Today's D Brief: Budget Day preview; Afghan evac, maybe; China’s space trackers; Searching for COVID’s origin; And a bit more.

Budget day preview: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to testify this afternoon on the military’s portion of the president’s 2022 budget request. That gets started at 1 p.m. ET before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. Catch it live on C-SPAN or via the committee here.

Big picture: “President Biden will propose a $6 trillion budget on Friday that would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion throughout the next decade,” the New York Times reports, noting that the White House budget is just a framework that lawmakers use to authorize and allocate funds. Still, the Times adds, “If Mr. Biden’s plans were enacted, the government would spend what amounts to nearly a quarter of the nation’s total economic output every year over the course of the next decade. It would collect tax revenues equal to just under one fifth of the total economy.”

The U.S. is looking into how to safely evacuate Afghans whose work has placed them in danger of being killed by the Taliban after U.S. and coalition forces complete their withdrawal, Defense One’s Tara Copp reported Wednesday while traveling with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. 

“We recognize that there are a significant amount of Afghans that supported the United States, supported the coalition. And that they could be at risk, their safety could be at risk,” Milley said. “We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do.”

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Taliban have taken control of at least four district centers over the past two weeks, the New York Times and the Associated Press report from the east of the country and from Kabul, respectively. “Since May 1, at least 26 outposts and bases in just four provinces — Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni — have surrendered” to the Taliban, the Times reports. “With morale diving as American troops leave, and the Taliban seizing on each surrender as a propaganda victory, each collapse feeds the next in the Afghan countryside.”

Trending badly: “At least half the country is believed to be contested ground,” AP reports, “often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.” AP’s Kathy Gannon also got this nugget, reporting from Kabul: 

  • “The Afghan government long ago stopped releasing casualty figures among its security forces. But a former senior security official deeply familiar with the cost of war over the past two years told the AP that about 100-110 security personnel are killed or wounded every day.” Continue reading, here.

FWIW: Biden’s national security advisor rang up his Afghan counterpart on Wednesday, the White House announced in a readout of the phone call a bit later. Among the items they discussed: “U.S. plans to continue security assistance to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, as well as civilian assistance to help the Afghan people.”

What lies ahead? Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies lays out four likely scenarios in a thorough analysis posted Tuesday. 

From Defense One

Peace with Russia, China ‘Fraying at the Edge,’ Milley Tells Graduating Cadets // Tara Copp: New Air Force officers should work “to set the conditions for a future that prevents great power war,” Joint Chiefs chairman says.

US Planning to Evacuate Afghan Interpreters, Top US General Says // Tara Copp: “There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.

Biden Nominees Want to Shake Up Pentagon Weapons Buying Process // Marcus Weisgerber: Shyu, Blume tell Congress they plan to bridge the “valley of death” between the development phase and becoming a program of record.

Keep Tabs on China’s Growing Space Situational Awareness  // Peter W. Singer and Peter Wood: As more Chinese satellites reach orbit, Beijing is upgrading its ability to track space debris. But such sensors can be used to destroy as well as protect.

Space Force: Only 6 More Launches With Russian Rocket Engines  // Patrick Tucker: It’s the end of an era for U.S. launches with Russian-made engines.

More Actions Expected After 2nd Investigation Into Deadly AAV Sinking // Caitlin M. Kenney: “I have what I need,” the Marine Corps commandant said Wednesday.

Growth of Extremist Groups Follows Mathematical Pattern: Study // Patrick Tucker: The diversity of an online group provides clues to how quickly it will grow.

Your Home Insurance Policy Helps Illustrate Why Modern Conflict Is Destabilizing // Elisabeth Braw: Will insurers pay to repair houses in Gaza? How about U.S. infrastructure damaged by state-sponsored ransomware?

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1919, a crew of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard aviators landed in Paris after completing the first transatlantic flight.

President Biden has ordered U.S. spies to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House announced Wednesday. No conclusive evidence has emerged proving either that the virus jumped naturally from animals to people, or that it escaped from a lab where researchers were creating dangerous pathogens as part of efforts to learn how to fight them.
But for some, the latter remains a concerning possibility. And if true, it could lead to ending federal grants that support the creation of super-contagious bugs, requiring higher levels of caution in virology labs, or both. The Atlantic’s Daniel Engber has more on all that, here.

Iran nuclear talks are reportedly entering their “likely final round” before Washington and Tehran officials will meet together once more, Politico writes — with the caveat that whether this latest round of preliminary negotiations will in fact be the “final” round “depend[s] on who you ask.”

The U.S. is still trying to help coordinate a ceasefire in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthis have held the capital city since 2015 amid a war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE militaries and their local proxies and allies. Biden’s NSA Jake Sullivan called Omani officials Wednesday in part to praise Oman’s “critical peacebuilding role in Yemen.” Tiny bit more on that call, here.

The White House is trying to reopen the U.S. embassy in Tripoli seven years after it was closed and moved next door to Tunisia, NBC News reports.
ICYMI: The State Department sent its acting official for the region, Joey Hood, to Tripoli just last week. “Our intent is to begin to resume operations in Libya as soon as the security situation permits and we have the necessary security measures in place,” a State Department spox told NBC, citing the need for “careful logistical and security planning, plus interagency coordination to meet security and legal requirements.”
Speaking of inter-agency coordination, Samantha Power of the U.S. Agency for International Development is testifying today before House appropriators at 11 a.m. ET. Catch that live here.

Biden is calling for a ceasefire in northern Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region, and for “Eritrean and Amhara forces [to] withdraw” from the conflict zone.
Background: “Ethiopia, Africa’s most populous country after Nigeria, with about 115 million people, has been convulsed by the Tigray conflict since last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea ordered their military forces into the region to crush Mr. Abiy’s political rivals and strengthen his control,” the New York Times reports. That operation has now grown into “a quagmire that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa,” where Ethiopian and Eritrean now stand accused of war crimes. CNN has more on the conflict, here.
For the U.S., Biden’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeff Feltman is headed to the region next week, where he will be “leading a renewed U.S. diplomatic effort to help peacefully resolve the interlinked conflicts across the region, including a resolution of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that meets the needs of all parties,” Biden said in a Wednesday statement.
And this morning, State Department and USAID officials are testifying on the crisis in Ethiopia. That begins at 11 a.m. ET before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Livestream it here.

And finally today: Ohio has announced its first winner in the $1 million lottery for residents who’ve received a COVID-19 vaccination. “More than 2.7 million adults signed up for the $1 million prize,” Politico reports. That incentive helped boost vaccination rates by 33%, AP reported late last week.
ICYMI: New York is offering prizes of up to $5 million for vaccinated residents. More at AP, here.
One last thing: 90% of U.S. military installations have now dropped COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Defense Department announced Wednesday. Read over the latest list (PDF) here.