OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing

OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday 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. 

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THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Mark Esper reportedly plans to work with lawmakers to create legislation that would remove the names of Confederate leaders from military bases.

Such a move, likely to draw the ire of President Trump, also comes as Esper is expected to leave his role after the announced results of the presidential election, regardless of who wins.

Three current defense officials told NBC News that Esper has already drafted a resignation letter after months of reports that pointed to Trump’s displeasure with his Pentagon chief.

Esper now intends to work with Congress to put language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to cement into law name changes at military installations, three officials said.

He also reportedly provided a written framework this week to Pentagon leaders for stripping out the Confederate names, which could possibly extend to ships and street names on bases, the officials said.

Where the NDAA is now: Negotiations over the House and Senate versions of the NDAA have been stalled for weeks pending the outcome of the presidential election, though both require bases to be renamed. The Senate’s bill would stipulate the change come in three years, while the House version would force the change in one year.

Christian Unkenholz, a spokesman for Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.)— who sponsored the language on Confederate bases in the House NDAA — said the office hasn’t heard anything directly about Esper's position.

“Congressman Brown certainly welcomes Secretary Esper to this fight and hopes to count on his support for a strong provision in the final NDAA,” Unkenholz said.

Another House aide familiar with the issue told The Hill that lawmakers are “not tracking any attempts to reach out on this issue as part of the conference process.”

What the Pentagon says: Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, meanwhile, would not confirm such efforts, and said the Defense Department “works with Congress to provide the administration’s concerns and views regarding proposed defense-related legislation — particularly when House and Senate versions of defense bills are being reconciled and finalized.”

“This does not indicate support for previously proposed legislative language. Out of respect for the members of Congress who have sought technical assistance in good faith, we generally do not discuss these efforts,” Hoffman said in a statement.

He also called the report that Esper had already drafted a resignation letter “inaccurate and misleading in many ways.” 

“To be clear, Secretary of Defense Esper has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation. He continues to serve the nation as the Secretary of Defense at the pleasure of the President and is working on the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy. The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a tiresome, well-worn, DC-insider, post-election parlor game.”

Strained relations: Since this summer, Trump has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Esper, who broke with the president in June when he opposed using active-duty troops against protesters. At the time, Trump repeatedly threatened to send in the military to quell demonstrations against racial injustice and police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The relationship soured further in July when Esper effectively banned the display of the Confederate battle flag on Pentagon property even as Trump continued to defend its display as an issue of free speech. 

In August, during a press conference at his Bedminster, N.J., property, Trump said that he "considers firing everybody" when asked if he considered firing Esper.  

“Some people call him Yesper,” Trump said, referring to the nickname that administration officials and even lawmakers reportedly gave Esper over his seemingly unfettered loyalty to implementing the president’s directives.

Resisting changes: Trump has frequently pushed back against moves to pull Confederate names from military bases, tweeting in June that “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations."

He has also threatened to veto the NDAA if the final version that reaches his desk requires name changes.

 

ENEMY ATTACKS IN AFGHANISTAN JUMP BY 50 PERCENT, WATCHDOG SAYS: Attacks carried out by the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan surged by 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020, according to a Pentagon watchdog report released Thursday.

“According to United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), average daily enemy-initiated attacks this quarter were 50 percent higher compared to last quarter,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote in its latest quarterly report, covering July through September.

“Overall enemy-initiated attacks were also ‘above seasonal norms,’” the report added.

The exact number of so-called enemy-initiated attacks has been restricted from public release since earlier this year, with officials telling SIGAR for its May report that releasing the data could complicate ongoing talks with the Taliban.

Background: In February, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that calls for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by this coming May if the insurgents uphold counterterrorism commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

Since the deal was signed, the Taliban has stepped up attacks against Afghan forces. Such attacks do not violate the deal, but U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned the level of violence as unacceptably high and threatening to the peace process.

The ongoing violence in Afghanistan was thrown into stark relief earlier this week when gunmen stormed Kabul University, killing dozens. The Afghan branch of ISIS has taken credit for the attack, and the Taliban has denied responsibility.

What the report says: The Taliban is “calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine” Afghan forces and the Afghan government, but keeping the violence to “a level it perceives is within the bounds of the agreement, probably to encourage a U.S. troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan,” the Pentagon is quoted as saying in the SIGAR report.

While the U.S.-Taliban deal does not bar attacks on Afghan forces, it does prohibit attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. The New York Times reported in August that the Taliban was suspected of firing rockets at two U.S. military bases that month and in July, but that there were no U.S. casualties.

SIGAR asked the U.S. military whether there have been any confirmed or suspected attacks on U.S. personnel or facilities since Afghan peace talks began and whether any attacks violated the U.S.-Taliban deal, but the answer was classified, according to the report.

Drawdown still happening: Amid the violence, U.S. forces continue to draw down, with the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan expected to hit 4,500 this month. National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said the number will further drop to 2,500 early next year, though he has publicly sparred with military officials over the plans and President Trump has been pushing for an even quicker withdrawal.

Department of Defense (DOD) officials told SIGAR on Oct. 18 that the department “does not have orders to change our current drawdown plan, which directs a reduction in forces to between 4,000 and 5,000 by the end of November 2020,” according to the report.

  

FORT HOOD SOLDIER ARRESTED, CHARGED IN CHELSEA CHEATHAM KILLING: A soldier based at Fort Hood, Texas, has been arrested and charged with murder in the case of a woman killed more than a year ago at a local motel.

Spc. Cory Grafton, 20, was arrested on Tuesday on a warrant for murder in the June 3, 2019, killing of Chelsea Cheatham, 32. 

Cheatham was found unresponsive at the Days Inn by Wyndham in Killeen, the town that houses the Army installation. 

Officers and paramedics called to the scene were unable to revive her and she was pronounced dead, according to a Killeen Police press release. After an autopsy, her death was ruled a homicide.

What led to his arrest: DNA evidence and witness testimony led investigators to arrest Grafton, who is assigned to Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division.

A witness first told police that they allegedly saw Grafton at the motel around the time of Cheatham's death.  

“With the assistance from the Texas Rangers, DNA from the scene was submitted and the results confirmed that Grafton matched the DNA located on Cheatham,” Killeen Police said in the release. Detectives then obtained a warrant and took Grafton into custody.

Grafton is being held on the charge of first degree felony murder with his bond set at $1 million, according to Bell County inmate records.

Incidents add up: Cheatham’s death adds to the numerous high-profile crimes linked this year to one of the military's most troubled installations.

An average of 129 felonies were committed annually at Fort Hood between 2014 and 2019, including cases of homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault, according to Army data.

Twenty-eight soldiers have died this year alone at the post, where roughly 36,500 soldiers are assigned.

Other cases that have garnered national attention include the disappearances and discoveries of the bodies of Pfc. Vanessa Guillen, 20, Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, Pvt. Mejhor Morta, 26, and Pfc. Gregory Morales, 24. 

Guillen went missing in April before her body was discovered in July. Army officials suspect another soldier, Aaron David Robinson, of bludgeoning her to death, though he committed suicide a day after Guillen’s body was discovered.

Changes coming?: Following the string of incidents, the Army announced changes to Fort Hood leadership, including the removal of the commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, and barred him from a planned position at another Texas base.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy in July directed the service to independently review the command climate at the installation.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Assistant Defense Secretary for Acquisition Kevin Fahey will speak at the National Defense Industrial Association’s virtual 2020 Joint Armaments, Robotics and Munitions Digital Experience, at 9 a.m. 

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webcast on “Enabling the 21st Century Operator," with Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Director Lt. Gen. Michael Green, at 1 p.m. 

Maj. Gen. John Shaw, commander, Combined Force U.S. Space Component Command; and Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellDelta variant's spread hampers Labor Day air travel, industry recovery Wyden asks White House for details on jet fuel shortage amid wildfire season Air travel hits pandemic high MORE (D-Wash.), will speak at the University of Washington Space Policy and Research Center (SPARC) Symposium at 2:30 p.m.  

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: Uncertainty, Trump loom over packed year-end agenda  

— The Hill: World holds collective breath over US election outcome

— The Hill: Civil unrest fears grow as protests hit vote-counting battleground states

— The Hill: Pompeo expresses concern, urges peace in escalating Ethiopian conflict

— The Hill: Kahele wins Hawaii House race to replace Gabbard

— Military Times: Former military leaders: Trump’s tweet is ‘attack on our electoral process’

— The New York Times: Deadly School Assault Catapults Kabul into Even More Despair