TIME South China Sea

The South China Sea’s Ticking Time Bomb

Still image from United States Navy video shows a U.S. Navy crewman aboard a surveillance aircraft viewing a computer screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on the reclaimed land of Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands
Reuters from U.S. Navy A sailor aboard a P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane points out claimed Chinese construction on Fiery Island Reef during a flight last week.

Beijing is bulldozing sand into the eyes of the world

When it comes to international relations, there are many ways to change the situation on the ground. But the Chinese are trying a new one far off their coast: they are creating new ground.

It’s part of Beijing’s plan to extend its claim to 90% of the South China Sea, and now the Chinese government is ordering the U.S. and other nations to steer clear, or at least to seek permission before visiting the neighborhood.

Sure, it’s not a whole lot of land. China has dredged about 2,000 acres of once-submerged sand to enlarge five islets in the Spratly Islands between Vietnam and the Philippines. That’s a 0.00009% increase in the country’s total land mass of 2.3 billion acres or roughly three times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

But if China continues on its present course—and the international community doesn’t back down—military confrontation seems likely. Luckily, China must reinforce its military claims to the disputed islands before such a showdown, which gives each side time for negotiation.

China said Monday that it had formally complained to Washington about its “provocative behavior” following the flight of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the region last week. The Chinese had warned the a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane eight times to leave Chinese airspace as it flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. The Navy plane refused.

“We urge the U.S. to correct its error, remain rational and stop all irresponsible words and deeds,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. “Freedom of navigation and overflight by no means mean that foreign countries’ warships and military aircraft can ignore the legitimate rights of other countries as well as the safety of aviation and navigation.”

China’s claim of extended sovereignty is upsetting its neighbors, including the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as Washington. But their denunciations will be little match for the changes coming to the South China Sea sandscape. Unlike U.S. and allied rhetoric about international law, the Chinese are literally making concrete claims in the Spratlys.

“They have manufactured land there at a staggering pace just in the last months,” U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, who becomes commander of U.S. Pacific Command on Wednesday, tells Time. “They’re still going,” he adds. “They’ve also made massive construction projects on artificial islands for what are clearly, in my point of view, military purposes, including large airstrips and ports.”

So far, beyond words of warning to those getting too close to what China contends is its territory, it has only dredging gear, bulldozers and graders to enforce its claim. So the U.S. is ignoring it. But that, Pentagon officials believe, is all but certain to change. And as it changes, the stakes, and resulting tensions, will grow.

The U.S. Navy is weighing dispatching additional warships to the region to buttress its claim that these are international waters. Washington insists that contested sovereignty claims must be resolved through diplomacy and not dredging.

The Chinese digging is happening atop “submerged features that do not generate territorial claims,” David Shear, the Pentagon’s top Pacific civilian, told a Senate panel May 13. “So, it is difficult to see how Chinese behavior in particular comports with international law.”

Such legal niceties are not deterring Beijing. China is building built a long airstrip and has deployed an early-warning radar on the Spratly’s Fiery Cross Reef. That will give the Chinese improved detection of what it claims are intruders into its national airspace.

U.S. Government

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed China’s claim of sovereignty further out into the South China Sea, where it conflicts with claims of local U.S. allies like the Philippines. The U.S. says it can fly within 12 miles of a nation’s coast, while China says its permission is needed for any flights coming within 200 miles.

The early-warning radar, U.S. officials believe, is only the first step in China’s quest to control one of the world’s most vital waterways. More than $5 trillion in goods passes through the South China Sea every year. It contains rich fishing grounds, and potentially great reserves of oil and other natural resources.

The sea is speckled with more than 30,000 islands, making conflicting territorial claims common. The Spratlys consist of some 750 islets and atolls. While spread across 164,000 square miles—the size of California—they total only 1.5 square miles.

The Chinese are likely to bolster their early-warning radar on Fiery Cross Reef with air-defense radars, U.S. Navy officials believe. Once early-warning radars detect incoming aircraft, they will hand off that information to the air-defense radars, which would allow the Chinese to track—and target—any incoming aircraft.

But air-defense radars and the blips they reveal on China’s radar screens are worthless without anything to back them up. So the air-defense radars, U.S. officials believe, ultimately will be tied into a network of air-defense missiles. They’ll be capable of shooting down any interlopers.

Once an air-defense network is in place, China will probably reinforce its claim to what it views as its growing archipelago by basing fighter aircraft there.

Shear, the Pentagon official, noted that China’s land grab is different than Russia’s now underway in Ukraine. “China is not physically seizing territory possessed by or controlled by another country,” he said. “They’re not evicting people from contested land features. They’re not nationalizing territory.”

But they are building an aircraft carrier some 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland. No one knows better than the U.S. Navy the value of an airfield in the middle of an ocean.

Sure, it won’t be moveable. But it also won’t be sinkable.

TIME National Security

New Push to Give Pentagon the Lead on Drone Strikes

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.
Kirsty Wigglesworth—AP An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan on Jan. 31, 2010

The military can talk about its activities, while the CIA usually cannot

(WASHINGTON) — The deaths of an Italian and an American in a covert CIA drone strike in Pakistan — and the rhetorical contortions required of the president when he informed the world — have breathed new urgency into a long-stalled plan to give the Pentagon primacy over targeted killing of terrorists overseas.

President Barack Obama announced two years ago that he wanted the armed forces, not a civilian intelligence agency, to be in charge of killing militants abroad who pose a threat to the United States. One reason he cited was transparency: The military can talk about its activities, while the CIA usually cannot.

But the effort soon slowed to a crawl amid bureaucratic rivalries, intelligence sharing dilemmas and congressional turf battles. The vast majority of drone strikes since Obama’s May 2013 speech have been carried out in Yemen and Pakistan by the CIA.

Now, administration officials and their allies in Congress want to get the transition moving again, U.S. officials said this week. The catalyst was Obama’s struggle last month to explain how two hostages held by al-Qaida, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, were accidentally killed in an American drone missile attack in January. He had to do so without acknowledging that the CIA routinely conducts attacks in Pakistan, a “secret” in U.S. law but a known fact throughout the world.

The CIA also conducts targeted strikes in Yemen. The military does so in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Proponents of moving the drone program to the military worry that the CIA’s focus on hunting and killing has allowed its spying muscles to atrophy. And they argue that the military is able to discuss its operations, adding a layer of public accountability. On the other side are those who believe the CIA has become extremely proficient at targeted killing, which relies more on precise intelligence than traditional bombing.

Much of the debate about whether the CIA should exit the killing business is taking place behind the scenes. In public, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he intends to insert a provision in a defense bill requiring the military to take over the drone program. And last week, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, reiterated his previous support for the proposal.

“Our intelligence agencies should focus on their core mission” of espionage, Schiff told The Associated Press.

Schiff’s stance puts him at odds with other intelligence committee leaders, including another California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been explicit in arguing that the CIA should continue its targeted killing. Feinstein says the CIA is more judicious than the military when conducting drone strikes.

“The CIA takes its time,” Feinstein told the AP in February. “They are not hot dogs on a mission.”

In the military, Feinstein said, there are short tours of duty and therefore, “constant turnover. There is no turnover in the (CIA) program. They’re very careful about the identification of the individual. Sometimes the intelligence gathering goes on for months.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Feinstein’s remarks.

Many other Intelligence Committee members agree with Feinstein, and they inserted a classified provision in a spending bill last year that blocked the Obama administration from spending money on its plan to move drone strikes away from the CIA.

There is also a matter of turf: Intelligence Committee members want to maintain their jurisdiction over a high impact counterterrorism program. They argue that their oversight of the CIA is better than the oversight conducted by the Armed Services committees over military strikes. Intelligence committee staffers watch video of each CIA strike, but staffers on the Armed Services committees in Congress do not watch videos of each military strike, say congressional aides who were not authorized to be quoted by name about a classified matter.

The congressional resistance appeared to put the transition on ice. But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted discussing a classified program, said that while the planning slowed, it never stopped. And now it is picking up again.

The ultimate goal, the U.S. officials say, is an integrated model under which the CIA continues to hunt targets, but lets the military pull the trigger.

In theory that should be easy, since many of the CIA drone pilots are Air Force personnel who have been seconded to the agency. But in practice, there are serious impediments.

One is technology: The military and CIA use different systems, sensors and databases. It will take time to integrate them.

Another is intelligence sharing. Any military commander directing a lethal operation will want to fully understand the basis for it. But some of the intelligence that undergirds CIA drone strikes comes from the agency’s most sensitive sources, whose identities it would be loath to share with anyone.

A third is bureaucratic rivalry. Those in the military who collect intelligence and hunt for targets resist the notion that the CIA take over all that work and relegate those in uniform to merely pulling the trigger.

There is also the thorny problem of Pakistan, which after the 9/11 attacks made a deal with the George W. Bush administration to allow CIA drone strikes — but not U.S. military operations — on its territory. Pakistan prefers the CIA because its activities can be denied by both governments.

While it would be possible for the military to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan and simply never comment on them, many U.S. officials believe the Pakistanis would not tolerate it.

Additionally, the U.S. often is reluctant to alert Pakistan ahead of a strike, for fear that elements of the government will tip off the targets.

TIME Veterans

Pearl Harbor’s ‘Unknown’ Dead to Be Exhumed and Identified Using DNA

This Dec. 5, 2012 photo at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu shows a gravestone of 7 unknowns from the USS Oklahoma
Audrey McAvoy—AP This Dec. 5, 2012 photo at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu shows a gravestone of 7 unknowns from the USS Oklahoma

"We will do so with dignity, respect and care”

The Pentagon said Tuesday that the bodies of up to 388 troops killed during the Pearl Harbor attacks, who are buried in “unknown” graves in Hawaii, will be disinterred and identified using the latest DNA technology.

Japanese torpedoes sank the U.S.S. Oklahoma, killing 429 servicemen, during the infamous offensive of December 1941. The sailors and Marines are entombed in Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, but will be examined at the Hawaii laboratory of the Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Accounting Agency after families were notified Tuesday morning.

The Pentagon is optimistic it can identify the dead with forensic evidence from DNA samples and medical or dental records furnished by relatives. It has already identified 41 servicemen postmortem.

“The Secretary of Defense and I will work tirelessly to ensure your loved ones’ remains will be recovered, identified and returned to you as expeditiously as possible, and we will do so with dignity, respect and care,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work.

All identified remains will receive military funeral honors upon return to families.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 14

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Have the missing Nigerian schoolgirls been trained to fight?

By Amnesty International

2. Why more roads means more traffic, not less.

By Matthew Beck and Michiel Bliemer in the Conversation

3. Let’s face it. There’s no perfect deal to be made with Iran.

By Pierre Atlas in the Indianapolis Star

4. Does more spending guarantee a better military?

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in the Week

5. What if we could detect some types of cancer with a simple breath test?

By Smitha Mundasad at the BBC

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The prison system is costly and rarely rehabilitates prisoners. Imagine a better way to transition inmates to freedom.

By Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, & Ross Halperin in Vox

2. Lawmakers should listen to the budget hawks, not the defense hawks.

By Robert Gard and Angela Canterbury in Defense One

3. For teenage girls, it’s possible to shift “attention bias” — literally focusing them on happy faces instead of sad ones — and fight the risk of depression.

By Jennifer Kahn in Pacific Standard

4. The next generation of American workers isn’t prepared to take over the jobs of departing baby boomers. The cost of this failure will be enormous.

By Jennifer Bradley in the Brookings Essay

5. As a four-year college education slips further out of reach, community college has some important lessons to teach us.

By Josh Wyner in the Miami Herald

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME National Security

Al-Shabab Leader Killed in Drone Strike

Adan Garar is believed to have masterminded the 2013 Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi

An American drone strike has killed a leader of Somali militant group al-Shabab, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday.

Adan Garar was hit by a drone missile near the town of Diinsoor, southern Somalia, on March 12, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Garar is believed to be behind the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed 67 people.

The U.S. describes Garar as “a key operative” who was “responsible for coordinating al-Shabab’s external operations, which target U.S. persons and other Western interests.”

The Pentagon believes he “posed a major threat to the region and international community.”

Just hours before Garar’s death was confirmed, al-Shabab, a militant Islamist organization, attacked a shop in the Kenyan town of Wajir, killing four people.

TIME Military

U.S. Military Plan For Looming ISIS Offensive Takes Shape

DOD Chief Ashton Carter Travels To Middle East
Jonathan Ernst—Pool/Getty Images New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter begins Monday's anti-ISIS strategy session in Kuwait.

Clearing is relatively easy, but clearing and holding Islamic State territory is the goal

Every U.S. military official says degrading and defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria isn’t a job that can be done by the Pentagon alone. But it also cannot be done without the Pentagon. That’s the bind President Obama finds himself in as he seeks a way to cripple ISIS without putting U.S. combat boots on the ground inside Iraq and Syria (beyond the 3,100 now there to train Iraqi forces and protect the U.S. embassy and other facilities).

So far, the American heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS has come from the skies, where U.S. warplanes have dropped more than 8,200 bombs and missiles on ISIS targets in 2,500 air strikes in Iraq and Syria dating back to August. While Syrian rebels, largely Kurdish, have been able to hold on to the town of Kobani, they haven’t regained any ground. In Iraq, the Pentagon estimates that the Kurdish pesh merga forces have retaken a scant 1.3% of the contested territory ISIS has seized in the past year.

But U.S. officials believe, with sufficient training—and continuing allied airpower—the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and moderate Syrian rebels will be able to defeat ISIS and take back the territory it seized over the next several years.

The key test of the strategy will come as early as April, when the Pentagon hopes to launch an offensive to retake the northern Iraq city of Mosul, which ISIS seized last June after it drove out the Iraqi army in a humiliating defeat. The Pentagon estimates a 25,000-strong force made up of Iraqi army and Kurdish pesh merga units will be able to overwhelm the up to 2,000 ISIS militants believed to be in control of Mosul. The fight is so vital to validating the U.S. approach that Pentagon officials have made clear that if the Iraqis aren’t adequately trained—and if the aerial bombardment around Mosul hasn’t done enough damage—the assault could be delayed by months.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria represents a villain “right out of central casting, just like in a James Bond movie,” says Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute. It’s an apt analogy: while there’s no doubt these fanatics are murderous thugs, how much of the shadow they’re now casting around the globe is really theirs, and how much is media magnification due to crafty use of their horrific YouTube videos?

For that matter, the anonymous warning from a senior U.S. military official Feb. 19 that the Iraqis could be willing to try to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from ISIS as early as April shows the U.S. and its allies also are playing the perceptions game. While propaganda has long been typical in war, it’s playing an increasing role in the clash between ISIS and the civilized world because the conflict now underway isn’t a traditional war.

In today’s wired world, lone wolves striking in Copenhagen and Paris—or small groups in Afghanistan and Libya—can give the impression of ISIS spreading like wildfire. But that’s misleading because in all those places it represents a sliver of the local populace that, while a clear and present danger to the locals, isn’t a threat to their political control.

THE PENTAGON VIEW

Let’s start with a couple of givens, from the Pentagon’s perspective. First of all, the U.S. military is now engaged in its third war in Iraq since 1991 not because ISIS represents a clear threat to U.S. soil. Rather, it’s simply in keeping with 1979’s Carter doctrine, when that President made clear that the Persian Gulf was a vital national-security interest that the U.S. would go to war to protect. It came on the heels of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the edict was clearly aimed at Moscow’s thirst for petroleum. The flow of oil from the region continues to lubricate the world’s economy, and ISIS, by destabilizing the states in the region, could disrupt it.

Yet if the Pentagon’s top spies disagree over what to do about ISIS, what hope is there for the average citizen to figure it out? “We are in a global war with a radical and violent form of the Islamic religion, and it is irresponsible and dangerous to deny it,” retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn said in a Jan. 20 warning published in Politico. Flynn was pushed out of his job early as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency last August for his management style and views on Islamic terrorism. “There is no cheap way to win this fight,” he wrote, saying the U.S. must treat ISIS, and Islamic groups like it, the way Washington dealt with Germany and Japan in World War II, and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

His successor is far less concerned—striking, given that he’s a Marine, a breed rarely given to understatement. While ISIS “can do us harm, they don’t pose an existential threat to the United States,” Lieut. General Vincent Stewart, told the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 3. While the U.S. military could launch more robust attacks against ISIS, Pentagon officials stress that if allied military successes outrun political progress in the region, there will be nothing positive to fill the gap left by ISIS’s destruction. “If I were to map out what ISIL would love to do, ISIL would love to have the United States and western countries out of the region and slowly take apart those other moderate nations who would counter their radical ideology,” Stewart said. “And if they could do that, then they could have a fairly easy opportunity to create the state that they think is appropriate for the region.”

The split over options goes beyond DIA. “If American combat troops are not committed to destroy that standing army, the Islamic State will grow and prosper,” warns retired Marine colonel Gary Anderson. “Young Muslim men world-wide, and some women, are flocking to their banner because they are successfully defying us and mocking us.” Anderson’s solution is nasty, brutish and short. “Go in hard with overwhelming force and destroy their standing army,” he argues. “It would be a relatively short and bloody fight.” Repairing the rubble would be left to the surviving residents.

But that remains a minority view in and around the Pentagon. The measured persistence of the U.S. campaign ultimately will pay off, says a retired four-star general who commanded in Iraq, and was willing to speak only so long as he was not identified by name. “The Americans have shown tremendous patience,” he says, “just as long as there’s not an endless stream of casualties without achieving progress.” While it doesn’t show up on the evening news—ISIS kills Western reporters—the Islamic militants are “getting hammered every day, except when there are dust storms or some other weather event that prevents employment of the intelligence assets,” the retired four-star says. “Imagine the morale in a force where they’re driving down the road and 21 vehicles are taken out very quickly.” Clearing ISIS from Iraq “is doable,” he says; Syria less so until Bashar Assad’s fate is sealed.

ISIS’S ORDER OF BATTLE

The core of ISIS consists of between 25,000 and 35,000 fighters in its self-declared caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria (all of these numbers, Pentagon officials stress, are rough estimates, and can vary from day to day and person to person). About half of them have journeyed to those two ancient lands specifically to fight. Its ranks include about 3,400 from the West, an estimated 150 of them American. The U.S. believes it has killed 6,000 ISIS militants. That suggests the U.S. and its allies have killed about 20% of ISIS’s forces.

Prior to air strikes restricting their massing and movements, ISIS generally operated in motorized companies of about 100 men, largely aboard pickup trucks—and U.S.-built Humvees, once they plundered them from the Iraqi security forces following the fall of Mosul. Their trained units are capable of basic military tactics, along with the ability to plant IEDs and conduct quick raids. “ISIS is a movement that would be hiding in caves if it did not have a professional cadre of trained, internationally recruited professional light infantry occupying towns and cities in Iraq and Syria,” retired Marine Anderson says. “They are very good at what they do, and the rabble of Iraqi/Syrian/Kurdish militias opposing them—and I include the Iraqi army here—is not going to dislodge them, even with American air support.”

WHAT SHOULD OBAMA DO?

Pentagon officials bridle when asked why progress in the now seven-month old campaign against ISIS seems to be moving so slowly. The nearly 2,500 air strikes are small bore compared with earlier air campaigns conducted by the U.S. military. Allied support is spare: U.S. warplanes are responsible for 80% of the air strikes. And the U.S.-led effort to train only 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels a year to reclaim Syrian soil from ISIS has yet to train a single one. So far, the Pentagon has vetted 1,200 of them for training, which is slated to begin next month in Jordan.

There are now 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq, limited to advising Iraqi troops and protecting the U.S. embassy and other sites. “Our campaign design does not require the introduction of large numbers of U.S. forces,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at Texas A&M University Feb. 19. “The campaign design does not lend itself to the introduction of large forces which will then immediately take ownership of the issues. Rather, it calls for the introduction of a coalition which includes Iraqis, Kurds, Jordanians, Saudis, Emirates, Qataris, because that’s their issue. They are closest to it and have the most at stake.”

This seemingly-slow pacing is deliberate, Pentagon officials say. They want to make sure that whatever they achieve militarily can be backed up politically. “Clearing is easy,” the retired four-star general who commanded in Iraq says privately. “Clearing and holding the land you’ve taken is hard.” That requires a political infrastructure in place to fill the governing gap once ISIS is ousted.

But progress is puny. While Iraq is nearly 170,000 square miles in size (437,000 square kilometers), the Pentagon has assessed who controls only the 73,000 square miles (190,000 square kilometers), or 43%, that it deems to have value because population and infrastructure are there. In the less than half of Iraq assessed by the U.S. military, the U.S.-backed central government in Baghdad controls 30,000 square miles (77,000 square kilometers), or 18%. The Kurds control 22,000 square miles (56,000 square kilometers), or 13%. ISIS controls 21,000 square miles (55,000 square kilometers), or 12%.

A senior Pentagon official says that including all of Iraq in the calculation would give ISIS a greater share of Iraqi territory, but declined to offer an estimate. The U.S. and its allies, primarily the Kurdish peshmerga, have retaken about 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory—about 1.3%—once held by ISIS in northern Iraq.

There’s only one way to take land, and that’s with well-trained ground forces. That’s why retired Marine general Anthony Zinni thinks the time is right for Obama to acknowledge reality and tell the nation he is sending 10,000 American troops into the fight. Zinni ran the U.S. military in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, and still has business dealings in the region. He’s just back from a trip to Cairo, and he says he’s hearing a growing willingness among regional powers to put troops on the ground to fight ISIS—so long as the U.S. is alongside them.

Rumbles from Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all suggest those nations are willing to fight on the ground. “I think this is all designed to try to push the United States to put something on the ground,” Zinni said Feb. 23. “If we put a couple of brigades in, I think you’d get five or six regional countries. And I think you could twist the arms of the French, the Belgians and maybe even the Brits.”

Two U.S. brigades, with their supporting personnel, would total about 10,000 troops. Zinni says the nations in the region are not coordinating their efforts in an effort to lure the U.S. into the fight on the ground. “But they’re getting scared, and have gotten angry at ISIS’s atrocious behavior and they’re willing to step up,” he says. “It would have to be a whole set of bilateral relationships, and we would have to pull it together.

The U.S. would have to act as the catalyst to make this happen, says Zinni, who was an early advocate of sending U.S. ground troops into the fight. “There’s an opportunity now to put a small piece in terms of ground forces in there, and get a lot more from these countries, and be the glue that puts it together,” he says. “There is no unifying structure and no single entity out there that can bring this all together—it has to be the United States,” Zinni insists.

But what about Obama’s pledge to keep U.S. combat boots out of the fight? “They have a moment here and it’ll blow by if they’re not careful,” he says. Obama “could always say that the situation on the ground has changed, and the willingness of the Arabs to stand up to this gives us this moment,” says Zinni, showing why he’s a better general than a politician.

ANOTHER BIG WAR?

But Pentagon officials say Zinni and others advocating a bigger U.S. role in the conflict overlook key questions: While Iraq has allowed 3,100 American troops on its soil, it hasn’t granted permission for a larger force. And those pushing for a special-forces decapitation strikes against ISIS leaders ignore the fact that intelligence on their whereabouts is sparse (it took the U.S. a decade to find Osama bin Laden, and nearly a year to launch the attack that killed him once his suspected lair had been located in Abbottabad, Pakistan).

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month that the U.S. push against ISIS has stalled. “The area that they control, have influence, has actually grown and there’s not a lot of prospect in the near term of pushing that back,” he said. He dismissed the President’s options as binary. “I think the President is misleading when he says it’s either sending in a bunch of ground troops or `doing what I want to do’,” Thornberry said. “I do think our approach has to be working with regional allies. They are looking for more U.S. leadership, and part of the challenge is when you place restrictions on what our people can do, how much they can help, then obviously you’re going to be limited.”

Thornberry echoes a GOP refrain: that Obama is leery of using force. “I’m just worried, given the track record, that the President puts political constraints on what we can do rather than just focused on how to get this job done,” he said. “Political constraints are not going to get this job done, even if everything goes well. This is hard enough, even if we don’t tie our own hands.”

Neither the U.S. nor the rest of the world has done a good job convincing young Muslims that ISIS isn’t a good option, Thornberry added. “There is widespread agreement that the ideology is enormously appealing to huge numbers of Muslims, not a majority, but yet especially those in poor economic circumstances, those who feel depressed,” he said. “The appeal of that ideology to those young males in particular is something the world has not come to grips with.”

The international community, Thornberry said, is looking at ISIS through 20th Century eyes. “Part of our problem is that we tend to look at this country by country, and it is not a country by country issue,” he said. “It is a global issue that we’re not dealing with.” How should it be handled? “I’m not going to say an Arab NATO, but some sort of way that countries can work together to confront the ideology as well as what they’re doing on the ground militarily.”

Unlike al-Qaeda, with its plan to create a caliphate, “these guys short circuit that and go right to the caliphate, start behaving like a state, providing social services for their people, send out ambassadors,” Thornberry said. “It just reminds us, we’ve got to be careful about looking at things the way that we want to see them and not seeing what’s really happening.”

The AEI’s Donnelly believes that a determined President could—and should—get a green light from Congress to wage a bigger fight against ISIS. “If the President made the case forcefully, the American people would say, `Hell yea—this is behavior we cannot tolerate,’” Donnelly says. “A President can get what he wants from Congress in wartime.”

But some maintain that Republican calls for a bigger U.S. role—including getting rid of Assad—would likely lead only to a replay of the unsatisfying U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war is increasingly portrayed in political circles as the main alternative to the Obama Administration’s current approach,” the liberal-leaning National Security Network think tank said ina Feb. 18 report. “But…strategies for the United States to fully enter the Syrian civil war would most likely draw the United States into an unwinnable quagmire and unsustainable nation-building project.”

THE CURRENT CAMPAIGN

A U.S. war planner from Central Command expressed confidence in the seven-month old war’s course during a Feb. 19 background Pentagon briefing. “Our mission has not changed in terms of the degradation, dismantle and eventual defeat of ISIL,” he said. “It remains true to form. And it is generally unfolding as we had planned.” But he stressed, as the Pentagon has repeatedly, that the fighting will likely continue well on into the future, with no termination date yet penciled in. “This is going to take time,” he said. “The degrade phase alone we knew would be a long period of time.”

Dempsey estimated Feb. 19 that it would take up to three years for Iraq to regain its territorial integrity (he didn’t offer a timetable for Syria). “But I think the issues will be generational—20, 30 years—because there is an internal conflict within Islam, and within the Arab world, between moderates and radicals that just isn’t going to end because they stop fighting,” he added.

The U.S. strategy is plain: halt ISIS’s advance by pounding it from the air until local ground forces, with some U.S. help, are ready to attack and retake the land, and—most critically—the cities, under its control. The initial goal is to push ISIS out of Iraq, and then go after them inside Syria.

The U.S. and its allies have dropped more than 8,200 bombs and missiles in close to 2,500 air strikes on ISIS targets, roughly split between Iraq and Syria. The weapons range from 20-pound warheads atop Hellfire missiles fired from Predator and Reaper drones, to 2,000-pound GPS and laser-guided behemoths dropped from B-1 bombers and other warplanes.

The U.S. and its allies attack ISIS targets wherever they’re found, Pentagon officials say. But there weren’t that many to begin with, and many have been destroyed. ISIS fighters hide amid civilians in towns, which reduces the chances they’ll be attacked. “Militarily, ISIL is in decline,” the Central Command briefer said. The constant bombardment has curbed ISIS’s plans to expand, and its options. “He’s in the land of `ors’ versus `ands’ now.”

The U.S.-led air strikes, and the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, have penned in ISIS. “This is an enemy that we still assess to be in a defensive posture,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Feb. 13. While ISIS boasts of its expanding caliphate, it only represents moves “into more ungoverned spaces in Syria,” he added. “The way you govern is you’ve got to have people to govern. So the population areas are the most important areas that we’re focused on.”

A key challenge will be beefing up the now-disappeared Iraq-Syrian border to keep ISIS out of Iraq once it is pushed back into Syria. Even now, the Central Command briefer said, “the safe havens that he has in Syria, and his ability to migrate back and forth, still gives him that micro-offensive capability” shown by the recent attack on the western Iraqi town of Baghdadi.

Through Feb. 4, allied air strikes had damaged or destroyed 4,817 ISIS targets, ranging from tanks (62) to Humvees (257) to “fighting positions” (752), basically fancy foxholes. The strikes also focused on decapitating ISIS’s command, hitting 26 “leadership buildings” and 102 “HQ buildings.” The list isn’t the kind of “target-rich environment” the U.S. Air Force likes. There are few strategic targets listed—nearly two-thirds are troops, foxholes and the vehicles used to get the troops to those foxholes.

“Those are things that ISIL no longer has,” Kirby told reporters. “They’re gone. They’re destroyed. They can’t use them anymore. And this is an enemy that has a limited ability to reconstitute strength, at least material strength.”

But the notion of ISIS is a hierarchical organization misses a key point. Even as it is under daily attack, it has evolved into “a decentralized, diffused, aspirational social movement that follows few orders and few chains of command,” Dafna Rand, who served on Obama’s National Security Council staff, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 12.

Syria remains the big issue, just as Pakistan remained a key drag on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan because it offered sanctuary to Taliban militants fighting U.S. troops just across the border. “What we’ve learned from Vietnam forward is you cannot defeat an insurgent group if it has a refuge in a neighboring country,” James Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 12. “You have to do something about Syria, and you can’t do anything about Syria without having a better policy towards Assad.”

Training sites for the Syrian rebels are being established in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Iraqi Sunnis also are being trained in Anbar province. “It may not be as fast as some would like, but the inclusion of the Sunni tribes, the inclusion of the Sunnis writ large is an absolute critical component to this all working,” the Central Command briefer said Feb. 19. “And the leadership in Iraq is moving in the right direction to accommodate that.”

Military force can’t defeat ISIS by itself. “U.S. military action must be tied to a civil-military strategy that offers the best possible hope of producing a stable and friendly nation as its ultimate outcome,” Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Feb. 13. “No amount of tactical victories in the field, and no amount of U.S. military force that merely defeats the immediate enemy threat, will create that stability.”

THE NARCISSISTIC VIEW OF WAR

Americans are skeptical of another military mission in Iraq following the years, and U.S. lives, expended in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. But one of the Army’s pre-eminent thinkers urges his countrymen not to take the wrong lessons from those campaigns. “The lesson is not that these kinds of missions are impossible,” Army Lieut. General H.R. McMaster told Time Feb. 19. “One of the key lessons is we made it just about as hard on ourselves as we could have, by not acknowledging the need to consolidate gains in either Afghanistan or Iraq.” McMaster, an incumbent member of the Time 100, says inadequate pre-war planning doomed the effort to preserve the “fragile victory” that the U.S. had achieved in Iraq.

He expresses concern that despite the videos, Americans aren’t paying enough attention to the foe. “I wish we could get the American people more interested in who we’re fighting,” he says, with a touch of exasperation. “When you hear statements like `Americans are weary of the effort,’ and so forth, sometimes we don’t spend enough time talking about the nature of our enemies.”

The Germans hid their death camps during World War II. But that’s not the case with ISIS, who uses video to recruit and instill fear in prospective enemies. “ISIL’s brutality is so apparent now because they’re promoting themselves,” McMaster says. “It’s not our reporting that got the American people to say, `Damn, it’s really worth fighting these guys!’—it’s their own propaganda!” Part of the problem, McMaster says, is that the U.S. public views war through too narrow a lens. “We don’t even focus on our enemies; we talk in terms that sometimes could be criticized as narcissistic,” he says. “We define these conflicts in relation to us, rather than pay due attention to the nature of our enemies, what’s at stake, and why it’s worth the effort.”

RETAKING MOSUL

The first real test for the U.S. and its allies will be the fight to retake Mosul, which ISIS seized from the Iraq army last June. The Pentagon is “still shooting for” an April-May launch of the battle to retake the country’s second-largest city. But that’s optimistic, and “we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that to the right”—into the future—the Central Command official said Feb. 19.

Iraqi forces have conducted 20 smaller ground offensives in recent months, and most of them have been “very successful,” the Central Command official said. Small numbers of U.S. troops—dozens to hundreds—could actually accompany Iraqi forces on that mission, to call in air strikes, gather intelligence, and advise the Iraqi forces. That decision, assuming a late-spring offensive, is only weeks away.

“I would not rule out using American ground troops to take territory if that’s necessary to defeat ISIS,” Jeffrey said. But he would rule out a “long-term American presence on the ground, as we saw in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam. It does not work.” Obama “is clearly very nervous about the use of military force, particularly ground forces, without a lot of allies, without a lot of legal backing, without the support of you and everybody else,” Jeffrey said at that Feb. 12 hearing. “…he thinks that we have gotten very committed, almost like a drug, to using military force, rather than other means of national power.”

In a bit of psyops, the Central Command briefer detailed just what the up to 2,000 ISIS fighters burrowed into Mosul will face when the fight kicks off. They will total up to 25,000, more than 10 times the defending ISIS force. That’s more than double the historic ratio needed to dislodge and defeat an enemy force in a city. “There will be five Iraqi army brigades, there will be three smaller brigades that will comprise a reserve force,” the Central Command official said. “There will be three pesh[merga] brigades that will help contain from the north and isolate from the west, and then there will be what we’re calling a Mosul fighting force, which will be compromised of largely police and tribal that are being put together right now of mostly former Mosul police.”

There’s no sign yet that ISIS fighters in Mosul are quaking in their boots. And while the Pentagon is guardedly optimistic the U.S. and its allies will prevail, critics have their doubts. “Retaking Mosul is going to be like Fallujah on steroids,” the AEI’s Donnelly says, referring to a pair of bloody battles in that western Iraq city that killed more than 100 Americans. “If I were President, I’d tell Martin Dempsey, `We have to win, and win faster.’ And if that means American boots on the ground, so be it.”

TIME Military

Pentagon Wraps Up Ebola Response in West Africa

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby Holds Media Briefing
Win McNamee—Getty Images Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby answers questions at the Pentagon on Aug. 22, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

The Pentagon is withdrawing U.S. troops from West Africa who were stationed there in September to fight Ebola, leaving behind only a small force to combat future outbreaks.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that almost all troops will return home by April 30. At the height of the crisis, 2,800 Department of Defense personnel were in West Africa, and today 1,500 of them are already back to their duty stations.

“Over the past several months, the Department of Defense delivered critical life-saving resources, constructed Ebola Treatment Units, trained hundreds of local and international healthcare workers, and provided logistical support to humanitarian and public health workers who provided care throughout West Africa,” the statement said.

According to a White House fact sheet, more than 10,000 U.S. government-supported civilians are now on the ground in West Africa. The U.S. government also facilitated the construction of 15 Ebola Treatment Units, 10 of which were built by U.S. service members.

The Department of Defense will leave behind a small residual force, about 100 personnel, to stay in West Africa to ward against future outbreaks.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 5

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. After 13 years at war chasing shifting priorities and the wildly different visions of civilian leadership, America’s military is a force adrift.

By Andrew Tilghman, Hope Hodge Seck, Michelle Tan, Patricia Kime, David Larter, Steve Losey and Leo Shane III in the Military Times

2. Sending kids to jail only ups the chances they’ll commit crimes again. States should raise the age of criminal responsibility.

By Sarah Childress at Frontline

3. 95 percent of the world’s population doesn’t own a computer. Repurposing old or unused tech can help close the gap.

By Revivn

4. We must build systems for overcoming subconscious racial bias.

By Sendhil Mullainathan in the Upshot

5. A new tool harnesses data to give teachers personalized roadmaps for professional development.

By Christina Quattrocchi in EdSurge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Pentagon: Iran Appears to Be Launching Airstrikes Against ISIS in Iraq

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham would not directly address airstrikes on Wednesday

(LONDON) — Iran appears to be launching airstrikes against ISIS targets in eastern Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham would not directly address airstrikes on Wednesday, but said “there is no change in Iranian policy about helping the Iraqi government against ISIS or consulting and advising the Iraqi government against terrorists.”

But Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said he has seen “nothing that would dispute” reports that Iran has carried out airstrikes in eastern Iraq, adding that the U.S. was “not taking a position” on the matter. “We have no indication that the reports are not true,” Kirby told reporters when pressed at a briefing on Tuesday. […]

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

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