Overnight Defense: Trump defends border deployment | Claims caravan larger than reported | Key Dem calls plan 'unwise' | Watchdog issues troubling report on Afghan war

Overnight Defense: Trump defends border deployment | Claims caravan larger than reported | Key Dem calls plan 'unwise' | Watchdog issues troubling report on Afghan war
© Stefani Reynolds

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: As criticisms grow over President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE's decision to send more than 5,200 active duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the president in a new interview said that it looks as though the Central American immigrant caravans moving toward the U.S. are much larger than reported.

"You have caravans coming up that look a lot larger than it's reported, actually," the president told ABC News.


"I mean, I'm pretty good at estimating crowd size. And I will tell you, they look a lot bigger than people would think."

The president said later in the interview, "It really does look like an invasion."


By the numbers: Estimates vary on the each caravan's size. Many analysts number the first caravan is somewhere around 5,000 and 7,000, but some place the number as high as 14,000, according to Politifact

However, each caravan is reportedly losing members as it travels.

The president made the comments as he defended saying that he may send as many as 15,000 U.S. troops  to the border with Mexico.

"We'll go up to anywhere between 10 and 15,000," the president told reporters Wednesday on the South Lawn.

That would put the deployment on par with or above Afghanistan, where there are about 14,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops.


What's happened so far: Trump last week ordered the Defense Department to deploy active duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to counter to a caravan of several thousand Central American migrants still weeks away from reaching the United States.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump learns to love acting officials Shanahan says he's 'never favored' Boeing as acting Defense chief Trump moves to install loyalists MORE approved a request for assistance from the Department of Homeland Security to send the troops as part of Operation Faithful Patriot.

The Pentagon this week began deploying more than 5,200 troops to Texas, Arizona and California, with another roughly 2,000 on standby.

Defense officials have not given a cost estimate for the deployment, nor specified the national security threat at the border. 


Top Senate defense committee Dem warns it's unwise: The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday dismissed Trump's decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the southern border as "unwise, unproductive" and likely a political show. "Your decision to rush thousands of our troops to the border at this time seems politically motivated and fails to implement reasonable and appropriate steps to address the true nature of the problem," Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis Reed Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal Barr says 'spying' took place on Trump campaign MORE (R.I.) wrote in a letter to the president.

"This is not a military problem; it does not warrant a military solution."

Reed said that, while he supports border security, he believes the best way to achieve such a goal is through "comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform and effectively allocating our national security dollars." 

Reed also criticized the administration for failing to provide "indication to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the migrant caravan -- still about 1,000 miles and weeks away from reaching the U.S. southern border -- poses a direct national security threat to the United States."


WATCHDOG FINDS AFGHAN GOVERNMENT CONTROL OF DISTRICTS AT LOWEST POINT SINCE 2015: Afghan government control or influence over districts in the country is at the lowest point since a U.S. inspector general began tracking the data in 2015, the watchdog said Thursday.

In its latest quarterly report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the Afghan government controls or has influence over 55.5 percent of the country's districts, down half a percentage point from the previous three-month period and 16 percentage points since November 2015.

Afghan forces "made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban over the quarter" and "failed to gain greater control or influence over districts, population and territory this quarter," the report said.

The metric is one of several SIGAR used, painting a bleak picture of U.S. progress in Afghanistan as the war enters its 18th year.


Is Trump's strategy working? U.S. officials have insisted that President Trump's strategy, announced in August 2017, is working. They have cited signs that the Taliban is more open to negotiations to end the war, even as violence escalates. The administration's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly met with Taliban officials last month in Qatar.

Gen. Scott Miller, who took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in September, said Wednesday that he has changed the approach to fighting the Taliban to be a more "offensive mindset."

"My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily," he said. "So if you realize you can't win militarily at some point, fighting is just, people start asking why. So you do not necessarily wait us out, but I think now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict."


'Discouraging developments': Thursday's SIGAR report highlighted several "discouraging developments" over the past few months, including the Taliban's rejection of a second ceasefire and its five-day siege on Ghazni. The report also cited last month's attack in Kandahar that killed the regional police and intelligence chiefs. Miller was present at the attack, but was unharmed.

The districts that the Afghan government controls or influences represent about 65 percent of the country's population, SIGAR said.

Insurgent control of districts also decreased over the last quarter, the inspector general said. But contested districts under neither government nor insurgent control has increased, SIGAR said.

The report pointed to a high number of casualties among Afghan forces. While the exact figures are classified, the report said casualties from May 1 to Oct. 1 are "the greatest it has ever been during like periods."

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that Afghan forces suffered 1,000 casualties in August and September.


TURKISH THEORY ON KHASHOGGI – ACID USED AFTER DEATH: Turkish officials are looking into the possibility that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's body was destroyed in acid after he was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

A senior Turkish official told the newspaper that biological evidence found in a garden outside the consulate supports the idea that Khashoggi's body was disposed of near the site of the killing. His body was "not in need of burying," the official said.

Khashoggi was last seen entering the consulate on Oct. 2. Saudi officials have since admitted he was killed, though their explanation for the incident has changed over the last few weeks.

The journalist's body still has not been recovered.


What the Turkish believe happened: Turkish prosecutor Irfan Fidan on Wednesday said investigators believe Khashoggi was strangled upon entering the consulate as part of a pre-meditated plan, and his body was dismembered.

After first claiming that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, the Saudis acknowledged on Oct. 19 that he died inside the consulate. They claimed that Khashoggi was unintentionally killed during a physical altercation that resulted from an unapproved operation to return him to Saudi Arabia.

Lawmakers have balked at that assertion, saying the Saudi's claims are not credible.



John Tenaglia, deputy assistant director of the Defense Health Agency, will speak at the National Defense Industry Association's Health Affairs Breakfast at 7:30 a.m. in Arlington, Va.

Brig. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of operations and communications at Air Force Space Command will speak on space training and exercises at 8 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will speak at the Council on Foreign Relations at 8 a.m. in Washington, D.C.

The Brookings Institute will hold a discussion on assessing the readiness of the U.S. military at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 



-- The Hill: Heather Nauert offered UN ambassador job: reports

-- The Hill: Prosecutors say pipe bomb suspect committed 'domestic terrorist attack'

-- The Hill: Opinion: Post-elections scenario and the idea of peace talks in Afghanistan

-- Defense News: The wartime control of US, South Korean troops on the peninsula is evolving

-- Reuters: Yemen government says it is ready to resume peace efforts, coalition silent