With help from Erin Banco
Welcome to National Security Daily, POLITICO’s newsletter on the global events roiling Washington and keeping the administration up at night. I’m Alex Ward, your guide to what’s happening inside the Pentagon, the NSC and D.C.’s foreign policy machine. National Security Daily arrives in your inbox Monday through Friday by 4 p.m.; subscribe here.
Around 3,000 U.S. troops are headed to Kabul’s international airport to assist with the evacuation of the American embassy in the Afghan capital, NatSec Daily learned minutes before the State Department officially made the announcement.
“We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul,” State Department spokesperson NED PRICE said during a press conference, but added “the embassy remains open.” Staff leaving are those who can perform their functions outside of the diplomatic compound, Price continued.
“In order to facilitate this reduction, the Department of Defense will temporarily deploy additional personnel to Hamid Karzai International Airport,” Price said. “This is not abandonment, this is not evacuation, this is not wholesale withdrawal. … This is a drawdown of civilian Americans,” Price concluded.
Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY afterward said three infantry battalions — two Marine, one Army — currently in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility would arrive at the Kabul airport within two days. A joint Army-Air Force element of around 1,000 personnel will go to Qatar to help with the processing of Afghans who assisted the U.S. government during the 20-year war. And then one infantry team currently at Fort Bragg will arrive in Kuwait within the next week to assist “if needed to provide additional security at the airport,” Kirby said.
Kirby added that the planned embassy evacuation should be concluded by Aug. 31.
NatSec Daily’s contacts had said over the last 24 hours that planning and preparations were underway for an embassy evacuation, with reports in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post also detailing the accelerated efforts by the Pentagon and State. Now it’s a reality.
U.S. service members “have to go to the airport,” BILL ROGGIO, an expert on the Afghanistan war at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told NatSec Daily. “It’s the only place because there’s no Bagram air base” in operation after U.S. forces transferred control to Afghan forces in July.
It gets worse. The top American diplomat in Afghanistan, Amb. ROSS WILSON, sent a “sensitive by unclassified” internal cable today in which he said Afghans who have fought alongside the U.S. during the 20-year war can’t leave the country as the Taliban advances. He encouraged the State Department to consider a larger group of Afghans for evacuation from the country.
“Embassy employees and close contacts that are under threat because of their work with the U.S. government must leave Afghanistan to begin processing their refugee claims but cannot get out,” Wilson wrote in the cable obtained by NatSec Daily and first reported by CNN. “Afghanistan’s neighbors have largely closed their doors to fleeing Afghans, and the Taliban control most land crossings.”
“Any assumption that Afghan refugees can make their way to safety on foot does not reflect the new reality as Taliban forces exercise control of more than half of Afghanistan’s international border crossing points, and Pakistan and Iran resist adding to the sizeable refugee populations already present in their countries,” Ross continued.
There’s a genuine reason for all the concern. The Taliban captured its 10th provincial capital Thursday, capping its weeklong sprint to control large swaths of the country. It comes as ZALMAY KHALILZAD, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, and his global counterparts are in Doha for a last-ditch effort to convince the militants to end the war via diplomacy. The Biden administration insists a negotiated settlement is the only way the Taliban will gain any global legitimacy, and that it’s Kabul’s job to fend off the militants’ all-out assault.
Publicly, the Taliban says it wants a peace deal. Pressed by NatSec Daily on whether it now was fair to say the Taliban seeks a military end to the fight, spokesperson SUHAIL SHAHEEN told us that a “negotiated settlement is a need and our policy.”
But many remain skeptical about the group’s real position. “It should be very clear by now that the Taliban are not interested in negotiating a peaceful solution to Afghanistan,” LISA CURTIS, who led Afghanistan efforts in Trump’s National Security Council, told The Wall Street Journal. “They are going toward a military solution and anyone who can’t see that is blind, deaf and dumb.”
There are now serious calls from Capitol Hill for President JOE BIDEN to change course and relieve some of his Afghanistan-focused staff. “I still don’t think it is too late … for Biden to admit that this was a strategic mistake and to shift course very quickly,” said Rep. MIKE WALTZ (R-Fla.), the first Green Beret in Congress and a House Armed Services Committee member, about the withdrawal decision. “Part of the shift in strategy is that Khalilzad needs to be recalled, but I think the appropriate thing for him to do would be to resign.”
The Taliban “understand leverage and they understand, not to be too crass here, but bombs on foreheads,” Waltz told NatSec Daily.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY— MULTIMILLION KOCH-BACKED EFFORT TO END U.S. MILITARY ROLE IN IRAQ: “After 18 years of fighting, over 4,500 lives lost, and $2 trillion spent, it’s past time to bring our troops home from Iraq,” reads a static ad. And in a video featuring Sen. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.) and former President DONALD TRUMP blasting America’s troop commitment in the Middle Eastern country, big gold text flashes across the screen: “American troops are still fighting and sacrificing in Iraq,” soon followed by, “Staying longer will not fix past mistakes.”
Behind these pieces of media is Concerned Veterans of America, a Charles Koch-backed outfit that is preparing to launch a $2 million campaign against a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. After a $1.25 million and multiyear effort to persuade lawmakers and the public that the 20-year fight in Afghanistan was no longer worth it, CVA has turned its sights to the nation’s other protracted deployment.
“Even if there’s a lot of other things going on in the foreign policy space, this to us is a critical issue, and leaving American troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary is something that we want to act on,” said DAN CALDWELL, a senior adviser at CVA and an Iraq War veteran.
Their argument is straightforward: There’s still an ongoing tussle in Iraq that U.S. troops shouldn’t be part of. Not only does their presence anger Baghdad, an American partner, but it also puts service members in harm’s way as Iranian proxies in Iraq target them. The Tehran-directed groups are even using advanced weaponry like armed drones in their attacks.
For CVA and the ideologically aligned Stand Together, a philanthropy that supports organizations advocating a restraint-oriented foreign policy, a continued American presence in Iraq simply doesn’t make sense.
“Any patriot wants to try to find a way to make sure that our troops are only being used when absolutely necessary for our national interest,” WILL RUGER, Stand Together’s vice president and Trump’s pick as ambassador to Afghanistan, told NatSec Daily.
It’s a tough time to make this case. The Taliban swept across Afghanistan soon after Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the militants have brutally ransacked provincial capitals and captured 65 percent of the nation’s territory. U.S. officials now think it’s possible Kabul could fall within 90 days, and perhaps even within 30.
But the horrifying scenes haven’t made the Koch-backed groups reconsider their campaign. If anything, Iraq is just the start of a much broader push.
“Syria becomes a lot more difficult for the United States to do if we’re out of Iraq,” Ruger told NatSec Daily — adding that he’d also like the idea of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO to be “as dead as a doornail” and for U.S. forces to withdraw from many African nations. “And then we want to talk about getting our approach to Russia and China right,” Ruger proceeded, because “we think that ‘Cold War II’ is the wrong approach.”
A well-heeled campaign to push a preferred agenda isn’t shocking in Washington. But what is surprising is that so much money is going toward getting the United States out of conflicts, when for years most foreign policy discussions in D.C. centered on how to use America’s military might to “do something.”
Much of that ideological movement comes from free-flowing Koch cash, which helps bankroll more restraint-focused think tanks and programs like The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft or The Atlantic Council’s “New American Engagement Initiative.”
The narrative has started to shift in the nation’s capital, and groups like CVA are a main reason why.
“EVER-INCREASING” CHINESE PRESENCE IN LATIN AMERICA: Our own PHELIM KINE interviewed Adm. CRAIG FALLER, the outgoing U.S. Southern Command chief about China’s activity in Latin America. The main takeaway? Beijing is exploiting corruption in the region for its own commercial aims, with an eye toward gaining more influence for itself and eroding America’s ties in the process.
“PRC state-owned and private businesses often exploit pervasive corruption in the region to undermine fair contracting practices and circumvent environmental compliance. A common tactic they use is to provide lucrative payoffs to local officials in exchange for favorable deals,” Faller said. “The PRC does not seek fair competition based on rules. It seeks to create dependencies, not trusted partnerships.” And “[u]ltimately, Beijing wants to create a global system in which authoritarian regimes are viewed as legitimate forms of governance.”
Beijing is having some success. “When I travel across the region, I see dozens of PRC port projects of various shapes and sizes in the works. The PRC is pursuing deep water ports in Jamaica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Argentina and elsewhere. There is an ever-increasing presence of Chinese companies near the Panama Canal and the Colon Free Trade Zone,” Faller said.
Biden came into office promising a new and better era of U.S.-Latin America relations. Clearly, China is trying to chip away at that objective.
PALESTINE ACCUSED OF WAR CRIMES: The deadly rocket and mortar attacks perpetrated by the Hamas armed wing and other Palestinian armed groups amid fighting in the Gaza Strip earlier this year “violated the laws of war and amount to war crimes,” Human Rights Watch concluded Thursday.
In making its announcement, the group noted that it had already issued the same declaration about Israel’s deadly strikes in Gaza in May and said it would “soon release a report on Israeli airstrikes that destroyed or extensively damaged four high-rise towers in Gaza.”
IT’S THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to POLITICO’s newsletter on the national security politics roiling Washington. NatSec Daily is for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Please share this subscription link with a colleague or friend. Follow the whole team here: @alexbward, @QuintForgey, @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, @AndrewDesiderio and @JonnyCustodio.
IF YOU’RE MISSING MORNING DEFENSE, DON’T WORRY — WE’RE STILL HERE: Coming at Pro subscribers bright and early every a.m., if you’re not getting Morning D, you’re missing out. Learn more about our best-in-class insider reporters and sign up here. Don’t let your competition be the first to act on industry scoops, breaking Pentagon news, the latest aerospace developments, defense acquisitions and influence plays. And while you’re there, hit subscribe on our brand new Space Beat Memo, a week-ahead look at everything astropolitics.
JAPAN’S DEFENSE CHIEF SOUNDS OFF ON CHINA: Japanese Defense Minister NOBUO KISHI signaled in a recent interview that Tokyo plans to boost its own defenses and unshackle itself from a pacifist constitution to counter China.
“[G]iven that the security environment surrounding Japan is getting even harsher, we must build a structure where we can protect ourselves,” he told ERYK BAGSHAW of The Sydney Morning Herald. China “is trying to change the status quo unilaterally backed by force and coercion. And they’re trying to make it into a fait accompli.”
How to plan against it? Get stronger. “For us to be able to respond to those challenges, what we must do is enhance our defence capabilities on our own,” said Kishi, the 62-year-old younger brother of former Japanese Prime Minister ABE SHINZO. “There could be a constitutional debate in [the fall] this year in the national Diet” — alluding to the possibility of an amended constitution, which would permit Japan to use its military more expansively instead of mainly for self defense.
These are pretty big statements from Japan’s top defense official, as he essentially said “China is a threat” and “Japan is moving to respond with strength.” That’s simply a different tone from a Japanese leader.
“Minister Kishi is just all in. These quotes are direct and not like anything I’ve seen from senior Japanese officials in public,” tweeted ERIC SAYERS, an expert on Asia-Pacific defense issues at the American Enterprise Institute.
ACCENTURE FIGHTS OFF RANSOMWARE ATTACK: The LockBit ransomware group targeted the global consulting firm Accenture on Wednesday, yet another massive company attacked by the increasingly prevalent hacking method. The group said it would release company data on the dark web unless Accenture paid the ransom.
But hours later, Accenture said it had handled the situation. “Through our security controls and protocols, we identified irregular activity in one of our environments. We immediately contained the matter and isolated the affected servers,” the company said in a statement. “We fully restored our affected systems from backup, and there was no impact on Accenture’s operations, or on our clients’ systems.”
Combating ransomware attacks is increasingly a priority for the Biden administration, which has taken myriad steps to defend against the practice.
DIVERSITY AT DOD: The Biden administration reports that 54 percent of its national security nominees are women, 40 percent are people of color and at least 7 percent identify as LGBTQ, according to Defense News’ JOE GOULD — who dug into the president’s stated pledge to form a more diverse government.
Those statistics apply to Biden’s picks for roles at the Departments of Defense and State, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development. But at the Pentagon specifically, 55 percent of political appointees are women, roughly 46 percent are people of color and more than 10 percent identify as LGBTQ, per the administration.
There’s still one demographic, however, that some congressional Democrats would like for Biden to appoint less often: National security nominees with ties to big defense contractors. “I’m concerned overall about the revolving door between the defense industry and the Department of Defense,” said Sen. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.).
HOW DEMS REALLY FEEL ABOUT AFGHANISTAN: Publicly, congressional Democrats express a usual mix of support and concern about Biden’s pullout decision. But behind the scenes, views are more complex.
There’s “disappointment that despite nearly $100 billion of U.S. investment, the Afghan government and security forces are unable — or unwilling — to fight the Taliban,” a Senate Democratic foreign policy aide told NatSec Daily. “Some Dems may believe the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, but no one thinks another year or two of U.S. support would make a difference. Most Dems, however, believe that Biden is doing the right thing, and that after 20 years, the Afghans have to determine their own future.”
A senior Senate Democratic staffer agreed with the latter sentiment: “Ending the forever wars was always going to be ugly. But not nearly as ugly as continuing to wage them.”
MCMASTER SLAMS AMERICAN “NARCISSISM” IN AFGHANISTAN: Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. MCMASTER — Trump’s second national security adviser — leveled some particularly harsh criticism at the Biden administration Thursday over its Afghanistan withdrawal, urging U.S. officials to change course before the country falls completely to the Taliban.
“I just think we talked ourselves into defeat in Afghanistan,” McMaster said at a virtual event hosted by The Wilson Center.
“What we’ve seen in Afghanistan is disappointing … with what’s going to happen in connection with our security and the strength the jihadist terorists gain when they have a safehaven support base,” he said. “But what we’re actually seeing is the reversal of morality.”
McMaster went on to accuse the current administration of exhibiting “an astonishing degree” of “strategic narcissism — the tendency to define the world as we would like it to be and assume that what we do or decide not to do is decisive toward achieving a favorable outcome.”
“This is evidence of our self-referential approach and our approach that does not acknowledge that others — like this brutal group, the Taliban … they actually do have a degree of authorship over the future,” he said. “And I think we’re just watching the Afghan people pay the price for our self-delusion.”
BLINKEN VS. BECK: Although this piece of newsletter real estate is usually reserved for presidential potshots or national security-related swipes, we felt compelled to highlight one broadside Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN launched Wednesday evening at an unexpected target: The JEFF BECK Group.
After BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN guitarist and “The Sopranos” actor STEVEN VAN ZANDT ranked the 1960s-era iteration of the British rock group in ninth place on his personal list of “the top 10 most important bands in history,” Blinken weighed in with a since-deleted tweet: “Surprised at Jeff Beck group.”
The State Department didn’t return a request for comment, but our own eagle-eyed NAHAL TOOSI flagged the diss from America’s musically talented top diplomat — who fronts his own blues and rock band called Ablinken. Take that, ROD STEWART.
PENTAGON ARRIVAL LOUNGE: Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. JAMES C. MCCONVILLE announced a new slate of general officer assignments Wednesday, including: Lt. Gen. LAURA J. RICHARDSON to commander, U.S. Southern Command; Lt. Gen. PAUL T. CALVERT to deputy commanding general/chief of staff, U.S. Army Forces Command; and Maj. Gen. JOHN R. EVANS JR. to commanding general, U.S. Army North.
You can find the rest of the assignments in this news release from the Pentagon. Also on Wednesday, the Army tapped Special Agent GREGORY D. FORD to serve as the first civilian director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.
On Thursday, Navy Secretary CARLOS DEL TORO and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. MICHAEL GILDAY announced two flag officer assignments: Rear Adm. WILLIAM P. PENNINGTON as deputy commander, Tenth Fleet; and Capt. DAVID G. WILSON — selected for promotion to rear admiral (lower half) — as commander, Naval Legal Service Command.
Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff RAMÓN COLÓN-LÓPEZ announced that Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. HOWARD L. KREAMER will replace Navy Fleet Master Chief JOHN J. PERRYMAN IV as command senior enlisted leader for U.S. Strategic Command.
The Atlantic: “How the Pandemic Now Ends”
FRED KAPLAN, Slate: “Biden’s Optimistic Promises Are Collapsing in Afghanistan”
Vox: “How is the Taliban gaining so fast in Afghanistan?”
— The Cato Institute, 1 p.m.: “Live Online Book Forum: ‘Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump’”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.