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 Trump administration Thursday warned Iran against planned space rocket launches it said incorporate ballistic missile technology.
"The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime's destructive policies place international stability and security at risk," Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Pence to deliver keynote at fundraising banquet for South Carolina-based pregnancy center Russia suggests military deployments to Cuba, Venezuela an option MORE said in a statement.
"We advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation."
What prompted the warning: Iran's defense ministry has announced plans for three Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) launches in "the coming months," according to the statement.
Iran last conducted a space launch in July 2017, when Tehran said it successfully launched a satellite. At the time, the State Department called the launch "provocative."
Then and now, the United States holds that such launches violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. The resolution says that Iran "is called upon" not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles but does not explicitly ban the activity.
In his statement Thursday, Pompeo said a space launch would "once again demonstrate Iran's defiance" of the resolution because the SLVs "incorporate technology that is virtually identical to that used in ballistic missiles."
Iran rejects accusation: Iran quickly rejected the warning, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif writing on Twitter that the country's space vehicle launches and missile tests were not violations.
"Iran's launch of space vehicles - & missile tests - are NOT in violation of (Resolution) 2231. The US is in material breach of same, & as such it is in no position to lecture anyone on it," Zarif wrote Thursday.
Iran denies that its space program is a cover for weapons development, holding that the program is peaceful. The head of its space agency has previously offered to cooperate with NASA and share its data with other countries.
MILLEY MAKES SURPRISE VISIT TO KABUL: Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made an unexpected visit to Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, meeting with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss opportunities to end the country's 17-year-long war.
"The two sides discussed the positive effectiveness of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, the leadership of the Afghan people and the peace process and their self-determination," Ghani's office said in a statement released Thursday.
"The Afghan government has the necessary programs on reform and it is moving towards a positive direction," Ghani said in the meeting.
The background: President Trump has reportedly indicated he plans to ramp down U.S. forces in Afghanistan by pulling out roughly half of the 14,000 troops currently deployed there. A spokesman for the National Security Council said in late December that the president has not made a final decision about possible troop withdrawal.
The news comes as the administration has ramped up efforts to end the country's longest war.
Peace talks still elusive: Milley supports Afghan-led peace talks with the Taliban, an effort largely led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has met several times with Taliban insurgents to try to bring both sides to the table, including last month.
But Taliban representatives have made clear throughout the negotiation process that they do not intend to make a deal through Ghani's government and have refused direct talks.
The Trump administration, however, has insisted that any deal must be led by Afghan officials.
More U.S.-Taliban talks have reportedly been scheduled for later in January in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
And Afghan officials want clarity from Trump: Ghani's government, in a separate statement Thursday, also criticized comments made by Trump a day prior at a Cabinet meeting, where he said Russia and Pakistan should be fighting in Afghanistan, and not the United States.
"So you take a look at other countries - Pakistan is there. They should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight," Trump said on Wednesday.
The Afghan government said Thursday it has asked the United States to provide clarification on Trump's comments.
SHUTDOWN, FIGHT OVER WALL FUNDING DRAGS ON: A partial government shutdown continued Thursday as the White House formally opposed two Democratic bills that would end the now 13-day shuttering.
"The Administration is committed to working with the Congress to reopen lapsed agencies, but cannot accept legislation that provides unnecessary funding for wasteful programs while ignoring the Nation's urgent border security needs," the White House Office of Management and Budget wrote in a statement of administration policy.
President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE is insisting any funding bills provide $5 billion for his proposed border wall along the Southern border.
Democrats' plan: The House, newly controlled by Democrats, is expected to pass the two bills late Thursday. One would fully fund six of the seven lapsed appropriations bills through the end of the fiscal year.
The other would apply only to the Department of Homeland Security and extend previous funding levels for a month.
Democrats, who have ruled out providing new money for a concrete barrier, say that would allow them time to negotiate with the White House over border security while allowing 800,000 federal workers to get back to work and get paid.
Democrats hope that by passing the bills, they will increase pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week MORE (R-Ky.) to put them to a vote. McConnell says he will not put bills on the floor that Trump does not intend to sign.
WHITE HOUSE MULLS JIM WEBB AS MATTIS REPLACEMENT: The Trump administration is considering Jim Webb,a former Democratic senator from Virginia and Navy secretary under former President Reagan, as the next Defense secretary, according to The New York Times.
An unnamed official told the Times that Vice President Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyTrump's relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook Jan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision MORE have reached out to Webb, while a senior Pentagon official also told the newspaper that Webb's name had been circulating in the White House.
A Pentagon spokesperson referred The Hill to the White House for comment, stating that the Defense Department "continues to focus on the defense of our great nation." A White House spokesperson said there were no personnel announcements at this time, declining to comment further.
A Webb refresher: Webb graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 and went on to serve in Vietnam as a platoon commander for the Marines. Wounded twice in Vietnam, he was awarded the Navy's second-highest decoration, the Navy Cross.
Reagan appointed Webb to be an assistant Defense secretary in 1984 and then Navy secretary in 1987. He resigned a year later in disagreement over budget cuts and a reduction in the size of the Navy.
He later switched political parties and in 2006, was elected to his first and only term as a senator from Virginia.
Webb also had a short-lived run in the Democratic primary for the 2016 presidential election. His campaign made headlines in October 2015 when he alluded to killing an enemy in Vietnam when asked during a debate who he was most proud to have as an enemy.
Webb's views on the Middle East align more closely with Trump's. He was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War while he served in the Senate.
The background: President Trump is searching for a new Defense secretary after James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump's 'Enemies List' — end of year edition The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike MORE announced last month that he'd be resigning from the role. Mattis resigned following Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
Trump, fuming over Mattis's critical resignation letter, then pushed him out two months earlier than initially planned.
Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanProtection of critical military benefit shows bipartisanship can work Senators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE, a former Boeing executive and deputy Defense secretary since July 2017, is currently serving as acting Defense secretary.
Several names that had previously been floated for the position have since taken themselves out of the running or are seen as unlikely following Trump's decision on Syria. Trump is also considering a drawdown in Afghanistan that is opposed by military leadership.
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