The D Brief: Milley: I cautioned Biden; COVID hits USMC OCS; Yemen offensive; New EW strategy planned; And a bit more...
Milley: I cautioned Biden about Afghanistan withdrawal. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said Tuesday that he told the White House that a full withdrawal of forces would likely result in a Taliban takeover—but by the time President Joe Biden asked him directly in late August whether any forces should stay, it was too late.
Milley spoke during a hearing of the Senate Armed Service Committee, during which members on both sides of the aisle asked pointed questions about the evacuation and the longer-term mistakes, Defense One’s Tara Copp reported.
The hearing was the first time that both Milley and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie publicly said that they had wanted to keep as many as 2,500 U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-withdrawal. Last month, Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopolous that none of the commanders had advised him to leave a small troop presence in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Milley testified that commanders’ concerns—that a full withdrawal could hasten Taliban takeover—were conveyed to the Biden White House in the months leading up to the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
Milley had already pushed back once before, when he received an order Nov. 11 from former President Donald Trump to withdraw all forces by Jan. 15. After further consultation, the Pentagon convinced the White House to keep 2,500 troops in country.
It wasn’t until the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan, Milley said, that the chairman was asked for his best military assessment on leaving any troops past the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline. The president asked for his view on Aug. 25, he said. Read on, here.
Now: Austin, Milley and McKenzie are talking to House lawmakers about the Pentagon’s Afghanistan withdrawal. Watch that, here.
From Defense One
Austin, Milley Say White House Was Advised to Keep US Troops in Afghanistan // Tara Copp: The Afghanistan evacuation that resulted was “a logistical success but a strategic failure,” Milley said.
COVID-19 Outbreak Hits USMC Officer Candidates School // Jennifer Hlad: Group is first to do pre-training quarantine at home instead of at school.
An Army Pilot Just Re-Invented Flight Training for the Digital Era // Patrick Tucker: By teaching an AI to read instruments with a camera, you get the best of the human and machine worlds.
Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Buddies Tried to Get the VA to Sell Access to Veterans’ Medical Records // Isaac Arnsdorf, ProPublica: A congressional investigation prompted by ProPublica’s reporting found that wealthy civilians with no U.S. government or military experience pursued a plan to monetize veterans’ medical data.
It’s China, Stupid // James Lamond and Jake Morris: More voters across the West are caring more about China. In the next round of elections, politicians should, too.
Playing Defense Against Terrorism Is Totally Fine // Luke Hartig, The Atlantic: The U.S. has built many layers of protection against attack, and toughness doesn’t require endless war.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Tara Copp, Ben Watson, Jennifer Hlad, and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. OTD 1789: the U.S. War Department established a regular army of several hundred soldiers.
COVID outbreak at Marine Corps OCS: The Marines have temporarily reduced training at their Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va., because of an “ongoing COVID situation” involving candidates and staff members, Defense One’s Jennifer Hlad reports. The affected group of candidates is the first to have completed a mandatory 14-day quarantine at home, rather than under supervision at the base.
Trainees must take a coronavirus test “as part of the initial screening process,” and those who aren’t vaccinated when they get to recruit training or OCS will get the jab on arrival, Marine spokespeople said.
The candidates and staff involved in the outbreak have been “placed in either isolation or quarantine based on their individual test results,” 1st Lt. Phillip Parker said in an email. A bit more, here.
U.S. Strategic Command is leading the development of a new electromagnetic strategy. “In early August, the Pentagon handed StratCom the job of charting a course for the military’s electromagnetic spectrum operations—or EMS, in military parlance,” the Omaha World-Herald writes. “With prodding from Congress, the Defense Department established a new Joint EMS Operations Center under StratCom’s authority. It will be headed by a two-star general.” Read on, here.
Yemen’s Houthis are on the verge of taking the oil-rich city of Marib, where pro-government troops have been defending against a growing offensive over the last few weeks.
Why this matters: “Seizing Marib would be a game-changer, completing the rebels’ takeover of Yemen’s north while giving them control of oil resources and the upper hand in any peace negotiations,” Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday. Because of Marib’s location as “a crossroads between the southern and northern regions,” if it falls, “the Houthis could be emboldened to push into the government-held south.”
BTW: NSA Jack Sullivan just visited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday. Also attending that meeting: Saudi “Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, Interior Minister Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, National Guard Minister Abdullah bin Bandar, among others,” Reuters reported, with minimal elaboration from U.S. officials—other than a note that “both parties endorsed the efforts of the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg and agreed to intensify diplomatic engagement with all relevant parties.”
Brett McGurk, NSA Sullivan visit Egypt. Nearly two weeks after the White House said it would withhold some military aid to Egypt, the president’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk are visiting Cairo today to talk about regional security.
About that withheld money: It’s only $130 million out of $1.3 billion in yearly U.S. military aid to Egypt. Of that more than a billion, only $300 million is Congressionally subject to a pause if Egyptian officials are believed to have committed human rights abuses, like jailing political opponents, e.g. And that’s what many U.S. officials insist is still occurring under the dictatorial regime of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently told Politico.
The future of Libya is among the more important items on Sullivan and McGurk’s agenda, NSC Spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement Tuesday previewing the trip. The country is scheduled to vote in national elections on Christmas Eve. According to the UN, “So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 percent of whom are women.” And that includes about half a million new voters for a country that’s been fragmented by a decade of fighting. That conflict has essentially split the country into more or less two dominant factions: the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, based in the capital city of Tripoli; and the Libyan National Army, run by former Libyan General Khalifa Hifter, who operates out of Libya’s west, and supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, as the BBC has most recently documented. France, too, has supported Hifter and his militants, who have failed to take Tripoli despite deliberate attempts.
ICYMI: Russia has been linking up with Egypt and the UAE to supply Hifter with weapons and equipment, often landing flights just inside Egypt’s border, at its Sidi Barrani air base, according to a UN report last August featuring satellite imagery and flight records. That was kind of a big deal among the UN’s Security Council because those hundreds of documented flights circumvented UN sanctions against the flow of arms into Libya.
Turkey and Qatar have been supporting the Tripoli side of the conflict, importing their own troops and equipment—to include mercenaries—all in the hopes of “outflank[ing] rivals like Russia and the Emirates and claim[ing] commercial interests such as natural-gas rights in the Mediterranean,” as the Wall Street Journal reported exactly one year ago.
Bigger picture: “The uptick in [Libya’s] war in 2019 slowed and reversed the prospects for economic growth, a crisis compounded by COVID-19 and low oil prices,” al-Monitor noted in February, and added, “The good news is that Libya has the most oil reserves in Africa.” The bad news, however, is that several nations still very much want in on those reserves.
Next week, Sullivan hosts Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata for a meeting of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Consultative Group.
Tunisia’s president just bypassed the constitution and is essentially “ruling by decree,” which throws into question the democratic gains made since the Arab Spring, as the New York Times reported Monday. Today, that same president appointed the country’s first-ever female prime minister-designate—Najla Bouden Romdhane, whom Reuters refers to as “a little-known professor of geophysics.” Her task: Assemble a new government as quickly as she can.
Panning out: “Tunisia faces a rapidly looming crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting,” Reuters writes. “The new government will have to move very quickly to seek financial support for the budget and debt repayments after Saied’s power grab in July put talks with the International Monetary Fund on hold.” Read on, here. Al-Jazeera has more on the challenge facing Romdhane, here.
Everything’s fine: 30 minutes after Capitol barricades had been breached on Jan. 6, the Department of Homeland Security sent an email to the Pentagon saying there were “no major incidents of illegal activity,” Politico reports.
Military leaders have been blasted for not deploying the National Guard to the Capitol earlier, but the email obtained by Politico shows that the Pentagon was getting “inaccurate communications”—as well as accurate communications—as the events were unfolding and “heightens concerns about the role of DHS…and the department’s ability to respond to crises.” Read more, here.
Lastly today: China said to unveil drones and other new aircraft at air show. State media reports the wraps will come off several new systems at the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, including:
- The CH-6 drone, said to be able to cruise for 20 hours at 15,000 meters while carrying a variety of missiles or sensors, according to the China Academy of Aerospace Science, a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
- The PLA’s air force J-16D electronic warfare airplane.
- The CH-817 “mini-attack drone,” an 800-gram (28-ounce) device that can be launched by hand or released from a bigger drone.
The Washington Post has a bit more, here.