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Overnight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release

Overnight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release
© Greg Nash

Happy Monday 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: Thousands more U.S. troops are poised to leave Afghanistan in the coming months, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Trump campaign event use of Marine Corps helicopter raises ethics questions The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Smart or senseless for Biden to spend time in Georgia, Iowa? MORE confirmed over the weekend.

In an interview with Fox News, Esper said that “we're going down to a number less than 5,000 by the end of November.”

Esper’s comments came after President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE first told Axios in an interview that aired last week that there would “probably” be 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by Election Day.

There are about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan right now, in line with the agreement the Trump administration struck with the Taliban earlier this year.

U.S. military officials have previously said any further drawdowns would be “conditions-based,” a phrase Esper repeated in the Fox interview, though Taliban attacks against Afghan forces remain high.

“But right now, we think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being ensure the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan,” Esper said. “We can do those at a lower level.”

Progress on intra-Afghan talks: The U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement was meant to proceed talks between the Taliban and Afghan government to end the war.

Now, months after those talks were first expected to begin, they appear to actually be on the precipice of happening after the Afghan government agreed to complete a prisoner swap.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed Sunday to release the final 400 Taliban prisoners as recommended by an assembly known as the Loya Jirga.

The intra-Afghan talks are now expected to start in day in Doha, Qatar.

“With these bold steps, after 40 years of war, a historic opportunity for peace is now possible; one that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security,” U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted about Ghani’s announcement.

“In the next few days, we expect the completion of prisoner releases, then travel of the Islamic Republic team to Doha, & from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Khalilzad added.

STATE SAYS IT'S EXONERATED BY INVESTIGATION INTO ARMS SALES: The State Department said Monday that an inspector general investigation into last year’s emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies cleared the department of wrongdoing -- though the inspector general report itself has yet to be released.

A news release from the department said the report will say the “secretary’s May 2019 use of emergency authorities was executed in accordance with the requirements of Section 36 of [Arms Export Control Act].”

The release also called the investigation an “inquisition” that took “an astounding expenditure of taxpayer resources” to complete, as well as taking a swipe at Democrats and the media.

“Now that the OIG [Office of the Inspector General] has completed its work, we hope these members and media outlets who echoed their baseless accusations will publicly accept the findings of the report they requested from the OIG and immediately retract their statements from the past year,” the statement said, specifically calling out House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelTrump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency Office of Special Counsel widens Pompeo probe into Hatch Act violations  Overnight Defense: Trump, Biden set to meet in final debate | Explicit Fort Bragg tweets were sent by account administrator | China threatens retaliation over Taiwan arms sale MORE (D-N.Y.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezTrump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Watchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump MORE (D-N.J.) and the New York Times.

The OIG did not immediately return a request for comment.

Background: At the time of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo says US to open embassy in the Maldives Microsoft: Iranian hacking group targeting attendees of major international security conferences American money for American ideas: Think tanks should disclose foreign funding MORE’s emergency declaration last year, the arms sales ignited fierce opposition on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers had been preventing the sale from proceeding over fury at Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and concerns about civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

After the emergency declaration, lawmakers voted to block the sales, but Trump vetoed the resolutions.

Scrutiny was raised anew earlier this after Trump fired Steve Linick as the State Department’s inspector general at Pompeo’s request and it was reported an investigation into the emergency arms sales was among his ongoing work. Democrats have since linked the firing to the arms sale investigation.

COMING THIS WEEK, PIVOTAL UN VOTE: This week, the Trump administration faces a key vote at the United Nations on its resolution to extend an arms embargo on Iran.

Over the weekend, we took a look at how the resolution is likely to fail and what that means.

In the likelihood it fails, the Trump administration has threatened to invoke snapback sanctions, which supporters of the Iran nuclear deal fear will be the agreement’s death knell.

The gambit also risks further alienating the United States from its allies, which continue to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and have rebuffed the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

“The Trump administration knows that the arms embargo isn’t going to get renewed and, more than anything, this is a driver for them to try to invoke snapback and destroy what's left of the JCPOA,” said Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Read the rest here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Defense Intelligence Agency's diversity, equality and inclusion officer, Janice Glover-Jones, will participate in the Intelligence & National Security Alliance’s virtual "Coffee and Conversation” at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/2XNnahS

Booz Allen Hamilton will host a webinar on directed energy weapons, featuring Chris Behre from the office of principal director for directed energy at the Pentagon, at noon. https://bit.ly/3kvdceP

ICYMI

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