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Overnight Defense: US may keep training Afghan forces in other countries | Defense chief tight-lipped on sexual assault decision | 'Swift' return to Iran deal possible, US says

Overnight Defense: US may keep training Afghan forces in other countries | Defense chief tight-lipped on sexual assault decision | 'Swift' return to Iran deal possible, US says
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The U.S. military is considering continuing to train Afghan forces from different countries after U.S. troops fully withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. military’s top general said Thursday.

Asked at a Pentagon press briefing whether training Afghan forces from a different country is an option, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, “It’s possible.”

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“There's a lot of different options out there, and we haven't settled on one of them yet,” Milley added.

Context: On President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE’s orders, the U.S. military is in the midst of fully withdrawing from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked the war.

A top concern that lawmakers and others have raised amid the withdrawal is the fate of Afghan interpreters and others who helped U.S. troops whose lives would be in even more danger than they are now if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban.

The United States has a program called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to allow those Afghans to come to the United States, but thousands of Afghans are facing a years-long backlog in processing their applications.

‘A moral imperative’: On Thursday, Milley said it’s “a moral imperative that we take care of those that have worked closely with us.”

But he also reiterated that he does not think the worst-case scenario in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws is a “foregone conclusion.”

How much support?: Questions have lingered about how much support the United States will be able to provide Afghan forces after the withdrawal, with fears they will not be able to back the Taliban from taking over the country.

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On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinConcerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Austin says he's 'concerned' about Iranian ships in Atlantic MORE acknowledged that fighting without U.S. military support “will be a challenge” for Afghan forces.

“We will remain partners with the Afghan government and with the Afghan military, and certainly we hope through our continued support the Afghan security forces can be effective,” Austin said.

More stories from The Hill on the withdrawal:

– US adds 12 fighter jets to protect Afghanistan withdrawal

– McConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year'

 

DEFENSE CHIEF TIGHT-LIPPED ON MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT DECISION

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday would not say if he will impose new recommendations to prosecute sexual assaults outside the military's chain of command.

The Pentagon chief said he is still waiting for military service chiefs and secretaries to give their input on the matter later this month, though his top uniformed adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, has already dropped his objection to the proposed change.

“I think it’s worth having my leaders, our leaders, engage in discussion on this,” Austin said alongside Milley at the pair’s first joint press briefing since Austin took office in January.

“I think we’ve done things a certain way for a while and I think we really need to kind of broaden our horizons and begin to look at things differently and be willing to take different paths to improve things.”

The background: An independent review commission earlier this month gave Austin the recommendation to remove military commanders from deciding sexual assault cases. In their place, independent judge advocates, who would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor, would decide whether to charge someone in certain cases of special victims crimes including sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The recommendations come amid a push in the Biden administration and Congress to tackle sexual assault in the military, a major problem which has stubbornly persisted over the years as top military leaders repeatedly claimed such cases must be handled by commanders or units would face a breakdown.  

Keeping quiet: Austin so far has remained tight-lipped about which direction he will go in with the recommendations, and on Thursday also would not say if he had discussed the issue with the the military’s top leaders, only that he’s “given them specific guidance in terms of my desire to have them review the recommendation” and give their feedback.

Milley’s stance: Milley, however, first said earlier this week that he would be open to prosecuting sexual assault out of the chain of command, dropping years of objections after he witnessed a lack of change in the military's assault rates and troops' waning confidence in leaders’ ability to deal with such crimes.  

“Frankly, you ask me what has caused me to have a change and I’ve given it a hard thought: We haven’t moved the needle, we haven’t resolved this issue,” Milley said Thursday. 

New numbers: Based on internal surveys, roughly 20,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in the U.S. military last year, according to Milley.

“That’s huge, that’s significant. And that number hasn’t significantly been reduced over time. So we need to take a hard look. ... These are blue on blue assaults, it cannot stand, it has to be resolved, so yes my mind is very open to it,” Milley added. 

Read more here.

 

AS FOR THAT FALLING CHINESE ROCKET…

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Austin also said on Thursday there was no current plan to shoot down the 22-ton Chinese rocket expected to fall back to Earth this weekend.

The Long March 5B rocket, which launched last week carrying the Tianhe module, is expected to enter Earth's atmosphere somewhere around May 8.

Austin said the latest estimate was for the rocket to fall down between Saturday and Sunday, with the hope that it would land in the ocean.

 

US SAYS ‘SWIFT’ RETURN TO IRAN DEAL POSSIBLE

An agreement between the U.S. and Iran on a pathway back to the 2015 nuclear deal that former President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE withdrew from in 2018 is “doable” and could happen before mid-June, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

A fourth round of talks between U.S., Iranian and international participants to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are expected to resume in Vienna on Friday, with U.S. officials hopeful that an agreement between Washington and Tehran could lead to a “swift” return to the deal for both countries.

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“If Iran makes a political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA, as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift,” the official said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

Waiting on an answer: The official said it is “absolutely” possible to get a deal before the Iranians head to presidential elections on June 18, but that it requires a political decision on the part of Tehran to accept a certain level of sanctions relief from the U.S. and adhere to its own commitments to the JCPOA’s restraint on nuclear activity.

“But that's a question to which we don't have an answer. Iran has that answer,” the official said.

Earlier…: The U.S. and Iran had earlier sent signals that they were approaching closer consensus on diplomatic talks, with a flurry of meetings taking place in the Middle East between the U.S. and its Arab and Gulf partners and a breakthrough of diplomatic talks between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Outside observers and experts say that the timing of a return to the JCPOA rests with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority over government decisions, and is likely weighing how the presidential elections will best serve returning to the nuclear agreement.

Read more here.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webinar on “Reordering Priorities: Republic of Korea-U.S. Alliance in the Indo-Pacific Century,” at 9:30 a.m.

U.S. Strategic Command head Adm. Charles Richard will speak at a Brookings Institution webinar on “The Future of Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Modernization,” at 11:30 a.m.

A House Appropriations Defense subcommittee will hear Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown; U.S. Space Force Chief of Operations Gen. John Raymond; and acting Air Force Secretary John Roth on “Fiscal Year 2022 United States Air Force and Space Force Budget,” at 12 p.m.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold another webinar on the Navy's Joint All Domain Command and Control implementation program, with Rear Adm. Douglas Small, commander of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, at 1 p.m.

The Woodrow Wilson Center will hold a webinar on “Understanding the New Dimensions of Trans-Atlantic Arctic Security,” at 3:30 p.m.

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: Armed Army trainee hijacked South Carolina school bus, officials say

– The Hill: Army allowing female soldiers to wear ponytails with all uniforms

– The Hill: Blinken: US stands with Ukraine in face of Russian aggression

– The Hill: Defense contractor Honeywell fined $13M for sharing documents with China, other countries

– The Hill: Biden administration, Congress unite in effort to tackle ransomware attacks

– The Hill: UK Navy sent to standoff with French fisherman

– Military Times: New panel to advise VA leaders on better response to sexual misconduct issues

– The New York Times: Pentagon Struggles to Wean Afghan Military Off American Air Support

– Military.com: DoD Investigating Former Army Officer Who Used Arlington Cemetery Footage in Campaign Ad