Forget that tweet nine days ago from POTUS45. The U.S. military will indeed be staying in Afghanistan past Christmas, his national security adviser told an online audience tuning into a virtual event with the Aspen Security Forum today. That update by Robert O'Brien appears to cap off a bizarre back-and-forth at the highest levels of U.S. military command concerning the longest of America’s ongoing wars abroad.
Rewind: On Oct. 7, President Donald Trump tweeted, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”
That was just hours after O’Brien told a crowd at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, that the U.S. would draw down its forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. Before that, Trump and numerous U.S. officials said that the number of American troops in Afghanistan would be down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops around November, and that any subsequent withdrawal would be conditions-based.
Both announcements caught the Pentagon, Afghanistan, and allies by surprise. On Oct. 9, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told NPR that “Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit” about troop levels, but “I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president,” Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported.
This morning, O’Brien said that tweet was more of a “desire,” and that Trump was “expressing the same desire” of every wartime president to get troops home by Christmas.
Critical caveat about Trump tweets: The Justice Department has had to argue in court multiple times since 2017 that Trump tweets do not constitute actual orders, as Axios reported this week when the DOJ had to go down this route yet again. More from CNN, here.
Big picture: U.S. officials now worry they need a “reset” with the Taliban, America’s top envoy to the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, tweeted Thursday. Here’s that four-tweet thread, in full: “Following several meetings [U.S. Army] General [Scott] Miller and I had with the Taliban, we agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made. This means reduced numbers of operations. At present too many Afghans are dying. With the re-set, we expect that number to drop significantly. Attacks have been on the rise in recent weeks - threatening the peace process and alarming the Afghan people and their regional and international supporters. We will do our part and will monitor implementation actively. All parties must deliver on their responsibilities. We thank our international partners for their assistance and support.”
From an outsider’s perspective, “The disarray at top levels of the administration and the president's push to withdraw troops because of the election are key reasons the Taliban continues its campaign of violence, ignoring the US-Taliban agreement terms,” former Pentagon spox David Lapan tweeted after watching O’Brien’s remarks at the Aspen Security Forum.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he wants to spend more money next year on transport ships, and maybe on munitions and aerial tankers. But he attached no dollar figures to those increases in his Heritage Foundation virtual event Thursday. More from Defense News, here.
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Welcome to this Friday 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 1859, abolitionist John Brown launched his raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. And that story is now a movie you can see if you have Showtime.
FBI: Was foreign intel behind that alleged Biden laptop? Federal investigators are looking into whether alleged Biden family emails found on a laptop in Delaware are linked to a foreign intelligence operation, NBC News reported Thursday evening.
U.S. intel agencies warned Trump last year that Giuliani was peddling Russian disinformation, the New York Times reported Thursday. And three weeks ago, U.S. intelligence analysts started contacting several people with knowledge of the GRU hack of Burisma, after picking up intelligence “chatter” that stolen Burisma emails would be leaked in a forthcoming “October surprise,” the Times reported separately on Thursday.
Twitter changed its rules about news stories related to allegedly hacked content like that sketchy laptop story from the New York Post, the Associated Press reports.
Don't miss: Defense One’s Patrick Tucker wrote on the many reasons to be suspicious of the Delaware laptop story.
YouTube banned QAnon videos on Thursday, NBC News reported in the afternoon.
Related: President Trump has refused to denounce the baseless conspiracy theory, and some other Republicans are following suit, Politico reports.
ICYMI: Trump doubled down on that Navy SEAL conspiracy theory in his televised town hall Thursday night on NBC. Said Trump to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie: "That was an opinion of somebody. That was a retweet. I put it out there. People can decide for themselves."
“I don't get that. You're the president," Guthrie replied. "You're not like someone's crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever."
Trump’s reply: "I do a lot of retweets, and frankly, because the media is so fake and so corrupt if I didn't have social media ... I wouldn't be able to get the word out.” More on that exchange from The Hill, here.
Today, Trump has three campaign speeches scheduled today in Florida and Georgia. He’ll start in Fort Myers at about 1:30 p.m. ET, before conducting a rally at the Ocala International Airport around 4 p.m. Then he’ll address another rally around 7 p.m. at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Ga.
Russia’s President Putin pitched a conditions-free, year-long extension to the New START arms control treaty that expires in February, Reuters reports from Moscow. That appears to be new only in its duration; Russian officials have long endorsed the five-year conditions-free extension provided for in the treaty itself. The Trump administration has been trying to persuade Moscow (and China) to accept other conditions, without obvious success. Read more at, AP here.
Non-NATO member Sweden is increasing its military spending by 40% as a bulwark against Russia antagonism, The Guardian reported Thursday. It’s also conscripting twice as many people into the armed forces, Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said Thursday.
“We have a situation where the Russian side is willing to use military means to achieve political goals,” said Hultqvist. “Based on that, we have a new geopolitical security situation to deal with.”
The new estimates would put Sweden’s defense budget at about 27.5bn Swedish kronor ($3.10bn) by 2025. More here.
S-400 alert, Turkish edition. Turkey appears to have fired a missile into the Black Sea where its “military was expected to test its Russian-made S-400 defence systems,” Reuters reports.
Why this matters: "Tests of the S-400s, if verified, could stoke tensions between Turkey and the United States, which sharply opposed Ankara’s purchase of the weapons from Moscow on grounds they compromise shared NATO defence systems," Reuters writes, adding the U.S. "suspend[ed] Turkey from its F-35 jet programme and has threatened sanctions" if the S-400 system is used by Ankara's forces.
“Erdogan has crossed the Rubicon, as Ankara no longer has any plausible deniability that the system is not fully activated,” said Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish member of Parliament and current Senior Director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Erdemir's forecast: “Putin's bet to use Erdogan as a spoiler in NATO has paid off, as Turkey will continue to distract the transatlantic alliance by diverting its attention and resources away from pressing threats elsewhere,” he writes. “Washington's inaction and the impunity Erdogan has so far enjoyed will encourage other states to go forward with their plans to purchase the S-400 air defense system and other big ticket military hardware from Russia.”
Two days of renewed fighting in Somalia has killed dozens of soldiers and al-Shabaab militants northwest of the capital Mogadishu, Reuters reports from Somalia.
Mexico’s former defense minister was arrested in Los Angeles, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Salvador Cienfuegos, who led the country’s army for six years under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested on Thursday by U.S. officials on drug trafficking and money laundering charges at Los Angeles International Airport. More from AP, here.
And lastly this week: The Pentagon just designated its top information operations adviser, and the job will go to the defense undersecretary of defense, C4ISR.net reported Thursday. Right now it’s an acting official in that policy job, and his name is James Anderson. A bit more, here.