TIME Military

New Defense Secretary, Same Old Strategy

Obama Announces Resignation Of Chuck Hagel As Defense Secretary
President Obama listens as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announces he is resigning after less than two years as defense chief. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Hagel's sudden departure fixes the wrong problem—the lack of a clear, achievable ISIS strategy

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared that the U.S. war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria was on track. “There’s no official review of any of the decisions that the President has made, or strategy,” Hagel told Charlie Rose.

This week, he’s out of his Pentagon job, even as the same old Obama Anti-ISIS Express continues barreling down that track.

So how much change can be expected following Hagel’s announcement Monday that he is leaving the Defense Department’s top civilian post after 20 months? Or, by handing Hagel his walking papers, is President Obama now suggesting his ISIS strategy is fine?

Washington immediately began debating the reasons for Hagel’s surprising departure. Obama supporters argued that Hagel’s low-key demeanor made him a good choice two years ago, when the issues were winding down wars and budget cuts, but ill-fitted to the offensive U.S. military push ISIS now needs. His backers blamed an insular National Security staff that shut him out of key decisions that led to bad blood between the White House and Pentagon.

Current and former Obama Administration officials say the problem was more policy than personnel. The roots of the problem, they say, are closer to the Oval Office—involving close-hold decision-making by Obama, Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough and National Security Adviser Susan Rice—than at the Pentagon.

“Not sure what kind of Kool-Aid they are drinking if they think that getting rid of Hagel—and not the National Security Advisor who’s flailing to handle the [ISIS] problem—is going to make things better,” one former Obama Administration official says.

Hagel’s leaving “is not an obvious fix for what seems to be ailing the administration,” says Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations expert at Duke University. When President George W. Bush eased out Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 (also following a White House drubbing in midterm elections), it included changing strategy by sending a surge of U.S. troops into Iraq.

“But there doesn’t seem to be any interest in the Obama administration to change the strategy,” Feaver adds. “What we have here is a change in personnel, without a change in policy.”

Retired Army general Jack Keane, who advocated for the surge in Iraq, says the White House has meddled with Pentagon prerogatives as the ISIS threat has grown over the past year, including videotaped beheadings of five Westerners, three of them American. “The policy is wrong and Hagel was pushing back on it,” Keane says, confirming what some Pentagon officials say privately.

Defense officials say White House meetings on dealing with ISIS often ended without a decision, which would be made later by Obama, aided by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes. “That’s very frustrating for a secretary of defense,” Keane adds, “who feels on the outside when it comes to issues that are in their domain.”

Rice has long been a target inside the administration, even as she garnered sympathy as a Congressional scapegoat in the post-Benghazi hullaballoo. “The problems reach much higher than the secretary of defense,” a second Obama national-security aide said.

Much of Capitol Hill concurs. “The President needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his Administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. He’s the likely next chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which will confirm Hagel’s successor. “That is the real change we need right now,” McCain said in a statement.

Hagel fought for a tougher approach in Syria, and wrote a recent memo to Rice calling for more clarity about dictator Bashar Assad’s fate. Assad’s continued hold on power has bedeviled U.S. strategy toward ISIS, which is one of several rebel groups seeking to overthrown him. “Hagel had been a bit more hawkish on Syria,” Feaver says. “Perhaps replacing him is an indication that the President’s not going to be moving in a more hawkish direction there.”

Fat chance. Republican lawmakers are making clear following Hagel’s announcement that they want a new strategy for dealing with ISIS, as well as a new secretary of Defense.

– With reporting by Zeke Miller

TIME Military

Hagel Retreats from Pentagon Under Fire

His low-profile demeanor ill-suited for ISIS fight

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down, after he and President Barack Obama concluded that his low-key style—despite his military experience in Vietnam—isn’t well-suited for the expanding war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The sudden change at the top of the President’s national-security team comes after the Administration seemed slow to react to ISIS’s rise over the past year, and responded with what many inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill saw as a timid bombing campaign launched in August.

Some Hagel allies were quick to defend him, saying he was doing the job the way the White House wanted him to do it. But others said his languid style—on display during his lackluster confirmation hearing in January 2013—left him vulnerable to criticism from those who want a more aggressive military strategy.

MORE: 3 people who could replace Chuck Hagel

The decision to seek a new top Pentagon civilian came after several weeks of discussion between Obama and Hagel following the Democrats’ shellacking in the mid-term elections. Hagel, as the lone Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, “began speaking with the President about departing the Administration, given the natural post-midterms transition time,” a senior Administration official said. News of Hagel’s departure was first reported by the New York Times.

Hagel, 68, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam, and was the first grunt to run the Defense Department. He served as a GOP senator from Nebraska from 1996 to 2008, and took over a Pentagon exhausted by 12 years of war and facing budget cuts, only to see conflict erupt in Iraq and Syria.

He quarreled with the White House’s National Security Council, especially over the best approach to deal with the three-year old Syrian civil war, which incubated ISIS. Hagel recently sent a memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice arguing for more clarity on how to deal with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. “Hagel was chosen for pliability,” former Army officer and scholar Ralph Peters says. “Yet, in the end he emerged as a man of conscience telling the President things he did not want to hear.”

Candidates to succeed Hagel include Ashton Carter, who has served as the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, and Michèle Flournoy, who would be the first woman to hold the job. Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., also could be tapped, Pentagon officials say. Hagel plans to stay on until his successor is confirmed.

It was notable when Hagel testified alongside Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Dempsey was the one who made news. While Dempsey overshadowed Hagel—particularly on the possible need to send U.S. ground troops in to fight ISIS—in part that was due to Hagel’s quiet demeanor.

Neither Hagel nor his associates had given any sign he was getting ready to leave the Pentagon after less than two years on the job.

Hagel conceded last week that the U.S. and its military is facing challenges well beyond ISIS, stretching from Iran to Russia. “If we’ve had such good policies over the years, then we probably wouldn’t be in this situation,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose on Wednesday.

Two days later, Obama and Hagel decided it was time for the defense secretary to step down.

TIME Terrorism

The Long, Hard Slog Continues

Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a Taliban attack in Kabul
An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a Taliban attack in Kabul on Wednesday. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

After 13 years, there is no "pause" button in the war on terror

On Saturday, Islamist militants halted a bus crammed with 60 passengers in northeastern Kenya, killing 28 who could not recite a Muslim declaration of faith. The same day, word leaked that President Obama has agreed to a stepped-up combat role for U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the original Dec. 31, 2014, deadline.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 49 people—mostly kids—at a volleyball game in eastern Afghanistan. Later in the day, the Washington Post told of one of the final U.S. military units readying to ship out for Afghanistan, even as the Taliban grow in strength just outside Kabul.

As the brutality in Africa and Afghanistan suggests, the U.S. preoccupation with defining conflicts by country and calendar is the way nations, not terrorists, wage war. The U.S. mostly views the troubled map stretching from Libya to Pakistan as a chessboard governed by sovereign borders that its foes ignore.

“All across these unstable regions we are confronting a multitude of threats to the U.S. and our interests, from longstanding well-known terrorist groups but also from newer and much more loosely connected networks of like-minded violent extremists,” Nicholas Rasmussen, tapped to head the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday. These new breeds, he warned, “operate without regard to national borders or established organizational norms.”

Deaths caused by terrorism jumped from 11,133 in 2012 to 17,958 in 2013, a 61% hike, according to an independent accounting released last Tuesday. Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria accounted for 80% of the toll, according to the nonprofit Institute for Economics and Peace. Officials blamed four radical Islamist groups for two-thirds of the carnage.

Don Rumsfeld was right.

In the falls of 2003, the defense secretary defined the post-9/11 wars as a “long, hard slog.” Eleven years later, war-weary Americans—eager to escape wars that have no intention of letting them go, are gaining an appreciation for what he meant.

“The Middle East is in turmoil with the deepening of the enmity between Sunnis and Shias, the collapse of a number of nation states, really failed states, and the elimination of meaningful borders,” political scientist Michael Curtis wrote in an essay for the weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum (as if to prove the point, jihadists piggybacked on tweets from the gathering in Nova Scotia’s capital to distribute a video featuring a British captive being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria).

Meanwhile, late Friday, the House Intelligence Committee issued a report concluding that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was more screw-up than cover-up. For two years, lawmakers have sought to cast the event as an epic White House scandal, when reality has suggested it was more a string of mistakes and bad luck. A foreigner couldn’t be blamed if she thought GOP lawmakers viewed Obama as a bigger menace than al Qaeda. Imagine if all that partisan firepower had been directed at the real enemy.

The U.S. and its allies have yet to take on this spreading scourge in a way that is sustainable and successful. That’s going to require an international front willing to take on autocracies, kleptomaniacs and nascent nuclear powers. Success won’t come to politicians nervously glancing at their watches, or their electoral calendar. It’s going to take decades. (Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., took a tentative step in this direction over the weekend when he called for a U.S. declaration of a year-long war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.)

After his memo leaked in 2003, Rumsfeld groused to reporters that the U.S. too often measures the wrong things.

“We have lots of yardsticks and metrics where we can measure things like what’s taking place in Iraq, what’s taking place in Afghanistan, how we’re doing in the finances, how we’re doing in capturing and killing, for example, the top 55 Iraqi leaders or the top al Qaeda leaders,” he said.

But the U.S. and its allies too often have come up empty-handed when it comes to tallying the important numbers.

“How many young people are being taught to go out as suicide bombers and kill people?” Rumsfeld wanted to know. “That’s the question. How many are there? And how does that in-flow of terrorists in the world get reduced so that the number of people being captured or killed is greater than the ones being produced?”

More than a decade after Rumsfeld asked, we still have no idea.

TIME Terrorism

Peter Kassig’s Powerful Silence Before ISIS Beheaded Him

Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig ISIS Islamic State
Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig is pictured making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanonís Bekaa Valley in this May 2013 handout photo. Reuters

The former Army Ranger did not address the camera.

It’s tough to take any solace when the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria commits a murder, as it made clear yet again on Sunday it had done with the release of a video of the apparent beheading of American Peter Kassig.

But as grimly depressing as the video was—this is the fifth recorded killing of a Westerner released by the group since August—it differed from those that came before.

The video didn’t feature as many high production values or multi-camera angles. Most startling, Kassig, an Indiana native, didn’t make a final statement into his captors’ cameras, as those who died before him had done (he did, however, speak to Time early last year before he was kidnapped).

Kassig, 26, “doesn’t have much to say,” said ISIS’s British-accented, black-robed executioner on the video.

There is speculation over why this video is different.

“The likeliest possibility is that something went wrong when they were beheading him,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times.

But there’s another possibility. “I don’t know how this went down, or if it really did,” tweeted Andrew Exum. “But I like the idea of the Ranger not saying a damn thing.”

Kassig became a Ranger in 2006, and served with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Iraq in 2007. Exum himself is a former Ranger, an elite band of soldiers that the Army declares to be its “premier direct-action raid force.”

Kassig knew what he faced, and he knew the Ranger Creed, which says:

Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers…

Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.

Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.

His family, and his nation, can take solace in Ranger Kassig’s silent courage before his country’s enemies.

Read next: Graphic ISIS Video Claims US Aid Worker Beheaded

TIME National Security

More Band-Aids for the Nation’s Ailing Nuclear-Weapons Force

A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. Airman John Parie—U.S. Air Force/Reuters

Pentagon beefs up spending to keep yesterday’s weapons ready for tomorrow

The U.S. military’s nuclear force — both its hardware (the weapons) and its software (the people who operate those weapons) — is in disarray. That can only come as a surprise to those who don’t concede the Cold War is over, and that neither the funding, nor the required mindset, exists to keep it going indefinitely.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that a pair of reviews calls for spending about $7.5 billion over the next five years to shore up the nation’s nuclear weapons, as well as the bombers, land-based missiles and submarines that carry them. “The reviews found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the elements of the force in the future,” he said. “These problems include manning; infrastructure; and skill deficiencies; a culture of micro-management; and over-inspection and inadequate communication, follow-up, and accountability by senior department in nuclear enterprise leadership.”

There was a palpable sense of national mission when you visited nuclear sites during the Cold War. While that remains true at most sites, there’s a feeling gleaned from speaking with current nuclear officers that their mission isn’t as vital as it once was. Congress feels the same way, which is why the nation’s nuclear-weapons organization has been nickled-and-dimed, relatively speaking, for the past 25 years (although it’s slated to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years).

Hagel ordered the reviews in January, after reports of widespread cheating surfaced among the airmen operating the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Navy also discovered that some of its sailors had apparently cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power some of the service’s ships and subs. The panels recommended more than 100 changes, which will be monitored by a newly created Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group that will report directly to Hagel every three months.

“Our nuclear triad deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners,” Hagel told reporters. “It prevents potential adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, and it provides the means for effective response should deterrence fail.”

Arms-control advocates disagree. “Apart from deterring a nuclear attack, nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists,” says Kingston Reif of the non-profit Arms Control Association. “There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment and the prowess of U.S. conventional forces.”

The Air Force has already made improvements. Last month, missile launch officers became eligible to receive up to $300 monthly because of the importance of their mission. New uniform and cold-weather gear also have been provided the ICBM crews, who work in North Dakota and Wyoming as well as Montana. It has added 1,100 more troops to its nuclear force (the Navy’s hiring 2,500 more). Last week, the Air Force awarded 25 airmen the new Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service medals to honor their work.

The roots of the problem runs deep. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has shifted responsibility for its ICBMs around like an unwanted child. The missiles bounced from Curtis Lemay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. They moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following a pair of nuclear snafus of 2007-08 that led to the cashiering of the Air Force’s top two officials. “We mattered under Strategic Air Command,” Dana Struckman, a retired colonel who manned missiles from 1989 to 1993, said earlier this year. “The Cold War was still on, and we had a sense of purpose that I don’t think they have today.”

Some official Air Force reports acknowledge the problem. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force paper said. Commanders routinely told nuclear airmen that they were in a “sunset business” and “were not contributing to the fight that mattered,” it added. A second Pentagon study noted that most airmen manning ICBMs “were not volunteers for missile duty.”

Hagel conceded the problems aren’t new. “Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms,” he said. “Recommendations were implemented without the necessary follow-through to assess that they were implemented effectively. There was a lack of accountability.” To fix that, he said he has assigned Pentagon cost experts to monitor the new changes being made so that the Defense Department knows “what’s working and what’s not.”

The defense secretary pledged to “hold our leaders accountable up and down the chain of command.” That’s because the problems aren’t confined to the lower ranks. The Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey — in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs — last year after an official trip to Moscow, where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During a layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.”

Those still in charge don’t see their assignment as a Cold War mission. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. Gen. James Kowalksi, chief of Global Strike Command, said of his nuclear arsenal last year. A Russian first strike, in fact, has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he said. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October 2013, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal, after President Obama fired Vice Adm. Tim Giardina from the post for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge — a felony — happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

Hagel implied Friday that operating the nation’s most deadly weapons in the 21st century is kind of like using enough wax and elbow grease to shine up an old jalopy: “We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era, so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value.” Only one problem: the most talented young men and women know the Cold War ended before they were born. Given that, they also know there’s no way to restore the resolve and purpose those manning the weapons against the Soviet Union once felt.

TIME Military

New VA Chief Proposes Fixes for a Troubled Agency

VA Secretary Bob McDonald previews the coming changes at the VA last Thursday. Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor

Bob McDonald details four steps he’s taking to improve health care for vets

Former Procter & Gamble chief executive Bob McDonald showed over the past week that he has learned a lot about rolling out a new product. On Monday—the eve of Veterans Day—the new secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled what he called the largest restructuring in VA history, aimed at cutting delays for veterans seeking medical care that forced out his predecessor in May.

In a slow rollout that featured a Road to Veterans Day Action Review, and interviews on 60 Minutes and with print reporters, McDonald showed the marketing savvy he acquired as a 33-year veteran of P&G. But actually turning around the huge agency and its 300,000 workers will prove harder than heralding the fact that it’s happening.

Scandal enveloped the VA earlier this year after whistleblowers reported that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Although investigators said they couldn’t prove that the delays were what caused the deaths, the resulting probes revealed a widespread effort by some in the VA to manipulate record-keeping to make delays appear shorter than they actually were. McDonald has said he has proposed disciplinary action for about 40 employees stemming from the scheduling scandal, and that as many as 1,000 more could face punishment as probes into their actions wrap up.

The systemic nature of the problem led to Shinseki’s ouster. McDonald took over in July.

“As VA moves forward, we will judge the success of all our efforts against a single metric—the outcomes we provide for Veterans,” he said in a status report he released last week. “The mission is to care for Veterans, so we must become more focused on Veteran needs.” But, in a message to VA workers on Monday, he conceded the retooling is a “long-term process” and that “we don’t have the all the answers right now.”

McDonald said he is making four major changes designed to simplify a veteran’s visit to the VA and make the organization more responsive to vets’ needs:

  • Create a “Chief Customer Service Officer” to “drive VA culture and practices to understand and respond to the expectations of our Veteran customers,” McDonald told VA employees. They’ll be encouraged to submit ideas on how to improve the agency beginning Tuesday, Veterans Day.
  • Build a “single regional framework” within the VA to allow vets “to more easily navigate VA without having to understand our inner structure.”
  • Work more closely with local, state and community partners “to coordinate better service delivery.”
  • Wring inefficiencies from the VA by sharing support services among different parts of the agency.

McDonald has won plaudits from insiders for his business acumen, his willingness to give out his cell phone number to pretty much anyone, and for encouraging VA employees to call him “Bob.”

But even if 99% of the VA’s employees act properly, that could still leave 3,000 potential troublemakers. The challenge he faces is the same that brought down the prior VA secretary, retired Army general Eric Shinseki. Like McDonald, Shinseki was a veteran. But Shinseki also had been wounded in Vietnam, treated in VA facilities, and had run a major governmental organization—the U.S. Army—before taking the reins at the VA when President Obama took office.

If the VA bureaucracy stumped someone like Shinseki, how confident is McDonald that it won’t do the same to him? “When you’ve run an $85 billion company in 200 countries around the world and you speak multiple languages and you’ve operated in those countries and you’ve traveled to 41 different sites,” McDonald said, “it’s pretty hard to hide stuff.”

TIME Military

Why Navy SEALs Are Supposed to Keep Their Mouths Shut

Former Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill Who Killed Osama bin Laden Speaks At Chamber of Commerce
Robert O'Neill, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, speaks at the "Best of Blount" Chamber of Commerce awards ceremony at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville, Tennessee, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 6. Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Those who brag about killing bin Laden erode the support the SEALs will need for their next mission

Robert O’Neill may have fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden, but he was merely the triggerman. The U.S. and members of its military—thousands of them—killed the 9/11 mastermind. The fact is that O’Neill and those telling his story seem to miss that point.

There is no “I” in “team,” coaches and military commanders are fond of saying. But that rule apparently applies less and less if you’re at the “tip of the spear” like the Navy SEALs who allegedly killed Osama bin Laden in his lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011.

This week, O’Neill, an ex-member of SEAL Team 6, is slated to discuss his “kill shot” to bin Laden’s forehead with Fox News. His tale comes nearly two years after a colleague, Matt Bissonnette, also a former member of SEAL Team 6, wrote a book, No Easy Day, about the raid under the pen name Mark Owen. Both violated non-disclosure agreements they signed as members of the Navy’s most elite special-operations force.

“These things have to be kept quiet for a number of reasons,” Don Mann, a former SEAL and author of Inside SEAL Team Six, said Sunday. “Talking out like this goes against the fabric of our community.” But Mann cuts O’Neill some slack: first of all, the government made it clear, shortly after bin Laden’s death, that SEAL Team 6 was responsible (“To me, that’s the bigger problem,” Mann says). Then Bissonnette took too much credit for his role, Mann believes.

But O’Neill’s and Bissonnette’s decisions to go public with their role violates the SEALs’ tenets and irritates many in the military. These SEALs, in the eyes of the public, become heroes once their stories are told. But the action that warrants such acclaim has been built on the backs, boots and blood of thousands of anonymous troops (not to mention Pentagon civilians). An untold number of them played critical roles in the hunt for bin Laden; remove any one from the chain of success and the mission could have failed, with the loss of O’Neill, Bissonnette and the other SEALs who participated in the raid.

As word of O’Neill’s impending public victory lap began to leak out, SEAL leaders issued a memo trying to explain why it was wrong. “Any real credit to be rendered is about the incredible focus, commitment, and teamwork of this diverse network and the years of hard work undertaken with little individual public credit,” wrote Rear Admiral Brian Losey, commander Naval Special Warfare Command—home of the SEALs—and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci, the SEALs’ top enlisted man. “It is the nature of our profession.” They reminded SEALS of a key element of their ethos: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”

Such a notion seems almost quaint in today’s self-centered, media-saturated culture. O’Neill’s words in the Washington Post (“I watched him take his last breaths”) seem more screenplay than reality, tainted with a sense of gloating that rarely is becoming in anyone wearing a U.S. military uniform. It is the selfless nature of American troops that makes their work honorable.

Both the public and the press seemingly relish identifying such SEALs, and glorifying their exploits, without care for what may be lost in the transaction.

If fame, and the fortune it can bring, become part of the allure of signing up with U.S. Special Operations Command, the men and women who actually make those missions possible are going to sour on their private sacrifice. The net result will be a less-capable force.

“We live in a democracy where the public has a real desire to know information,” Mann fears. “But we also live in a very dangerous world where military secrets need to be preserved for the safety of our military personnel and, ultimately, the safety of those they protect.”

The first secret worth preserving are the identities of those who carry out such missions.

Read next: Revealed: The Navy SEAL Who Killed bin Laden

TIME Military

Fissure Opens Between Pentagon and White House Over Assad’s Fate

WASHINGTON (Oct. 30, 2014) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel holds a press briefing with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey at the Pentagon Oct. 30, 2014. DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that internal Administration debate over what to do in Syria must be "honest" and "direct." DoD Photo / Sean Hurt

Hagel told Rice a lack of clarity is complicating U.S. efforts to combat ISIS

President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that Syrian leader Bashar Assad must “step aside” for the good of his country after his forces had killed nearly 2,000 fellow citizens. More than three years later, with Assad still in power, the Syrian civil war has killed some 200,000 people and given Islamic extremists territory to occupy. That has led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to warn the White House that the U.S. has to stop ignoring the Syrian dictator.

In a two-page memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice two weeks ago, Hagel said the lack of clarity is complicating U.S. efforts to combat the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, Pentagon officials say. The memo’s existence was first reported in the New York Times on Thursday.

It’s no secret that there’s much teeth-gnashing inside the Pentagon because of a belief that U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS have transformed the U.S. military into a Syrian air force, of sorts. And after more than three years of increasing violence—including Assad’s brazen use of chemical weapons against his own people that Obama vainly warned was a “red line” that he’d better not cross—frustration is mounting among the U.S. military.

They say plans to train 5,000 “moderate”—i.e., non-ISIS—Syrian rebels annually to fight the militants is complicated by the civil war inside Syria, even if much of the training is slated to take place outside the country. So long as Assad remains in power, they fear the moderate rebels’ attention could be diverted from fighting ISIS to battling Assad.

Hagel wouldn’t say much about his concerns. “This is a complicated issue,” he told reporters Thursday. “We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting to the realities of what is the best approach.”

Such internal debates are the “responsibility of any leader,” he added. “And because we are a significant element of this issue, we owe the President and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.”

Unsurprisingly, a White House spokesman agreed. “The President wants the unvarnished opinion of every member of his national-security team,” Josh Earnest told CNN on Friday. “That’s the way he thinks we are going to reach the best outcomes.”

TIME Military

The Capabilities of the Afghan Military Are Suddenly a Secret

Enduring Freedom
Recruits get ready to become members of the Afghan National Police force in Kandahar province. DoD photo / TSgt Adrienne Brammer

Watchdog says U.S. taxpayers can’t know if investment is paying off

For years, American taxpayers have been able to chart how well the Afghanistan security forces they’re funding are faring, because “capability assessments” detailing their progress have been routinely released.

Not anymore.

As the U.S. military prepares to withdraw most of its 34,000 troops still in Afghanistan by the end of this year, the American-led command there has suddenly made such information secret.

Classifying the data “deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says in Thursday’s quarterly report to Congress. “SIGAR and Congress can of course request classified briefings on this information, but its inexplicable classification now and its disappearance from public view does a disservice to the interest of informed national discussion.”

A U.S. Army spokesman says the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan decided to classify the capability ratings as part of its “responsibility to protect data that could jeopardize the operational security of our Afghan partners” as they assume “full security responsibility” for their country’s defense.

U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $50 billion training and outfitting Afghan security forces. In the prior quarterly report, issued in July, the IG used the then-available-but-now-classified data to report that 92% of Afghan army units, and 67% of Afghan national police units, were “capable” or “fully capable” of carrying out their missions.

Capability ratings like these from July are now classified. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

“The Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] capability assessments prepared by the [U.S. and NATO-led] International Security Assistance Force Joint Command have recently been classified, leaving the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction without a critical tool to publicly report on development of the ANSF,” the report says. “This is a significant change.”

The capabilities of Afghan forces become more important as the U.S. and its allies pull out, leaving local troops to battle the Taliban largely on their own. There are reports that Taliban forces are gaining ground in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, vacated earlier this week by U.S. Marines and British troops, and in the northern part of the country.

Past SIGAR reports have used summary data about major Afghan units’ readiness, sustainability and other measurements to trace their progress. More detailed reporting on smaller units has always been classified to keep the Taliban and other insurgents ignorant of Afghan military weaknesses. “It is not clear what security purpose is served by denying the American public even high-level information,” the report says.

“SIGAR has routinely reported on assessments of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police as indicators of the effectiveness of U.S. and Coalition efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the ANSF,” the report says. “These assessments provide both U.S. and Afghan stakeholders—including the American taxpayers who pay the costs of recruiting, training, feeding, housing, equipping, and supplying Afghan soldiers—with updates on the status of these forces as transition continues and Afghanistan assumes responsibility for its own security.”

ISAF made the change an after August review “to address potential concerns about operational security,” Army Lieut. Colonel Chris Belcher said in an email from Afghanistan. He said that such information “could provide adversaries critical intelligence that could be exploited, endangering the lives of our Afghan partners and the coalition forces serving alongside them.” He added that ISAF “will continue to provide SIGAR access to the information necessary to enable the organization to carry out its Congressionally mandated duties.”

TIME Military

What the Failure of ISIS to Take Kobani Means

US-led coalition forces hit ISIL targets in Kobani
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani following a U.S.-led air strike on Sunday. Sercan Kucuksahin / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The Kurdish struggle to hold on to Syrian border town isn't all good news

Coming back after two weeks away, it’s surprising that the Syrian town of Kobani hasn’t fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Pentagon officials were predicting earlier this month that ISIS fighters would overrun the town, near the Turkish border, by mid-October, followed by widespread slaughters among the conquered population.

That hasn’t happened. And while that’s obviously good news in the short term for the city’s 200,000 largely-Kurdish residents, it’s tougher to handicap what it means for the long-term U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Earlier this month, U.S. military officers were speaking of ISIS’s “momentum,” and how its string of military successes over the past year meant that quickly halting its advance would likely prove difficult if not impossible. Yet, as far as Kobani is concerned, that seems to be what is taking place.

But that raises the stakes for the U.S. and its allies. Having smothered ISIS’s momentum, an eventual ISIS victory in the battle for Kobani would be a more devastating defeat for the U.S. military than an earlier collapse of the town.

There are concerns that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war.

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., expressed frustration that the Obama Administration believes its latest fight against ISIS will yield success when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t. “We understand the definition of insanity: continue to do the same thing and expect something different to happen,” he said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can contain them there, leave them there, I don’t know what else to do. They’re intent on destroying each other, and they’ve been doing it for 1,400 years.”

The chattering classes are likewise not impressed by the fight for Kobani and the overall U.S. strategy against ISIS.

“The town, once dismissed as inconsequential by American commanders, has become not only a focus of the American operation against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, but also a test of the administration’s strategy, which is based on airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and reliance on local ground forces to defeat the militants,” the New York Times said in a Friday editorial. “A setback in Kobani would show the fragility of the American plan and hand the Islamic State an important victory.”

On Sunday, the Washington Post declared Obama’s strategy “unworkable,” and said “the United States will have to broaden its aims and increase its military commitment if the terrorists are to be defeated” (the Post‘s advocacy for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq should be kept in mind while listening to such drumbeats).

For its part, the Pentagon is willing to trade 2003’s “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad for a long-term campaign of modest and persistent air strikes that can stall ISIS until better-trained Iraqi forces and yet-to-be-tapped-for-training Syrian rebels can begin reclaiming territory.

The U.S. military is willing to take its time, not that it has much choice, given the situation on the ground and the curbs placed on it by the White House. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.”

The Pentagon has made clear from the start that the battle against ISIS “will be a years-long effort,” Kirby said. “So I think a little bit of patience is required here.” Patience, of course, has never been an American trait. Democracies in general are ill-suited to waging lengthy wars.

But one thing the Pentagon has on its side is the dearth of casualties so far in what some are calling the third Iraq war. A Marine was killed Oct. 1 when he jumped from a V-22 aircraft in the Persian Gulf because he feared the aircraft was going to crash (it didn’t). A second Marine died in Baghdad Oct. 23 in what the Pentagon called a “non-combat-related incident.”

If the U.S. can turn the campaign against ISIS into a sustained, low-casualty operation like the drone wars it has been secretly waging for years in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, the public may go along. Whether that will be sufficient to degrade ISIS is, of course, a separate issue.

Read next: 19-Year-Old Marine Is First Soldier to Die Fighting ISIS in Iraq

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