Today's D Brief: Violence spikes in Afghanistan; Bad TikTok deal; AI’s ‘black boxes’; Wearable COVID detectors; And a bit more.

Afghanistan just experienced its bloodiest day of fighting since peace talks began with more than 50 members of the Afghan security forces and 80 Taliban fighters reportedly killed Sunday in fighting across the country, al-Jazeera reported Monday.

Clashes spanned the provinces of Oruzgan, Baghlan, Takhar, Helmand, Kapisa, Balkh, Maidan Wardak and Kunduz. Afghanistan’s Tolo News added an attack on Afghan security forces in Kandahar’s far eastern Maruf district, where your D Brief-er deployed with U.S. and Emirati special forces for some months a decade ago. That Sunday night attack killed seven ANSF, according to a police spokesman. 

The view from America’s top Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad: “Over the last few days, there has been a clear rise in violence in Afghanistan. This escalation is regrettable as Afghans, including many civilians, are losing their lives. Given the recent start of Afghanistan Peace Negotiations, it is imperative all sides reduce violence significantly,” he tweeted Sunday. 

  • WATCH: Zalmay is testifying today before House lawmakers who plan to “question the Trump Administration about whether the U.S.-Taliban agreement could jeopardize the security, political, and economic gains [of] the Afghan people.” That starts at 11 a.m. ET and can be seen on YouTube here.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pleaded with the UN General Assembly Monday night to help bring an end to the violence. “Though we are facing multiple drivers of turmoil all at once in Afghanistan,” he said, “there is a clear and urgent priority for us: a ceasefire. An urgent end to the violence will, more than anything else, give us a chance to progress.”

And about those peace talks that began 10 days ago, “The two sides have held four small group meetings” in that time, Tolo reports. But, as before, “little headway has been made, particularly on a ceasefire,” according to AJ reporting from Doha. 

Four key obstacles remain in the Doha talks, Tolo reports separately: The first is “finalize rules and regulations for the talks; the second concerns what exactly the two sides mean when they use the word “war”; and the last two concern “religious issues and human rights,” according to Tolo. A bit more, here.

Say the peace talks yield a settlement sooner than later, then what? President Ghani told the UNGA that he has some ideas: “What will you do a day after success? At least we should absorb 60,000 to 120,000 Talib fighters,” he said. We have [a] plan for it. We are ready for it.”

But that’s not all: “We should embrace four to six million refugees,” Ghani added. More from Tolo, here

From Defense One

Could Trump Assassinate A World Leader and Get Away With it? // Katie Bo Williams: Maybe. Scholars explain why the answer is as murky as the law.

Analysis: How Trump’s TikTok Deal Helps China // Patrick Tucker: The deal doesn’t really address data or privacy concerns. It does help regimes attack U.S. companies.

The US Navy Has Drifted Badly Off Course // John R. Kroger: Three main failures are imperiling the sea service, writes the service’s former chief learning officer.

How We Survive the Winter // James Hamblin, The Atlantic: The coming months of the pandemic could be catastrophic. The U.S. still has ways to prepare.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with 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. On this day in 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, triggering a conflict that would last eight years.

Our “State of Defense” series continues today (2 p.m. ET) with a live interview featuring U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr., followed by a panel discussion with AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen and Stacie Pettyjohn of RAND Corp., moderated by Defense One’s Global Business Editor Marcus Weisgerber. Details and registration, here

This afternoon, SecDef Mark Esper speaks with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz, at the Pentagon around 3 p.m. ET. The two plan to speak to reporters briefly after their closed-door meeting.

President Trump is campaigning in Pennsylvania today, with an evening speech planned at Pittsburgh’s International Airport. The Biden campaign is sending running mate Kamala Harris and Dr. Jill Biden to separate events in Michigan today — to Flint and Detroit for Harris, and Battle Creek for Dr. Biden. 

It’s a big week at the UN, which must celebrate its 75th anniversary during our ongoing pandemic. One thing you can bet on for this year’s session of the UN’s General Assembly: “the endless speechifying,” writes The Guardian’s Julian Borger. That’s because the assembly is all remote this year, with world leaders asked to submit their pre-recorded speeches as late as last week. However, “As of Monday, only half had been turned in,” Borger reports.
Also new this year: Video graphics are allowed, which some (unspecified) delegates have included in their pre-recorded speeches.
Brazil’s president speaks first today, followed by the U.S., Turkey and China — which Borger calls “a parade of the world’s self-styled strongmen.” Review the UNGA’s full schedule here.

About 5,000 U.S. troops will soon take part in an early-detection study to better understand asymptomatic coronavirus infections, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Background: “For more than two years, Department of Defense research units have been collaborating on software developed by [Koninklijke Philips NV] that closely monitors a variety of biomarkers like pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation to look for barely recognizable symptoms of illness, sometimes before a person sees any changes.” That program has now been fast-tracked thanks to Covid-19.
So far, “About 1,000 troops have already begun wearing smart rings or smartwatches connected to the Philips RATE system, which tracks key biomarkers and compares them to millions of cases of patients who have been monitored previously.” That data will then help determine “if their bodies show signs of illness that require consultation with a physician.” Read on, here.

VP Pence’s new COVID-19 vaccine forecast: “by the end of April,” he tweeted Monday, “we will be able to deliver several hundreds of millions of doses straight to the American people.”
Need a coronavirus test? You may have to wait, because the U.S. is experiencing a reagent supply shortage that’s “forcing health systems across the country to limit who gets tested for Covid-19, hindering efforts to ramp up testing as flu season approaches,” the Wall Street Journal reports this morning. And this shortage could persist for some time since flu tests rely on the same reagents.
Big reversal: Days after it was posted online, the CDC removed its warning about possible airborne transmission of the coronavirus on Monday, saying what had posted was a draft and that it was posted and kept up for days as an error. More from the Washington Post, the New York Times or Reuters.
The U.S. is incurring an extra 3,200 new infections daily because some universities returned to in-person learning this fall semester, the Wall Street Journal reports off a new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College.

Nearly $1 billion in taxpayer money meant for masks and swabs went to make jet engine parts and body armor for the Pentagon, the Washington Post reported Monday.
What’s going on here: “The Cares Act, which Congress passed earlier this year, gave the Pentagon money to ‘prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,’” the Post reports. And “The $1 billion fund was allocated under the Defense Production Act, which allows President Trump to compel U.S. companies to manufacture products in the nation’s interest.”
Here are some of the ways the money was allocated: “$183 million to firms including Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal to maintain the shipbuilding industry; tens of millions of dollars for satellite, drone and space surveillance technology; $80 million to a Kansas aircraft parts business suffering from the Boeing 737 Max grounding and the global slowdown in air travel; and $2 million for a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric.”
Why? Pentagon officials say they have “to strike a balance between boosting American medical production and supporting the defense industry, whose health they view as critical to national security,” the Post reports. “Companies that sell aircraft parts for both military and commercial jets, for example, have been financially wrecked by a global slowdown in air travel.” But that doesn’t fully explain the millions of dollars to, e.g., GE Aviation and Rolls Royce.
Said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, in a statement: “We need to always remember that economic security and national security are very tightly interrelated and our industrial base is really the nexus of the two.” Read on, here.

Infowar curveball: A public relations official at the National Institutes of Health has been moonlighting as an anonymous editor (known as streiff) on the conservative website RedState. There, he’s “spent months trashing U.S. officials tasked with combating COVID-19, dubbing White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci a ‘mask nazi,’ and intimating that government officials responsible for the pandemic response should be executed,” The Daily Beast reported Monday.
The official’s name: William B. Crews, and since the story broke, he has reportedly announced his retirement.
Why this matters: “[I]t illustrates the extent to which the response to the pandemic has become deeply politicized, even within the agencies at the front lines of fighting it,” TDB’s Lachlan Markay writes. More, here.

New job opening for our wonky (and TS-cleared) readers: Think you have what it takes to chair the U.S. Army War College's Department of National Security and Strategy? The gig's open. Apply here. (h/t Steve Metz)

Get to better know what “Black Box” systems mean for the future of military AI, thanks to a new study from the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research, which was just published today.  
At the heart of the matter is the question of what exactly it means for an intelligent system to be “predictable” and “understandable,” and why this is actually a very important question to answer.
We briefly touched on the subject near the end of our recent podcast on unmanned systems, featuring the UNIDR’s Arthur Holland Michel, who authored this new report. Here’s Michel previewing his analysis in Defense One Radio’s 75th episode, which we released eight days ago: 

“If you have a system that gives you very little insight into how it turns input — so, you know, data — into output (conclusions or maneuvers in the case of an AI dogfighting system) without giving you any insight into how it makes that conversion, we call [this] a ‘blackbox’ system. And this is problematic in critical functions like war fighting, potentially, because you sort of want to know that a system will do what you expect it to do. And that it will do so for intelligible reasons that it won't just act in ways that, you know, don't make sense or it that it behaves what appears to be very successfully in testing, but that's because it's actually, you know, picking up on some quirk in the training data that will not apply in the real world. It's a massive subject that feels really fundamental to the growing discussion around military artificial intelligence because fundamentally, AI systems can be inherently unpredictable.”

Some of the questions the study tackles include:

  • What is the role of predictability and understandability in the development, use, and assessment of military AI? 
  • What is the appropriate level of predictability and understandability for AI weapons in any given instance of use?  
  • And how can these thresholds be assured? Find the full report here.

ICYMI: Here’s another great AI future tech backgrounder, this time from the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims, reporting late last week. You may remember Moore’s Law, which held that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years, with roughly corresponding increases in performance for the chip and the computers they drive.
Now there’s a new law, and it’s “potentially no less consequential for computing’s next half century,” Mims wrote. “I call it Huang’s Law, after Nvidia Corp. chief executive and co-founder Jensen Huang. It describes how the silicon chips that power artificial intelligence more than double in performance every two years. While the increase can be attributed to both hardware and software, its steady progress makes it a unique enabler of everything from autonomous cars, trucks and ships to the face, voice and object recognition in our personal gadgets.” More behind the paywall, here.

Eight-year low for Arctic ice. A “crazy year” reduced the world’s northern ice cap to the second-lowest extent on record, scientists said Monday.
Alarming streak: “The 14 lowest ice years have occurred in the past 14 years. Many scientists expect that the Arctic could be devoid of ice in summers well before midcentury.”
One reason why this matters: Russia’s military is certainly interested in helping expand economic opportunities for Moscow throughout the Arctic, as its navy chief said in late August.
Another reason why: Accelerated melting; which is to say, as the white ice cap shrinks and exposes more dark water, more of the sun’s warming energy is absorbed by the earth rather than being reflected back into space. “That leads to more warming and more ice loss, with the process continuing in what scientists call a feedback loop.” Read, here.

Lastly today: neutral Switzerland to vote on fighter jets. On Sept. 27, Swiss citizens will decide whether to spend some $6.6 billion on fighter jets to replace the country’s 30 F/A-18 Hornets by 2030. According to Reuters, “Switzerland, which last fought a foreign war more than 200 years ago and has no discernable enemies, wants to spend billions on new fighter jets. Many oppose the idea, saying the neutral country neither can afford nor needs cutting-edge warplanes to defend Alpine territory which a supersonic jet can cross in 10 minutes.”
Here’s a fascinating 2001 article about the planes’ unique hangars: caverns cut into the Swiss Alps, via Air & Space Magazine.