Afghanistan drawdown beating deadline; Esper’s NATO concerns; 4th Russia advisor leaves WH; SOF lens on great power competition; And a bit more.

The U.S. is down to 8,600 troops in Afghanistan, about a month ahead of schedule, CENTCOM’s Gen. Frank McKenzie said Thursday in a webinar organized by the Aspen Strategy Group. 

“We have met our part of the agreement,” said McKenzie, referring to the Feb. 29 peace deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in Qatar — without the input of officials in Kabul. “We’ve agreed to go to mid-8,000 range within 135 days” — i.e., by July 13. “We’re at that number now,” said McKenzie.

But McKenzie also said Thursday “military input is only one of the inputs that’s going to be considered,” which the New York Times reports is another way of saying, “Ultimately, how to move ahead with the troop withdrawal — whether to stick to the current schedule, slow it down or accelerate it — will depend on what President Trump decides.”

Up next: Intra-Afghan talks might begin by the end of this month, the Times reports. But the Afghan government has so far only released 3,500 of the planned 5,000 prisoners required before the Taliban will meet for those late-June talks.

It's not just Kabul officials trying to slow-walk these prisoner releases. Reuters reports “Some NATO members find it extremely uncomfortable to support the release of Taliban prisoners who were behind large-scale suicide attacks on minority groups and on expats.” Meantime, “the insurgents have escalated their attacks across the country,” the Times’ Mujib Mashal writes. Continue reading, here.

From Defense One

Look at Great Power Competition Through a Special Operations Lens // Christopher P. Costa and Kevin Bilms: Most of this competition is far short of combat, which makes the principles and expertise of SOF keenly relevant.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: L3Harris at 1; DoD, COVID & Congress; Japan stops Aegis Ashore, and more.

Airpower Gets a Big Boost in the Senate’s Authorization Bill  // John Venable: Air Force leaders won’t be entirely happy with it, but the country should be.

New NSA Effort Aims to Help Smaller Defense Firms Ward Off Malware // Mariam Baksh, Nextgov: A pilot program allows select firms to get third-party help in securing their websites.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. As the Smithsonian recollects, on this day in 1865, nearly 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to announce that 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were now free by executive decree, an episode commemorated by the people then and still today as Juneteenth. 

Pentagon spox Jonathan Hoffman was scheduled to brief the press at 11 a.m. ET. Some items he could have highlighted include: 

  • New DOD-wide “steps to improve fairness” for servicemembers of color, according to a video message (transcription here) from Defense Secretary Mark Esper posted to social media on Thursday. More on that below.
  • SecDef Esper’s two-day meeting with NATO defense ministers that concluded Thursday. More on that below, too. 

UPDATE: Hoffman’s 11 a.m. presser has been postponed. However...

SecState Mike Pompeo is also scheduled to speak this morning for Denmark’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit. You can stream that on DVIDS, here.

Review what’s on Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s mind when it comes to purported overlapping concerns with other NATO members via this DOD-written review of Esper’s input Wednesday and Thursday for an alliance-wide defense ministerial.
A grab-bag of Esper’s concerns for NATO include:

  • "missile challenges presented by Russia";
  • "the urgency of engaging in meaningful trilateral arms control efforts with both Russia and China";
  • "recent steps taken toward intra-Afghan negotiations" and "the U.S. commitment to ensuring Afghanistan never again becomes a safe-haven for terrorists to threaten the security of the United States homeland, our allies, or interests overseas";
  • America's "commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS and long-term regional stability" in Iraq;
  • "Supreme Allied Commander Europe U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters’ plan to prepare for a second wave" of COVID-19;
  • warnings against "disinformation and propaganda," as well as "predatory foreign direct investment" (read: China) and Esper encouraged "reducing dependence on Chinese or Russian suppliers for medical equipment, telecommunications, and other necessities."

SecDef Esper says he wants to improve the military’s “diversity and inclusiveness,” making it a place “that pursues equal opportunity and aspires to true meritocracy.” That’s according to a written message posted Thursday by the Defense Department, and in conjunction with that video message mentioned above.
Esper laid out three steps he hopes will improve dynamics:

  1. The first involves a “Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military,” whose task is “to develop concrete, actionable recommendations to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity across all ranks - especially in the officer corps” and within six months; 
  2. Esper also wants to start a “Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services” that will provide “long-term, sustainable guidance” — in the hopes that it will work similar to how DOD’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has functioned since it began back in 1951; 
  3. And lastly, Esper says he has ordered “the civilian and uniformed leadership of the Pentagon to immediately present actionable ideas that the department can begin implementing now.” In his message to troops, Esper said he wants these ideas by the end of June. 

Some of those ideas for point #3 include “removing photos from promotion, school, and command selection boards – this is something I pushed as Secretary of the Army, as we worked to overhaul our personnel system,” Esper said in his video.
"“I invite all of you to share with me your good ideas,” Esper said. “I don’t want anyone to think you do not have a role, or cannot play a part, in this conversation — one that is so critical to our esprit, our camaraderie, and our readiness. These are not problems that can be identified and solved from the Pentagon alone. We need your help.”

Meanwhile, service branches are investigating their use of aircraft against Americans protesting racism. 

  1. West Virginia Air National Guard recon plane: The Air Force inspector general is investigating whether the West Virginia ANG improperly used RC-26B reconnaissance aircraft to monitor protests in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis in early June. Air Force leaders made the announcement on Tuesday, “apparently prompted by lawmakers who expressed concerns to Pentagon officials that the use of military surveillance airplanes may have violated the civil liberties of the mostly peaceful protesters demonstrating against the police killings of African-Americans,” the NYT reported Wednesday. “The deployment of U.S. military intelligence units on American soil in support of domestic law enforcement operations is unusual, but it has happened before. In 2002, at the request of the F.B.I., the Army deployed secret surveillance planes as part of a broadening effort to catch a sniper in the Washington area.”
  2. DC NG medevac helicopter. A National Guard investigation into why a medical evacuation helicopter flew extremely low over protesters in Washington on June 1 determined that “a lack of clarity in orders” played a significant role in the event, two defense officials told CNN on Wednesday. More, here.

The Pentagon gets a new chief data officer starting Monday. Dave Spirk starts that new job, coming over from a similar role at U.S. Special Operations Command. Spirk is a former Marine who has worked several places throughout his career, including at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as the chief of operations for the Cuba and Venezuela Mission Manager, according to a statement from the Pentagon this morning. More here.

Trump’s 4th Russia advisor is leaving the White House. Tom Williams, who had been serving as the acting senior director for European and Russian Affairs at the National Security Council. The announcement was made by Trump’s fourth national security advisor, Robert O'Brien, who called Williams’ return to the Pentagon after two years at the NSC “customary.”
But the turnover on Trump’s NSC has been far from customary. Axios notes that two of Williams’ predecessors, Fiona Hill and Tim Morrison, “testified in the House impeachment inquiry about President Trump's withholding of aid to Ukraine — as did Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, another official in the Russia directorate.” And his most recent predecessor, Andrew Peek, was placed on administrative leave during a security review.
Of Trump’s previous national security advisors: one, Michael Flynn, left after lying about his contacts with Russia and subsequently pleaded guilty to felony lying, a case that is currently in limbo; another, John Bolton, wrote a book calling the president ignorant and self-serving in the extreme, and saying that Trump acquiesced to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s efforts to interfere with American elections.

Three senior women in the Trump administration resigned this week, ABC News Elizabeth McLaughlin reported Thursday after the resignation of Mary Elizabeth Taylor, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.
“The President’s comments and actions surrounding racial injustice and Black Americans cut sharply against my core values and convictions,” Taylor wrote in her resignation letter to SecState Pompeo, obtained by the Washington Post. “I must follow the dictates of my conscience and resign as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs.”
The Pentagon’s Katie Wheelbarger and Elaine McCusker are the other two senior women to resign recently, and McLaughlin rolled up the story of those two on Wednesday, here. Wheelbarger was acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and was “likely was passed over for the promotion because she was seen as a holdover from the team who worked for retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis,” a senior WH official told ABC News. Reuters noted her past work with the late Republican Sen. John McCain was also seen as a problem under President Trump, who in 2015 denigrated McCain for his POW status during the Vietnam war. Wheelbarger’s resignation is effective July 4.
McCusker was the DOD’s acting comptroller for 18 months. But she also famously “advocated internally [within DOD] for the release of $250 million in aid to Ukraine that had been delayed by the Trump administration and later formed the crux of the Trump impeachment trial,” ABC News writes. Her resignation is effective June 26.
No president in 40 years has seen so much turnover among his senior staff and Cabinet, Brookings reports. Get those details, here.

Thanks to all of you who tuned in for our 2020 Digital Tech Summit this week! You can rewatch any of our session videos on this page here (heads up: registration/login is required). 

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!