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Biden's winning the Afghan messaging – POLITICO – Politico


With help from Bryan Bender, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson

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FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — The Biden administration’s messaging on Afghanistan is working, new polling seen exclusively by NatSec Daily shows — a boon to Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN and Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN as they head into congressional hearings on the chaotic withdrawal.

The C|T Group, an international consulting firm, sent one-sentence arguments to people in the United States, Britain and Australia, both in favor of and against President JOE BIDEN’s pullout decision. They found that pro-withdrawal lines drove more people to support leaving Afghanistan, whereas statements that backed remaining in the country weren’t as convincing.

The most effective line for Biden was this one: “The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 20 years, that is far too long, regardless of the impact we should leave now.” Six other summations of the administration’s arguments — such as how the United States couldn’t keep spending money to prop up an ineffective Afghan state — also resonated with the American, British and Australian respondents.

“Our data shows that the Biden administration, the messaging it’s doing, is reaching an audience and is making an impact,” said PRICE FLOYD, director of campaigns and communications at C|T’s Washington, D.C., office.

But critics of the withdrawal are also landing blows. Arguments that Biden should’ve kept U.S. troops to protect Afghans from Taliban rule and that America’s withdrawal didn’t have to be so sudden drove opposition to the pullout. However, the vast majority of prolong-the-fight takes didn’t stick or were, at best, only marginally persuasive.

The survey results all track with polling conducted since the withdrawal showing broad support for the war’s end, which helps explain why Biden’s rhetoric is working.

China takes the lead. But the C|T numbers aren’t all good news for the White House. About 33 percent of Britons and 32 percent of Aussies say China will be the world’s most influential country in 10 years. Only 18 percent and 21 percent from those two countries, respectively, believe the most powerful nation will be the United States. Among Americans, though, 34 percent say the United States will stay on top, while 21 percent say China will surpass it.

Those figures bely Biden’s argument that “America is back” internationally, and that key allies believe it. Floyd said the Afghanistan withdrawal decision, made without real input from U.S. partners, contributed to this growing notion of American decline.

“If I was in the Biden administration, I would be concerned about perceptions of the U.S. being willing to stay the course overseas,” he told NatSec Daily.

BLINKEN FACES CONGRESS ON AFGHANISTAN: Blinken began his two days of Afghanistan hearings with a session in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon. The hearing is still ongoing, and we’ll have more to say about it tomorrow, but a few bits are worth noting.

This is a partisan slugfest. Democrats are lightly criticizing the administration while Republicans are bashing the president and the State Department for the chaos of the withdrawal. For example, Rep. JOE WILSON (R-S.C.) of “you lie!” fame read from a NY Post op-ed which very pointedly accused the Biden administration of lying about its Afghanistan policy.

Blinken blames former President Donald Trump. The secretary said, “We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan,” effectively laying the blame for the improvised withdrawal at Trump’s feet. Other Democrats, including Rep. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-Va.), also blamed the last administration for elevating the Taliban’s diplomatic status.

Dems and Biden on defense. The Democratic National Committee’s “War Room” is already active during this hearing, boosting Blinken’s statements and “fact checking” statements by Republicans. White House rapid response director MIKE GWIN is also active on Twitter. And as NatSec Daily reported earlier today, the State Department sent out a long list of talking points to validators and talking heads. Message coordination is normal, but this kind of intense activity means the administration knows how politically damaging Afghanistan could be.

PYONGYANG POPS NEW MISSILE: North Korea claims it launched a cruise missile that flew 932 miles over two hours, marking yet another advancement in the hermit kingdom’s weapons program. The missile was able to change directions mid-flight, state-run media said, and is a “strategic weapon” — a descriptor indicating it could carry nuclear bombs.

The test, which does not violate United Nations sanctions, comes after the United States and South Korea held joint military drills last month and a Pyongyang parade last week marking the anniversary of North Korea’s founding, though leader KIM JONG UN displayed no missiles at that event.

So why would North Korea decide to test its weapon now?

Some say the test was timed in retaliation to the U.S.-ROK military exercises. “When we practice attacking them, they practice nuking us,” tweeted JEFFREY LEWIS of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Others believe the test was intended for a domestic audience. One reason could be to demonstrate that Pyongyang remains strong despite a rampant Covid-19 outbreak and worsening economy. Another, per JAMIE WITHORNE of the Oslo Nuclear Project, is that North Korea is aiming to match South Korea’s own weapons advancements. The new cruise missile is similar in range to South Korea’s Hyunmoo-3C, she told NatSec Daily — which is important considering both nations are locked in a spiraling arms race.

“It seems more like signaling to South Korea in my mind,” Withorne said. “They appear to be saying, ‘We can keep up.’”

Expect more of these kinds of tests. During the Eighth Party Congress in January, Kim announced that advancing his nation’s cruise-missile arsenal would be a top priority. “They are clearly moving forward with weapons development,” said JENNY TOWN, director of the Stimson Center’s North Korea-focused 38 North project. “I think it’s just the beginning.”

A senior Biden administration official told NatSec Daily that “[w]e remain prepared to engage in diplomacy with DPRK toward our objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” — using an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. “Our offer remains to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions. Ultimately, we hope DPRK will respond positively to our outreach.”

So far, no one in the administration has been able to articulate a Plan B should North Korea not answer America’s calls for diplomacy.

SUMMIT WATCH: British Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON is expected to visit with Biden at the White House this month, when he travels to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly, beginning Sept. 21, per The Times’ DAVID CHARTER and OLIVER WRIGHT. But a senior diplomatic figure cautioned the venue for the U.S.-U.K. sit-down had not been “100 percent confirmed.”

In other summitry news, Israeli Prime Minister NAFTALI BENNETT was in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday for talks with Egyptian President ABDEL FATTAH AL-SISI about the Israel-Palestine relationship and issues of joint interest, per Reuters. The trip by Bennett marked the first time an Israeli leader had visited Egypt in a decade.

One topic of discussion between Bennett and al-Sisi “will be the situation in the Gaza Strip, where Egypt helped broker a ceasefire after 11 days of conflict in May between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the enclave, diplomatic and security sources said.”

COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS COMING TO HKIA: The first foreign commercial flight has landed in Kabul since the Taliban overran Afghanistan’s capital city and took control of the country last month, per AFP’s MOHAMAD ALI HARISSI. An AFP journalist who was aboard the Pakistan International Airlines flight from Islamabad on Monday reported there were roughly 10 people on the airliner, with “maybe more staff than passengers.”

The news comes after the United States last week began facilitating the departure of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents who remained in Afghanistan, transporting them out of the country on at least two Qatar Airways charter flights that took off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

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U.N. URGES AID TO AFGHANISTAN: One million children in Afghanistan could die if immediate relief is not sent to the war-torn country, the United Nations warned Monday, and millions more people may not be able to maintain their supplies of food as winter approaches, per The New York Times’ MARC SANTORA, SAMI SAHAK and NICK CUMMING-BRUCE.

U.N. Secretary-General ANTÓNIO GUTERRES argued Afghans were confronting “perhaps their most perilous hour” when he addressed a conference in Geneva aimed at extracting $606 million from donors, per Reuters’ EMMA FARGE. Ultimately, the intergovernmental organization was successful in raising more than $1.1 billion.

China last week pledged $31 million in assistance to Afghanistan, while Pakistan said it would send much-needed supplies. At the Geneva conference, the United States committed to deliver an additional $64 million of aid and Norway agreed to extend another $11.5 million.

MARINES TURN TO VR FOR TRAINING: Col. LUIS LARA, Marine Corps Systems Command’s program manager for training systems, told National Defense’s MANDY MAYFIELD the service is pivoting to a “live-virtual-constructive paradigm” that “leverages virtual reality and other computer-generated entities to supplement live training.”

Under a new training system being developed by Saab — the Swedish aerospace and defense company that won a Marine Corps contract of up to $128 million in June — Lara said Marines “will be equipped with a harness fitted with sensors and transmitters that link to various weapons systems such as an M4 machine gun.”

NEW DOD TECH FUND: The Pentagon announced Monday a new $15 million fund to provide private companies with investments for hardware that have both commercial and national security uses. This funding is meant to fill a gap, as venture capital firms don’t always invest their cash in companies that produce such dual-use technologies.

TEX SCHENKKAN, director of the Defense Department’s National Security Innovation Capital and who will run this fund, told NatSec Daily roughly 30 percent of private venture capital flows into companies that produce such hardware, such as safe materials that recharge batteries while troops are in the field. This is why lawmakers — namely Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.), a former Marine and House Armed Services Committee member — are championing the new public fund.

“We must ensure the United States, and not the Chinese Communist Party, leads the world in developing the hardware technologies that oftentimes are overlooked by private sector investment,” he said in a statement. “National Security Innovation Capital will help the Department of Defense leverage the power of innovative startups to solve some of its most challenging requirements and protect our national security in the process.”

SHIPYARD RUSHES TO STAY RELEVANT: Defense News’ MEGAN ECKSTEIN reports that the Austal USA shipyard in Alabama is “revamping its facilities to build steel ships in addition to aluminum ships” not that the Navy has signaled they’re done building aluminum hulls and sticking with steel.

According to Eckstein, Austal — like every other shipbuilder hungry for new work — has its sights set on a few targets. “The company is looking at the Navy’s new light amphibious warship, next-generation logistics ship and T-AGOS ocean surveillance ship programs, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard’s offshore patrol cutter — though securing status as the Navy’s follow yard for the frigate program, building duplicates of Fincantieri’s Constellation-class frigate, would be the biggest prize for Austal,” she wrote.

Asked about the story, Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-Ala.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “We need more ships in the U.S. Navy to face growing threats around the world. I’m proud to see Austal rapidly adjusting to demand and expect they’ll soon be cranking out the world’s finest warships for our nation.”

NDAA AMENDMENTS ROLL IN: Our own CONNOR O’BRIEN sends us the below dispatch from Capitol Hill.

With the House set to debate its version of the National Defense Authorization Act next week, lawmakers have begun to offer their changes to the massive Pentagon policy bill. So far, just 49 amendments have been filed and posted by the House Rules Committee, which determines what amendments receive votes, but hundreds more are likely on the way. Here are a few notable proposals:

— Rep. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-Ga.) has filed an amendment that would remove provisions from the bill that would expand a military draft to women. Conservative lawmakers and groups oppose the effort to expand the Selective Service beyond men, though the House Armed Services Committee adopted the change with bipartisan support. Senate Armed Services also backed requiring both men and women to register for a potential draft.

— Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS (R-Texas) has an amendment to a provision establishing a bipartisan commission to review the war in Afghanistan that would require the panel’s final report to assess advice Pentagon and other administration officials offered Biden on the withdrawal of troops.

— Rep. KURT SCHRADER (D-Ore.) filed a proposal to slim down the number of military entities required to submit annual unfunded requirements list — wish lists of high priority items that didn’t make the cut for the Pentagon’s budget — to just the military branches and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Expect hundreds more amendments, including efforts to slash the bill’s $740 billion budget topline, trim nuclear weapons programs, rein in war powers and further needle the Biden administration over the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

BIDEN ECHOES TRUMP ON BEIJING: The Fletcher School at Tufts University’s DANIEL DREZNER had some tough words for the White House on Monday over its handling of China. Basically, he argued, Biden’s approach toward the Asian power is practically indistinguishable from Trump’s.

Citing a Saturday piece by The Wall Street Journal’s BOB DAVIS and LINGLING WEI, in which they reported the United States will target China’s industrial subsidies while continuing the multilateral trade war, Drezner assessed: “To be blunt, this seems like a dumb strategy.”

“Economic pressure on China has not yielded tangible gains. So all this will do is lead to further trade frictions between the United States and China, more corporate lobbying for exemptions, and the continued passing on of costs to U.S. consumers,” he wrote. “This seems like a self-inflicted trade wound and a further destabilization of the bilateral relationship.”

— KAREN OLICK has resigned as chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, per our own ALEX THOMPSON and DANIEL LIPPMAN. She plans to leave DHS at the end of the month for a new, undisclosed opportunity. JENNIFER HIGGINS, the current associate director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will take over Olick’s duties temporarily.

JAMES STEINBERG was named the new dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The veteran of two administrations and Boston native will become the venerated school’s 10th dean on Nov. 1.

PATRICK COSTELLO has left the Council on Foreign Relations after 11 years to become the CEO of the American Security Project, starting Sept. 20.

— SETH G. JONES and JUDE BLANCHETTE, Foreign Affairs:China’s Afghanistan Dilemma

— FARAH STOCKMAN, The New York Times:The War on Terror Was Corrupt From the Start

— BEN TAUB, The New Yorker:How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations, 5 a.m.:Beyond Merkelism: What do Europeans expect from post-Merkel Germany? — with PIOTR BURAS, TOM NUTTALL, JANA PUGLIERIN, DANIELA SCHWARZER and THOMAS WIEDER

Chatham House, 9 a.m.:The Middle East’s changing political landscape — with EMMAN EL-BADAWY, GARY KENT, YOSSI MEKELBERG, META RAMSAY and GREG SHAPLAND

The Heritage Foundation, 9 a.m.:Hong Kong: Debating the National Security Law’s Impact on Business — with DENNIS KWOK, WALTER LOHMAN and Y.C. RICHARD WONG

The Royal United Services Institute, 9 a.m.:Counter Terrorist Financing Online Symposium No. 6: Terrorism Financing Risks of Crowdfunding — with MATTHEW REDHEAD, STPEHEN REIMER and GEMMA ROGERS

The American Enterprise Institute, 9:30 a.m.:Power and complacency: How the U.S. can succeed in a new era of competition — with R. CLARKE COOPER, MICHAEL EISENSTADT, PASI ERONEN, PHILLIP LOHAUS and ANDREW SCOBELL

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.:A Conversation with HRH Prince HASSAN BIN TALAL of Jordan

Arab Center Washington DC, 10 a.m.:Conference on U.S. Policy and Global Competition in the Middle East: Day One — with SAHAR AZIZ, TAREQ BACONI, CHARLES W. DUNNE, DANA EL KURD, ILAN GOLDENBERG and more”

The Middle East Institute, 10 a.m.:Developing Libya’s Economy: Challenges and Opportunities” — with MABRUKAH ABDULLAH, ANAS ALGHRYANI, AMJAD BADR, SAMIA GRIMIDA, PIETRO MARZO and JONATHAN WINER

Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10 a.m.:Full Committee Hearing: Examining the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan — with ANTONY BLINKEN

The Wilson Center, 10 a.m.:AI and Allies in the Indo-Pacific: Enhancing Shared Security and Defense — with YLL BAJRAKTARI, ABRAHAM DENMARK and MEG KING

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10:30 a.m.:Indian Ocean Initiative Launch — with S. JAISHANKAR, PHILIPPE ETIENNE, TARANJIT SINGH SANDHU, ARTHUR SINODINOS, DARSHANA M. BARUAH and more”

House Foreign Affairs Committee, 11 a.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: Changing Dynamics in the South China Sea

The National Security Innovation Network, 12 p.m.:Defense Innovation Accelerator: Cohort Showcase

New America, 12:30 p.m.:Future Security Forum 2021: Day Two — with JAVED ALI, JORGE CASTAÑEDA GUTMAN, MARK KELLY, ROYA RAHMANI, LEANA WEN and more”

The Center for Global Development, 2 p.m.:Capital Flow Volatility in Latin America: Will Next Time Be Different? — with LAURA ALFARO, GERARDO GARCÍA LÓPEZ, JOSÉ DE GREGORIO, LUIS OGANES, LIVIO STRACCA and LILIANA ROJAS-SUAREZ

Senate Intelligence Committee, 2:30 p.m.:Closed Briefing: Intelligence Matters

Senate Armed Services Committee, 3:30 p.m.: “Closed Briefing with Gen. SCOTT MILLER, former commander of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan.”

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

Thanks to Ben Pauker, our supreme leader, for his edits.





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