A “secretive” war in Afghanistan while Campbell pushes for more flex; Two words: war balls; Carter is in; David Carr on why journalism is hard; And a bit more.

The U.S. is fighting a “secretive” war in Afghanistan, pushing the envelope when it comes to conducting the counter-terrorism operations it has said on the record it will continue to conduct even as the war there draws down. There are also stories today of the increasingly complex insurgency in Afghanistan and how the top commander is pushing for more flexibility when it comes to the drawdown. First things first:

Special Operations forces conducted a raid in October along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that yielded a senior Al Qaeda leader. They got Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti, but they also got a laptop. The NYT’s Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt on Page One (but buried this morning on the site): “…American military officials said the intelligence seized in the raid was possibly as significant as the information found in the computer and documents of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after members of the Navy SEALs killed him in 2011. In the months since, the trove of intelligence has helped fuel a significant increase in night raids by American Special Operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and American officials said.

“…The spike in raids is at odds with policy declarations in Washington, where the Obama administration has deemed the American role in the war essentially over. But the increase reflects the reality in Afghanistan, where fierce fighting in the past year killed record numbers of Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians.

“American and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing operations that are largely classified, said that American forces were playing direct combat roles in many of the raids and were not simply going along as advisers.” The rest here.

Meantime, Semper Gumby: ISAF Commander Gen. John Campbell is asking President Barack Obama for more flexibility when it comes to troop levels in Afghanistan amid widespread, bipartisan support for the plan to rethink the drawdown – a plan that was borne amid Washington’s struggles with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and which very few lawmakers, Dems or Republicans, or former officials think is good. Gen. Joe Dunford, the Marine Commandant and former ISAF commander, has said at the time that he’d like more “ambiguity” in the plan. Sen. John McCain and others agreed.

Lubold's story: “[Campbell] told lawmakers Thursday that he has provided a set of options to the White House that would allow him to adjust his “force posture” through the year, strongly indicating that he would like to have the latitude to have more troops in Afghanistan as he may need them. His request comes amid significant political support from both parties to give him what he wants.

Campbell, to the SASC yesterday: “I’m particularly concerned about the summer of 2015, the Afghans — this is the very first fighting season completely on their own… They’ve had the lead for two years. They’ve done quite well, but this is the first one at the current force levels that we’re at.”

“…On Wednesday, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham testified before the panel, saying the current timeline is ‘too short’ and the rate of withdrawal ‘too steep.’

“…Each member of the Senate committee seemed open to the idea that Campbell should have the flexibility he needs for troop numbers. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., probably the most vocal Democrat when it comes to giving military commanders the flexibility they need for troop numbers, agreed that Obama’s “calendar-based” approach in which troops are removed by a rigid timetable isn’t appropriate.

Kaine: “We’ve got to have a conditions-based approach.”

Read the rest of Lubold’s story, here.

Afghanistan’s insurgency grows more complex. The WaPo’s Sudarsan Raghavan on Page One this morning: “…As the United States reshapes its military footprint in Afghanistan, the Taliban is transforming into a patchwork of forces with often conflicting ideals and motivations, looking less like the ultra-religious movement it started out as in the mid-1990s. The fragmentation may suggest the movement is weakening, but it is forcing Afghanistan’s government to confront an insurgency that is becoming increasingly diverse, scattered — and more lethal.” More here.

A Whopper with cheese, please. Gen. Campbell was spotted in the Pentagon after testimony, grabbing a bite to eat – at the Burger King in the food court there.

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Two words: War balls. The future of amphibious assault looks to all appearances like an explosive inner tube, and it just might be the Marines’ newest drone. Defense One tech editor Patrick Tucker: “The GuardBot is a robot ball that swims over water at about 4 miles per hour and then rolls along the beach, at as much as a 30-degree incline and 20 miles per hour…It took creator Peter Muhlrad some seven years to develop, but now that it’s complete Muhlrad says it can be rapidly produced… as small as 10 cm and as large as nine feet… Muhlrad designed the system primarily for surveillance and object inspection... When Defense One asked if the GuardBot could carry explosives rather than detection or camera equipment, Muhlrad answered simply: ‘Yes.’” Read the rest, along with a video demonstration of the rather terrifying device down at Quantico, here.

And the Center for a New American Security just launched a new project to investigate the consequences of drone proliferation as well as the policy options available to U.S. planners in the national security domain. More on “The World of Proliferated Drones,” here.

And yes, the Pentagon is about to get a new chief. Ash Carter was confirmed by the full Senate yesterday and it’s expected that he’ll be sworn in by Tuesday.

Defense One’s politics editor Molly O’Toole sends: In the end, the only thing that held up Defense Secretary Ash Carter's confirmation turned out to be senators returning from a signing ceremony at the White House for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. As expected, senators voted overwhelmingly to confirm Carter, 93-5.

The nays: Republican Sens. Roy Blount from Missouri, Illinois’ Mark Kirk, Idaho’s Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Arkansas’ John Boozman. (More on the vote from Politico, here.)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said his vote comes "with sincere hope and sadly little confidence that the President who nominated Dr. Carter will empower him to lead and contribute to the fullest extent of his abilities. Because at a time of global upheaval and multiplying threats to our security, the American people need and deserve nothing less.”

If SecDef Ash Carter and SASC chair John McCain want to take a meaningful step forward to reform Pentagon acquisition, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, William Hartung, says they should hit the brakes on the troubled F-35. For more detail on the whys and how that would make sense, head over here.

Chuck Hagel’s day. Hagel will remain SecDef until Carter is sworn in. He may not leave today with the proverbial cardboard box in his hand, but it’s likely today is his last day in the building. We’re told he’s scheduled it like almost any other day, sitting for operational briefings, signing last minute orders and doing other business. On Wednesday, Hagel and his wife, Lilibet, made a private visit to Arlington, where he laid a wreath to honor those who had fallen during his time as SecDef – and for those who have sacrificed during his many years of public service. That cool black and white picture, here.

Boko Haram just this morning carried out their first deadly attack inside neighboring Chad. This after another bombing in NE Nigeria on Thursday. AP on Chad, here; and on the bombing in Biu, here.

Meanwhile, a Boko Haram captain was reportedly arrested by the border with Niger by Nigerian security forces yesterday. Xinhua with that, here.

Seven Ukrainian soldiers and eight civilians have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine since parties came to an agreement on a peace deal there. AFP this hour, here.

ISIS is nearing the gates of al-Asad air base in Iraq where 320 Marines are training Iraqi troops. WaPo’s Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim from Baghdad: “Anbar’s provincial council called for “immediate and urgent military reinforcements” after the attack on the town of al-Baghdadi, which began in the early morning. Ayn al-Asad air base — where some 320 U.S. personnel have been training Iraqi troops and tribal fighters — lies five miles west of the town…

“Sheikh Omar Alwani, a tribal leader based in Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi, said his fighters in al-Baghdadi had reported that the Islamic State reached within two miles of Ayn al-Asad before being pushed back by Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters backed by coalition airstrikes. The attack began with a double suicide bombing at the town’s police station at 5 a.m., he said.” Read the rest, here.

Escalating the war on ISIS’ boats: In early Jan., coalition forces had destroyed 14 ISIS boats—and that number was up to 39 on Feb. 4th. Defense One’s Kedar Pavgi asked the folks at CJTF-OIR about the spike, here was the reply: "All boats targeted have been of the open bow/skiff type. Most of the boats are quite small, estimated to be less than 20 feet, equipped with could best be described as a trolling motor. Boats have primarily been observed operating along the Tigris/Euphrates Rivers for the purposes of transporting personnel and/or equipment from either side of the rivers. Usually they’ve been observed after [Iraqi security forces] have secured bridge crossings in the area. No boats have been armed or used as assault vehicles." When asked if ISIS/ISIL was leaning on these feeble dinghies since they were losing control of the bridges on the Tigris and Euphrates—the reply: "I would say that ISIL is utilizing all available forms of transportation to complete their missions."

And not surprisingly, ISIS has a massive blood shortage and is reportedly hitting up the citizens under its control for donations, The Telegraph’s Simon Tomlinson reports, here.

Boeing’s big reorganization. Embarrassing production delays and multi-million dollar cost overruns on its new aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force has Boeing merging its military and space development projects into one new business unit. Our own Marcus Weisgerber lays out the implications for you, here.

Burning money, not trash. After throwing nearly $82 million worth of incinerators at the Defense Department’s massive trash disposal problems in Afghanistan, a quarter of that money was wasted on at FOBs Salerno, Sharana, Ghazni and Maywand since folks there never even used the equipment. Those were the findings from Afghan reconstruction IG, SIGAR—which you can read all about in Jamie Tarabay’s write-up for al-Jazeera, here, or conduct your own deep-dive into the issue in SIGAR’s 30-page report released yesterday, here.

The Defense Department built a search engine that leaves Google in the dust. WSJ’s Elizabeth Dwoskin: “The program, a tool called Memex developed by the U.S. military’s research and development arm, is a search engine on steroids. Rather than endless pages of Web links, it returns sophisticated infographics that represent the relationships between Web pages... [making] it possible to identify criminal networks and understand their operations in powerful new ways.” More here.

The death of the air-sea battle has been greatly exaggerated. Six authors from each of the four services and the Joint Staff penned a kind of preview report on the Pentagon’s effort to overcome challenges in the anti-access/area-denial (or, A2/AD—which largely refers to Chinese military modernization) realm. That, over at The National Interest, here.

Northcom’s Bill Gortney wants more exercises with China. National Defense Magazine’s Yasmin Tadjdeh, here.

Al-Qaeda fighters seized a southern Yemeni army base yesterday right after the U.N. warned the nation is on the brink of war. Reuters' Mohammad Mukhashaf from Aden, here.

So Marine embassy guards smashed their personal weapons with sledgehammers and “scattered” them before leaving Yemen. There were new details about the Marines’ departure “in the wake of differing reports about what had become of personal weapons the troops had to leave behind before departing the country via the airport at Sanaa. A Pentagon spokesman told reporters Wednesday that Marines handed over the weapons to Yemeni officials before boarding commercial aircraft for departure, while staff with the Sanaa airport told the Associated Press that Houthi rebels had seized U.S. Embassy vehicles, some with weapons inside,” according to Marine Corps Times’ Hope Hedge Seck.

“A Marine official with knowledge of the movement told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday that all personal and crew-served weapons had been rendered inoperable, but could not address how they had been made so or how they were disposed of before the Marines departed.” More here.

MARSOC mulls female candidates. On the heels of the Army’s Ranger program running its first 5 females through its grueling course in April, the Marines’ special operations command just began its own assessment for females who may want to take a stab at the MARSOC course in the coming months. That from Marine Corps Times’ Hope Hodge Seck, here.

Who’s doing what today? The House Armed Services Committee talks Islamic extremism with William Braniff of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, former DIA chief retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and GWU Professor Marc Lynch at 9 a.m. … the Army’s Col. Louis Zeisman of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade talks lessons learned from his unit’s recent return from the Pacific Pathways exercise in Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan today at the Pentagon at 9:30 a.m. … and a half-hour later, Brookings hosts a discussion on Japan’s national security strategy at 10 a.m.

Swabbing decks and cashing checks. While Navy Times pores over submissions to its quest to find a better new Navy slogan—after ditching its “Global force for good—the folks at the military blog We Are the Mighty assembled 13 humorous examples like, “America’s Navy: Crunchy rice and hot dogs” and “It’s like prison, but with port visits!” over here.

Running: Transgender former SEAL, Kristin Beck, filed papers Monday with the Maryland board of elections to challenge Rep. Steny Hoyer in the Democratic primary. AP, here.

Explaining: VA Secretary Bob McDonald penned an op-ed in Military Times yesterday to help put into perspective yesterday’s signing of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America Veterans Act. That, here.

David Letterman, a huge supporter of NBC’s Brian Williams, did the “Top 10 Things Brian Williams said that May or May Not Be True” after a long, supportive talk of how if Williams got a few things wrong here and there, so be it. Watch it here.

Bob Simon probably never told a fish story about that helicopter he took out of Saigon. The tributes, rememberances and others poured in from the longtime foreign affairs and war correspondent who was killed, perhaps improbably, in a car crash in Manhattan this week. Simon was a reporter’s reporter and was indeed on a helicopter that left Saigon as it fell.

Longtime CBS’ New producer Mary Walsh posted this on Facebook (we didn’t get permission to run it but we figure she wouldn’t mind): “Bob Simon had a huge impact on my career and my life. I worked with him on my first overseas assignment: Ronald Reagan's trip to Japan in 1986: we covered the Albertville Olympics in 1992 and I was in Jordan, working logistics, when we managed to free Bob and his team from prison in Iraq. Bob had promised me a ride on his new Harley - I was just waiting for warmer weather to take him up on that. No one worked harder or had more fun in the news business. We have lost a gifted reporter, a man of extraordinary talent.”

The Town Car Simon was riding in sped up before the crash. The NYT’s Benjamin Mueller, here.

The NYT’s longtime media critic, David Carr, 58, collapsed in the NYT newsroom last night and died. The paper is full of coverage of Carr, a “critic and champion” of the media and an early advocate of social media.

Here’s what Carr wrote last March, on why journalism should be hard: "The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you’re gonna get a job that’s a little bit of a caper, that isn’t really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it—that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody’s lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working." That, here.

Your Friday #LongRead: Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell explains how the Pentagon is on board with climate change as a “threat multiplier” for U.S. national security—but key members of Congress still won’t budge on the issue. That, here.