Today's D Brief: DOD runs out of Ukraine funds; Anti-ISIS fight in limbo; Australia’s sub to-do list; Kim’s conniption; And a bit more.

The U.S. military is in damage control mode when it comes to its relationship with the Iraqi government. And this is at least partly why Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday announced a series of upcoming meetings of what are known as the U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission. It’s unclear just yet precisely when those meetings will take place. 

Background: Iraqi parliamentarians, many of whom are sympathetic with their Iranian neighbors, have been upset at the U.S. military since January 2020, when the U.S. assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani while he was visiting Baghdad. Shortly afterward, Iraqi lawmakers passed a largely symbolic and nonbinding resolution to kick American forces out of Iraq. But nearly four years later, after Hamas attacked Israel in October and triggered wider conflict across the region via Iranian proxies in Iraq and Yemen, the U.S. military has responded with airstrikes against those militias in both Iraq and Syria. Those strikes have upset some Iraqi lawmakers yet again. 

U.S. and Iraqi officials met in Washington last August to iron out the wrinkles between the two countries under a process known as the U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue. That meeting was ostensibly about the future of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS operation, which has been based in Iraq for years. 

SecDef Austin on Thursday: “The United States and Iraq have enjoyed a deep and productive partnership on security matters in the 10 years since the Iraqi government invited the United States and the Coalition to fight ISIS, including the seven years since the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq,” the Pentagon chief said in a statement, and promised “to deepen our security cooperation to advance stability within Iraq and the region.” More, here

A top Israeli official visited the Pentagon on Wednesday. Israeli Ministry of Defense Director General Eyal Zamir flew into northern Virginia for talks with Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante. 

Discussed: “Israel's transition to targeted operations while maintaining military pressure on Hamas and ensuring increased humanitarian assistance to support civilian populations,” the Pentagon said in its post-meeting readout

They also talked about the threats posed by the Iran-backed terrorists Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and “A/USDP Baker underscored the need to protect civilians during military operations in Gaza,” according to the Defense Department.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 2011, revolt swept across Egypt with the help of social media like Twitter and Facebook, eventually toppling President Hosni Mubarak the following month.

A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed through the choppy waters of the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, Taipei’s military announced on social media, followed by a confirmation from the U.S. Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet. 

On call this time: The USS John Finn (DDG 113). “John Finn's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States' commitment to upholding freedom of navigation for all nations as a principle,” the Seventh Fleet said in its statement. “No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms,” officials added. 

The Navy last transited this waterway back in early November, when the USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) was joined by Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Ottawa (FFH 341). Other recent Taiwan Strait naval transits took place in September, June, April, and January 2023. The Navy also sent a P-8A Poseidon flying over the strait in December, mid-October, mid-July and in late February; and the U.S. Coast Guard sent a cutter through the strait in late June

In case you’re curious, China sent five of its navy vessels into the strait on Wednesday along with seven unspecified aircraft flying above the waters there, according to Taiwan’s military. None of them crossed the median line of the strait, which is generally seen as a subtle bit of pressure on Taiwan’s leaders. 

Beijing averaged more daily aircraft in the strait last week, after Taiwan’s recent elections on 13 January, in which the pro-independence candidate William Lai emerged victorious, disappointing China. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies unpacked the larger takeaways from that recent election in a Q&A last week that you can read over here.

North Korea recently demolished its so-called “Arch of Reunification,” located just south of Pyongyang, NK News reported this week, followed by confirmation from researchers at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The apparent removal follows prior recent messaging from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he has abandoned reunification as a policy goal, the researchers said; he also called it an “eyesore” in public remarks just 10 days ago, as Reuters reported at the time.  

The 98-foot-tall structure was built on August 14, 2001, and was intended to commemorate reunification goals of North Korea’s first dictator Kim Il Sung, who was installed by the Soviets in late 1945 and ruled for nearly half a century before his death in 1994. Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il ruled at the time the arch was built. Stretching more than 200 feet wide, it consisted of two women, symbolizing both Koreas, holding an outline of the entire peninsula.

Why now? “Following the collapse of an inter-Korean detente in 2019, North Korea has carried out various moves against the South such as blowing up a multi-million dollar inter-Korean liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2020 and ramping up propaganda encouraging the brutal murder of South Koreans,” NK News reported Tuesday. More here

But these moves are more than Seoul-directed spite, writes University of Baltimore professor Ñusta Carranza Ko in Defense One. Amid inflation and after a deadly train crash, “Kim appears to be deflecting domestic anger by signaling war and creating uncertainty for North Koreans’ future. This is similar to what scholars explain is a characteristic of new-style dictators who “manipulate beliefs” about the state of the world to make it look like outside threats are greater than domestic problems,” Ko writes. “The truth is, for Kim this deflection appears to be working.” Read on, here.

The race is on to prepare Australia for nuclear subs. An executive with UK shipbuilder Babcock laid out the long to-do list, which includes not just infrastructure but training programs at three Australian universities. Defense One’s Jen Hlad reports.

Lastly today, and for the first time in nearly two years, the Pentagon concluded its Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting this week without any contributions from the U.S., the Kyiv Post reported Thursday. With Washington’s authorized funding now exhausted after almost 18 months of transfers, any future U.S. contributions remain tied up in Congress, where Republicans so far refuse to sign off on more help for Ukraine until they can negotiate significant changes to current U.S. immigration policy.

SecDef Austin to allies: “I urge this group to dig deep to provide Ukraine with more lifesaving ground-based air defense systems and interceptors.” Fortunately for Ukraine, Germany stepped up with helicopters and promises for lots of new transfers, including more IRIS-T interceptors, in the months ahead, as we reported in Wednesday’s newsletter. France also vowed to send more artillery in the days ahead. But it's unclear what more the U.S. can do at this point.

The latest from Capitol Hill: