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Overnight Defense: Pentagon says extremist groups 'very aggressively recruit' troops | Capitol Guard deployment estimated at $483M | No US combat deaths in Afghanistan for a year | VA secretary confirmed

Overnight Defense: Pentagon says extremist groups 'very aggressively recruit' troops | Capitol Guard deployment estimated at $483M | No US combat deaths in Afghanistan for a year | VA secretary confirmed
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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: As the Pentagon looks to root out extremists from its ranks, one of the issues it faces is extremist groups actively recruiting service members.

On Monday, the Defense Department’s top spokesman said such groups “very aggressively recruit” service members who are about to leave the ranks.

“Some of these groups are very organized, they very aggressively recruit soon-to-be veterans,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

Why the interest? Veterans are a major recruitment pool for far-right militia movements due to their experience with weapons, organization and leadership skills.

Pentagon leaders have long struggled with rooting out such thinking in the military and preventing service members from entering extremist groups, though the issue came to the forefront after the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol by supporters loyal to former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE.

Possible solutions: Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate US proposes new summit with Taliban on interim Afghan government Overnight Defense: White House open to reforming war powers | Army base might house migrant children | Fauci scolds military on vaccine MORE and military leaders are discussing potential new training for troops before they enter the military, while they are actively in the service and before they leave.

“We certainly need to take a look at how we’re educating potential recruits when they’re still civilians and before they sign on the dotted line, clearly. There’s probably education that we need to do while people are in uniform and in service about the pull of some of these extremist groups,” Kirby said.

That training would inform them of "what's waiting for them on the other side and who might be waiting for them on the other side,” he added.

Immediate action: Last week, the Pentagon also said Austin would order a military-wide “stand-down” to address extremism in the ranks, directing commanders to select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one-day pause to discuss the issue with their personnel.

Late Friday, the Pentagon released Austin’s memo ordering the stand-down, in which he said “discussions should include the importance of our oath of office; a description of impermissible behaviors; and procedures for reporting suspected, or actual, extremist behaviors in accordance” with Defense Department rules.

“We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” Austin wrote. “Service members, DoD civilian employees, and all those who support our mission, deserve an environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment.”

The stand-down, Kirby said Monday, is “an opportunity for leadership to listen to the men and women they lead and to their concerns, to their experiences, and maybe even their possible solutions for how to tackle this problem.”

Kirby stressed that the stand-down is just one step in what Austin believes will be a “very deliberate process to try to tackle this problem."

Austin “understands a one day stand down across the force isn’t going to solve everything, but it might bring to light concerns and experiences we're otherwise not aware” of, Kirby said.

He added that information gleaned from the effort “will inform later procedures, policies or actions the secretary puts in place going forward.”

DC SECURITY COSTS: Last week, we reported the National Guard deployment at the Capitol through mid-March would cost nearly $500 million, per a defense official.

On Monday, the National Guard and the Pentagon gave a more detailed, on-the-record breakdown.

The cost of the deployment through March 15 is estimated at $483 million, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a briefing.

The includes $284 million for personnel costs and $199 million for operations costs. 

In the Army National Guard, personnel costs are estimated at $256 million and operations at $165 million. For the Air National Guard, it’s $28 million for personnel and $34 million for operations.

The cost estimate covers the initial surge of 25,600 troops into D.C. after the Capitol attack and the drawdown to the 5,000 expected to stay through March 15, National Guard Bureau spokesperson Wayne Hall said in an email.

The operational costs include lodging, meals, transportation, sustainment and additional military air transportation costs to move required personnel and cargo, Hall said.

The cost estimate also includes a requirement to quarantine for 14 days upon returning home to comply with health guidance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

GOOD NEWS FROM AFGHANISTAN: It’s been a full year since a U.S. service member has died in combat in Afghanistan, the first time that’s happened since the war started nearly 20 years ago.

The last U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan were Feb. 8, 2020, when Army Sgts. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez and Antonio Rodriguez were killed in Nangarhar province after a gunman wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire.

Weeks later, on Feb. 29, 2020, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban that sets terms for a full U.S. military withdrawal. Since then, the Taliban has largely refrained from conducting attacks on U.S. troops, though it has stepped up attacks on Afghan forces.

Stars and Stripes first noted that a year has gone by without a combat death in America's longest war, which has seen 2,312 U.S. fatalities in total.

Though there have been no U.S. combat deaths in a year, there have been five noncombat deaths in Afghanistan over the last year, according to Defense Department statistics.

What next? The milestone comes as President BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE is deciding whether to withdraw from Afghanistan by May as called for in the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Over the weekend, we took a look at the decision Biden is facing, one that would be familiar to his immediate predecessors.

Experts are warning that a full U.S. military withdrawal could have dire consequences for Afghan and U.S. security. But Biden also faces domestic political pressures from those who say it is far past time to end America’s longest war.

During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to end so-called forever wars, but also said he would leave a small number of special forces in countries such as Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has said only that Afghanistan is one of the many policies it is reviewing in its early days. But the administration could be forced to make a decision sooner rather than later with a key NATO meeting in two weeks.

VA SECRETARY CONFIRMED: The Senate has confirmed Denis McDonough to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

In a Monday vote, the Senate confirmed McDonough 87-7. The no votes came from GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Rick Scott (Fla.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who has voiced his support for McDonough, was unable to vote due to flight delays caused by weather, preventing him from traveling to Washington, D.C.

McDonough, a former White House chief of staff under former President Obama, is only the second non-veteran to be voted into the post. The department oversees health care for some 9 million veterans, provides pensions and life insurance, helps with housing assistance and education and oversees national cemeteries. The VA is one of the federal government’s largest departments, with nearly 400,000 employees and a budget of $243 billion.

Prior to the vote, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) spoke in favor of McDonough, telling lawmakers that “veterans need someone like Denis fighting in their corner.”

“Now more than ever, veterans need a strong leader who will prioritize delivering timely and quality health care and benefits over making political points. I am confident that as VA secretary, Denis will be squarely focused on serving these needs,” Tester said.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson will speak at 10 a.m. a virtual Space Foundation Space Symposium 365 event. https://bit.ly/3jDaqUQ

Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden will speak about “Defense in the 21st Century” at 11 a.m. at an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://bit.ly/3a1s6q0

ICYMI

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-- Reuters: North Korea developed nuclear, missile programs in 2020: U.N. report

-- Roll Call: Senators killed measure to combat violent extremism in military

-- McClatchy: Biden to review deportations of veterans, military family that occurred under Trump

-- Stars and Stripes: Afghan pilot reputed for saving US lives reapplies for asylum after being approved and later rejected