Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States, modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily.
Here's this week's briefing:
With Secretary of Defense James Mattis leaving the Pentagon at the end of the year, a key question for any prospective replacement is how to execute on presidential guidance to draw down US troops from actively hostile theaters. Withdrawing roughly 2,000 US troops from Syria on a short time frame -- by either relocating them elsewhere in the region to continue supporting the global coalition against ISIS or deploying them back home -- will be a complex task unto itself. Throw in an anticipated troop draw down in Afghanistan involving about 7,000 more troops, and the next defense secretary faces a herculean task that includes the unenviable job of convincing coalition members to stay engaged in missions we are turning away from.
Syria and Afghanistan may seem far away, and there is plenty of inaccurate messaging that says our troops are there fighting someone else's wars. But make no mistake -- they there because of us. US soldiers are in Syria with a clear mission to fight ISIS, while our troops in Afghanistan are part of a 17-year mission to destroy al-Qaeda and counter the Taliban. These organizations are known enemies of the United States with the proven intent and capability of attacking the homeland. We are engaged in these regions because there is a national security imperative to do so.
Trumping Trump is dangerous: The decision to withdraw about half of all US forces from Afghanistan would override the administration's own strategy, announced in August 2017, to pursue a conditions-based approach to Afghanistan. Less than a year later, the Department of Defense said that the strategy was working when they reported that shifting from a time-based approach to a conditions-based strategy "sowed new doubt in the Taliban, as fighters and leadership recognized that the United States is committed to Afghanistan." The Pentagon also noted that "increased military pressure, the increased capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and the renewed confidence of the Afghan government" had helped paved the way for meaningful negotiations with the Taliban. The precipitous draw down of US forces would remove these elements. It would be part of a new strategy of leaving, even though no conditions have been met to do so.
Withdrawing half our forces flies in the face of pursuing a conditions-based approach and would reduce the credibility of any new strategy announcements. It also would open a security vacuum that the Taliban (which still controls a significant portion of Afghan territory), other terrorist groups and other countries may exploit to sow more discord and pursue their objectives. This leaves the remaining coalition forces, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the Afghan people and potentially Americans vulnerable to attack.
Giving away our trump card: Based on the Pentagon's own assessment, a withdrawal would also concurrently kill any momentum for negotiations between the Taliban and the US. We'd be giving the Taliban what they want and getting nothing in return -- not an end to the violence nor the release of US hostages.
The Taliban is rejoicing after reports of a US troop draw down. The Taliban has been trying to negotiate for the withdrawal of NATO forces for years; it is their desired end goal.
We also just asked Pakistan to help the peace process in Afghanistan. But by withdrawing our forces and ruining the conditions for negotiations, our appeal to Pakistan looks like a waste of their time. Our relationship took a hit when we cut off security assistance earlier this year. Now they will likely pay even less attention to our requests for help down the road.
Crying wolf has consequences: We are currently in Afghanistan as part of a NATO coalition. NATO is in Afghanistan because they are supporting us, in the wake of 9/11, and because they recognize the threat emanating from Afghanistan. They've done the same in Iraq, where they have supported us since 2004.
Similarly, we said there was a threat from ISIS and more than 70 other countries and organizations joined our coalition to fight the terrorist organization. Now, with claims that from the administration that ISIS is "largely defeated," we are withdrawing and abandoning our coalition responsibilities.
We asked for help, our calls were answered -- and now we're leaving other coalition members to do a job we no longer want to do.
This will impact our ability to build coalitions going forward. Mattis noted that he and the President aren't aligned on strategic issues like the importance of allies and coalitions. The President seemed to agree with Mattis when he tweeted on Saturday that allies are important. But he still managed to insult them when they are reeling from news of US withdrawals by saying they take advantage of us.
Other countries are going to question whether we're crying wolf about the gravity of threats and need to stay engaged in missions we've started. We may also be exposing remaining NATO forces to more risk as they are unprepared for new levels of insecurity, without having had to the time to plan for our orderly withdrawal.
To mitigate these risks, it's imperative that the White House reconsider any rapid draw down of US forces so the Pentagon can assess the most orderly and safe way to bring US troops home. Concurrently, the State Department and intelligence community should provide guidance on whether a rapid troop withdrawal will kill the chances for a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government -- and what we want from the Taliban if we grant their main request, US forces leaving Afghanistan.
We're also assessing evolving developments on the following issues:
Troop withdrawals are trending: With the news of possible US troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, our enemies are striking while the iron is hot. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US military presence in Japan is an obstacle to Russian-Japanese peace treaty negotiations, while North Korea raised, yet again, its demand for US troop withdrawals from the Korean peninsula before it will denuclearize. Other countries like Iraq are probably wondering whether you're considering pulling troops there as well. Because of a perceived willingness to abandon military missions even when they aren't accomplished, our enemies will probably try to convince the White House that US troops do more harm than good and leverage the opportunity for their own benefit.
Oops, they did it again: The latest report from the director of national intelligence indicated that the voting infrastructure was not compromised by foreign actors during the midterm elections in November. It remains unclear whether our defenses prevented any efforts or if hackers simply didn't bother. However, the DNI did find that foreign actors -- including Russia, Iran and China -- continued their influence operations during the midterms. Election security planning for 2020 will need to focus on defending against information warfare attacks as well as effectively deterring them.
Border security: The Israeli government has started destroying Hezbollah tunnels that run from Lebanon into Northern Israel. Tensions on the border, however, are rising. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the tunnels constitute an act of war by Hezbollah and blamed the Lebanese government for not doing enough to prevent Hezbollah from attacking Israel. This could lead to increased tensions between Israel and Lebanon, as well as more direct Israeli actions against Hezbollah and anyone in Lebanon they hold responsible for Hezbollah's activities.