The U.S. military campaign against Islamic extremists kicked off last month with a barrage of Tomahawk land attack missiles. Forty-six cruise missiles hit Khorasan group militants and Islamic State targets. Reports are that the strikes were of limited value, with few leaders killed. Most had taken the opportunity to scatter before the attacks due to heavy press coverage of U.S. planning and intentions.
Also, it appears that the intelligence in preparation for the airstrikes was insufficient. The United States no longer has the fixed ground assets and human sources it once had access to when our ground presence was more robust. As a result, some damage, a few killed, but the bad guys live to fight another day.
The strategy outlined by the Obama administration called for close coordination between allied ground elements and the air campaign. This obviously isn’t being done, and the campaign thus far is not very effective. The Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — continues to advance. At press time, militants were besieging the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which sits just across the Turkish border. Thus far, the Turks have been unwilling to intervene on the ground and the town is in danger of falling. A rift between the United States and Turkey over strategy and respective roles and collaboration in this campaign has Turkey and its capable army sitting on the sidelines. Turkey is more concerned in removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, and has shown a reluctance to support any Kurdish forces.
There is some evidence that the air campaign is having an effect on ISIS mobility, as predicted, but it has not been able to slow or reverse its battlefield successes. The missing elements are effective, robust allied ground opposition and close coordination between allied air planning and allied ground forces. Also, the airstrikes seem too few and not intense and effective enough even when targets are hit accurately. Without correcting these deficiencies, ISIS will continue to advance.
Another big worry is the Islamists’ incursions into Iraq’s Anbar province. Sunni elements there are still reluctant to throw their support behind the Iraqi government forces, even though Nouri al-Malaki has stepped down. Until Sunnis are more certain of the direction and inclusiveness of the new government, they will be sitting back. Their worry about the presence of Shiite militias in Sunni areas is another cause for concern. In the meantime, ISIS advances.
As if these security crises were not enough, another major challenge has risen unexpectedly, the spread of the Ebola epidemic from West Africa. The Ebola virus was first identified in 1976. It has proven to be quite lethal and one that kills quickly once symptoms manifest. In the past, outbreaks have been limited to remote areas, and since they were largely confined to those areas, the virus outbreak burned itself out. Today, however, it has spread to densely populated areas of West Africa — Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
As of this writing, 8,033 actual or suspected cases have been confirmed, as well as 3,865 deaths. One victim migrated to the United States and a nurse in Spain contracted the virus while treating a priest who became infected while conducting volunteer work in Africa. The worry is that the known cases may be understated, and that infected carriers are now in Europe and in North America.
The mathematics of this disease is daunting. Of those currently infected, 70 percent are dying. Reports say that to contain the spread, 70 percent of Ebola burials must be conducted safely, and that at least 70 percent of infected people are in treatment within 60 days. Right now, the world community is not close to that target. And the spread, according to Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be exponential. One CDC report says that by January, given current rates of infection, 1.4 million people could be infected.
The United States has responded by sending military assets to West Africa to build 17 treatment facilities and blood analysis centers. These centers, with a capacity of 100 patients each, could provide treatment shelters for 1,700. According to media reports, 10,000 people need to be in treatment centers today, 50,000 in one month, and 100,000 in two months. If the infection keeps pace with that forecast, the 1,700 U.S.-built shelters will be just a pinprick against the fast spreading disease.
The national security implications of these crises in the Middle East and West Africa are obviously significant. For the U.S. military, the implications are clear. Eventually, the United States will have several thousand forces deployed to West Africa, and their jobs will surely morph from merely building shelters and analyzing blood samples to more active interventions. Congress is moving to approve the reprogramming of $1 billion from the defense budget to fund the Ebola fight. That money is being taken from a military budget that is already severely underfunded. The short fight against ISIS so far has topped another billion dollars, and will surely grow. And it is apparent that the strategy is not executable with presently planned resources.
We are reaching a point when it is more important than ever to consider some relief for the Defense Department in its 2016 budget. The modest relief that was provided by the Bipartisan Budget Act will soon expire and sequester will come down hard. It is critical to gain some reprieve from the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
As if all this were not bad enough, slow economic growth in Europe and China has begun to seriously depress markets. It appears that Germany, which has been Europe’s engine of growth during the continent’s economic crisis, is in danger of falling into recession.
So the pressure is on in a number of vital areas. We face persistent and successful enemies, insufficient resources, and a laggard global economy. It is interesting to note in this context that the United States, though still growing slowly, is considered the best economy in the world today. And that is not a ringing endorsement of how well things are going elsewhere around the globe.
All of these challenges can be managed. They require robust, focused U.S. leadership. Adjustments will have to be made to U.S. federal budgets. With a temporary spending measure for fiscal year 2015 scheduled to expire Dec. 11, Congress must act quickly to replace that with a full-year appropriation. Lawmakers also must clear the decks to seriously fix the fiscal square corner that defense faces in the 2016 budget.
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