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Overnight Defense: Top US general meets with Taliban | House panel launches probe into cyberattack | Army to issue face masks for soldiers in 2021

Overnight Defense: Top US general meets with Taliban | House panel launches probe into cyberattack | Army to issue face masks for soldiers in 2021
© 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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The top general in the U.S. military met with Taliban negotiators in Qatar this week in a bid to reduce violence in Afghanistan, his office said Thursday.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and State Department representatives met with Taliban representatives in Doha “as part of the military channel established in the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” his spokesperson, Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty, said in a statement.

“The chairman discussed the need for an immediate reduction of violence and accelerate progress towards a negotiated political solution which contributes to regional stability and safeguards U.S. national interests,” Flaherty added.

Previously undisclosed: The Tuesday meeting was actually Milley’s second with the Taliban, according to The Associated Press, one of three news outlets traveling with him. The first, previously undisclosed meeting happened in June in Doha.

No breakthrough was reported Thursday, but the top U.S. general meeting face-to-face with insurgents the United States has been fighting for 19 years is heavy with symbolism as America seeks to wind down its longest war. Milley himself served three tours of duty in Afghanistan.

“The most important part of the discussions that I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Milley told reporters traveling with him, according to the AP. “Everything else hinges on that.”

Afterward: After the latest Taliban meeting, Milley flew to Afghanistan and met with President Ashraf Ghani.

Milley and Ghani “discussed the current security environment in Afghanistan,” Flaherty said in a separate statement. “The United States remains fully committed to helping Afghans create a secure and stable Afghanistan by supporting inclusive efforts to achieve peace.”

The U.S. military is in the process of fulfilling President Trump’s order to draw down to 2,500 troops in the country by Jan. 15, days before he is set to leave office.

Some background: President-elect Joe Biden has said he would withdraw most troops from Afghanistan, but leave a small contingent of special forces there to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Trump has continued to push forward with drawing down in Afghanistan even as U.S. and military officials have said the Taliban has yet to meet commitments it agreed to in February.

The U.S.-Taliban deal calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by this coming May if the Taliban upholds counterterrorism commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

In addition to not yet breaking with al Qaeda, the Taliban has stepped up attacks against Afghan forces, drawing condemnation from U.S. officials.

 

HOUSE PANELS LAUNCH PROBE INTO MASSIVE CYBERATTACK: Two key House panels on Thursday announced a joint investigation into the massive cyberattack that hit multiple federal agencies, in what may be one of the most damaging digital intrusions in years.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) informed top intelligence officials that they will be investigating the breach of SolarWinds systems, which then led to the Commerce and Treasury departments falling victim to the intrusions. 

The State Department, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Institutes of Health were also impacted in the breach, according to The Washington Post, and the list is growing. 

“Our Committees are seeking information related to the apparent, widespread compromise of multiple federal government, critical infrastructure, and private sector information technology networks,” the chairs wrote in a letter to the leaders of the FBI, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and DHS.

What we know so far: Some reports have suggested that hackers working for Russia were monitoring the email traffic at Treasury and Commerce departments. Moscow has denied involvement in the intrusions.

DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a rare emergency directive this week that orders federal agencies to “disconnect or power down SolarWinds Orion products … from their network[s].”

The full impact of the hack is still being assessed.

Briefings wanted: The two committees are asking FBI Director Christopher Wray, DNI John Ratcliffe and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for a classified briefing on Friday about the hack and the extent of its fallout. 

FireEye, a major cybersecurity firm, was also hacked and it uncovered, through its own probe, that SolarWinds was hit in the intrusion.

SolarWinds, which makes network management software, represents a long list of big-name clients, from the White House and various federal agencies to major banks and Fortune 500 companies.

More stories from The Hill on the hack:

– Romney: 'Stunning' for White House not to respond on Russian cyberattack

– Energy Dept., nuclear agency breached as part of massive cyberattack

– Federal government finds evidence hackers used multiple methods to access agency networks

– Biden vows to make cybersecurity 'imperative' following massive hack

 

ARMY ISSUES FACE MASK FOR SOLDIERS IN 2021: The U.S. Army will begin issuing camouflage-print official combat cloth face coverings to new soldiers next year, the service announced Wednesday.

The Army Uniform Board (UAB) recommended the move this summer and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville approved the recommendation, according to an official release.

The service has been providing other reusable or disposable solid-color masks to soldiers in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

When they’ll be available: Beginning in the second quarter of fiscal year 2021, the Army will give two combat face coverings to each new soldier in initial entry training as part of their clothing bag issue.

The masks will most likely be available for consumer purchase at Army and Air Force Exchange Service uniform stores later next year.

Soldiers will still be permitted to wear Army-issue neck gaiters and other types of face coverings, the release said.

The UAB meets twice a year and is composed of soldiers from all levels of duty, including National Guard and Reserve members.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Will Roper, the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, will speak to reporters on a George Washington University Project for Media and National Security Defense Writers Group conference call at 10 a.m. 

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz; former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen; and former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer (D-Alaska), will speak at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s virtual film screening and discussion on "Polar Guardians: Coast Guard Icebreaking in the High Latitudes,” at 3:30 p.m. 

 

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– Military Times: Toxic chemical exposure can increase risk for COVID-19 complications — and adverse reactions to vaccine

– The New York Times: Pandemic Leaves More Military Families Seeking Food Assistance

– Stars and Stripes: New program aims to study impact of racial inequality on military families and veterans

– Defense News: Counter-drone startup Epirus raises $70M, plans to hire 100 people