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Overnight Defense: More closures possible at US bases in Europe as coronavirus spreads | Pompeo says Afghan ‘reduction in violence is working’ | Man accused of trying to blow up vehicle at Pentagon

Happy Tuesday 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 U.S. general in Europe said Tuesday that closures at military bases in Italy could be extended and measures could be taken at bases in Germany as outbreaks of the coronavirus spread in Europe.

U.S. European Command chief Gen. Tod Wolters’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee come as Italy is experiencing the largest outbreak of coronavirus outside of Asia at 238 confirmed cases.

Sitting at home: In Vicenza, where the United States has 6,000 to 7,000 troops plus thousands of troops’ family members, the Army has closed on-base schools, child care centers, gyms and churches as a precautionary measure as the disease spreads across Italy.

The closures are scheduled to end March 1, but Wolters said Tuesday there is a “50-50” chance they could be extended.

The Army has also restricted access to areas of Italy where cases of coronavirus have clustered, including Vo’ Euganeo and the Lombardy region. No coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the city of Vicenza.

Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) whether U.S. troops in Italy and their families are “mostly just sitting at home right now trying to avoid the coronavirus,” Wolters said a “fair amount” are doing so.

In Germany: Meanwhile, in Germany, there have been 16 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Wolters said military officials “anticipate the need may arise” for travel restrictions in Germany, “but that is still to be determined.”

“We are anticipating an increase in the number of cases reported in Germany, and we’re prepared to execute,” Wolters added when asked about potential closures at military bases there.

Germany is home to the largest U.S. military presence in Europe at more than 33,000 troops.

The novel coronavirus originated in China, and its spread throughout the globe has raised fears of a pandemic. On Tuesday, a top U.S. health official warned the spread of coronavirus in America appears to be inevitable and that the disruptions could be “severe.”

  

POMPEO: AFGHANISTAN ‘REDUCTION OF VIOLENCE IS WORKING’: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that a seven-day “reduction in violence” agreement with the Taliban is largely holding.

“So far, the reduction of violence is working,” Pompeo told reporters at a briefing. “Imperfect, but it’s working.”

Pompeo announced last week that the United States and the Taliban would sign a broader peace agreement at the end of February if a weeklong reduction in violence period holds.

That agreement would kick-start intra-Afghan negotiations and a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan to wind down America’s longest war.

“We’re on the cusp of an enormous, enormous political opportunity,” Pompeo said Tuesday. “We want to make sure that those who want the status quo — bloodshed, tears, economic challenges; all of those people who have an interest, whether that’s because of corruption or because some ideological view — can’t spoil what it is that the Afghan people so richly deserve after they have sacrificed so much fighting alongside of us these past 20 years.”

A partial truce: The reduction in violence, which doesn’t go as far as a cease-fire, started Saturday when U.S. and Afghan forces and Taliban fighters were expected to largely halt offensive operations against each other.

Since the partial truce started, reports from Afghanistan have noted some clashes but said violence and Taliban attacks have decreased.

The U.S. military, which had said it would continue conducting counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al Qaeda during the seven-day period, said Tuesday that it conducted two airstrikes in Kunar province, killing four ISIS fighters.

Troops not leaving yet: In his remarks Tuesday, Pompeo stressed that the United States would only sign the agreement with the Taliban “if and only if” the partial truce holds.

He also emphasized that under the pending agreement, U.S. forces are “not required to leave” unless the Taliban “can demonstrate they’re fulfilling every element of their end of the bargain,” including severing ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

Pompeo would not say whether the Taliban must agree in the intra-Afghan talks to respect women’s rights in order to keep the deal from collapsing.

“The United States effort is to let the Afghans lead this process. And they’ll come up with a resolution that is, I’m sure, uniquely theirs, just like every nation across the world does,” Pompeo said. “I am confident the voices all across the Afghan political spectrum, the voices of women, the voices of minorities, the voices from all the different tribes and sects and political views, I’m confident all those voices will go into the ultimate solution.”

 

MAN ACCUSED OF TRYING TO BLOW UP VEHICLE AT PENTAGON: An Arkansas man is in police custody Tuesday after allegedly attempting to blow up a vehicle at the Pentagon.

What happened: According to the Justice Department, 19-year-old Fayetteville native Matthew Dmitri Richardson was approached by a patrolling Pentagon police officer after the officer watched Richardson light a piece of fabric on fire and then put it inside a vehicle’s gas tank.

When questioned, Richardson reportedly said that he was going to “blow this vehicle up [and] himself.” The officer attempted to detain Richardson, but he fled on foot toward Virginia State Route 110 and on to Route 27, eventually jumping a fence into Arlington National Cemetery. He was later apprehended by the Pentagon Force Protection Agency Police Emergency Response Team in the vicinity of Arlington House.

Prior arrest: Court documents that were found on Richardson reveal that he was arrested just days before on two counts of “felony assault on a law enforcement officer in Arlington County.”

More details: The vehicle that Richardson is accused of trying to blow up belongs to an active-duty service member who has no relation to Richardson, separate court documents show.

Richardson was set to appear in federal court at 2 p.m. Tuesday. He is being charged with “maliciously attempting to damage and destroy by means of fire, a vehicle used in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce.” A conviction of the crime carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison with a maximum sentence of 20 years.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment; Jukka Juusti, permanent secretary in the Finnish Ministry of Defense; and Kirsti Kauppi, Finnish ambassador to the U.S. will speak at the National Defense Industrial Association‘s “U.S.-Finland Defense and Security Industry Seminar,” at 8:45 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on “The Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Budget Request from the Department of Defense,” at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. 

State Department Deputy Special Representative for North Korea Alex Wong will speak on “Prospects for a Stable Transformation of the Korean Peninsula” at 12 p.m. at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. 

  

ICYMI

— The HIll: Barr says he’ll make surveillance reforms after damning watchdog report

— The Hill: Coronavirus threatens joint US-South Korea military exercises: reports

— The Hill: Opinion: US Navy’s budget battles could end in ‘victory at sea’ for China

— The Hill: Opinion: Is an agreement with the Taliban a step toward peace?

— The Hill: Opinion: The indefensibility of ignoring foreign policy with 4 ongoing wars

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