Overnight Defense: Pentagon 'confident' in Afghan strategy as violence flares

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Ash Carter has confidence in the administration's Afghan strategy despite renewed fighting on Tuesday that left one U.S. service member dead and two injured.

"The secretary's confident that [the] current plan in place is adequate to deal with the situation in Afghanistan," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said at a briefing on Tuesday.

President Obama ended the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, but scrapped plans to withdraw almost all troops by the time he left office. Instead, he allowed for approximately 9,800 troops to remain through 2015, drawing down to 5,500 by the end of 2016.

Carter's support for the current strategy comes after a U.S. service member was killed and two were injured in a firefight in Marjah in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday.

The U.S. troops came under fire while conducting a train, advise and assist mission with their Afghan special operations counterparts on the ground in Marjah, Cook said. He said a "number" of Afghan forces were injured as well.

Cook said despite the fighting, the U.S. combat mission is over and American troops are in a support role.

"It is safe to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and that the U.S. forces that are providing assistance to the Afghans are in harm's way when they're there," he said.

"It's been a painful reminder, the last few weeks, but the Afghans are leading this fight, and they're doing it with the support of the United States and the support of other international partners," he added.

Cook left the door open for a change to the drawdown schedule, however.

"It's always a process of review and hearing directly from the commanders on the ground as to whether or not there needs to be adjustments to that," he said.


IRAN UNVEILS UNDERGROUND MISSILE DEPOT: Iran unveiled a new underground missile depot on Tuesday on state television, showing Emad precision-guided weapons in a defiant move to publicize its missile program.

A one-minute video of the depot, which is situated in mountains and run by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, was broadcast on state television, Reuters reported.

The U.S. says the Emad missile, which Iran tested in October, would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The administration is reportedly preparing new sanctions on Iran for the test, which U.S. officials say violates international law.

Iran has been defiant, however, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordering his defense minister last week to expand the missile program.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the administration needs to do more to counter Iran, otherwise countries like Saudi Arabia would lash out. 

"We need a policy of backbone, not backing down. And as a consequence of that constantly backing down in the face of Iran, I think there's this perception now that it will make it much harder to get people to the table, because instead what you see is a reaction to them lashing out in what way they perceive they can against Iran's growing hegemony in the region," he said. 


KUWAIT RECALLS AMBASSADOR TO IRAN: Kuwait on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Iran, becoming the latest Arab country to side with Saudi Arabia in its fight with Tehran.

A statement on the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry website said the move came after Iran allowed demonstrators in Tehran to torch the Saudi embassy there.

The statement called it a "flagrant violation of the norms and international conventions and a grave breach of international obligations of Iran to the security of diplomatic missions and the safety of its crew."

In addition, the Kuwaiti deputy foreign minister sent a protest note to the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait.

The fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which began after the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, threatens U.S. goals in the region.

The U.S. is seeking a political solution to the civil war in Syria and had succeeded in coaxing both Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table to discuss a resolution.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Pompeo lays out new Iran terms | Pentagon hints at more aggressive posture against Iran | House, Senate move on defense bill Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Sarah Sanders: ‘Democrats are losing their war against women in the Trump administration’ MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in a statement late Monday called Iran's response to al-Nimr's death "outrageous and dangerous."

McCain also expressed support for Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, and said American disengagement from the region was exacerbating tensions between rival powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"Increasingly, our allies and partners question America's commitment to their security, and as a result, are taking matters into their own hands," he said.

"It is alarming, yet hardly surprising that these fateful decisions could manifest themselves in increased diplomatic tensions, growing regional security competition, new arms races, and possibly nuclear proliferation," he added.


RUSSIA TIED TO CYBERATTACK ON UKRAINE: Researchers have uncovered more evidence tying Russia to what they say is the first major blackout caused by hackers.

On Dec. 23, the power went out in roughly half the homes in Ukraine's Ivano-Frankivsk region. Within a week, the Ukrainian government said the malware behind the assault was linked to Russia, but offered no specifics.

In recent days, security experts have uncovered those details.

Cybersecurity firm Eset identified the malware used in the attack as part of the BlackEnergy family.

BlackEnergy has been linked in recent months to a series of suspected Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian news outlets during the 2015 local elections. It's also believed the malware was used in 2014 for Russian intelligence-gathering operations on Ukrainian government targets.

Tensions have been running high between Ukraine and Russia since Moscow annexed Crimea last year and began supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.



-- Middle East dispute not hurting ISIS fight -- yet

-- Senate GOP to Obama: Iran must be punished

-- GOP senator: 'Foolish' to lift Iran sanctions

-- Military suicides increase among reservists in 2015

-- White House presses for Iran and Saudi Arabia to 'show restraint'


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