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Overnight Defense: Pentagon prepping for Trump order to draw down in Afghanistan, Iraq | Questions swirl after DOD purge | 10th service member killed by COVID-19

Overnight Defense: Pentagon prepping for Trump order to draw down in Afghanistan, Iraq | Questions swirl after DOD purge | 10th service member killed by COVID-19
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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: Expectations are rising that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE will make one more big cut to U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves office.

The Pentagon is preparing for Trump to order as soon as this week a drawdown from 4,500 to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15, according to multiple reports Monday.

The White House referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Context: In Afghanistan, U.S. military officials have been arguing against going below 4,500 troops while intra-Afghan peace talks continue and the Taliban has yet to uphold its part of its deal with the United States.

The U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February called for a full U.S. withdrawal by this coming May if the Taliban upholds counterterrorism commitments such a denying safe haven to al Qaeda. But Pentagon officials have said the Taliban hasn’t done that commitment yet.

In addition, the Taliban has stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, which U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned as threatening the peace process.

Miller’s message: Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller appeared to telegraph drawdowns in his first message to the force Friday.

Miller’s memo, though, at times contradicted itself. In the same paragraph where he said the war against al Qaeda “isn’t over,” he declared that “all wars must end.”

“As we prepare for the future, we remain committed to finishing the war that al Qaeda brought to our shores in 2001. This war isn't over. We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” he wrote.

“Indeed, this fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous, and many are weary of war — I'm one of them — but this is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” he continued. “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”

Republican warning: After news broke of the Pentagon’s preparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report MORE (R-Ky.) fired a warning shot against withdrawing more U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

McConnell didn’t directly criticize Trump, but he warned that only a "small minority" in Congress would support a quick drawdown and warned that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan "would hurt our allies and delight, delight, the people who wish us harm." 

"The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011. ... It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975. We'd be abandoning our partners in Afghanistan," he said from the Senate floor. 

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulOvernight Defense: Pentagon prepping for Trump order to draw down in Afghanistan, Iraq | Questions swirl after DOD purge | 10th service member killed by COVID-19 Former VOA producer sues US global media agency over termination Record number of women to serve in the next Congress MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also released a statement Monday warning against an Afghanistan withdrawal.

“A premature U.S. withdrawal would not only jeopardize the Afghan government’s ability to negotiate, but would endanger U.S. counterterrorism interests,” McCaul said. “The U.S.-Taliban agreement is conditions-based for a reason — the Taliban cannot be permitted to not fulfill their commitments while we fulfill ours. We need to ensure a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future to protect U.S. national and homeland security interests and to help secure peace for Afghanistan.”

UNDERSTANDING THE PURGE: Defense circles have been bracing for an Afghanistan pullout since last week’s purge at the Pentagon that started with Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Brennan takes final shot at Trump: 'I leave his fate to our judicial system, his infamy to history, & his legacy to a trash heap' MORE’s firing as Defense secretary.

Over the weekend, we took a look at the questions that have been raised by the shakeup. In addition to questions about what it meant for Afghanistan, others have also questioned whether the oustings were just petty score settling or something more nefarious.

The shakeup has led President Trump’s critics to sound the alarm, with Democratic lawmakers and others fearful of what the Pentagon’s new leadership will try to push through in Trump’s remaining two months in office.

But others say the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy and the military chain-of-command make any radical changes in less than 70 days difficult.

“All this speculation about, ‘Is Trump going to do something with the Insurrection Act, is he going to invade some country?’ No,” said Mark Cancian, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While “it’s not impossible that he would try some precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Cancian said, the military “could slow roll him” on anything he directs.

A former official from Trump’s 2016 transition blasted what they described as “score settling by inexperienced MAGA warriors in the White House,” calling it “downright dangerous in the national security community.”

“Transitions of power are delicate in any country and hostile nations have often seen transitions as a good time to take a risk to further their own advantage,” the former official told The Hill. “Decapitating the civilian leadership of the most powerful military on earth at its most vulnerable hour is inviting a crisis that could well get people killed.”

O’Brien downplays Esper rift: In an interview Monday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien discussed his relationship with Esper and denied that he was ever gunning for his job.

“There was a lot written about Mark Esper and myself,” O’Brien told The Hill editor-at-large Steve Clemons in an interview conducted for the Soufan Center’s Global Security Forum. “I never wanted Mark Esper’s job. I just wanted to see Mark Esper succeed and do a great job as secretary of Defense.”

Over the summer, when reports first surfaced that Trump was unhappy with Esper and close to firing him, CNN reported that O’Brien had expressed interest in the Defense secretary job, as well as secretary of State, should either position open up.

CNN and NBC News also reported that O’Brien at one point printed out a side-by-side comparison of his remarks about Trump versus Esper’s in an effort to highlight how he was more supportive of the president.

10TH MILITARY COVID DEATH: A 45-year-old Army reservist from Florida has died from COVID-19, an Army Reserve spokesman said Monday, marking the military’s 10th death from the disease.

Lt. Col. Simon Flake identified the deceased service member as Sgt. 1st Class Calvin Ogletree III from Lakeland, Fla.

His death was first noted in Monday’s update of the online chart the Pentagon maintains of coronavirus cases connected to the department.

He died Thursday at Florida's Bartow Regional Medical Center, Flake said in a statement.

Ogletree was an active-duty soldier from 1994 to 1997, working as a mechanic. During that time, he served in Germany, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1997, he transferred to the Army Reserve as a motor transport operator.

In 2003, Ogletree completed a combat tour in Iraq. His last assignment was as a senior writer instructor for the 8th Battalion-108th Regiment (Transportation) in Jacksonville, Fla., Flake said.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses Defense bill moves to formal negotiations with Confederate name fight looming Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, will provide a keynote speech at the Heritage Foundation’s launch of its “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength” at 11 a.m. https://herit.ag/2IATaBA

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown will speak about equity and inclusion in the Air Force at a virtual event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/2IzseSN

Officials from the Space Force, Commerce Department and NASA will discuss space situational awareness and space traffic management at 2 p.m. at a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://bit.ly/2KiI6tn

The Center for a New American Security will host a panel discussion on “The Biden Pentagon and the Future of U.S. Defense” at 3:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/3lIZ3Lm

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Trump wants to see Austin Tice home before he leaves office, says national security adviser

-- The Hill: Trump national security adviser calls lifting blockade on Qatar 'priority' in next 70 days

-- The Hill: Army identifies five soldiers killed in Egypt helicopter crash

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump's Pentagon shakeup may be more than perceived disloyalty

-- Los Angeles Times: Born into occupation, young Afghans fear the Taliban will crush their freedoms when U.S. troops exit

-- The New York Times: New virus, old enemy

-- Foreign Policy: Trump administration plans to designate Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists