OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: US opens talks with Syrian militants

The Topline: The Obama administration is reaching out to Islamic militant groups battling alongside Syrian rebels to oust President Bashar Assad, as part of an effort to bring the civil war in the country to an end. 

The White House is specifically targeting militant groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda's Iraqi cell and its Syrian offshoot, Jabhat al Nusra, which has taken on a significant role within the ranks of the Syrian rebels over the course of the 2.5-year war there. 

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The outreach aims to “find out whether these people are worthwhile bringing into the diplomatic process,” a senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that any viable political solution to the ongoing turmoil in Syria would likely include extremist element fightings in the country. 

"If a diplomatic solution is the responsible approach [in Syria], all parties involved are going to have to be represented in some way" in whatever deal is struck, Hagel said Wednesday. 

Any plausible peace plan to end the ongoing carnage in Syria "cannot be achieved by [limiting] ourselves to narrow strips of interest," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. 

That said, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. military and intelligence officials are still working to identify which militant groups in Syria would be amiable to negotiations. 

"We are still learning about some of those groups," the four-star general said, adding much work remained before Washington would be willing to allow any of those groups at the negotiation table. 

That said, reaching out to some of the Islamic militant factions of the Syrian opposition "is certainly worth the effort," Dempsey added. 

US could cut Karzai out of postwar talks: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday opened the door to bypassing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approval for a long-awaited postwar deal, suggesting other senior officials in Kabul could approve the pact. 

Official approval of the pact by Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi or other members of Karzai's Cabinet could "fulfill the kind of commitment we need" to proceed with postwar planning and operations, Hagel said Wednesday. 

But "whatever document [Kabul] agrees to ... who has the authority to sign on behalf of Afghanistan" and give the postwar pact the green light is still an open question, the Pentagon chief added. 

Hagel's comments come a day after Secretary of State John Kerry said Mohammadi's approval could be all Washington needed to move ahead with the plan, known inside the Pentagon as the bilateral security agreement. 

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated its demand for an Afghan postwar deal to be completed by the end of the year. 

Top Afghan tribal leaders overwhelmingly approved the deal earlier this month, but Karzai has repeatedly delayed approval, demanding Washington accede to a number of conditions. 

But on Wednesday, Kabul reiterated that Karzai alone has the authority to approve the postwar plan. 

“President Karzai wants an absolute end to the military operations on Afghan homes and a meaningful start to the peace process, and we are certain that the Americans can practically do that within days or weeks,” Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said. 

“As long as these demands are not accepted, President Karzai will not authorise any minister to sign it,” he told The Associated Press. 

Congress will not 'rescue' DOD from sequester: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has little to no hope that ongoing sequestration talks on Capitol Hill will rescue the Pentagon from the next round of draconian budget cuts. 

While the Pentagon chief lauded the "optimistic" tone of the sequestration negotiations, "I do not expect any rescue" from lawmakers before the next round of across-the-board cuts under sequestration. 

"Everything is still rather uncertain, and that's what has been the most difficult part of all of this," Hagel told reporters on Wednesday. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

Inside the Pentagon, department officials are already drafting their fiscal 2015 budget plan, the department's first spending blueprint with sequestration cuts factored in. 

That plan will coincide with the department's Quadrennial Defense Review, which this year will provide the overarching strategy for the U.S. military after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

That plan will drive large-scale changes in how the U.S. military trains for and fights future wars, as well as how the Pentagon does business within its own bureaucracy and other government agencies. 

Northrop begins work on NATO drones: U.S. defense giant Northrop Grumman is starting off construction on a slew of new unmanned aircraft that will be the backbone for NATO's new drone fleet. 

Work on five RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones began at the company's facility in Moss Point, Miss., on Wednesday, according to recent news reports. 

The aircraft being built for NATO are the company's newest iteration of the Global Hawk drone, known as the Block 40 version. 

That variant is the same kind flown by the Air Force during aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions worldwide. 

However, the long-range and high-altitude drones being being built for the alliance — dubbed by company officials as the Eurohawk — is modified for use by NATO forces. 

Once delivered to alliance commanders in NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Agency, the Eurohawks will be used strictly for surveillance operations and will not be armed. 

The NATO deal comes at a critical time for Northrop, which is looking toward international markets to offset the spending cuts at the Pentagon. 

Pentagon leaders slashed just over $1 billion total from its unmanned-weapons programs within the department's $45.4 billion request for all military aircraft spending in its fiscal 2014 spending budget.

 

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