Today's D Brief: Evacs pick up in Kabul; Biden defends the withdrawal; Russia, North Korea posture for launch; And a bit more.

The United States military may stay in Afghanistan past the 9/11 withdrawal date in order to evacuate everyone it can, President Joe Biden said in an interview that aired Wednesday evening on ABC News (full transcript here). 

It’s unclear just yet how the Taliban will respond. But on Tuesday, the group’s spokesman warned against the U.S. staying past that 9/11 date. “I think they should get their troops out of Afghanistan,” Suhail Shaheen told Sky News. “[The U.S.] have already violated the time frame which was enshrined in the Doha agreement,” he said. “Then they announced that they will withdraw all their forces by September 11, so they should withdraw all their forces.” 

  • The latest on evacuation efforts: 13 C-17s have arrived in Kabul over the past 24 hours, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor said Thursday morning at the Pentagon. Those aircraft helped evacuate some 2,000 passengers, raising the total number so far to approximately 7,000. 
  • For an additional perspective, see this window into life today at Hamid Karzai International Airport, via CBS News. 

In another notable exchange with ABC News, George Stephanopoulos asked Biden, “So would you have withdrawn troops like this even if President Trump had not made that deal with the Taliban?” POTUS46 replied, “I would’ve tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops, yes, because look, George, there is no good time to leave Afghanistan. Fifteen years ago would’ve been a problem, 15 years from now.” 

The president then appealed to America’s families, reminding Stephanopoulos (as Biden has said several times over the past week), “The basic choice is am I gonna send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?” The president also emphasized that—given all his advisors told him, and taking into account the images of desperation we’ve all seen over the past five days—he simply couldn’t imagine “a way to have gotten out [of Afghanistan] without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, as Biden sees it: “No one can name for me a time when this would end.” He then looked to history, asking, “Where in that isolated country that has never, never, never in all of history been united, all the way back to Alexander the Great, straight through the British Empire and the Russians, what is the idea? Are we gonna continue to lose thousands of Americans to injury and death to try to unite that country? What do you think? I think not. I think the American people are with me.” Time, of course, will tell both if that is true, and how long it might hold.

To their credit, Pentagon leaders stepped up to their podium to take questions from reporters Wednesday. One big one from that briefing: Why was the Taliban’s blitz across the country—and the Kabul government’s collapse—such a surprise to the U.S. military? The timelines they were anticipating “ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley said. 

“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” the chairman told reporters; but he said an accelerated collapse as we’ve seen wasn’t a total surprise. “Central Command submitted a variety of plans that were briefed and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the President. These plans are coordinated, synchronized, and rehearsed to deal with these various scenarios. One of those contingencies is what we are executing right now.”

Fortunately, there’ve been no fights with the Taliban so far this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, noting, “Our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open, as they should be.” Added Milley, “The Taliban are in and around Kabul right now, but they are not interfering with our operations.” However, certain individuals have been photographed pointing guns at crowds of Afghans and firing rounds into the air around the airport (e.g., here and here). 

A word on uncertainty in a warzone: Given their own words on Tuesday, it would seem that the Taliban’s public leaders sense there may be a better future for them if they refrain from brutality while these “invaders” and their friends leave. But as anyone who has been responsible for troops knows, it’s not always easy to maintain complete control over all of an element’s fighters at all times. Consider, for example, the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Kandahar back in March 2012. With this horrific episode, it only took one individual losing all military bearing to convince the Afghan leadership (President Hamid Karzai, at the time) to tell the U.S. to drop arguably its last, best opportunity for rural security—thus almost surely forfeiting any hope of extending governmental control out of district centers and to the country’s rural population. Let’s hope no one violently loses their bearing in the Taliban’s units. All it takes is one itchy trigger finger to ignite a world of change in the blink of an eye.

Should violence escalate, there are quite a few military assets on the ground around the Kabul airport, Milley explained. Those include 4,500 U.S. troops, British special forces, Turkish troops (many of whom had been previously tasked with airport security), as well as “multiple squadrons of F-18s, AV-8s, F-16s, AC-130s, B-52s, and MQ-9s,” and “a significant amount of rotary-wing aviation on the ground, including attack and lift helicopters,” Milley told reporters. 

Something else to note: The Taliban’s communications people seem to be eerily good at getting their messages out on social media without triggering extremist-content filters, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. It’s seemingly so good, “that analysts believe at least one public relations firm is advising the Taliban on how to push key themes, amplify messages across platforms, and create potentially viral images and video snippets—much like corporate and political campaigns do across the world.” 

From Defense One

Trump’s Pledge to Exit Afghanistan Was a Ruse, His Final SecDef Says // Patrick Tucker: Chris Miller now says talk of a full withdrawal was a “play” to convince a Taliban-led government to keep U.S. counterterrorism forces.

Private Equity Firm Acquires Geost, Whose Sensors Protect Satellites // Marcus Weisgerber: It’s a play to capitalize on massive satellite orders from the Pentagon.

Taiwan Wants Paladins. Congress Should Say No // Michael Hunzeker  and Brian Davis: Taipei’s only hope for an effective defense is not armor but asymmetry.

‘All the Signs Have Been There’ Predicting Afghan Security Force Collapse, IG Says // Courtney Bublé: For more than a decade, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been warning about “ghost soldiers” and corruption to anyone willing to pay attention.

‘Cannot Ensure Safe Passage’: US Tells Americans in Kabul to Get to Airport On Their Own // Tara Copp: Biden says U.S. forces may have to stay past Aug. 31 to help evacuate stranded personnel.

The Texas National Guard Just Unveiled the Largest 3D Printed Structure in North America // Patrick Tucker: But Russia and China are preparing to 3D print hypersonic components.

The Next Big Refugee Crisis Just Started // Erol Yayboke: The U.S. and its partners should respond to the needs of displaced Afghans, for national security reasons and long-term opportunities.

Why the Afghan Army Folded // Kori Schake, The Atlantic: America has historically struggled to train foreign militaries.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here

Russia may be close to another test of its nuclear-powered SSC-X-9 “Skyfall” missile, CNN reported Wednesday. The launch site is near the Arctic Circle, and you can review the relevant imagery here. Russian authorities also issued a “notice to mariners” spanning August 15 to 20 near the test site on Novaya Zemlya.

North Korea issued a warning that it might launch something earlier this week—but the window came and went and nothing was launched, South Korea’s Yonhap News agency reported today from Seoul.
Was there a failure of some sort? No one knows, Yonhap writes, noting the warning and lack of launch could have been a “deception strategy.” The U.S. and South Korean militaries are currently conducting scaled-back exercises that are scheduled to run through Aug. 26. A bit more at Yonhap, here.

And finally today: U.S. Northern Command still uses the analog systems and processes it had when it was created 20 years ago in response to 9/11, and must modernize so it has more time to respond to threats, NORTHCOM chief Gen. Glen VanHerck said Tuesday, Air Force Magazine reports.
Say what? “If a warning radar detects a Russian bomber approaching from the Northeast, controllers must telephone the command center, where another operator must make another call to the appropriate sector, either the continental NORAD region, Alaska NORAD region, or Canadian NORAD region. Only then would someone call VanHerck’s headquarters. The process takes minutes to unfold,” according to Air Force Magazine. Read more, here.