Overnight Defense: Taliban peace deal hits new roadblock | Conservationists sue Trump over wall funding | Pompeo heads to Israel

Overnight Defense: Taliban peace deal hits new roadblock | Conservationists sue Trump over wall funding | Pompeo heads to Israel
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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: The path to a U.S. peace deal with the Taliban has hit another major roadblock.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday ordered his country’s security forces into an “offensive” mode against the Taliban and other enemies after a particularly bloody day for Afghanistan.

“In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies,” Ghani said in a televised speech, according to Reuters.

The Pentagon’s response: In response to Ghani’s comments, the Pentagon said it will defend the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) against the Taliban if necessary.

“Consistent with the agreement, the U.S. military will continue to conduct defensive strikes against the Taliban when they attack our ANDSF partners,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell said in a statement. “As the secretary of Defense stated recently, this is going to be a windy, bumpy road, but a political agreement is the best way to end the war."

What prompted Ghani’s order: Earlier on Tuesday in west Kabul, militants stormed a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders. At least 14 people, including two newborn babies, were killed.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban denied involvement. The neighborhood where the hospital is located, Dasht-e-Barchi, has seen several ISIS attacks in the past.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least 24 people and injured at least 68 at a funeral in the eastern Nangarhar province. The Taliban also denied responsibility for the attack in Nangarhar, which is a known hotbed of ISIS activity. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar attack, according to the SITE Intel Group

In his speech, Ghani blamed the Taliban and ISIS for the attacks.

"Today we witnessed terrorist attacks by the Taliban and Daesh groups on a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in Nangarhar, as well as other attacks in the country," Ghani said, according to Agence France-Presse, using the Arabic abbreviation for ISIS.

Pompeo weighs in: In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFormer British governor: China has betrayed Hong Kong The other dangerous virus infecting our country Hong Kong police fire tear gas at pro-democracy demonstrators MORE condemned the "horrific terrorist attacks," adding that "to attack infants and women in labor in the sanctuary of a hospital is an act of sheer evil."

Pompeo's statement made no explicit reference to Ghani's speech, but said U.S. officials "note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous."

"The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice," Pompeo said. "As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism."

A step back to offensive: Afghan forces have been in a defensive posture against the Taliban since late February when the insurgents agreed to reduce violence in exchange for the United States signing a troop withdrawal deal. The Taliban quickly resumed attacks on Afghan forces after the deal was signed.

In addition to the Taliban’s resumption of attacks on Afghan forces, several challenges have hit the U.S.-Taliban deal since its signing. The agreement was supposed to precede talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government, but those talks have not materialized amid disagreements over a prisoner swap and a dispute between Ghani and his chief political rival.

The agreement called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban releasing 1,000 government prisoners ahead of the talks. But just a fraction of prisoners from both sides have been released.

Meanwhile, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to be the winner of Afghanistan’s September elections, stalling efforts at talks with the Taliban as the two negotiate an end to their own feud.

US withdrawal still on track: Still, U.S. defense officials have said the U.S. military is on track to draw down to 8,600 troops by mid-July as laid out in the agreement.

The agreement also calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by 14 months from its signing, which U.S. officials have said will be based on conditions on the ground and the Taliban honoring its counterterrorism commitments.

Not living up to commitments: Last week, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBirx: 'I'm very concerned when people go out and don't maintain social distancing' Roundup: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 today 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE said both the Taliban and the Afghan government, which is not a signatory to the U.S.-Taliban deal, were not living up to their commitments. 

“I said this would be a long, windy and bumpy road, and it has been a long, windy and bumpy road. I mean, it's not moved as fast as we would like, certainly,” Esper said at a Pentagon briefing.

Asked if the Taliban was living up to its commitments, Esper said, “I don't think they are,” adding “neither side in this case” is.

 

CONSERVATIONISTS SUE TRUMP ADMIN OVER BORDER WALL: A coalition of conservation groups is suing the Trump administration over its signature border wall, arguing that the transfer of military funds for the wall’s construction is unconstitutional and claiming that the administration did not have the right to waive certain environmental requirements. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit in federal court in D.C. on Tuesday. 

A reminder: This is not the first time the administration was sued over its February reallocation of $3.8 billion in Pentagon funds for use on the wall. At that time, two additional suits, one by a group of 19 states and another by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, were filed. 

The diversion of Pentagon dollars follows additional funding taken last year for the wall following President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE’s declaration of a national emergency at the border.

The latest suit: The Tuesday suit, in addition to arguing that the transfer of funds was illegal, also challenged a March decision by the Department of Homeland Security to waive requirements such as environmental impact statements. 

The lawsuit called the waiver of environmental stipulations “an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power by an executive branch official and violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers and non-delegation requirements.”

Dwindling jaguars: Their suit also brought up the effect they believe the construction will have on area wildlife, saying it could result in the elimination of jaguars in the U.S. 

“This latest construction proposal would block critical cross-border wildlife corridors and permanently impede recovery efforts for endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf and jaguar,” said a statement from Jason Rylander, the senior counsel for Defenders of Wildlife.

 

POMPEO HEADED TO ISRAEL TO TALK IRAN, CHINA RISKS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will focus his conversation with Israeli leaders on efforts to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and the risks posed by Israel's close relationship with China, he said in an interview Tuesday.

Several firsts: Pompeo is making his first international trip to Israel and is the first senior member of the Trump administration to travel abroad during the coronavirus pandemic. 

His visit to Israel on Wednesday comes one day before the swearing in of a new Israeli government after three national elections, with incumbent Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE continuing as prime minister in a power-sharing deal with his political rival Benny Gantz.  

The reason for the trip: Pompeo gave an interview to the conservative Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom ahead of his visit, saying it is important to have a meeting “face to face” with Israeli leadership and that precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“I think we can do this. Our medical teams have been in close contact. We are going to comply with all of our CDC guidelines and all of the requirements inside Israel as well,” Pompeo said.

“There are a whole range of issues that I want to discuss. The continued threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and how we will work together to deter them and to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. 

The secretary will also raise issues of Israel’s growing economic ties to China. Israeli officials have signaled continued cooperation with Beijing despite concerns raised by the U.S. 

Pushing Trump’s ‘vision for peace’: Pompeo said the purpose of his visit is to bring Netanyahu and Gantz “up to speed on the progress” of the President Trump’s “vision for peace” – the administration’s plan for resolving the Israeli and Palestinian conflict that was announced in January. 

Netanyahu and Gantz are expected to bring for a vote to the newly-formed government the issue of beginning annexation of parts of the West Bank, territories identified in the Trump administration’s peace plan as belonging to Israel. 

U.S. and Israeli officials had earlier started detailing maps of the West Bank and identifying specific areas for Israeli annexation, although the team has not released any updated maps since the publication of the Trump peace plan in January. 

Those maps envisioned at least Israeli control over the entire Jordan Valley and Israeli communities in the West Bank, leaving disconnected Palestinian Territories to be encircled by Israeli security barrier.

No endorsement: Pompeo on Tuesday pushed back that the peace plan was not endorsed by Jordan and Egypt, key U.S. allies and the only Arab countries that maintain peace treaties with Israel.

Both countries initially offered muted support for efforts leading to a two-state solution, but ultimately were part of a later statement by the Arab League rejecting the Trump plan.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webcast on “The Russian Campaign in Syria: Assessing Russian Strategy, Goals and Operations,” at noon.

The Institute of World Politics will host a video event on “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in China's Strategy,” at 5 p.m. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Militants attack Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan

-- The New York Times: A Rocket Attack. Two Narratives. This Is What Happened.

-- Stars and Stripes: VA says 200,000 have signed burn pit registry; advocates argue lists don’t provide health care for vets

-- The Associated Press: Bulging deficits may threaten prized Pentagon arms projects

-- Military Times: Special operators will be countering violent extremists for the ‘long haul’