By Charles Hoskinson

AFGHANISTAN IS DRIVING THE DAY TODAY, with talk of a possible deal to move Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a boost to stalled peace talks, along with gloomy assessments of that country’s future after a U.S. withdrawal.

FIRST THE DEAL – U.S. officials said no decisions have been made, but there are clear signs a deal is in the works to move five Taliban prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are expected to open an office for the purpose of negotiating peace. SASC Chairman Levin said White House officials came to the Hill to brief him and others on the issue, and McCain said administration officials had ignored his objections to the idea, which he said was “in exchange for a statement by the Taliban.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS REPORTS TODAY that the Afghan government has lifted its previous objection to the transfer to Qatar after the U.S. negotiators agreed to put them under some sort of legal Afghan custody.

FROM AN ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL, who spoke on condition of anonymity — “In wartime, this is the kind of thing you do. You do give up enemy officers. It happens.” Regarding the safeguards Qatar would impose, the official told POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein: “They’re very sound. …They were honed with an appropriate attention to detail.”

ANY TRANSFER WOULD NOT TAKE PLACE until at least 30 days after Obama notifies Congress of his decision to do so, under provisions of the defense bill he signed into law on New Year’s Eve. Congressional aides would neither confirm nor deny that such notification had been received.

MCCAIN SAYS HE’LL TRY TO MARSHAL public opinion to stop the proposal, which he called “really, really bizarre,” adding: “This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we’re leaving. They know we’re leaving. Put yourself in their shoes.”

HAPPY WEDNESDAY AND WELCOME TO MORNING DEFENSE. Please keep the feedback and tips coming to, and follow us on Twitter @morningdefense for updates between briefings.

AS THE ADMINISTRATION WORKS toward peace talks, its assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is coming under fire for being too rosy. At Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on global threats, Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she’s concerned that closed-door estimates of what will happen in Afghanistan after foreign troops leave in 2014 are far grimmer than the public picture. Josh Gerstein has the story here:

THOSE CONCERNS HAVE BEEN BOLSTERED TODAY by a secret U.S. military report obtained by British media showing that the Taliban – backed by Pakistan – expect to re-take Afghanistan when U.S. and other NATO forces leave.

AN ISAF SPOKESMAN CONFIRMED the existence of the report on Twitter, but noted that it was based on opinions of Taliban detainees which “must be taken in context. They are a sampling of opinions and ideals.”

AFGHANISTAN ALSO IS ON THE MINDS of HASC members today. The panel is holding a hearing on the risks of using Afghan nationals to provide security for U.S. forces. Committee spokesman Claude Chafin says the hearing stems from the killing last March of Spc. Rudy Acosta – whose father is a constituent of HASC Chairman McKeon – by an Afghan security contractor working for a Canadian firm. It’s at 10 a.m. in 2118 Rayburn.

THE AP OBTAINED A COPY of prepared testimony for the hearing from DOD officials, showing that most such killings occurred for personal reasons and were not directed or controlled by insurgent groups. The story is here:

AFGHAN OPS UPDATE – A combined Afghan and coalition security force on Tuesday discovered a drug cache containing about 59,998 pounds of marijuana during a patrol in Panjwa’i district of Kandahar province, ISAF spokesman Lt. Cdr. Brian Badura said. The drugs were destroyed on-site.

MORE THREATS – Afghanistan may be the issue of the day, but talk of Iran also dominated Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, with concerns that Tehran has become more willing to launch terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Greg Miller from the Washington Post has the story here:

THE HEAD OF U.S. FLEET FORCES COMMAND meanwhile pushed back against reports that the USS Ponce was being converted into a floating special operations base in the Persian Gulf. The Ponce is “not going over there as an alternate command ship; it’s not going over there as a special operating force ‘Death-star Galactica’ coming through the Gulf,” Adm. John Harvey told reporters Tuesday, according to Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio. “It’s going over there as” an interim staging base until a newer vessel can be purchased. His story is here:

SEQUESTRATION UPDATE – McCain says GOP senators met Tuesday afternoon to seek agreement on a way to reverse an automatic $500 billion in defense cuts set to take effect next January. “We haven’t agreed among ourselves. That’s the biggest hurdle,” he told us, noting that it was important for GOP senators to find common ground on a possible solution before bringing Democrats and House members into the discussion. “Whenever you get that many egos in one room you have a problem,” he joked.

MCCAIN SAID MCKEON’S HOUSE BILL, which would replace the proposed DOD cuts with a 10-percent reduction in the federal workforce, “has some good ideas in it, and once we get our act together he is one of the first people we’ll talk to.”

MEANWHILE, we’ve learned that members of SASC, SAC-D and Senate leaders will get a briefing today on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget request from Carter, Winnefeld and the service chiefs and secretaries.

CONSERVATIVE GROUPS HAVE BEEN working to beat back the proposed cuts in Pentagon spending. One of them, the Center for Security Policy, is releasing a state-by-state breakdown of the economic impact of the cuts today at a 9:30 a.m. briefing in 2103 Rayburn. “It is our hope that by bringing this information to the local employers, citizens and community and business leaders who will bear the brunt of this tsunami, they will be better able to prepare for it – and, ideally, to help stave it off,” the center’s president, Frank Gaffney, said. You can see a copy of their report here:

DOVER SCANDAL UPDATE – Supervisors at the Dover AFB military mortuary illegally retaliated against whistleblowers who reported management problems, the Office of Special Counsel said in a report Tuesday, recommending that the Air Force discipline them. POLITICO’S MJ Lee has the story here:

THE HOUSE VETERANS’ AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TODAY is looking into allegations the Veterans Affairs Department knowingly purchased pharmaceuticals off-contract for years. Among those set to testify is Deputy Secretary Scott Gould. The hearing is at 10 a.m. in 334 Cannon.

WHO’S WHERE WHEN – Panetta is traveling. Dempsey speaks at the ROA National Security Seminar in Washington at 2:45 p.m. Carter, Winnefeld, the service chiefs and the secretaries are headed to the Hill to brief lawmakers. Donley and Schwartz also have meetings in the building.
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