Overnight Defense: US, Taliban deal hits snag in first days | Military helping to find coronavirus vaccine | White House withdraws nomination for official who questioned Ukraine aid hold

Overnight Defense: US, Taliban deal hits snag in first days | Military helping to find coronavirus vaccine | White House withdraws nomination for official who questioned Ukraine aid hold
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THE TOPLINE: Days into President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE's peace deal with the Taliban, there are already signs of trouble.

The Afghan government is rejecting a prisoner swap with the Taliban that the deal says is supposed to precede negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Taliban said Monday it was done abiding by a partial truce, something the United States had said it expected the insurgents to continue honoring through talks between the two Afghan sides.

Still, even as the fragile deal wobbled, Defense officials hailed the signing as a significant step toward ending America's longest war and cautioned against ringing its death knell quite yet.

"I would caution everybody to think that there's going to be an absolute cessation of violence in Afghanistan. That is probably not going to happen," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Monday. "This is a significant step forward, this agreement. And it's going to lead to inter-Afghan dialogue, and it ultimately leads to a peace agreement. But to think that it's going to go to zero immediately, that probably is not going to be the case."

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperFirst US service member dies from coronavirus Pentagon orders military bases to stop releasing specific COVID-19 numbers Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed MORE added that "this is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road."

"There will be ups and downs, and we'll stop and start," Esper said. "That's going to be the nature of this over the next days, weeks and months."

Over the weekend: If you missed early Saturday morning, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban's political chief, Abdul Ghani Baradar, signed the historic deal at ceremony in Doha, Qatar, where Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS extends waivers on Iran sanctions amid coronavirus pandemic Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed Democratic senators ask Pompeo to provide coronavirus aid to Palestinian territories MORE was also watching.

At the same time, Esper was in Kabul signing a joint declaration with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani aimed at reassuring the Afghan government of the United States's commitment to the country.

The headline provisions of the deal are that it requires the United States to draw down to 8,600 troops in 135 days and lays out a 14-month timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan if the Taliban meets its commitments to refuse safe haven to terrorist groups including al Qaeda.

The agreement also stipulates a prisoner swap by the start of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Under the deal, the United States "committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners." The agreement says up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 Afghan government prisoners "will be released by March 10," which is when intra-Afghan are expected to begin in Oslo, Norway.

Other provisions of the deal signed Saturday call for the United States to review its sanctions against Taliban members, engage with the United Nations for the removal of Security Council sanctions against the Taliban and seek Security Council endorsement of the deal.

More on the withdrawal: On Monday, Esper said he has given the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan his approval to begin removing American forces from the country.

Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, "has my OK, approval" to begin reducing the number of U.S. to roughly 8,600.

"My instruction to the commander was: 'Let's get moving. Let's show our full faith and effort to do that.'"

Esper added that the drawdown would start "within 10 days."

 

SEARCHING FOR CORONAVIRUS VACCINE: The Pentagon is pitching in on work to develop a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus, the military's top uniformed official said on Monday.

"Our military research labs are working feverishly around the horn here to try to come up with a vaccine. So we'll see how that develops over the next couple of months," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.

It's expected to take a year to 18 months to have a fully effective and accessible COVID-19 vaccine, according to top U.S. health officials. COVID-19 is the official name for the disease the novel coronavirus is causing.

Milley also said that U.S. government military laboratories are "working very consistently, not only on that vaccine but all kinds of things" and that the labs are "working in direct support with health and human services."

Esper also said one of the labs was at Fort Detrick, an Army Medical Command installation in Frederick, Md.

Military implications: Over the weekend, The Hill's Ellen Mitchell took a look at how the coronavirus is affecting military operations.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, the Pentagon canceled a joint military exercise with South Korea, restricted access to public areas at Army installations in Italy and ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days, essentially a self-quarantine.

U.S. Central Command has also ordered a stop to all nonessential travel in the Persian Gulf region. 

Such moves seek to "minimize any kind of effect that this virus has on military preparedness," a defense official told The Hill. 

"What DOD is trying to do is take prudent precautionary measure to prevent those kinds of things from affecting the force," the source said.

 

WHITE HOUSE WITHDRAWS NOMINEE WHO QUESTIONED UKRAINE AID HOLD: The White House has withdrawn its nomination for Pentagon budget chief after the nominee questioned President Trump’s hold on Ukraine military aid that was at the center of the president’s impeachment.

Two Senate aides confirmed to The Hill that Elaine McCusker’s nomination to be Pentagon comptroller has been withdrawn, news that was first reported by Politico.

The White House and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

McCusker has been acting comptroller since the summer and was officially nominated to the position in November.

Her role as acting comptroller put her in the center of Trump’s decision to withhold $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, a decision that ultimately led to his impeachment.

In emails published by Just Security after a Freedom of Information Act request, McCusker expressed concerns about the legality of withholding the funds.

One exchange showed her at odds with White House Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey. When Duffey told her that it would be the Pentagon’s fault, not the White House’s, if funds weren’t spent by the legally mandated deadline, McCusker replied: “You can’t be serious. I am speechless.”

The Government Accountability Office later determined that withholding the aid violated the law. The Senate acquitted Trump last month on charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress.

 

AIR FORCE SET FOR HISTORIC FIRST: Trump has nominated Gen. Charles Brown to be the next Air Force chief of staff, setting Brown up to be the nation's first African American military service chief, the Pentagon announced Monday.

If confirmed, Brown would also be the first African American to sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff since Colin PowellColin Luther PowellMore US diplomats need to be overseas to best serve America The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the APTA - Dems rally to Biden's side on Super Tuesday Eve Overnight Defense: US, Taliban deal hits snag in first days | Military helping to find coronavirus vaccine | White House withdraws nomination for official who questioned Ukraine aid hold MORE was chairman from 1989 to 1993.

"I am truly honored and humbled by the nomination to serve as the Air Force's 22nd Chief of Staff," Brown said in a news release. "If confirmed, Sharene and I look forward to building upon the legacy of Gen. Dave and Dawn Goldfein and the many airpower giants before who have served our Air Force and our nation with such dedication."

Brown, who has been the commander of Pacific Air Forces since July 2018, would take over for current Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein, who is expected to retire in the summer.

Praise for Brown: "The United States Air Force will be well served by the formidable talents of CQ Brown," Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said in the news release. "He has unmatched strategic vision and operational expertise. His leadership will be instrumental as the service continues to focus on the capabilities and talent we need to implement the National Defense Strategy."

"CQ Brown is one of the finest warriors our Air Force has ever produced. He's led worldwide – in the Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa," Goldfein said of the man nominated to replace him. "When it comes to global, operational savvy there's nobody stronger. Congratulations to Gen. Brown on his nomination to be our next chief."

 

WALL WATCH: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee on Monday did not rule out Monday supporting a bill being drafted by the Democratic chairman to force the Pentagon to return $3.8 billion it took for Trump's border wall.

Asked about the bill committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed House panel delays consideration of annual defense policy bill Overnight Energy: Military sees surge in sites contaminated by 'forever chemicals' | USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus | Watchdog raises concerns over Trump energy regulator MORE (D-Wash.) said last week he was working on, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse panel delays consideration of annual defense policy bill Congressionally created commission recommends requiring that women register for draft Bottom line MORE (R-Texas) told a crowd at the Brookings Institution that "we're talking."

Thornberry reiterated that his opposition isn't about the wall -- which he supports -- but about the Pentagon unilaterally deciding to use money for something other than what Congress approved the money for. He said it "scares me to death what President Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden Poll: Biden leads Sanders by 22 points GE employees urge company to use laid-off workers to make ventilators MORE might do" with such a power, referring to the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary.

Pressed by reporters after the event on specifics he's looking for in a bill, Thornberry reiterated the "we're talking" line.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Armed Services Committee has three hearings scheduled:

-- A full committee hearing with Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein at 9:30 a.m. at the Hart Senate Office Building, room 216. https://bit.ly/2VFhzK8

-- A subcommittee hearing on Arctic readiness with U.S. Northern Command chief Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy at 2:30 p.m. at the Russell Senate Office Building, room 232A. https://bit.ly/3cqpVeI

-- A closed-door subcommittee briefing on cyber operations at 2:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/3akAvSE

 

The House Armed Services Committee has three hearings scheduled:

-- A full committee hearing with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyArmy closing recruiting stations due to coronavirus outbreak Overnight Defense: Esper postpones trip to help with coronavirus response | Pentagon curtails exercise in Africa over outbreak | Afghanistan to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners Esper postpones overseas trip to lead Pentagon's coronavirus response MORE and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville 10:30 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. https://bit.ly/2Ic6JUf

-- A subcommittee hearing on Air Force and Space Force readiness at 2 p.m. at Rayburn 2118. https://bit.ly/2wjv7R8

-- A subcommittee hearing on the budget request for nuclear forces and atomic energy defense activities at 2:20 p.m. at Rayburn 2212. https://bit.ly/2IdFGb0

 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will have a joint subcommittee hearing on the Non-Proliferation Treaty with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. at Rayburn 2172. https://bit.ly/2TuhTJb

 

The House Rules Committee will hold a hearing on reasserting congressional authority in areas such as war powers with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. at the House, room 313. https://bit.ly/3ajIgbq

 

A House Appropriations Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on privatized military housing at 10:30 a.m. at the House, room 309. https://bit.ly/2TD6PcS

 

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