Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: It’s only been a week since the Taliban gained control of its first provincial capital, but in that time, another 16 capitals have fallen.
The Taliban now controls half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.
Among the insurgents’ gains Friday were the capitals of Zabul, Uruzgan, Logar and Koh.
Logar, in particular, positions the Taliban close to Kabul — about 50 miles to be more precise.
Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, has also fallen. The province saw some of the bloodiest fighting for U.S. forces and their allies in the 20-year war.
The view from the Pentagon: In a Friday news briefing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby classified the Taliban’s onslaught as “deeply concerning.”
“We are certainly concerned by the speed with which the Taliban has been moving,” Kirby said.
“We're obviously watching this just like you're watching this and seeing it happen in real time, and it's deeply concerning,” he added. “This is a moment for the Afghans to unite, the leadership and the military. No outcome has to be inevitable.”
Pressed on the situation in Kabul, Kirby held that the capital is “not, right now, in an imminent threat environment.”
Still, Kirby said, the Taliban “clearly” is “trying to isolate Kabul.”
“What they want to do if they achieve that isolation, I think, only they can speak to,” he added. “But you can see a certain effort to isolate Kabul. It is not unlike the way they've operated in other places of the country, isolating provincial capitals and sometimes being able to force surrender without necessarily much bloodshed.”
Biden’s peril: Biden is also staring down the potential for a foreign policy and humanitarian catastrophe, as The Hill’s Brett Samuels wrote Friday.
Despite the quickly deteriorating situation, Biden is poised to see through the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of August. The White House believes it’s the best move in a situation with no perfect solution, and officials believe it is a decision that will garner public support even as it attracts intense scrutiny from Republicans and national security hawks.
But deep concerns have been raised by figures in the wider national security establishment, and administration figures on Friday were struggling with comparisons between Kabul and the fall of Saigon.
“This is a government we built, financed, and protected,” said a former State Department official who served across multiple Democratic and Republican administrations. “And we’re walking away from them and in the process we’re saying they’re not up to the fight. I think the messaging that’s being done right now is really worrisome because it’s like, ‘it’s not our fault.’"
Get the shredder: As staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul prepare to leave, they have been ordered to destroy classified and other sensitive materials as the office prepares to reduce its number of diplomats amid growing territorial gains by the Taliban
The memo also reportedly said to destroy “embassy or agency logos, American flags, or items which could be misused in propaganda efforts.”
A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that the Kabul Embassy “is conducting their drawdown in accordance with this standard operating procedure.”
“Drawdowns at our diplomatic posts around the world follow a standard operating procedure designed to minimize our footprint across various categories, including staffing, equipment, and supplies,” the spokesperson added.
DHS ISSUES BULLETIN AHEAD OF 9/11 ANNIVERSARY
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is warning of a heightened threat environment leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A Friday bulletin from DHS said that while domestic extremism still poses a high threat in the U.S., the anniversary of the attacks could also serve as a motivator for foreign terror groups.
“The 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks as well [as] religious holidays we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence,” the department wrote in the bulletin.
“Leading up to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula recently released its first English-language copy of Inspire magazine in over four years, which demonstrates that foreign terrorist organizations continue efforts to inspire U.S.-based individuals susceptible to violent extremist influences,” it stated.
Domestic threats, too: The bulletin noted several areas that could spur violence from domestic extremists, with racially motivated and anti-government extremists possibly spurred to action by the pandemic.
“These extremists may seek to exploit the emergence of COVID-19 variants by viewing the potential re-establishment of public health restrictions across the United States as a rationale to conduct attacks,” the bulletin stated.
“The reopening of institutions, including schools, as well as several dates of religious significance over the next few months, could also provide increased targets of opportunity for violence though there are currently no credible or imminent threats identified to these locations.”
Effective date: The bulletin remains in effect through Veteran’s Day on Nov. 11.
MILITARY’S 29TH COVID DEATH
An Army officer based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., has become the 29th service member to die from COVID-19, the service said Thursday night.
Lt. Col. Scott Flanders, 56, died Aug. 2 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he was being treated. Flanders had been operations officer for I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord since February.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Lt. Col. Scott Flanders's family,” Brig. Gen. William Ryan, special assistant to the deputy commanding general of I Corps, said in a statement. “Our priority is to take care of his family, ensuring they have all the resources they need during this difficult time.”
ON TAP FOR MONDAY
The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host ambassadors from several Western Hemisphere countries to discuss “A New Agenda for the Hemisphere” at 2:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/3xKSAEA
— The Hill: UN chief urges Taliban to halt offensive in Afghanistan
— The Hill: Biden tightens screws on Iranian oil exports amid stalled nuclear talks
—Reuters: In desperation, US scours for countries willing to house Afghan refugees
— Washington Post: ‘Why did my friend get blown up? For what?’: Afghanistan war veterans horrified by Taliban gains
— Air Force Times: Here’s what the Space Force’s No. 2 officer learned from having COVID-19