Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders ‘stand down’ to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal
Happy Wednesday 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: The United States has officially extended its last remaining nuclear treaty with Russia for five years.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the extension of the New START treaty in a statement Wednesday morning, two days before the agreement was set to expire.
“Especially during times of tension, verifiable limits on Russia’s intercontinental-range nuclear weapons are vitally important,” Blinken said. “Extending the New START Treaty makes the United States, U.S. allies and partners, and the world safer. An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”
Background: New START, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, places caps on U.S. and Russian “strategic” nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration wanted to replace it with a treaty that included China, as well as Russia’s so-called tactical nuclear weapons. But China rejected joining the talks, and Russia wanted a clean five-year extension.
Shortly after taking office, President Biden announced he would pursue that clean five-year extension, which Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly agreed to.
What’s next: In his statement Wednesday, Blinken said the United States will work over the next five years to extend the parameters of the treaty to address all of Russia’s nuclear weapons while also pursuing arms control with China to reduce its nuclear arsenal.
“President Biden has made clear that the New START Treaty extension is only the beginning of our efforts to address 21st century security challenges,” Blinken said. “The United States is committed to effective arms control that enhances stability, transparency and predictability while reducing the risks of costly, dangerous arms races.”
Allies happy: In its own statement Wednesday morning, NATO’s North Atlantic Council said it “fully supports” the U.S. agreement with Russia.
“NATO allies believe the New START treaty contributes to international stability, and allies again express their strong support for its continued implementation and for early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability,” the statement said.
But the alliance also warned that extending the treaty does not eliminate threats posed by Russia.
“Even as the United States engages Russia in ways that advance our collective interests, NATO remains clear-eyed about the challenges Russia poses. We will work in close consultation to address Russia’s aggressive actions, which constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security,” the council said in a statement.
‘STAND DOWN’ TO STAND UP TO EXTREMISM: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a military-wide “stand-down” to address extremism in the ranks, though the Pentagon has little information on what that actually means.
Leaders are expected to hold “needed discussions” with subordinates about extremism in the next 60 days, top department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
But Kirby also said leadership still needs to provide specific guidance on the expectations of the stand down and that more details are coming. He could not say what Austin hopes to learn from the effort or his plans for after.
“One of the reasons the secretary wants to do this stand-down is to see the scope of the problem. . . . We don’t want to overestimate or underestimate the number of people it might affect,” Kirby said.
“It may be more than we’re comfortable hearing and admitting and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be. But where is it? It’s just not clear.”
Austin made the decision Wednesday after he met with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and the service secretaries and chiefs.
In the Navy: Earlier Wednesday, the Navy released nearly 60 recommendations in an attempt to quell racial and gender-based discrimination among its sailors.
The final report of Task Force One Navy — which for six months has scrutinized systemic racism and discrimination in its ranks based on race, sexual orientation and identity, gender and religious beliefs — found that the service needs to do more to address hate speech and a lack of diversity among its top officials.
The report lays out 57 recommendations that span across recruiting, career development and retention, finding that existing efforts, “while admirable in many respects, clearly fell short of adequately addressing the societal challenges of today.”
“We needed to seize this moment to engage in conversations about race, diversity and inclusion within our force more than ever before,” the report states. “We had to have open, honest and necessary conversations across our Navy and take action.”
BIPARTISAN PANEL SAYS TO DELAY AFGHANISTAN WITHDRAWAL: The Taliban has not met conditions that would warrant a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May, a congressionally mandated panel said in a report released Wednesday, recommending the Biden administration instead refocus on the conditions of the withdrawal as agreed to last year and work to extend the impending deadline.
The Afghanistan Study Group “believes that it will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for those conditions to be achieved by May 2021, when the agreement states that troops should be withdrawn,” the report said.
“Achieving the overall objective of a negotiated stable peace that meets U.S. interests would need to begin with securing an extension of the May deadline,” the report continued, adding that “the United States must elevate the importance of the conditions allowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops.”
Speaking to reporters ahead of the report’s release, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen. Joseph Dunford, who co-chaired the group, said the panel “tried to not be emotional … about the, ‘Should we stay or should we go, we’ve been there 20 years.’”
“We think that right now the focus ought to be on taking advantage, to the extent possible, the Afghan peace negotiation and setting the conditions for a pathway for the Afghans eventually to come up with a construct where they can address the political extremes of the Taliban and the Afghan government,” added Dunford, whose tenure as the nation’s top general spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations.
“So I understand from an emotional perspective people who would say to leave. But from a pure logic, unemotional, analytic approach, we think the approach that we’ve offered to the administration is the right way to go,” Dunford said.
Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), another co-chair, added the question is “not whether we leave, it’s how we leave.”
Administration’s reaction: A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the report, but a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon officials are “deeply appreciative” of the panel’s “thoughtful work” and “look forward to closely examining the recommendations contained in the comprehensive report.”
“We are still unpacking the [study group] report, but we understand that it aligns with our emphasis on supporting the ongoing peace process to end the war through a just and durable political settlement, to mobilize the regional consensus for peace, and to reaffirm a conditions-based withdrawal,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The Pentagon did not respond directly to the report, but pointed to recent statements from administration officials that “prudent reviews of the U.S.-Taliban agreement are occurring across the interagency.”
“There is no military solution to conflict in Afghanistan,” Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick said in a statement to The Hill. “After more than 19 years of war, the path to a lasting peace for the people of Afghanistan is paved by an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. This is happening and the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan peace process.”
“As with all defense-related matters, DoD provides its best military advice, assessments and other requested input during such reviews, but no decisions have been made regarding any future conditions-based force level revisions,” he added.
CONGRESS GETS ORGANIZED: The 117th Congress started a month ago, but committees are just now officially organizing.
The House Armed Services Committee held its organizational meeting Wednesday morning. Afterward, committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) announced the creation of two new subcommittees to replace the previous Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee.
One of the new subpanels will be the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, chaired by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.).
The other one will be the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, chaired by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
In the Senate: The Senate on Wednesday also finally passed an organizing resolution, officially handing committee gavels over to Democrats.
That means Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is officially the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I am honored to lead this committee,” Reed said in a statement Wednesday. “I hope to match the sacrifice and commitment of our service men and women and be worthy of the trust that the people of Rhode Island have placed in me. This job requires putting the needs and security of our nation first and that is what I strive to do.”
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats also announced new committee assignments. Joining the Armed Services Committee are Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). They replace former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who lost reelection, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who won a spot on the Appropriations Committee.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a closed-door briefing on the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/2NZ4slb
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a business meeting to consider Linda Thomas-Greenfield nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3rhv9ju
Anthony Fauci, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other officials will participate in a virtual Blue Star Families/American Red Cross town hall on the COVID-19 vaccine at 3 p.m. Register at tfaforms.com/4876485 or livestream at defense.gov/live.
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