary: We Need More than 355 Ships, and That’s Not Even Counting Robot Vessels // Patrick Tucker: The Navy needs more human-crewed ships…and more unmanned vessels, than previously thought.

The Federal Government Needs a Military-Style Campaign Against the Coronavirus // Carl Henn, Government Executive: A longtime infectious disease specialist says such campaigns are effective against these kinds of infectious diseases because  the way viruses operate fits, conceptually. into a military model.

Missteps at CDC Set Back US Ability to Detect Coronavirus' Spread // Isaac Arnsdorf, Marshall Allen, Caroline Chen, and Lexi Churchill, ProPublica: The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed a flawed test for COVID-19, then took weeks to release a fix that allowed state and local labs to use it.

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 2002, the U.S.-led coalition’s first big military mission in Afghanistan — Operation Anaconda — began in the country’s eastern Paktia province. 

Happening this morning: Esper and Milley live. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to speak to reporters at 11 a.m. from the Pentagon Briefing Room. Catch that live, here

The first two Americans have died of COVID-19 as the disease spreads in the U.S. So far, cases have been reported in 10 states, and the work to follow up on each case is quite involved, according to STATNews. “This weekend, as it became clearer and clearer that Covid-19 has been spreading stealthily through the Pacific Northwest, the task facing health officials has become more and more monumental. To try to stop the virus’ transmission and restrain the outbreak, they need to identify every single person with whom patients have come into contact, isolate those at risk of harboring the illness, and monitor the entire network of people for symptoms.”
NPR’s “Morning Edition” rolled up and answered a slew of listener Qs, which you can catch in a useful six-minute segment, here
Genetic sequencing shows that the virus has now been found in communities with no known connections. “There are some enormous implications here,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who studies how viruses evolve and spread. “This strongly suggests there has been cryptic transmission in Washington State for the past 6 weeks.”
But high-tech forensics only go so far. You also “need the old-fashioned detective work of contact tracing,” and that threatens to overwhelm state and local health agencies. The need to get these farflung teams spun up underscores the need to maintain a nationwide capability to respond to epidemics — not just “hire” people as needed, as the Trump administration is now doing. Read on, here.
Related: Iranian senior advisor dies. “Mohammad Mir-Mohammadi was a member of the Expediency Council, which meets infrequently and typically advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resolve disputes between government bodies,” Bloomberg reports.
An ‘infodemic’ of false information is making things worse, WHO says. NewsGuard’s John Gregory describes the Web landscape of disinformation for STATNews, here

North Korea just fired off what seem to be two short-range ballistic missiles from its eastern coast. The launches effectively end “months of inactivity [and come] amid a diplomatic stall with the U.S. and a national lockdown over coronavirus fears,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “They launched at 12:37 p.m. local time, soaring about 22 miles high and covering a distance of some 150 miles.”
FWIW: “The North’s last weapons test came on Dec. 13, when it conducted a ground test that South Korean military experts believed was a practice run for a rocket engine used in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its most recent missile launch before Monday occurred on Nov. 28.” 

And lastly today: Chinese warship fired laser at American surveillance plane, U.S. Navy says. “People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer lased a #USNavy P-8A Poseidon aircraft in an unsafe, unprofessional manner. The incident took place Feb. 17 in the airspace above international waters 380 miles west of Guam,” the Navy’s official twitter account said Feb. 28. CBS News has a bit more, here.