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Overnight Defense: Trump says military may consider disciplining Vindman | Dems pick up another Republican for Iran war measure | Watchdog says over 2,000 people killed rebuilding Afghanistan

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: President Trump on Tuesday suggested the military should consider additional disciplinary action against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who provided damaging testimony against Trump in the impeachment inquiry and was reassigned from his White House job last week.

“We sent him on his way to a much different location, and the military can handle him any way they want,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “Gen. Milley has him now. I congratulate Gen. Milley. He can have him.”

Gen. Mark Milley is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Asked specifically if the Pentagon should pursue further action against Vindman, Trump said it would be “up to the military.”

“But if you look at what happened, they’re going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that,” he said.

The president’s comments on Tuesday signaled he was open to additional punishment for officials who testified against him in the impeachment inquiry. Some of his allies have sought to cast the ouster of witnesses like Vindman as justifiable reassignments rather than retribution.

Over at the Pentagon: Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday signaled there would be no punishment for Vindman, saying the Pentagon protects service members from retribution.

 

NEW GOP SUPPORT FOR IRAN WAR MEASURE: Democrats picked up another GOP vote ahead of a showdown on President Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran without congressional signoff.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said on Tuesday that he will support a resolution spearheaded by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that will get a vote later this week.

“The Constitution, in Article I, provides Congress the power to declare war – a responsibility I take seriously,” Moran said in a statement. “The prospect of military action against Iran has consequences that ought to be considered by the full Congress, on behalf of the people it represents.”

“In supporting the War Powers Resolution, I respect the President’s obligation to defend against imminent threats while making sure any additional action is properly debated and approved by Congress as required by the Constitution,” he added.

The numbers: Moran is the fifth GOP senator to say they will vote for the resolution, which needs only a simple majority to pass. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Todd Young (Ind.) are also expected to support it.

The measure: The resolution would require Trump to remove U.S. troops “engaged in hostilities” against Iran unless Congress signs off with a declaration of war or a specific authorization for use of military force.

Democrats said they would force the vote after Trump launched an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which sparked a quick escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged senators to oppose the resolution, calling it “blunt and clumsy” and arguing that it would “severely limit the U.S. military’s operational flexibility to defend itself against threats posed by Iran.”

 

HUMAN TOLL OF AFGHAN RECONSTRUCTION: More than 2,000 people have been killed in attacks on projects to rebuild Afghanistan, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

In what it described as the first official accounting of the human cost of reconstruction activities, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) said 2,214 people have been killed, 2,921 have been wounded and 1,182 have been kidnapped or gone missing while doing such activities from April 2002 through December 2018.

“For years, SIGAR has spent considerable effort to track the financial costs of reconstruction and stabilization activities in Afghanistan,” Special Inspector General John Sopko wrote in an introduction to the report. “However, little effort has been made up to now to track the human costs – the number of people killed, wounded, or kidnapped – to accomplish these activities. This has left policy makers with an incomplete picture of the true cost of our efforts in Afghanistan.”

What the numbers include: The figures compiled by SIGAR for its latest “special projects” report do not include casualties from combat or counterterrorism missions, casualties that were caused by accidents during the reconstruction projects or enemy casualties.

The report defines reconstruction as U.S. assistance to Afghanistan other than combat operations, including activities such as building roads, dams and power lines, demining, conducting election activities and carrying out counter-narcotic missions.

The report found that at least 284 Americans were killed during reconstruction or stabilization missions, broken down into 216 service members and 68 civilians. Another 245 U.S. service members and 76 civilians were wounded.

For Afghans, 1,578 were killed, 2,246 were wounded and 1,004 kidnapped.

The most dangerous: Road construction was the most dangerous reconstruction activity, accounting for 30 percent of all casualties, according to the report. It was also the most deadly specifically for Afghans, with 540 killed during such projects. 

“Indeed, the deadliest two casualty-producing events related to reconstruction that we found were attacks in 2011 on a U.S.-funded road construction contractor compound that killed 35 and wounded 20 Afghans, and a suicide bomber on a [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] awarded road construction project that left 28 members of a construction crew dead and 35 wounded,” the report said.

When the casualties happened: The bulk of the casualties found by SIGAR happened during the height of reconstruction activities from 2008 to 2011, according to the report.

“While considerable effort is made to track the amount of U.S. dollars spent, this review shows that we do not adequately capture the human cost of conducting reconstruction and stabilization projects while combat operations are still ongoing, especially third country nationals and Afghans,” the report concludes. “Unless the U.S. Government considers the human costs, the true costs of reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan are not accurately captured.”

 

PENTAGON WANTS TO SLASH FUNDING TO STARS AND STRIPES NEWSPAPER: The Defense Department on Monday unveiled a $705.4 billion budget request that includes a proposal to slash funding for Stars and Stripes, the editorially independent newspaper that covers military matters around the world. 

Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, said at a press conference that the Pentagon had arrived at the decision following an expansive review that sought to move funding from nonmilitary applications. She said that the department “essentially decided coming into the modern age that newspaper is probably not the best way we communicate any longer,” according to reports

It remains unclear how much the Pentagon intends to cut from the news outlet’s annual budget. 

The publisher’s response: Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer said that the Pentagon informed him early Monday morning about their intention to eliminate funding for “operating and maintenance funds.” The newspaper said that the cuts would amount to 35 percent of its annual expenses. 

“I and the Stripes leadership have not had an opportunity to study and plan for this change. We are now beginning that discussion and evaluating options, including ways to continue operations in some form,” Lederer said in an email to staff, according to Stars and Stripes. 

He added that the budget hit would “definitely” impact the news outlet’s coverage capabilities. 

How the paper is funded: Sales, subscriptions and advertising account for a majority of Stars and Stripes’ annual budget. However, the newspaper, which was first published by Union soldiers during the Civil War, said that it relies on a subsidy from the Pentagon for reporting overseas. 

In 2019, the newspaper distributed 7 million copies of its U.S. weekly edition and accumulated an audience of 18.8 million unique visitors, according to CNN.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Defense Secretary Mark Esper will attend NATO’s meeting of Defense Ministers all day at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. 

Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, will speak at the Air Force Association’s discussion on “An Operational Assessment of the U.S. Air Force,” at  9:30 a.m. in Arlington, Va. 

The House Budget Committee will hear from Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, on President Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, at 10 a.m. in Cannon House Office Building, room 210. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on U.S.-Libya policy, with testimony from David Schenker, assistant secretary Of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; and Christopher Robinson, deputy assistant secretary of State, Bureau Of European And Eurasian Affairs, at 10:15 a.m. in Dirksen Senate office Building, room 419. 

A House Armed Services subcommittee will hear from defense officials on “Land Based Ranges: Building Military Readiness While Protecting Natural and Cultural Resources,” at 2:30 p.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2212. 

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and former Assistant Defense Secretary for International Security Affairs Mary Beth Long will speak at the Council on Foreign Relations Election 2020 U.S. Foreign Policy Forum, at 8 p.m. at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Livestream here.

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: Philippines scrapping military cooperation pact with US

— The Hill: State officials press Congress for more resources to fight cyberattacks

— The Hill: GOP senators defend Sondland, Vindman ousters: They weren’t ‘loyal’

— The Hill: US base workers involved in coronavirus quarantine face harassment: report

— The Hill: Democratic senator requests State records on Trump activities in Ukraine

— The Hill: Attackers set fire to 18 vehicles, kill at least 30 people in Nigeria: report

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