Today's D Brief: Somalia drawdown; Rocky transition at DOD spy agencies; China-deterrence program; Mystery brain weapon clue; And a bit more.
President Donald Trump ordered “the majority” of American troops to leave Somalia in an announcement U.S. defense officials made public late Friday. The news wasn’t terribly surprising considering the recent Trump-ordered drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was also a probable move that the New York Times was tracking as recently Nov. 25, when the death of a CIA officer from combat in Somalia was first made public.
The Pentagon insists this is not a withdrawal. “The U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa,” defense officials wrote Friday. And the news is “not a change in U.S. policy.”
So what is it? It’s a “change in force posture,” the Defense Department said. That’s because the Somali-based American forces, estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of 700 in number (though the true number could be greater), will move to neighboring countries including Kenya and Djibouti, according to the Wall Street Journal.
You may recall the reason defense officials insisted the U.S. needed troops in Somalia: to keep the terrorist group al-Shabab from being “a threat to the U.S. homeland.” (The group is believed to have somewhere between 5,000 an d 10,000 fighters, according to the Washington Post.) And to that end, the Pentagon said in its Friday statement that these new changes still permit “cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia.”
And in another reminder the U.S. isn’t leaving Somalia altogether, the Defense Department emphasized that “The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia, and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland.”
AFRICOM says al-Shabab “is contained,” however, “a threat remains,” Africa Command spokesman Colonel Chris Karns told Voice of America on Friday.
Now the fight against al-Shabab relies even more on the U.S.-trained Somali unit known as Danab. Since 2013, “American soldiers have trained and armed the Somali commandos, whose numbers have grown to about 1,000, and have often accompanied them on raids against the Shabab,” the New York Times reports.
Said one former Danab commander to the Times: “You can’t train a force remotely...You can launch and stage operations from countries like Djibouti and Kenya, but it’s not the same as being in the country.”
Dive deeper into the history of U.S. efforts to build a Somali security force in our 2019 podcast all about “Escalating in Somalia,” here.
Lastly: This “change in force posture” begs several important questions about U.S. power in the months and years ahead, tweeted Paul Poast of the University of Chicago, with several related reports on, e.g., local Somali politics, what U.S. troops are doing there, regional allies and relationships, big-picture U.S. security strategy and more. All that and more here.
From Defense One
US Officials Say They Can Seal F-35 Sale to UAE Before Trump Leaves // Marcus Weisgerber: But that would depend on both Congress and the Gulf state.
‘Artificial Skin’ May One Day Make Troops Invisible, Even to Heat Sensors // Patrick Tucker: Small interconnected panels mimic the color and temperature of their environment, similar to an octopus
The Hidden Dangers in Biden’s Foreign Policy // Ryan P. Burke: The president-elect’s stated agenda will antagonize China and lead to conflict.
Great Power Competition Is Too Narrow a Frame // Austin Doehler: The United States cannot hope to prevail and prosper unless it broadens its conception of the global struggle.
Biden Must Save the Iran Nuclear Deal Before It’s Too Late // Bryan Bowman: The president-elect has a real but limited window to reinstate a deal that froze Tehran’s nuclear efforts.
Secretaries of State Are Now on the Frontlines of Defending Democracy // Michael McNerney: They need better access to national resources.
2021 NDAA Would Create a National Cyber Director // Mariam Baksh, Nextgov: If the bill passes next week and is signed into law, another amendment would codify cybersecurity roles for sector-specific agencies.
Welcome to this Monday 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. 79 years ago, 2,403 Americans died on “a date that will live in infamy.”
Trump administration blocking Biden-transition-team visits to NSA, DIA, other military intelligence agencies. “Current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said the delays have impaired the Biden team’s ability to get up to speed on espionage operations against Russia, China, Iran and other U.S. adversaries,” the Washington Post reported Friday.
A DOD spokeswoman told the Post that the requested meetings could take place as early as next week. But: “By then, Biden advisers will have waited more than a month since the election to have meaningful contact with intelligence agencies that have multibillion-dollar budgets, satellite networks that ring the planet and vast surveillance authorities.” Read on, here.
Also: the DOD press office on Saturday released an anonymous statement complaining about the Post’s use of anonymous sources in its story. Task & Purpose, here.
More from the 2022 defense authorization act, on which Congress is to start voting on Tuesday:
New China-deterrence program. Called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative — after the European Deterrence Initiative launched after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — it offers $2.2 billion in 2022 to “to establish a regionwide approach to countering China in its immediate area of influence” by “enhancing the United States’ defensive posture, capabilities and alliances in the region,” the Washington Post reports. “But aides to members of the armed services committees acknowledge that how the initiative is rolled out will depend in large part on what the Biden administration decides to do with it.”
Backers of the PDI laid out their case in May. It will “enhance budgetary transparency and oversight, and focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China,” Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, wrote at War on the Rocks.
New national cyber director? The House version of the NDAA calls for this position, but the Senate version wants a report on the merits. Nextgov, here.
Yet another COVID record. “The 7-day average for reported COVID-19 deaths has risen to 2,123, surpassing the previous high of 2,116 recorded on April 21,” The COVID Tracking Project reported on Saturday. “Given data drops and spikes on and after Thanksgiving, the 7-average is an especially useful metric to watch right now.”
FWIW: Every 28 hours, the U.S. is losing more people than died at Pearl Harbor. Every 34 hours, we’re losing more than died on 9/11.
Says a doctor: “We shouldn’t have to invoke comparisons to jumbo jet crashes or Vietnam or 9/11 to make the point that 2700 people dying of a preventable disease in one day is bad,” The Atlantic’s James Hamblin tweeted on Dec. 3.
Vaccine watch: 2020 vaccine deliveries will fall far short of promises. “The administration pledged several hundred million doses in 2020. Companies will actually ship about 10 percent of that,” the Post reported Friday. “Lower-than-anticipated allocations have caused widespread confusion and concern in states, which are beginning to grasp the level of vaccine scarcity they will confront in the early going of the massive vaccination campaign.” Read on, here.
Finally today: Another bath of clues for that mystery brain weapon. A report by the National Academies of Sciences says directed microwave energy appears to have caused the mysterious neurological symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats in China and Cuba beginning in 2016.
How’d they find out? In part, by “using mobile phone location data,” the CIA “determined that some Russian intelligence agents who had worked on microwave weapons programs were present in the same cities at the same time that CIA officers suffered mysterious symptoms,” NBC News reported. The Hill has a bit more.