Overnight Defense: Esper postpones trip to help with coronavirus response | Pentagon curtails exercise in Africa over outbreak | Afghanistan to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners

Overnight Defense: Esper postpones trip to help with coronavirus response | Pentagon curtails exercise in Africa over outbreak | Afghanistan to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners
© Greg Nash

Happy Tuesday 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: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump| Esper orders hundreds of active-duty troops outside DC sent home day after reversal | Iran releases US Navy veteran Michael White Black Lives Matter, protesters sue Trump admin over aggressive crowd clearing Esper orders hundreds of active-duty troops outside DC sent home day after reversal MORE is postponing a trip abroad "out of an abundance of caution" to lead the Pentagon's response to coronavirus, the department said Tuesday.

"Out of an abundance of caution, Secretary of Defense @EsperDOD has decided to postpone his travel to India, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan until a later date to remain in the U.S. to help manage the @DeptofDefense response to Coronavirus," Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah tweeted.

More positive tests and exposure: Several members of the military have tested positive or may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

On Monday, the Army announced that its top general in Europe, Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, and several staffers may have been exposed to the virus at a recent conference. In a statement, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump Esper reverses on allowing active-duty troops to return to home bases Esper seeks to explain participation in White House photo-op MORE said Cavoli and the others are self-monitoring and working remotely.

The Pentagon also said Saturday that a Marine assigned to Fort Belvoir, Va., who had just returned from overseas travel tested positive for the virus.

Deterrent efforts: Meanwhile, the Pentagon is also providing four bases to quarantine passengers coming off the Grand Princess cruise, which has seen 21 passengers test positive for the virus. The bases are Travis Air Force Base and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in California, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia.

On Monday, Pentagon officials said the department is taking steps to control the spread of the virus in the building, including "social distancing" and wiping down workspaces.

For example, Esper's regular Monday meeting with senior staff was split into three rooms with video conferencing between the rooms, instead of the normal face-to-face gathering in one room, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Monday.

And DOD curtailing Africa exercise: The Pentagon is also scaling back a multinational military exercise in Africa amid concerns over the coronavirus.

Military leaders from the United States, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal "will modify the size and scope of African Lion to minimize exposure of U.S. and partner nation service members to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)," U.S. Africa Command said in a Tuesday statement.

African Lion, set to start March 23 and involving nearly 7,000 tons of military equipment and 9,000 troops -- including more than 4,000 U.S. service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps -- is Africom's largest exercise on the continent.

The exercise will now include only portions that do not require troops to lodge together in close quarters, as well as an academic portion which has already begun.

"The safety and protection of all of our forces -- U.S. and partner nation -- is a priority," Africom head Gen. Stephen Townsend said in the statement.


TOP GENERAL: TALIBAN ATTACKS 'NOT CONSISTENT' WITH US DEAL: The top U.S. general overseeing the Middle East said Tuesday that Taliban attacks against Afghan forces are "not consistent" with the deal the insurgents signed with the United States just over a week ago.

"The Taliban need to keep their part of the bargain," U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said Tuesday.

"They are continuing attacks. Those attacks are relatively low in scale. They are not directed against coalition forces. They are not occurring in city centers. They are occurring at isolated checkpoints. But those attacks are occurring, and they are not consistent with a movement toward a negotiated settlement, and they are not consistent with the undertaking they made."

The terms: McKenzie was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee as lawmakers continue to express concern with the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban that lays out a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Under the deal, the U.S. military is drawing down to 8,600 troops over 135 days. U.S. Forces in Afghanistan announced Monday the drawdown has begun.

The deal also calls for a full U.S. withdrawal in 14 months if the Taliban lives up to its commitment to prevent Afghanistan from being used by al Qaeda and other terrorists to attack the West.

No military plans developed yet: Despite the terms of the agreement, McKenzie said Tuesday "we have not developed military plans to that end yet."

The deal ties the withdrawal to the Taliban's counterterrorism pledges, not a political settlement between the insurgents and the Afghan government or the capabilities of Afghan security forces.

But if the U.S. military sees Afghan forces are incapable of standing on their own, McKenzie said it would "absolutely" be his advice not to withdraw.

Neither McKenzie nor Kathryn Wheelbarger, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, who was also testifying, said they knew why 14 months was chosen for a full withdrawal. Both referred the question to the State Department.

A quickly broken deal: Days after the deal was signed, the Taliban announced it would no longer abide by a reduction in violence that it followed in the week leading up to the signing. The Taliban's attacks on Afghan military checkpoints led to the U.S. military to conduct an airstrike against the insurgents Wednesday.

On Tuesday, McKenzie said he has "no confidence" in the Taliban but argued that didn't matter because he is "going to be driven by the observed facts."

"Either they will draw down the current level of attacks or they won't," McKenzie said. "And if they're unable to draw down the current levels of attacks, then political leadership will be able to make decisions based on that."

"But it doesn't matter whether I'm optimistic or I'm pessimistic. We'll see what happens on the ground," he added. "To date, Taliban attacks are higher than we believe is consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan."

Prisoners ordered released: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has issued a decree to release Taliban prisoners ahead of talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government, his spokesman said Tuesday, potentially removing an obstacle to implementing the U.S.-Taliban deal.

"President Ghani has signed the decree that would facilitate the release of the Taliban prisoners in accordance with an accepted framework for the start of negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government," spokesman Sediq Sediqqi tweeted in English.

A first batch of 1,500 prisoners will be released starting Saturday, with 100 released per day, Sadiqqi said in subsequent tweets in Persian.

Once direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government begin, the Afghan government will release 500 prisoners every two weeks until another 3,500 are released, he said.

The release of the 3,500 will only move forward if there is a concrete reduction in violence, Sadiqqi added.



White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien will speak at 10 a.m. at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

The full House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on "National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activity in North and South America" with Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security; Adm. Craig Faller, commander, U.S. Southern Command; and Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, commander, U.S. Northern Command, at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118.  

A House Armed Services subcommittee will hear from defense officials on "Reviewing Department of Defense Science and Technology Strategy, Policy, and Programs for Fiscal Year 2021: Maintaining a Robust Ecosystem for Our Technological Edge," at 2 p.m. in Rayburn, 2118.

Two House Armed Services subcommittees will hold a joint hearing on "Sealift and Mobility Requirements in Support of the National Defense Strategy" with Gen. Steve Lyons, commander, U.S. Transportation Command; Mark Buzby, U.S. Maritime Administration; Vice Adm. Ricky Williamson, deputy Chief of Naval Operations, and Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, at 2:30 p.m. in Rayburn 2212.  

A Senate Armed Services subcommittee will hear from Matthew Donovan, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness; Virginia Penrod, acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs; Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs; Thomas Constable, acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness; and Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director, office of force resiliency, on personnel programs in the Defense Department at 2:30 p.m. in Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 106.  

Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller will speak at a George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs discussion on "The State of the Transatlantic Alliance," at 6 p.m. in Washington, D.C. 



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