US tries to salvage Taliban deal; COVID-19 pushes west; US linguist charged with spying; How Army picks BN COs; And a bit more.

America’s top negotiator with the Taliban is trying to salvage what’s left of the road-to-peace agreement signed Saturday in Qatar. Tolo News reports U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in Kabul today meeting with Haji Din Mohammed, deputy chief of the High Peace Council. Since Wednesday, Khalilzad has met with former President Hamid Karzai as well as former CEO of Afghanistan (and current rival to President Ashraf Ghani) Abdullah Abdullah. 

President Ghani declined to meet Khalilzad on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

That may be partly why Khalilzad took to Twitter early this morning (Kabul time) to explain "next steps" and how the Taliban, President Trump and Zalmay himself "all agreed the purpose of the US-Taliban agreement is to pave the path to a comprehensive peace in #Afghanistan."

“Increasing violence is a threat to the peace agreement and must be reduced immediately,” Khalilzad tweeted. 

Worth noting: "The agreement doesn’t explicitly call for an immediate reduction in violence," the Wall Street Journal's Dion Nissenbaum, Ehsanullah Amiri and Jessica Donati write. "The Taliban previously had agreed to a seven-day reduction in violence as a show of good faith before the deal was signed. The Taliban spokesman in Doha said the group was committed to implementing the deal and moving toward a reduction in violence."

Back to Khalilzad: “In addition to discussing the need to decrease violence, we also talked about the exchange of prisoners,” he tweeted. The “US is committed to facilitating prisoner exchange, agreed in both US-Taliban Agreement & US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration. We will support each side to release significant numbers.” 

On the prisoner release point: Reuters reported Monday the U.S. appears to have used two significantly different documents when describing the prisoner release terms to both the Taliban and to the Afghan government. The gist of those tensions, according to Reuters: “The U.S.-Taliban deal says the Afghan government will free up to 5,000 Taliban detainees by March 10, while the U.S.-Afghan declaration commits the Kabul government only to taking part in U.S.-brokered talks on the ‘feasibility’ of such a release.”

Khalilzad, again: “We must act on all fronts to clear the road of obstacles that slow our progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations. I once again call on all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put country first and not to lose this historic opportunity.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is talking tough this morning: "The upsurge in violence in parts of Afghanistan over the last couple days is unacceptable,” CNN's Jennifer Hansler reports on Twitter. “In no uncertain terms, violence must be reduced immediately for the peace process to move forward... We still have confidence the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments.”

Here’s an idea about all those prisoners from former Green Beret officer Ben Collins: “The Taliban should have to earn their prisoners back through actions that are directly tied to violence reduction. Start with a 14 day complete ceasefire. After the 14 days, release 10 prisoners every day there isn’t an attack. Every attack restarts the clock.”

The next deadline to watch: Tuesday, March 10. That’s when the Taliban and Afghan officials are supposed to begin talking — but because of the whole prisoner release fine print, “a delay is likely,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

BTW: The ICC just authorized a war crimes investigation in Afghanistan that could include U.S. military actions.  

Background: The ICC's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, claimed in 2017 that she'd gathered enough information to show American forces had “committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence” in Afghanistan back in 2003 and 2004 — then "later in clandestine C.I.A. facilities in Poland, Romania and Lithuania," the New York Times reports. 

Americans aren’t the only ones under the microscope. The investigation would also look into “Afghan government forces, which are accused of torturing prisoners; as well as those against the Taliban and antigovernment forces.”

The White House’s position on all this has been pretty clear, the Times writes. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed last year to revoke visas for anyone involved in an investigation against American citizens.” As well, “Afghan officials have objected to the inquiry, arguing that they had set up their own special unit to look into alleged war crimes.” Read on, here

From Defense One

As Taliban Attack, Esper and Milley Downplay 'Mixed' Results of Peace Deal // Katie Bo Williams: Joint Chiefs chairman argued before Congress that the Taliban’s “small low-level” attacks on Afghan forces don't violate their four-day-old agreement with the United States.

Russian and Chinese Satellites Are Helping US Pilots Spy on Russia and China // Marcus Weisgerber: U-2 pilots are wearing watches that connect to foreign satellites, giving them backup navigation when GPS is jammed.

F-35 Factory in Japan Shuts Down Amid Coronavirus Outbreak // Marcus Weisgerber: An F-35 plant in Italy has also been affected by virus-related restrictions.

The US Has Abandoned Its Leadership on Land Mines, and For What? // Lloyd Axworthy and John English: Defense Secretary Mark Esper says new land mines are needed to “ensure mission success” and “reduce risk to our forces.” What success? What forces?

Exclusive: House Bill Tries To Force Trump To Keep Troops In Africa // Katie Bo Williams: The legislation from Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., raises constitutional concerns but might still be a useful messaging tool for lawmakers.

Welcome to this Thursday 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 1953, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died at his Volynskoe dacha in Moscow just four days after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. After a roughly six-month power struggle, Nikita Khrushchev would take over as Soviet leader and remain in place for more than 11 years — through Russia's test of the largest nuclear bomb ever, Tsar Bomba in October 1961, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis one year later.

Can Putin and Erdogan agree on a(nother) way forward in NW Syria? The two leaders are meeting today in Moscow after Turkey shot down three Syrian regime jets in recent days — actions that caused Putin to warn Erdogan the same fate could meet his pilots if the two leaders can’t strike some sort of agreement. 
FWIW, Turkey “has a strong position to bargain with” in these talks today, AP reports from Moscow. This is because Russia “needs Ankara as a partner in a Syrian settlement and Russia’s supply routes for its forces in Syria lie through the Turkish Straits.”
BTW: Russia raced to reinforce its forces in Syria by sea and air just ahead of talks today in Moscow, Reuters reported Wednesday citing extensive flight and shipping data. 
Long story short: “Russia began to step up naval and airborne deliveries to Syria on Feb. 28, the day after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike in Syria. That incident prompted concern in Moscow that Turkey might close the Bosphorus to Russian warships and bar Russian military transport planes from using Turkish air space."
To the numbers: After Feb. 28, Russia "sent five warships toward Syria within six days. That exceeds a usual pattern of one or two warships ships per week... three other warships have followed unannounced." 
In response, Turkey stepped up "its escort protocol for Russian warships using the Bosphorus. Three Turkish patrol boats and a helicopter escorted the Russian frigates — such ships are usually accompanied by a single coast guard vessel." More on all that, as well as a spike in Russian aviation to and from Syria, here
One more thing: The Pentagon is still in talks with Turkey about buying a Patriot anti-missile system, al-Monitor’s Jack Detsch reported Wednesday. “We continue to talk to them about Patriot,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord. “Turks are very important to us; we have many different collaborations with them at many different levels. We would love to see the removal of the [recently-purchased Russian-made] S-400 and we would love to see the Patriots go in.”
Recall that “After Turkey took delivery of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system in July, the Trump administration pulled a $3.5 billion offer for competing Patriot batteries,” and removed Turkey from the F-35 program. 
Related reading, from July: “Why the S-400 and the F-35 Can’t Get Along,” by Defense One’s Patrick Tucker. Read the rest of Detsch’s Wednesday report, here

1st SFAB to Senegal. Elements of the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Assistance Brigade are in Senegal "to help African partners build capacity & enhance capabilities," U.S. Africa Command announced Thursday morning on Twitter.

China may pitch an alternative to the UN’s WHO, reports Axios: “Beijing is seeking to turn the coronavirus, initially a disaster for China's public image, into an opportunity to advance its global leadership and bolster its soft power abroad.”
In the U.S.: 30 new cases were reported on Wednesday, about 50% more than on Tuesday. The New York Times is “Tracking Every Coronavirus Case in the U.S.,” with a package of maps and charts, here.
COVID-19 by the numbers: 96,000-plus cases worldwide, 162 in the United States in 17 states, per Johns Hopkins’ dashboard. 11 U.S. deaths.
Cancelled: The 10th biannual Juniper Cobra exercise between the Israel Defense Forces and U.S. European Command, affecting more than 3,500 troops. (Jerusalem Post)
AP's headline today:World braces for months of trouble as virus pushes west.” A “split” has developed, as Chinese hospitals release thousands of recovered patients even as other countries brace for and increase measures to slow the virus’ spread. Read on, here.
Advice: “Countries should be preparing for sustained community transmission,”  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, leader of the World Health Organization, said of the 2-month-old virus outbreak.

U.S. linguist charged with espionage. The FBI has charged Mariam Taha Thompson, a 61-year-old resident of Rochester, Minn., with the unauthorized transmission of highly classified data while working under contract for the Defense Department at a Special Operations Task Force site in Erbil, Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports. In an affidavit, the FBI said Thompson allegedly passed the info to a Hezbollah-connected Lebanese man in whom she had a “a romantic interest.” Read on, here. Or read the DOJ’s charges for yourself, here.  
"The Department of Defense is aware that the Department of Justice charged a DoD contractor with serious criminal offenses,” said Alyssa Farah, department of defense press secretary, in a statement Wednesday. “DoD will continue to cooperate with the DOJ throughout its investigation. DoD is taking all necessary precautions, including the protection of U.S. forces. At this time, we refer all questions on this matter to DOJ.”

Back stateside: ICE push in “sanctuary cities.” NYT: Immigration and Customs Enforcement asks to divert investigators, armed teams, to round up undocumented immigrants. “ICE leadership has requested at least 500 special agents who normally conduct long-term investigations into dangerous criminals and traffickers...The request follows an earlier decision, made public last month, to deploy elite tactical BORTAC agents  — immigration SWAT teams that are normally assigned to risky border smuggling, rescue and intelligence operations — to help arrest and deport immigrants in sanctuary cities.” Read on, here.

Today in budget hearing season:  

  • Live now: Military officials testify on COVID-19 to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. 
  • Live now: Navy posture hearing: Acting SECNAV Modly, CNO Adm. Gilday, and CMC Gen. Berger are testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Also happening now: Navy, Army, and Marines leaders testify to Tactical Air & Land Forces panel of House Armed Services Committee.

Lastly today: the Army is changing how it picks battalion commanders, adopting unconventional tactics from “private-sector organizations and corporations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” the Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Yousseff reported Wednesday. What’s more, “an enlisted soldier now is a part of the review process, an idea adopted from Google.”
What's new? "Surveys by subordinates, writing tests, psychological assessments, cognitive evaluations and a series of simulated military-like scenarios in a wooded area on base to gauge leadership and problem-solving abilities… At an interview, candidates are seated behind a black curtain, and a five-member selection panel is unable to see a candidate’s uniform, with its career-defining ribbons and patches." 
Why? The short answer is that Army officials want to better "weed out unqualified applicants and reduce or eliminate gender, racial and other biases."
Some of the Qs asked of these new would-be battalion commanders include: 

  • “How well does this leader confront and correct unethical behavior that does not align with the Army Values?”
  • “How well does this leader energize others by communicating a clear vision and purpose for his/her mission activities?”
  • “How often does this leader adopt a bullying style, influencing others through threat and intimidation?”
  • “How often does this leader behave in a way that makes me try or think about physically avoiding them?” More behind the paywall, here