US drawdown in Mideast; COVID-19 accelerates in US; Kabul’s prisoner release; DARPA’s pandemic project; And a bit more.

Around 1,500 Taliban prisoners could soon be released as a goodwill gesture after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s last-minute negotiations Tuesday to keep the militants and the Afghan government in some sort of dialogue toward peace. Those talks yielded a surprise statement early Wednesday morning from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announcing, “The process of releasing 1,500 Taliban prisoners will be completed within 15 days, with 100 prisoners walking out of Afghan jails every day.” 

One fairly easy prerequisite: Every released prisoner must give “a written guarantee to not return to the battlefield,” Reuters reports off the statement from President Ghani’s office. And each will be biometrically ID’d before release, according to AP, which adds, “the first round of 1,500 prisoners will be selected based on age, health and the length of their sentences already served.”

You may remember that the February peace deal “called for the release of up to 5,000 prisoners ahead of the much sought-after negotiations,” AP reports. It seems, then, that the Taliban are taking what they can get at this point in the talks, especially considering Ghani’s office “has balked at releasing such a high number of prisoners as a precondition for talks,” the Wall Street Journal reports. 

The apparent compromise seems to involve release of the remaining 3,500 prisoners only “after intra-Afghan negotiations begin and 500 [more] will be released every two weeks providing the Taliban reduce violence on the battlefield,” according to AP.

Taliban “commanders have sent vehicles to be ready to collect the prisoners,” Reuters reports. And in exchange, the Taliban say they “will honor the deal by handing over 1,000 government troops.” 

Worth noting about Khalilzad’s other diplomacy this week in Kabul: “Both Mr. Ghani and [Ghani’s presidential rival] Mr. Abdullah have turned down meetings with [Khalilzad] in recent days,” the Journal reports. Recall that Abdullah is trying to run his own parallel government, despite losing the most recent election.

Said Khalilzad, on Twitter Tuesday evening: “When implemented, this will be a significant step in the peace process. Despite these signs of progress, violence by the Taliban remains too high. We expect the Taliban to adhere to its commitments to reduce violence in order to allow for the release of prisoners to be implemented smoothly and the peace process to succeed.”

Also Tuesday, the State Department warned the Taliban to reduce the level of violence across the country, calling the most recent levels — a return after the calm of the seven-day deal in mid-February — “unacceptable.” 

“We acknowledge the Taliban have taken steps to stop attacks against the Coalition and in cities,” the statement reads. “But they are killing too many Afghans in the countryside. This must change. Violence at these levels risks drawing both sides into a vicious cycle, serves no one, and undermines peace.”

One more thing: The U.S. has provided “very limited support” to the Taliban in its fight against ISIS in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhar, U.S. Central Commander head Gen. Frank McKenzie told lawmakers Tuesday. Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports “McKenzie provided almost no details about the support, a startling revelation that comes as critics of the peace deal with the Taliban warn against trusting the group’s counterterrorism promises.”

So what’s that mean? According to a defense official who spoke to Defense One later in the day, American forces “essentially stopped engaging, in general, Taliban units actively engaged in fighting with ISIS-K,” the ISIS branch in Afghanistan. The U.S. also carried out strikes on known ISIS-K locations, that official said, but emphasized that those strikes were not coordinated with the Taliban. More here.

The U.S. has begun withdrawing from the Middle East “after concluding that the threat of reprisal attacks from Iran or its proxies has subsided,” the Wall Street Journal reports this morning. 

This includes about 1,000 troops who had deployed to Kuwait in early January after the U.S. military killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike. “An additional 2,000 members of the same brigade are expected to leave the region in the weeks ahead.”

And for the record, “There are approximately 90,000 American forces operating in the area overseen by U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan,” defense officials told the Journal. And that’s “up from the 80,000 that were in the region in the weeks before Gen. Soleimani’s death.” Continue reading, here

From Defense One

The US Is Helping the Taliban Fight ISIS, CENTCOM's Top General Says // Katie Bo Williams: Gen. McKenzie turned heads with testimony about “very limited support” for an enemy who is also an enemy of an enemy.

Iran and Russian Media Push ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracies Amid COVID-19 Outbreak // Patrick Tucker: Disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading as vast as the virus, thanks to the usual players.

US Military Scientists Hope To Have Coronavirus Therapeutic By Summer // Patrick Tucker: A new approach would use RNA or DNA to help the body develop antibodies to the rapidly spreading illness.

DOD, Feds Issue Coronavirus Guidelines for Civilian Employees // Courtney Bublé, Government Executive: New memos spell out expanded telework flexibilities, leave policies, alternative work schedules, and more.

Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1917, the British captured Baghdad from the Ottomans. 

America “needs to adopt structural changes not seen since the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks to confront proliferating cyber threats that increasingly endanger national and economic security,” the Wall Street Journal reports previewing a congressionally mandated report set for release later today.
“One recommendation, for example, urges the creation of new committees in Congress dedicated solely to cybersecurity,” the Journal’s Dustin Volz reports off the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s findings, which take up 182 pages and involve more than 75 recommendations. “Another calls for creation of a Senate-confirmed post of national cyber director in the White House.”
Also recommended: 

  • “continuity of the economy planning” in the event of a devastating cyber attack;
  • “The Defense Department… should conduct a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment of nuclear control systems.” 
  • And the report recommends federal-level promotion of digital literacy, civics education and public awareness to “build societal resilience to foreign, malign cyber-enabled information operations.”

“This is the 9/11 Commission report without 9/11,” Maine Independent Sen. Angus King, co-chair of the commission, told the Journal. “We understand that this is a tall order.”
Perhaps notable: “a lack of involvement from major technology companies, such as Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Microsoft Corp.” Read on, here

The increase in known coronavirus cases is accelerating in the U.S. Two weeks ago, there were 15 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States that weren’t evacuees from abroad. One week ago, there were 111. On Saturday, 352; Sunday, 495; Monday, 641; Tuesday, 945. At press time, there are 1,045 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins dashboard.
This exponential growth is in line with what we know about the outbreak in China and Italy.
Tom Bossert, who served as homeland security adviser to President Trump from 2017 to 2018, wrote Monday in the Washington Post: “The best way to put out the fire is a vaccine, but that is over a year away. In the meantime, we must focus on reducing the height of the outbreak curve. This requires coordination and implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions. School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1 percent. After that, science tells us, these interventions become far less effective.” Read more, here.
Coronavirus testing doesn’t appear to be keeping up. On March 2, the CDC stopped telling the public how many American have been tested for COVID-19. So the COVID Tracking Project, led by The Atlantic, has been asking state health offices for state-by-state results. On Tuesday, the total number of Americans tested reached 4,889, up just 492 over Monday.
Why has testing been so slow? “A series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing came during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier.” The New York Times has a deep look, here.  
Wash your hands and stay home if you can, folks.

And finally: U.S. military civilian and uniformed personnel are more appearances around Capitol Hill this week, with today’s schedule involving:

  • Marine Corps officials testifying about modernization programs with the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee; that’s already underway;
  • Navy and USMC leaders are talking about their budget request with Senate appropriators now, too; 
  • U.S. Southern and Northern Command leaders are also talking to House lawmakers now
  • Standby: SOUTHCOM’s Adm. Craig Faller is due to brief the press at 2:30 p.m. ET in the Pentagon. 
  • Pentagon science and tech programs and FY21 funding go under the microscope before the House Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities at 2 p.m.; 
  • And U.S. Air Force and Navy officials testify on sealift and mobility before House lawmakers at 2:30 p.m.