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VOTEL’S BLUNT WARNING: The outgoing senior commander in the war against ISIS delivered a sobering message in his final appearance before Congress, warning that the terrorist group is not surrendering but simply regrouping in Iraq and Syria.
“We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going aground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Votel’s warning comes after televised images showed large separate groups of men and women held at gunpoint in fields outside Baghouz, Syria, the last ISIS stronghold, as U.S.-backed forces attempted to sort the civilians from ISIS fighters. ISIS, which once controlled 34,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria, is down to less than a single square mile.
BEATEN BUT UNBOWED: Don’t be fooled, said Votel. While calling the “reduction” of the physical caliphate “a monumental military accomplishment,” Votel cautioned the fight is far from over.
“Recent observations by our men and women on the ground highlight that the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remain unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized,” Votel said. “We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources, and, of course, their toxic ideology.”
Votel’s testimony underscored why it was so important for President Trump to back off his total withdrawal plan and bend to critics, many in his own party, keeping several hundred U.S. troops in Syria for a while longer.
“We will continue our deliberate withdrawal of forces and capabilities as directed by the president, but also retain a residual force on the ground to continue our mission and safeguard our interests,” Votel said. “These details are being developed now and will emphasize campaign continuity and capitalize on the contributions of our coalition partners.”
ISIS’S SECOND RESURGENCE: In its latest analysis, the Institute for the Study of War concludes that ISIS is reestablishing sanctuary in Iraq while creating what ISW calls “durable support zones” by raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control over its remnant forces, which it estimates are as high as 30,000.
“ISIS is re-establishing capable insurgent networks in multiple historic strongholds and linking them together, setting the conditions for future offensive operations against the Government of Iraq,” the group says. “The U.S. and its partners should not view the current relative security in Baghdad as confirmation of the defeat of ISIS. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition’s strategy to enable Iraq to ‘independently manage’ an insurgency through intelligence support and other building partner capacity efforts will likely fail to prevent ISIS from regaining momentum based on its current trajectory in Iraq.”
In other words, Iraq still needs U.S. support.
SAME FOR AFGHANISTAN: Votel — who we know from his own public statements was not consulted about withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria and would have advised President Trump against it had he been asked — also said yesterday it’s too soon to start drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the other big war in his portfolio.
Votel did not say whether Trump had asked for his advice on Afghanistan but did say he was under no orders to reduce the U.S. troop contribution to NATO-led Operation Resolute Support. “My best military advice is that we should make decisions based on the political process,” tying any withdrawal plans to real progress in the peace talks with the Taliban.
“My advice is that any decision to reduce forces in Afghanistan should be done in full consultation with our coalition partners and, of course, the government of Afghanistan,” he said, adding, “The political conditions, where we are in the reconciliation right now don’t merit that.”
Asked if the Afghan forces could stand up to the Taliban on their own, Votel said no. “My assessment is Afghan forces are dependent upon the coalition’s support that we provide to them.”
Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, written and compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre ( @jamiejmcintyre) and edited by Kelly Jane Torrance ( @kjtorrance). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items, and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter: @dailyondefense.
THERE’S NO PLEASING SOME PEOPLE: President Trump’s order to end “war games” with South Korea, which he deems “expensive and provocative,” sent the Pentagon scrambling for a “Goldilocks” compromise: joint military exercises big enough to maintain readiness but small enough to stay under the radar. A more modest exercise termed “Dong Maeng,” which means “alliance,” began on Monday and is expected to run through March 12.
Now, nobody’s happy. North Korea state-run media called the scaled-back exercises a “violent violation” and a “challenge” to the region.
Following the collapse of the summit, the Pentagon announced after consultation with South Korea it would be canceling two large-scale military drills, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, to “reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts.”
North Korea isn’t buying it. “It is a violent violation of the joint declarations and statements that North Korea reached with the U.S. and South Korea,” North Korean media said Thursday. “This also represents a frontal challenge to the aim and desires of all [Korean] people and the international community for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
TRUMP STILL ‘A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED’: Yesterday, President Trump was asked whether, after a day to think about it, he felt any differently about the commercial satellite imagery showing North Korea is rebuilding part of a missile test facility.
In response to a shouted question at a photo op, Trump indicated he may need more time. “A little disappointed. A little bit,” he said. “We’ll see. We’ll let you know in about a year.”
NORTH KOREA’S “SNAPBACK’: An update from Beyond Parallel, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concludes North Korea has essentially completed rebuilding both a “rail-mounted transfer transfer/processing structure” and the “vertical engine test stand” at the Sohae Tongchang-ri satellite launch facility.
Commercial satellite imagery acquired on March 6, just four days after the last image, shows that North Korea has finished rebuilding key components of the launch pad, returning it to normal operating status.
“These actions amount to a ‘snapback’ from the moderate dismantlement undertaken by the North Koreans at the Sohae launch facility after the Singapore Summit in June 2018,” the analysis said. “The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its WMD program.”
MEA CULPA ON MILITARY HOUSING: You never saw such a contrite and apologetic group as yesterday’s panel of the three service secretaries and four service chiefs as they expressed deep regrets for the appalling state of military housing in an unprecedented joint appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I wish I could say I’m pleased to be here today, but I am not. I want to start by first apologizing personally on behalf of the Department of the Navy to any sailor, Marine soldier, airman, Coast Guardsman that was affected by the housing malady that we’ve seen before us,” said Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. “I can state with certainty that we can and we will correct the issue at hand, which is not acceptable.”
The Pentagon officials, summoned by chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said despite years of complaints they were not aware of the scope of the problem until prompted by a congressional hearing earlier this year to conduct their own inspections of military housing provided by private companies under contract to the government.
SO WHAT WE NEED ARE MORE LAWS: After the hearing, Virginia senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine along with California senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, all Democrats, introduced the “Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act.”
“Our bill would help improve military oversight and increase accountability. This is about making sure service members can feel safe in their own homes, and I’ll be pushing for legislation like this to be included in this year’s national defense bill,” Kaine said in a statement.
The senator cited a recent Reuters investigation, “ Ambushed at Home,” that found hazardous living conditions in privatized military housing throughout the United States, including service members and their families living in homes with persistent mold blooms, water leaks, and rodent and insect infestations.
At yesterday’s hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., made the the point that what was needed was better enforcement of housing codes and existing laws.
SPEAKING OF MORE LAWS: Yesterday, two Republican lawmakers, both military veterans, introduced the Anti-Border Corruption Improvement Act, which would fast-track hiring of Customs and Border Protection applicants by removing the expensive polygraph test, granting an exemption for applicants with military or law enforcement backgrounds.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and the House by Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas.
“This will help simplify a complex 11-step hiring process that averages between 274 days for agents and 318 days for officers. Not only does this improve processing times for CBP, but it also saves taxpayer dollars,” said McSally in a news release. “Polygraph tests costs an average of more than $2,000. With only one in every three applicants getting hired, that costs an average of more than $6,000 per CBP hire.”
McSALLY’S FIRST INTERVIEW: In an interview airing today on CBS This Morning, McSally discusses her decision to go public with the account of her rape while serving as an Air Force fighter pilot and tells host Norah O’Donnell she harbors no ill will toward her former service.
“Well, let me just say that I love our Air Force,” McSally says. “I want to make sure that people know that. And in no way do I want anyone to think that I have a chip on my shoulder about my military experiences overall. I am proud to have served in the military. I am proud to have been given the opportunity to break through glass ceilings for women, to command men and women in combat, to become a colonel and serve 26 years.”
McSally says the decision was not about her, insisting she wants to use her experience to help women in the military and advocate that the military chain of command “step up and do their job” in stopping sexual assaults within their ranks.
HHS WANTS TO PUT 5K MIGRANT KIDS ON DoD BASES: The Pentagon says it been asked once again to find housing on military bases for as many as 5,000 unaccompanied immigrant children, as the crush of asylum-seekers continues to overwhelm existing facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“On March 5, 2019, the Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services requested DoD support to identify space to house up to 5,000 unaccompanied alien children on DoD installations, if needed, through September 30, 2019,” said Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, in a statement yesterday. “DoD will work with the military services to identify potential locations for such support, and will work with HHS to assess any DoD facilities or suitable DoD land for potential use to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied alien children.”
Since October, around 27,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the southern border, up 17,500 from the same time last year.
The last time the Pentagon identified bases for potential migrant housing, DHS and HHS never followed up with formal requests to use the facilities. Among the bases identified were Goodfellow Air Force Base and Fort Bliss in Texas.
FREE AT LAST: The last legal hurdle that was blocking President Trump’s ban on service by transgender troops who are not serving in their birth gender has been removed, but the Pentagon is not rushing to implement the ban.
Yesterday, a federal judge lifted the fourth and final injunction against the policy that would bar most transgender individuals from serving in the military. U.S. District Judge George Russell III reversed his prior ruling, stating he was required to lift his order “because the court is bound by the Supreme Court’s decision” after the high court lifted two other injunctions imposed in January.
“The Department is pleased with the district court’s decision to stay the final injunction against the Department’s proposed policy,” the Pentagon said in a statement after the ruling. “The 2016 policy will remain in effect until the Department issues further guidance, which will be forthcoming in the near future.”
The lifting of the temporary injunctions does not end the legal battle, and advocates for transgender rights are vowing to fight on in the courts.
DEATH IN IRAQ: The Pentagon released names of two soldiers who died in Iraq this week while providing no details on the circumstances of their deaths, except to say it was not by hostile fire from an enemy.
Sgt. Holli R. Bolinski, 37, of Pinckneyville, Illinois, and Spc. Jackson D. Johnson, 20, of Hillsboro, Missouri, both died March 5, 2019, as a result of a “non-combat related incident,” which is under investigation, according to the brief Pentagon statement.
9/11 WREATH LAYING: Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial at 3:30 p.m. today with visiting Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
AP: Pentagon may tap military pay, pensions for border wall
New York Times: U.S. Warns North Korea Against Work On Space Site
Wall Street Journal: U.S. Urges Allies To Commit To Syria Plan
Washington Post: Bloodied ISIS Seeds New Insurgency
Yahoo News: The Army’s killer drones: How a secretive special ops unit decimated ISIS
Breaking Defense: US ‘Gets Its Ass Handed To It’ In Wargames: Here’s A $24 Billion Fix
Business Insider: U.S. Commander Warns Hazardous Chinese Military Activity Is On The Rise In The South China Sea
Bloomberg: Elon Musk’s Security Clearance Under Review Over Pot Use
Foreign Policy: U.S. Cancels Journalist’s Award Over Her Criticism of Trump
Wall Street Journal: ‘Assad or We Burn the Country’: How the Syrian Regime Prevailed
Bloomberg: U.S. Army’s Prized $8.1 Billion Howitzer Hits Roadblock on BAE Output
MONDAY | MARCH 11
7 a.m. 1779 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. www.carnegieendowment.org
10:45 a.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. “China’s Hypersonic Missile Advances and U.S. Defense Responses.” www.hudson.org
1 p.m. 2301 Constitution Avenue N.W. “How Pakistan Navigates the Saudi Arabia-Iran Rivalry.” www.usip.org
TUESDAY | MARCH 12
7 a.m. 1779 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference (Day 2). www.carnegieendowment.org
12 noon. Pentagon Briefing Room. Briefing by Pentagon officials on the FY 2020 DoD budget submission to Congress. www.defense.gov/Watch/Live-Events
2 p.m. 2212 Rayburn. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel hearing on “Outside Perspectives on Military Personnel Policy. Witnesses: Todd Harrison, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Peter Levine, Institute for Defense Analyses; Beth Asch, RAND Corporation. armedservices.house.gov/hearings
WEDNESDAY | MARCH 13
7 a.m. 1513 K St. N.W. McAleese/Credit Suisse 10th Annual FY2020 “Defense Programs” Conference. All-day speaker list includes: Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations; Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps commandant; Ryan McCarthy, under secretary of the Army; Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Armed Services Committee chairman; Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-Conn; Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va.; Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio ; and many others. Email [email protected] to register.
10 a.m. 2118 Rayburn. U.S. European and Supreme NATO Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti and Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, testify before the House Armed Services Committee.
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid delivers remarks about challenges facing Europe and Estonia’s evolving role in the trans-Atlantic community at Brookings, and then discusses the topic with Brookings President John Allen. Brookings Institution Falk Auditorium. www.brookings.edu
11:30 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Avenue N.E. “The Indo-Pacific after INF.” Keynote remarks by Sen. Tom Cotton. www.heritage.org
2 p.m. 2212 Rayburn. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing on “Ensuring resiliency of military installations and operations in response to climate changes.” Witnesses: retired Rear. Adm. David Titley, Pennsylvania State University; Sharon Burke, International Security Program and Resource Security Program; and Nicolas Loris, Center for Free Markets and Regulatory Reform. armedservices.house.gov/hearings
2 p.m. Rayburn. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities hearing on U.S. Cyber Command and operations in cyberspace. Witnesses: U.S. Cyber Commander Army Gen. Paul Nakasone and Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. armedservices.house.gov/hearings
2:30 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. “The Future of U.S.-Afghanistan Relations: A View from Afghanistan.” www.hudson.org
4 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. N.W. “Putin’s World.” www.brookings.edu
THURSDAY | MARCH 14
10 a.m 2212 Rayburn House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces hearing on “Department of the Air Force Fiscal Year 2020 budget request for seapower and projection forces.” Witnesses: William Roper, assistant secretary of Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics; Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements. https://armedservices.house.gov/hearings
2 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “The future of the Army in an era of great power competition.” www.brookings.edu
3:30 p.m. 1717 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “The Price of Kindness: Lebanon and Syria’s Refugees.” www.sais-jhu.edu
5:30 p.m. 2425 Wilson Boulevard. Gen. Gus Perna, commanding general, Army Materiel Command, speaks at the Association of the U.S. Army Institute of Land Warfare Rogers Strategic Issues Forum at the Gordon R. Sullivan Conference and Event Center located at AUSA headquarters. Reception and networking begins at 5:30 p.m., and the program begins at 6:00 p.m.
FRIDAY | MARCH 15
9:30 a.m. 1800 M Street N.W. Breakfast discussion on “America’s Missile Strategy, Countering and Defending Against Threats from Iran and North Korea,” sponsored by Foundation for Defense of Democracies, featuring Rebeccah Heinrichs, senior fellow at Hudson Institute; David Maxwell, senior fellow at FDD; and Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at FDD. Invitation-only event open to government officials, Hill staff, foreign policy professionals, members of the diplomatic corps, the think tank and foreign policy communities, and credentialed press. Advance registration and confirmation is required.
TUESDAY | MARCH 19
8 a.m. 1779 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “Religious Authority in the Middle East: Implications for U.S. Policy.” www.carnegieendowment.org
9:30 a.m. 2301 Constitution Avenue N.W. “Crimea after Five Years of Russian Occupation.” www.usip.org
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “Defense spending in the 50 states.” www.brookings.edu
10:30 a.m. 1779 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “Tokyo’s Views on the Growing U.S.-China Rivalry.” www.carnegieendowment.org
FRIDAY | MARCH 22
10 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. “The end of an era? The INF Treaty, New START, and the future of strategic stability.” www.brookings.edu