Overnight Defense: Top general defends Afghan war progress | VA shuffles leadership | Pacific Command gets new leader, name | Pentagon sued over HIV policy

Overnight Defense: Top general defends Afghan war progress | VA shuffles leadership | Pacific Command gets new leader, name | Pentagon sued over HIV policy
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Happy Wednesday 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.

 

THE TOPLINE: The outgoing commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan had a message for reporters Wednesday: the strategy is yielding results despite recent high-profile attacks.

As proof, Gen. John Nicholson offered this: Factions within the Taliban are involved in "off stage" negotiations with government officials to end the 17-year-old war.

Nicholson said there is an "intensified dialogue" between "mid-level, senior-level Taliban leaders" and government officials in Kabul.

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"A number of channels of dialogue have opened up between the various stakeholders in the peace process," Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon.

"I call this talking and fighting. As [Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Mattis dismisses reports of his exit: 'I love it here' Publisher says Woodward book sales largest in its history MORE] has said, violence and progress can coexist, and that's what we're seeing."

He would not reveal who was involved in the "secret" talks, explaining that names are kept confidential to improve the chances of reaching official peace negotiations.

Nicholson would only say that "various stakeholders" are involved in discussions, including international governments, organizations and internal Afghan leaders, both in and out of government.

All "are engaged to varying degrees of dialogue, with either those who work with the Taliban or actually some of the Taliban leaders themselves," he said.

 

Key statistics: Nicholson said violence in Afghanistan between February and April has dropped 30 percent below the five-year average, which is "concurrent with this intensified dialogue."

Nicholson also confirmed more than 50 Taliban leaders were killed May 24. Among them was the "deputy shadow governor of Helmand [Province] and a number of other leaders under him." He added that the group was involved in drug trafficking in Helmand and that the strike has "local significance in terms of the fight in southern Afghanistan."

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan also said in a statement Wednesday that U.S. forces conducted a series of strikes from May 17-26, killing more than 70 members of the insurgency.

 

VA SHUFFLE: There's more musical chairs going on at the Department of Veterans Affairs as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE's choice to lead agency prepares for the confirmation process.

On Wednesday, Trump named VA chief of staff Peter O'Rourke as acting secretary. O'Rourke replaces Robert Wilkie, who was nominated to lead the agency full-time but can't serve in the acting position during the confirmation process.

Also Wednesday, the VA announced Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman will retire effective June 15.

 

What it means: In choosing O'Rourke as acting secretary Trump again passed over Bowman, who was seen as an ally of ousted Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVeterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA Mar-a-Lago insiders provided input on VA policy, personnel decisions: report Ahead of speech, Kansas City newspaper urges Trump to listen to veterans MORE.

Bowman's departure has been expected since Shulkin's firing. Like Shulkin, Bowman reportedly clashed with Trump administration officials over attempts to dramatically expand veterans' access to private healthcare at taxpayer expense.

O'Rourke, meanwhile, has seen his star quickly rise in the administration. O'Rourke was a member of Trump's transition team and joined the VA in May 2017 to run the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

In February, O'Rourke was promoted to chief of staff after the woman who previously held the post resigned amid controversy over her role in a scandal involving Shulkin's overseas travel.

 

HIV LAWSUIT: An Army National Guard sergeant seeking to become a judge advocate general (JAG) and an unnamed Air Force veteran are suing the Pentagon over its policy on HIV, saying it is out of step with medical progress.

Department of Defense (DOD) policy bars anyone living with HIV from enlisting or being commissioned and places geographic limitations on the service of those who first test positive while on active duty.

"After serving in Afghanistan and Kuwait, I knew I wanted to become an officer in the U.S. Army and a leader for all of the great men and women in our armed forces," Sgt. Nick Harrison said in a statement Wednesday. "I spent years acquiring the training and skills to serve my country as a lawyer. This should be a no-brainer.

"It's frustrating to be turned away by the country I have served since I was 23 years old, especially because my HIV has no effect on my service. It was an honor to be chosen to join the JAG Corps for the D.C. National Guard, and I look forward to my first day on the job."

Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN filed a lawsuit on Harrison's behalf Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The two organizations also filed a companion lawsuit on behalf of the Air Force veteran in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

 

The big picture: Harrison's lawsuit could also affect the implementation of the Pentagon's relatively new "deploy or get out policy."

That policy, announced in February, says that anyone who has been considered nondeployable worldwide for 12 months or more will be separated.

The lawsuit argues the "deploy or get out" policy could mean hundreds of service members diagnosed with HIV could soon be kicked out altogether.

"What happened to them could happen to any service member with HIV, especially given the DoD's recent 'Deploy or Get Out' policy," Peter Perkowski, legal director of OutServe-SLDN, said in a statement. "It is time for the DoD to come out of the dark ages, update its HIV policies and revise its thinking on the deploy or get out mentality."

 

AROUND THE WORLD: Members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been traveling the globe this congressional recess.

One congressional delegation led by House Armed Services Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations Armed Services chairman laments 'fringe elements in politics' Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses Woodward's book as 'fiction' | House moves to begin defense bill talks with Senate | Trump warns Syria after attack on rebel areas | Trump, South Korean leader to meet at UN MORE (R-Texas) wrapped up a two-day visit to Sri Lanka on Wednesday. The delegation, which also visited India earlier in the week, also included Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Lawmakers target Chinese security companies over spy fears MORE (R-Mo.) and Carol Shea-PorterCarol Shea-PorterElection Countdown: What to watch in final primaries | Dems launch M ad buy for Senate races | Senate seats most likely to flip | Trump slump worries GOP | Koch network's new super PAC Bernie Sanders's son falls short in New Hampshire primary Chris Pappas wins Democratic House primary in New Hampshire MORE (D-N.H.).

In Colombo, Sri Lanka, the group met with the president, prime minister, speaker of parliament and opposition leader to emphasize "the shared values of democracy, rule of law and freedom of the seas" and encourage "Sri Lankan leaders to continue vital constitutional reforms and stability efforts," according to a new release.

"Sri Lanka is a vital hub in the Indian Ocean, one that is key to keeping the lanes of commerce and security free and open," Thornberry said in a statement. "It is also clear that the strategic value of Sri Lanka is not lost on China. The Chinese government is providing an astounding amount of resources, often in the form of loans, to projects on the island. While I share the hope of many that these projects will one day benefit the Sri Lankan people, I was struck by what one Sri Lankan official told me, 'one cannot assume that China's motives are entirely innocent.'"

Meanwhile, a delegation led by Senate Armed Services member Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Steady Kavanaugh proves to be a tough target for Democrats MORE (R-Okla.) visited Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to a Wednesday release from Inhofe's office.

The delegation included Sens. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziCruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke Budget chairs press appropriators on veterans spending Forcing faith-based agencies out of the system is a disservice to women MORE (R-Wyo.), John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanOvernight Defense: Duncan Hunter refusing to step down from committees | Trump awards Medal of Honor to widow of airman | Pentagon names pick for Mideast commander Trump awards posthumous Medal of Honor to family of fallen Air Force sergeant GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Ark.) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThis week: Democrats pledge ‘sparks’ in Kavanaugh hearing Congress faces September scramble on spending California passes bill to ban controversial drift net fishing MORE (R-W.Va.), and Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Five takeaways from Ohio's too-close-to-call special election GOP worries trade wars will last as Trump engages in temporary tiffs MORE (R-Mich.). Previous stops on the trip included Italy and Poland.

In Kuwait, the delegation met with Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commander of the U.S-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other leadership from the coalition.

"The roundtable discussion with our military leadership about counter-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria clearly outlined the positive steps forward we've made in the region," Inhofe said in a statement. "It is clear that we've made real progress in partner capacity building. Yet, the discussion also underscored the importance curbing Iran's destabilizing efforts in the region."

In Afghanistan, the delegation met with Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO troops there, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass and members of 1-180th Calvary Regiment.

"Last year, President Trump reemphasized America's commitment to Afghanistan and the military personnel serving there in his new South Asia strategy. After speaking with service members and Gen. Nicholson, it is clear that we have made progress under the new approach, but need to remain clear-eyed about Pakistan's continued support for the Taliban insurgency," Inhofe said.

 

CHANGE OF COMMAND: Adm. Harry Harris has officially handed over command of U.S. Pacific Command to Adm. Philip Davidson. The Wednesday ceremony in Hawaii was attended by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, among others.

During the ceremony, Mattis announced Pacific Command has a new name: Indo-Pacific Command.

"Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability," he said. "In recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command."

Harris retired from active duty and has been nominated to become the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Davidson takes over command at a time of delicate diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and increasing tensions with China over its military buildup in the South China Sea.

 

Parting words: In his outgoing speech, Harris warned that North Korea is the United States's most immediate threat.

"North Korea remains our most imminent threat," he said. "And a nuclear-capable North Korea with missiles that can reach the United States is unacceptable."

He also reiterated his belief that China is the greatest long-term challenge in the region.

"Without focused involvement and engagement by the United States, and our allies and partners, China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia," Harris said. "We should cooperate with Beijing where we can, but stand ready to confront them where we must."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White and director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie will brief the media at noon. Watch live at defense.gov/live.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: New US sanctions target Iran for human rights abuses, censorship

-- The Hill: White House seeks to save summit with North Korea

-- The Hill: Pompeo warns Russia against 'interfering in US domestic matters'

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump must turn 'art of the possible' into 'art of the deal' with North Korea

-- Associated Press: Top North Korean official lands in US for talks with Pompeo

-- The Washington Post: Top North Korean official meets American counterpart in a meeting shrouded in secrecy