With help from Quint Forgey, Daniel Lippman, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson
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FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — Afghanistan’s former leaders almost surely didn’t flee the country with tens of millions of dollars lining their pockets, a new U.S. government report shows, while also noting that a substantial amount of cash vanished from government properties before the Taliban takeover.
As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan and entered Kabul last August, report after report suggested Afghan President ASHRAF GHANI took nearly $170 million out of his nation’s coffers, hoarding the money for himself and his loyalists. Ghani ferociously denied those charges. “I left with just a waistcoat and some clothes,” the leader in exile in the United Arab Emirates said at the time. “The accusations are baseless lies.”
Two months later, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — more widely known by its acronym SIGAR — told lawmakers that it would look into the allegations.
Now we have an interim report (SIGAR awaits Ghani’s answers to its questions) which says the former president seemingly left with more than a waistcoat, but much less than the suspected millions.
The stacks taken by Ghani and his coterie “did not exceed $1 million and may have been closer in value to $500,000,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated in a report set to be released Tuesday that POLITICO independently obtained. “Most of this money was believed to have come from several Afghan government operating budgets normally managed at the palace.”
Evidence cited in the report includes the minimal and light luggage on three helicopters carrying Ghani, the first lady and others to safety. One suitcase that did have cash in it belonged to General QAHER KOCHAI, who carried $200,000 from the Presidential Protective Service’s fund. Meanwhile, deputy national security adviser RAFI FAZIL had about $240,000 from the discretionary cash budget for Afghanistan’s National Security Council in his backpack. And a former senior official on the helicopters further told SIGAR: “Everyone had $5,000 to $10,000 in their pockets…No one had millions.”
Leading SIGAR to this main conclusion: “If true, this puts the total amount of cash on board the three helicopters at approximately $500,000, with $440,000 belonging to the Afghan government,” thus “The allegations that former President Ghani and his senior advisors fled Afghanistan aboard helicopters with millions in cash are unlikely to be true.”
A person familiar with the evacuation confirmed some of the SIGAR report’s details to NatSec Daily.
“There were around $200,000 in U.S. dollars with the president’s staffers and the equivalent of around $200,000 in Afghanis with the president’s security detail,” the person said. “A presidential trip usually needed more resources to support the trip and staff traveling with him — this trip included 54 individuals — and there would be an assessment done before the trip to calculate what was needed. Since this was an emergency situation, this could not be conducted. There was less than $100,000 per person on this trip.”
There’s a lot more in the report worth reading, namely a section about how Ghani’s administration continued to act as if everything was normal up until the Taliban walked into Kabul. But one section in particular caught our eye.
Money belonging to the National Directorate of Security, believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars and used to fund anti-Taliban militias and bribe local power brokers, just disappeared. “By the time the Taliban arrived … only a small reserve of Afghanis remained,” reads the SIGAR report, further noting: “Media and academic accounts have suggested that the NDS was historically funded by the CIA.”
That and other aspects of the report led SIGAR to this other conclusion: “[I]t is likely that significant amounts of U.S. currency disappeared from Afghan government property in the chaos of the Taliban takeover… Attempts to loot other government funds appear to have been common.”
It’s not full vindication for Ghani et al., but it’s not the damning report on the former president many in Washington, D.C., expected to read.
SIGAR didn’t return a request for comment.
PENTAGON BRIEFING ROOM UPDATE: Former Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY started his new gig as National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House today — but his permanent replacement in the briefing room is still a question mark. Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN’s team is looking at a number of potential candidates, and we hear that list now includes MARIE HARF, the former CIA spokesperson who is now a liberal commentator on Fox News, our LARA SELIGMAN reports.
Reached by phone, Harf declined to comment. But her inclusion would make sense on a number of levels. Harf has had a long career in the small world of national security communicators, which is dominated by white men. She served as then-President Barack Obama’s campaign spokesperson on national security issues during the 2012 presidential election, before being tapped in 2013 as deputy spokesperson for the State Department under then-spokesperson JEN PSAKI.
Harf reportedly interviewed for the top post in 2015, but was beaten out by Kirby, who was at that time retiring from the Navy. Kirby was also reportedly chosen over Harf in 2013 for Pentagon spokesperson under then-Defense Secretary CHUCK HAGEL. Instead, on June 1, 2015 Harf, began a new role as senior adviser for strategic communications to Secretary of State JOHN KERRY, working primarily on the communications strategy for Iran nuclear negotiations. After leaving government, in between stints at Fox News, she also worked for Rep. SETH MOULTON’s failed presidential campaign.
As far as other candidates go, DAVID LAPAN — the former Marine who held several top public affairs positions at DoD and served as lead spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration — is still in the mix, we are told. NED PRICE, meanwhile, has no plans at the moment to leave his post as the top spokesperson at the State Department for the Pentagon podium.
While this is all getting worked out, Kirby’s former role has been split in two. GORDON TROWBRIDGE, who formerly served as the deputy Pentagon press secretary at the end of the Obama administration, started on Monday as the acting assistant to the secretary for defense for public affairs. But his stint will be temporary: Trowbridge comes to DoD from the National Nuclear Security Administration, where he plans to return, we are told. Meanwhile, J. TODD BREASSEALE is acting press secretary and will travel with Austin this week as he heads to Asia and Brussels.
ZELENSKYY VISITS EASTERN FRONT: In an apparent shift in the tide of battle, Ukrainian president VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY met troops on the front lines of the Luhansk region only miles away from where a Russian general was killed a day earlier, The Wall Street Journal’s IAN LOVETT reports.
Zelenskyy was in Lysychansk, one of the last cities that Ukraine fully controls in the eastern flank. It’s also in close proximity to Severodonetsk, where the fight for control of the Donbas grinds on. Zelenskyy also visited Soledar, in the Donbas region, and Zaporizhzhia, where he met families who had fled Mariupol, which Russian forces seized last month.
“It is the closest Ukraine’s president has come to the fighting since Russian forces pulled out of the Kyiv area in central Ukraine in March,” Lovett writes.
While Ukraine is holding out in some areas, Moscow “retains an advantage in firepower” in other parts of the country, Lovett reports.
“Over the weekend, Russia fired missiles into the area of Kyiv, the capital, and Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine,” according to WSJ. “On Sunday night, Russians repeatedly shelled the Kharkiv region in the north. OLEY SYNYEHUBOV, governor of the Kharkiv region, said on Telegram Sunday night that a handful of villages in the region had been hit by Russian shells.”
“Fighting in the region was heaviest around Izyum, Mr. Synyehubov said. But Russian forces have been unable to make gains in the area, according to the Institute for the Study of War, because they have continued to give priority to taking Severodonetsk.”
MEXICO SAYS ‘NO MÁS’ TO SUMMIT: Mexican President ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR is bailing on his invitation to the Summit of the Americas event in California following the revelation that the White House excluded Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela from the convention.
A senior Biden administration official cited “concerns about human rights and a lack of democracy” as the reasons the three nations weren’t invited, according to MATT SPETALNICK AND DAVE GRAHAM from Reuters. But the exclusion of the leftist leaders was not lost on Mexican President López Obrador, who chose not to attend an event where all countries in the region had not been invited.
The snub by Latin American leaders could put a damper on the rest of the event, which was meant to repair relations with the region and address concerns on migration and economic prospects.
“The boycott … could diminish the relevance of the summit in Los Angeles, where the United States aims to address regional migration and economic issues. U.S. President JOE BIDEN, a Democrat, hopes to repair Latin America relations damaged under his Republican predecessor, DONALD TRUMP, reassert U.S. influence and counter China,” Spetalnick and Graham write.
Our own NAHAL TOOSI writes that expectations for the summit are low, and the run-up has been beset by talk of poor organization and under-resourcing. Biden has no “serious trade deals to offer” and “migration remains an unresolved sore point,” Toosi writes — but still, Biden officials “insist the president will not arrive in Los Angeles empty-handed, so perhaps the region’s leaders are in for a nice surprise.”
SAUDI MOVES TO NORMALIZE TIES WITH ISRAEL: Saudi Arabia and Israel are looking to broker a deal — with help from the Biden administration — that would facilitate business and security arrangements between the two powerhouses in the Middle East, The Wall Street Journal’s DION NISSENBAUM reports.
“Although Saudi Arabia doesn’t recognize Israel and has no diplomatic relations with its neighbor, the kingdom is expanding its secretive talks with Israeli leaders that could reshape Middle East politics and end decades of enmity between two of the region’s most influential nations,” Nissenbaum writes.
The arrangement would “give commercial planes expanded rights to fly from Israel over the kingdom and pave the way for Saudi Arabia to take full control of two strategic Red Sea islands,” he writes.
The Saudi government is pushing the deal as it sees support growing in the country for stronger ties with Israel.
“On a recent visit to Washington, Saudi Prince KHALID BIN SALMAN, the son of Saudi King Salman and brother of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, privately told people that recent polling showed a decisive shift, especially among Saudis under 30 years old, in favor of diplomatic relations with Israel, according to people briefed on the talks,” Nissenbaum writes.
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A MISSILE FOR A MISSILE: The U.S. and South Korean militaries responded to a barrage of missile testing from North Korea on Sunday with ballistics testing of their own a day later, a sign that escalation from Pyongyang would be met head-on.
Following eight short-range missile launches from the North, “U.S. Forces Korea and the South Korean military fired one U.S. missile and seven South Korean missiles eastward into the sea to demonstrate the countries’ ability to ‘respond quickly to crisis events,’” wrote The Washington Post’s MICHELLE YE HEE LEE.
This quick response is on par with messaging from newly elected South Korean President YOON SUK YEOL, who vowed to shift from the previous administration in favor of boosting the South’s strike and defense systems and pushing to resume large-scale military training.
There have been 18 missile test launches from North Korea so far in 2022, as U.S. and South Korean officials note that North Korea is planning to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017.
TURKEY’S TURN: There are some interesting noises coming out of Ankara these days, as President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOĞAN tries to strike a balance between agitating the NATO alliance while pushing to work more closely with some member states. According to a nugget-rich story from Defense News’ BURAK EGE BEKDIL, the Turkish leader will likely continue to play hardball when it comes to allowing Sweden and Finland into the NATO club, but is open to deals that could help change his mind.
In particular, there are enticements European capitals could offer to get Turkey on board. Since 2019, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Finland and Sweden have all enforced full arms embargoes against Turkey over its military incursions into Syria, while France, Germany, and Italy have all suspended some plans to sell military components to Turkey.
Changes in those embargoes would certainly be welcome news in Ankara, which is also likely looking to walk away from some previously touted arms deals with Russia. It’s likely that talks over buying Russian Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft are dead in the water, replaced by dozens of Eurofighter Typhoon fighters and upgraded F-16s, which the Biden administration has signaled it supports. Elsewhere, a joint project between Turkey, France and Italy to co-produce the SAMP/T air defense system is still in the works, and Turkish officials have suggested they’re eager to speed things up.
RUSSIAN MINISTRY HACKED: Russia’s Ministry of Construction, Housing and Utilities was hacked, Reuters reported, leading to obstructed access to the site while users’ personal data remained protected. An internet search for the ministry led to a “Glory to Ukraine” sign in Ukrainian, the outlet noted.
This continues a trend of official Russian government websites getting cyber-attacked by seemingly pro-Ukraine hackers.
RIA, Russia’s state news agency, “said that other media had reported that hackers were demanding a ransom to prevent the public disclosure of users’ data,” per Reuters.
DPA FOR SOLAR PANELS: The Biden administration is invoking its executive powers to help expedite the manufacturing of solar panels as the U.S. shifts toward more clean energy, the White House announced on Monday
Biden will authorize the Defense Production Act to focus American manufacturing on solar panel parts, building insulation and power grid infrastructure. This is paired with a two-year tariff exemption for Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The White House says promoting and manufacturing clean energy technologies domestically is also meant to make the U.S. a stronger ally, “especially in the face of Putin’s war in Ukraine.”
MILLEY MARKS D-DAY IN NORMANDY: In a speech to mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day on Monday, Gen. MARK MILLEY, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drew parallels between Nazi Germany’s occupation of France and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It has been almost eight decades since the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan,” Milley said from near the Normany landing, according to The New York Times’ HELENE COOPER, who is traveling with the chairman. “And we are again seeing death and destruction on the European continent.”
The speech is part of a 10-day trip to Europe, including stops in Finland and Sweden (where Milley “parked the largest-ever U.S. warship in the port of Stockholm”) to meet with the nations’ leadership and show the U.S. support for joining NATO, Milley’s spox tells us.
During the trip, Milley will meet with chiefs of defense from roughly 20 nations to discuss a number of topics, including the way ahead on Ukraine, counterterrorism and the Pacific.
U.K. CONFIRMS SENDING MLRS TO UKRAINE: The United Kingdom is sending an advanced, medium-range missile system to Ukraine, Defence Secretary BEN WALLACE announced Monday, confirming Alex, Lara and PAUL MCLEARY’S scoop last week. The M270 multiple-launch rocket system, which can strike targets roughly 50 miles away, will help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, Wallace said.
The decision comes on the heels of Biden’s announcement last week that he is sending similar weapons, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and munitions with a range of 48 miles, the trio reported. “The HIMARS is a mobile rocket launcher that can strike targets from 40 to 300 miles away, depending on what type of rocket it fires,” they wrote. “The administration ultimately opted to send the shorter-range munitions.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary LIZ TRUSS and Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN spoke last Thursday morning about the U.K. transfer, they reported, as the U.S. had to officially sanction the move due to export regulation.
MARK IT: The monthslong process of hammering out a defense policy bill kicks off this week, as the House Armed Services Committee’s seven subcommittees prep their portions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
First up on Wednesday: The Cyber, Strategic Forces, Seapower and Personnel subcommittees hold their markups. The action continues Thursday with markups by the Tactical Air and Land Forces, Intelligence and Special Operations and Readiness panels.
The full Armed Services Committee holds its marathon NDAA markup on June 22. Senate Armed Services, meanwhile, considers its bill next week.
Here’s the full schedule.
TOP LINE’S TOP OF MIND: Looming over the entire NDAA process is the still unresolved question of how large the Pentagon budget should be. That debate over whether to stick with Biden’s $813 billion national defense proposal or to supersize it will come to a head this month as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees consider competing versions of the defense bill, our colleague CONNOR O’BRIEN reports.
Biden is seeking a $30 billion, or 4 percent, increase in military spending from the current level. But Republicans have hammered the proposal, arguing inflation will devour the spending hikes and hinder efforts to counter China and Russia, and have instead called for as much as a 5 percent increase above inflation.
Top defense hawks are counting on bipartisan support after Democrats largely backed an increase to Biden’s last Pentagon budget.
“I just think we have everything on our side on this thing,” Sen. JIM INHOFE, the top SASC Republican, told Connor. “We ought to be able to get the adequate increases that we want.”
House Armed Services Chair ADAM SMITH (D-Wash.) and Senate Chair JACK REED (D-R.I.) haven’t said whether their bills will match or surpass Biden’s $813 billion budget. But Smith has indicated the administration’s level is sufficient to meet U.S. national security needs.
Reed, meanwhile, notes that a number of factors — including inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a host of military priorities that weren’t included in the Pentagon budget — will have sway over the top line.
“There’s always upward pressure on the top line on the budget. We’ll have to deal with that,” Reed said. “We’re trying, I think, collectively — House, Senate, leadership … and the White House — to come up with a top line.”
SCHIFF: DON’T GO TO SAUDI: House Intelligence Chair ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif.) joined the congressional chorus in opposition to Biden’s much-rumored trip to Saudi Arabia, where he would inevitably meet with the crown prince.
“I wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t shake his hand,” Schiff said when asked whether Biden should go to Saudi Arabia on CBS’ “Face The Nation”. “This is someone who butchered [JAMAL KHASHOGGI] an American resident, cut him up into pieces and in the most terrible and premeditated way. And until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him.”
Other than human rights violations, Schiff was among several dozen lawmakers to co-sponsor a bipartisan resolution last week meant to curtail Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
— CHRIS SHARROCK has been promoted to be vice president for U.N. affairs and international organizations at Microsoft. He joined Microsoft last October after working for 18 years in the British government, including serving as U.K. ambassador to the OECD.
— CHRISTOPHER B. JOHNSTONE is the new Japan chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, Johnstone worked on the National Security Council as director for East Asia and as a principal director for East Asia with the U.S. Department of Defense.
— THOM SHANKER, director of the Project for Media and National Security at George Washington University, has joined the Atlantic Council as a nonresident senior fellow.
— JACKIE WALCOTT will chair the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ new nonproliferation and biodefense program. ANTHONY RUGGIERO will be the program director.
— MICHAEL LOPATE and BEAR BRAUMOELLER, War on the Rocks: “Western Leaders Ought to Take Escalation Over Ukraine Seriously”
— MATTHEW PETTI, Responsible Statecraft: “Die for Dubai? Senators in dark about reported UAE security pact”
— LIANA FIX and MICHAEL KIMMAGE, Foreign Affairs: “What If Ukraine Wins?”
— Freedom House, 9 a.m.: “SAMANTHA POWER Delivers Policy Address on Democracy, Development”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 a.m.: “Implementing the EU’s Strategic Compass — with MAX BERGMANN, ANGUS LAPSLEY, MOLLY MONTGOMERY and ALISON WESTON”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 a.m.: “Policy Brief Launch: Solving Food Insecurity Among U.S. Veterans and Military Families — with ANNE MARIE DOUGHERTY, MARGARET KABAT, DANIELLE NGO, CHRISTOPHER REID and CAITLIN WELSH”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 a.m.: “The U.S.-Philippines Alliance Under Marcos — with ARIES ARUGAY, CHARMAINE MISALUCHA-WILLOUGHBY and GREGORY B. POLING”
— The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 9:30 a.m.: “Orbital Vigilance: The Need for Enhanced Space-Based Missile Warning and Tracking — with KEVIN P. CHILTON, MIGUEL A. CRUZ, CHRISTOPHER STONE and DAVIN SWANSON”
— House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.: “Subcommittee Hearing: Cybersecurity and Risk Management at VA: Addressing Ongoing Challenges and Moving Forward”
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10 a.m.: “Closed Briefing: Around the World Threat Assessment — with BRETT M. HOLMGREN”
— Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: Rising Threats: Ransomware Attacks and Ransom Payments Enabled by Cryptocurrency — with JACKIE BURNS KOVEN, BILL SIEGEL and MEGAN STIFEL”
— Senate Judiciary Committee, 10 a.m.: “Full Comitteee Hearing: Examining the ‘Metastasizing’ Domestic Terrorism Threat After the Buffalo Attack”
— The Atlantic Council, 12 p.m.: “A New Transatlantic Relationship for the Middle East and North Africa — with YAEL LEMPERT, FERDINANDO SALLEO, THOMAS SMITHAM, VALERIA TALBOT, WILLIAM WECHSLER and more”
— The Government Executive Media Group, 1 p.m.: “Special Operations Forces Industry Conference 2022: Accelerating Special Operations Modernization”
— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2:30 p.m.: “European Energy Security Post-Russia — with BENJAMIN SCHMITT, CONSTANZE STELZENMÜLLER and YURIY VITRENKO”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 p.m.: “Private Sector Development and US Foreign Policy: Opportunities and Tensions — with ROMINA BANDURA, ETHAN KAPSTEIN, NANCY LEE and KRISTIE PELLECCHIA”
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 3 p.m.: “Full Committee Hearing: Nominations — with AMANDA BENNETT and ELIZABETH SHORTINO”
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.
And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who also complains he wasn’t invited to Biden’s Summit of the Americas.