Today's D Brief: Russians booted over SolarWinds; Biden announces Afghanistan withdrawal; FBI’s China focus; New data on insurrectionists; And a bit more.

It’s official: President Biden announced Wednesday that the roughly 2,500 remaining U.S. troops will be gone from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” Mr. Biden said at the White house. “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan...Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.” Watch his White House remarks via CNBC, here

NATO leaders voted unanimously Wednesday to end the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, the first-ever launched under its Article V self-defense clause. “About 7,000 non-U.S. foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, mostly from NATO countries such as Germany, Italy and Britain, but also non-NATO countries including Georgia and New Zealand,” the Washington Post reports.

“This is not an easy decision and it entails risks,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “We’ve said for many months we face a dilemma, because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops.”Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Thursday. “I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Blinken said. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.” More at NBC News.

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” Ghani tweeted Wednesday. “As we move into the next phase in our partnership, we will continue to work with our US/NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts.

“Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along,” Ghani added, “and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful.”

Taliban reax: The U.S. “cannot be trusted” because this new 9/11 withdrawal deadline violates the February 2020 deal the group struck with the Trump administration, the Washington Post’s Sharif Hassan reports. 

A note about fine print, from historian Heather Cox Richardson: “The U.S. did not include the Afghan government in the talks that led to the deal, leaving it to negotiate its own terms with the Taliban after the U.S. had already announced it was heading home. Observers at the time were concerned that the U.S. withdrawal would essentially allow the Taliban to retake control of the country, where the previous twenty years had permitted the reestablishment of stability and women’s rights. Indeed, almost immediately, Taliban militants began an assassination campaign against Afghan leaders, although they have not killed any American soldiers since the deal was signed.” More from Richardson, here.

You may be wondering: How will the U.S. handle counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan without basing troops in the country? AP’s Bob Burns asked Austin on Wednesday in Brussels, and the SecDef replied: “I think you’ll understand why I won’t get into specific details about where our counterterrorist assets may be positioned. I would tell you that we are beginning the process now of working out details with allies and partners about how we’re going to do that, and we’ll work those details in the appropriate channels. As you know, Bob, we have a range of capabilities that are available to us. And the President has been clear that we will not allow our homeland to be attacked again from the spaces of Afghanistan.”

FWIW: The U.S. will continue to backroll the Afghan security forces, Austin said, specifically noting its Air Force and Special Mission Wing, which ferries the country’s still-young special operations units for particularly dangerous missions like early morning raids. “We will also work closely with them and with our allies to maintain counterterrorism capabilities in the region, sufficient to ensuring Afghanistan cannot become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten our security,” said Austin.

Other reax, compiled by Defense One’s Kevin Baron: 

  • David Petraeus, former Afghanistan war commander: “I’m really afraid that we're going to look back two years from now and regret the decision.”
  • William McRaven, former U.S. Special Operations Command leader, on running post-pullout counter-terrorism missions inside Afghanistan: “If you gave me the resources, I could figure out how to do this.” 
  • Tom Donilon, former national security advisor: “Endless wars without specific goals in mind is not...healthy for the United States.”
  • Jane Harman, president emerita of the Wilson Center and former ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee: “If we don’t get out now, we'll never get out.”
  • Stanley McChrystal, former Afghanistan war commander: “I don’t think we know if it’s a great decision or a bad one, and we won’t know for a while because I think it depends how things play out.”  

From Defense One

‘It’s Time to End the Forever War’: Biden Announces Withdrawal from Afghanistan // Tara Copp: As for the idea that U.S. troops on the ground would produce a solution: “We gave that argument a decade.”

FBI Opens a Case on Chinese Activity ‘Every 10 Hours,’ Intel Chiefs Say // Patrick Tucker: China leads a pack of threats to the United States, they tell lawmakers.

Petraeus Trashes Biden Decision to Quit Afghanistan // Kevin Baron: Pulling out now is an “unforced error,” the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said. Other former war leaders say the threat can be managed.

Exit Strategy // Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic: There will be no power-sharing, no reconciliation, no peace of the brave.

It Was Never All or Nothing in Afghanistan // Mark R. Jacobson and Annie Pforzheimer: This is not something we hoped to see from national security leaders and a president we admire so much.

Biden’s Foreign Policy Starts at Home // Peter Nicholas, The Atlantic: For the administration, strengthening the middle class is essential to national security.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Tara Copp and Bradley Peniston. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here

The White House is booting 10 Russian diplomats in response to the Solar Winds hack as well as Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2020 U.S. elections. The expulsions are just one element in a multi-faceted response spelled out in an executive order the White House explained in a fact sheet today.
Six Russian tech companies are also facing sanctions for their “support to the Russian Intelligence Services’ cyber program, ranging from providing expertise to developing tools and infrastructure to facilitating malicious cyber activities,” according to the White House. Those companies include

  • ERA Technopolis; 
  • Pasit; 
  • Federal State Autonomous Scientific Establishment Scientific Research Institute Specialized Security Computing Devices and Automation; 
  • Neobit; 
  • Advanced System Technology; 
  • and Pozitiv Teknolodzhiz.

A few Russian propaganda outlets were targeted as well. Those include Southfront, Newsfront, the Strategic Culture Foundation and InfoRos. Each has now been hit with new sanctions “for having engaged in foreign interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election,” the U.S. Treasury Department announced.
The U.S. also added to its list of those sanctioned for Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Those include construction and rail companies, and four other officials allegedly “involved in Russia’s occupation of and efforts to control and govern the Crimea region of Ukraine.” Details here.
Early reax from Moscow: These sanctions will not help the chances for a possible future Biden-Putin summit, the Kremlin said in a statement today, according to Agence France-Presse.
NATO is onboard with the sanctions. “All available evidence points to the responsibility of the Russian Federation for the SolarWinds hack,” Secretary-General Stoltenberg said today in a statement. “We stand in solidarity with the United States.”
Stoltenberg then ran down a list of reasons Russian government activities are viewed with deep suspicion by alliance members: “Russia continues to demonstrate a sustained pattern of destabilising behaviour, including its violations of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Stoltenberg said, flagging as well Russia’s “attempted interference in Allied elections, including the U.S. presidential election; widespread disinformation campaigns; and malicious cyber activities.”
He also cited “the attack on Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition figure, with the use of a nerve agent from the banned Novichok group,” and Stoltenberg said “Reports that Russia encouraged attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are also of concern.” A bit more here.

The U.S. Navy conducted at least 13 major investigations into white supremacist activity from 1997 to 2020, USA Today reported Tuesday off records request to each military service from ethics watchdogs at American Oversight.
None of those investigations led to a court-martial, USA Today writes, calling that “a pattern in which military leaders chose to deal with personnel involved in extremism by dismissing them in ways that would not attract public attention.” For example, “Some of the personnel received small fines or pay cuts. Most of the troops who were let go received a general discharge under honorable conditions, the most mild administrative discharge.” Continue reading here.
By the way: Nearly 10% of the attempted insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were veterans, or at least 38 of the nearly 380 charged so far, according to USA Today and analysis from the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, aka CPOST.
Update: What was the “primary driver” for those insurrectionists? Just one “stands out across three separate studies [of U.S. domestic extremists by CPOST], all with different methodologies: Fear of the ‘great replacement’, the belief that the rights of minorities will overtake that of whites,” the studies' main author, Robert Pape writes, adding, “This holds even when controlling for a wide variety of factors.”
What’s more, CPOST’s analysis also revealed that “for every one percent decline in the non-Hispanic white population, a county was over six times more likely to send at least one insurrectionist.” For example, he explained in the Washington Post last week, “all 36 of Texas’s rioters come from just 17 counties, each of which lost White population over the past five years.” The same holds for New York, he wrote, where nearly all of the state’s “27 people charged or arrested after the riot...come from 14 blue counties that Biden won in and around New York City.”

  • Dive deeper: The Jan. 6 mob outnumbered Capitol Police “by more than 58 to one” on the complex’s west side alone, the Washington Post reports today in a new interactive, including a 19-minute video reconstructing 78 requests for backup from Capitol Police on that violent day.  

So, where to go from here? First, we should not kid ourselves that this is just a phase, or some Democratic-Republican pendulum swing, Pape says, warning that “The ingredients exist for future waves of political violence, from lone-wolf attacks to all-out assaults on democracy, surrounding the 2022 midterm elections.” But perhaps more immediately, he advises, “At the very least, local mayors and police chiefs need better intelligence and sounder risk analysis” for right-wing extremist groups in America. Read on here, or review CPOST’s latest findings here.

In Iraq, someone flying an armed drone attacked an airport base where U.S. forces are co-located with their Kurdish counterparts. No one seems to have been hurt in the incident, which Reuters calls the “first known attack carried out by an unmanned aerial drone against U.S. forces in Erbil.”
A Turkish soldier reportedly died Wednesday in Iraq when two rockets hit a base west of Erbil. More from Turkish state-run media, here.
To the south in Baghdad, four people were killed and 17 others wounded during a car bomb attack at a market in the largely Shiite district of Sadr City. The explosion is “the second major deadly bombing to hit Baghdad this year,” Reuters reports, “after a suicide attack claimed by Islamic State militants killed at least 32 people in a crowded market in January.”

And lastly: An unofficial delegation of U.S. officials dropped by Taiwan this week, the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted with an accompanying photo on Wednesday. Former Sen. Chris Dodd and former senior State Department officials Richard Armitage and James Steinberg made the journey, which CNN explains here.