Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Seven day 'reduction in violence' starts in Afghanistan | US, Taliban plan to sign peace deal Feb. 29 | Trump says top intel job has four candidates

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: A seven day "reduction in violence" period has started in Afghanistan, the precursor to a broader U.S.-Taliban deal that will lead to a drawdown of U.S. troops.

The reduction in violence deal went into effect just after midnight in Afghanistan, which was Friday afternoon in Washington.

In officially announcing the deal Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a successful implementation will pave the way for a peace agreement between both sides to be signed on Feb. 29.

Pompeo said in a statement early in the morning that, after discussions in Doha, Qatar, U.S. and Taliban representatives "have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan." A deal is expected to be signed if the weeklong agreement to reduce violence holds. 

"Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward. We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29," Pompeo said.

"Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan," the secretary of State continued. "The only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward."

Background: The announcement comes more than a year after U.S. and Taliban negotiators began talks aimed at securing a political settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan. The effort has been one of President Trump's major foreign policy priorities; Trump has long pledged to bring an end to "endless wars" and withdraw American troops from foreign engagements. 

U.S.-Taliban negotiations were briefly suspended last fall when Trump canceled a plan to bring the Taliban to Camp David to continue negotiations after a suicide bomb attack claimed by the Taliban killed an American in Afghanistan.

There have been signs in recent weeks that both sides were close to a deal, with White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien indicating in a speech earlier this month that the Trump administration was near securing an agreement with the Taliban. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last weekend that a deal that involved a seven-day reduction of violence looked "very promising."

"It's my view as well that we have to give peace a chance, that the best if not the only way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement and that means taking some risk," Esper said at the Munich Security Conference. "That means enabling our diplomats and that means working together with our partners and allies on the ground to affect such a thing."

International reaction: Pakistan, which has long been seen as a spoiler in Afghanistan, has been supportive of the Trump administration's peace talks and welcomed Friday's announcement.

"We believe the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement will pave the way for the next step of intra-Afghan negotiations," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday. "We hope the Afghan parties would now seize this historic opportunity and work out a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement for durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region."

NATO, whose members have about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan, also welcomed the announcement and called the reduction in violence a "crucial test" for the Taliban.

"This is a critical test of the Taliban's willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. "This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists."

 

WHO WILL GET THE ROSE?: President Trump says he is considering four individuals to serve as his next director of national intelligence (DNI) and that a decision would be made "within the next few weeks."

"Four great candidates are under consideration at DNI," Trump tweeted Friday morning. "Decision within next few weeks!"

The president did not name any individuals under consideration. He had told reporters Thursday evening aboard Air Force One that he was considering Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) as a candidate, but the congressman, who is running for Senate in Georgia, told the Fox Business Network's "Mornings with Maria" on Friday that he was not interested and would not accept the position.

Background: Trump announced Wednesday that U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, one of his staunchest defenders, would serve as his top intelligence chief in an acting capacity. Grenell took over for Joseph Maguire, who had served as acting director of national intelligence since last August.

Grenell is not among the candidates Trump is considering to fill the role permanently but is involved in the process of selecting the nominee.

The position has been without a Senate-confirmed occupant since Dan Coats resigned from the role last summer after clashing with Trump on a number of fronts.

 

NUCLEAR WAR GAMES: Esper took a trip this week focused on nuclear weapons with stops at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) in Nebraska.

What Pentagon officials revealed Friday is that the Stratcom stop included a "mini-exercise" simulating a nuclear war.

In the scenario acted out in the exercise, Russia is at war in Europe when Moscow decides to use a low-yield nuclear weapon on a site within NATO territory, a senior defense official said.

The United States then fires back with a "limited response," the official said.

"They played out that game, and the secretary got a good understanding for how that went," the official said.

"In the course of exercise, we simulated responding with a nuclear weapon," the official added.

Context: The U.S. military regularly exercises its response to nuclear attacks, but the timing of this exercise is notable.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon confirmed it deployed its own low-yield nuclear warhead meant to act as a deterrent to Russia's low-yield bombs.

 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo will have a joint press conference at about 5:30 p.m. at the Pentagon. https://bit.ly/2T5RReX

 

ICYMI

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