Today's D Brief: Austin in Afghanistan; Holding the line in Syria; DoD’s COVID gaps; And a bit more.

SecDef Austin made a surprise stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, capping his weeklong Pacific regional swing to Japan, South Korea and India. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson and U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, who commands the U.S.-led war there, also attended, according to CNN.

“I came to Afghanistan to listen and learn,” Austin tweeted Sunday morning. “This visit has been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing” at the White House. 

What’s on Austin’s mind: “It's obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” he said in brief remarks to reporters Sunday. “We'd really like to see that violence come down. And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work...In terms of an end date, or setting a specific date for withdrawal, that's, that's the domain of my boss.”

What’s on POTUS46’s mind: Six more months in Afghanistan? President Joe Biden is reportedly mulling a six-month extension from the current May 1 deadline for U.S. troops to leave the country, according to NBC News reporting Thursday.

Biden’s advisors have pitched at least three ways forward, including “pulling troops out by or close to May 1, keeping troops in the country indefinitely or keeping troops in Afghanistan for a defined period to be determined by Biden, which could include a six-month extension.”

Where this gets complicated: “Any extension of the U.S. troop presence beyond May 1 would likely have to be presented to and negotiated with the Taliban, which has publicly said it will not accept any delay in the U.S. exit,” NBC writes. “Otherwise, the Taliban could argue that the U.S. was violating the Doha agreement and resume an all-out war with the U.S. and NATO allies,” which it has largely refrained from since signing that deal with the Trump administration just over a year ago in Qatar. Read on, here

Tonight on Capitol Hill, POTUS46’s legal rationale for striking Syria on Feb. 25 is the topic of discussion behind closed doors at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Review that latest deadly episode in America’s ongoing tit-for-tat with Iran-linked proxies, via the Associated Press, here


From Defense One

In Syria, US Commanders Hold the Line — and Wait for Biden // Katie Bo Williams: Troops maintain the status quo amid a counterterrorism success-turned-frozen war.

One Year into the Pandemic, DoD Data Remains Incomplete // Elizabeth Howe: Outstanding questions include: why are civilians dying at higher rates than troops?

What Do We Know About China’s Newest Missiles? // Peter W. Singer and Ma Xiu: Much can be gleaned from open sources, from official announcements to commanders’ online bios.

Drones Could One Day Make Up 40% of a Carrier Air Wing, Navy Says // Patrick Tucker: The Department’s new unmanned plan directs focus not just on drones but on their “enabling technologies.”

Defense Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Printed parts for broken weapons; GAO: F-35 plan unrealistic; ICBM lobby; and more.

How SecDef Austin Can Make the Most of His India Visit // Vikram J. Singh and Joe Felter: The defense secretary should pave the way for more and deeper defense trade and technology cooperation.

The Iraq War Anniversary Should Remind Us the War on Terror Failed // Julia Gledhill: We must start to correct course now by repealing the 2002 AUMF.

DARPA Aims to Boost US Manufacturing of Certain Chips // Mila Jasper, Nextgov: Better processes for converting general-purpose chips to specialized ones would pay big dividends, agency says.

The Clearest Sign the Pandemic Could Get Worse // The COVID Tracking Project, The Atlantic: Another coronavirus outbreak is unfolding in Michigan.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here


The U.S., Canada, Britain, and the EU will sanction Chinese officials today over its alleged “genocide” of Uighur Muslims in its far-western Xinjiang province, Politico reports today.
Already today, EU officials sanctioned four Chinese officials allegedly involved in detaining Uighurs, Politico writes, calling it a "coordinated campaign of sanctions [that] comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his way to visit European officials in Brussels.”

  • China quickly responded by blacklisting 10 parliamentarians, politicians and researchers, as well as four institutions — the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union; the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament; the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark. More here.

Also: The EU is also about to sanction 11 Myanmar leaders now seven weeks since their Feb. 1 coup, Reuters reports, calling it “the EU’s most significant response to the events in Myanmar so far.”
More than 250 people have been killed by security forces since that coup, including three more people just today, according to stats maintained by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. 

Top climate officials from the U.S. and China will formally meet for the first time in a VTC Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reports. The conference, which China will chair, is “an annual meeting of major economies and polluters that was set up by China, the European Union and Canada after the U.S. moved to exit from the Paris accord in 2017.”
No one knows exactly what to expect from Tuesday’s meeting, which comes on the heels of a rocky face-to-face between the two countries’ top diplomats late last week in Anchorage. Chinese officials said afterward that they would set up a formal working group on climate change with the U.S., but there are no details available yet on that.
In exactly one month, on Earth Day, POTUS46 is hosting an environmental summit. That day, April 22, also marks the fifth anniversary of the U.S. signing the Paris Agreement on climate change — an agreement POTUS45 withdrew the U.S. from on June 1, 2017. A bit more at the Journal, here

$20,000 to spy on NATO for the Chinese. That’s how much an Estonian researcher, Tarmo Kõuts, was paid for about three years of work with Chinese military spies via the bureaucratically-obfuscated Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission. The Daily Beast’s Holger Roonemaa and Michael Weiss reported the story Friday six months after his quiet arrest, at which point “he had a state secret permit as well as NATO security clearance dating back fourteen years,” yet he reportedly did not “pass on any confidential military information”
About this guy: He “earned his doctorate in environmental physics in 1999 [and] had worked for years at Tallinn Technical University’s Maritime Institute where he specialized in geophysics and operational oceanography,” with “research concentrated heavily on the maritime impact of climate change and some of his scholarly papers focused squarely on the Arctic region.” More recently, from 2018 to 2020, he served as vice president of NATO's Italy-based Undersea Research Center, which is now called the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation.
For the record, “The intelligence operatives handling him were operating under cover of a think tank,” which does not appear to have been named. Read on at TDB, here

Japan has at last charged the two former Green Berets who helped a chairman of Nissan and Renault escape prosecution in Japan by hiding him in an audio equipment box and flying that CEO-in-a-box to Turkey back in December 2019. The two men “arrived in Japan on March 2 after an unsuccessful bid to avoid extradition from the U.S.,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Now the two Americans can “apply for bail,” the Journal writes, “But it is unlikely that either of them will have a bail request granted, given their alleged role in helping Mr. Ghosn escape.” More here.

Lastly today, speaking of former Green Berets, a 55-year-old former U.S. Army Special Forces communications sergeant from Virginia now faces six charges — including assaulting multiple police officers and using a flagpole as a spear — in the Jan. 6 failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He was filmed on body cameras carrying out these apparent acts while also wearing a “thin blue line” patch, which is generally used to show one’s support for police.
One key bit of identifying information: He proudly wore a Special Forces patch on his backpack during the riot, as page seven of the charges illustrates. The Daily Beast first reported his twist of fate Thursday, one day after his arrest. The New York Times has a bit more here; and the Washington Post has this.

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