Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Insiders: Where’s the Debate Over ‘Boots on the Ground’ in Africa?
Man reads Liberian newspaper with headlines on the deployment of 3,000
troops to several West African states.
By Ed Rogers
Washngton Post Blog
September 22 at 12:31 PM

Due in part to Washington’s preoccupation with the role the U.S. military will or will not play in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, there has been very little discussion about the plausible scenarios that could confront our troops who are being deployed to West Africa to fight the Ebola outbreak.

While the mission is being described as humanitarian, we are sending soldiers. How likely is it that they will find themselves in harm’s way and will need to defend themselves or others who are supporting their mission? The U.S. strategy in West Africa is still largely undefined and, certainly, unexamined.  Shouldn’t we be asking questions now about the potential for “mission creep”?

American soldiers began arriving in Liberia this weekend, yet no one is talking about the threat of armed conflict that could suddenly emerge.  The Ebola outbreak is in proximity to growing violence between Muslims and Christians, and it is not unreasonable to think that Americans could become targets of radical Muslim fighters. Not to mention, jihadists outside of Africa may view the U.S. military presence in West Africa as an opportunity to kill Americans. What happens if any of the 3,000 U.S. troops President Obama has promised to send are attacked? How many troops might it take to protect 3,000 troops?

It was reported late last week that eight members of a team working to educate villagers about protecting themselves from the Ebola virus were killed in Guinea.What if aid workers continue to be attacked? What if these workers ask the U.S. military for protection? Who and under what circumstances will soldiers be allowed to fight?

The political debate on these questions could start soon, and it could boil over quickly if a single American soldier is killed.  Will most Republicans be as matter-of-fact about sending combat troops to Africa as they are about sending troops to the Middle East? Will most Democrats be as reluctant to expand the military mission in Africa as they have been elsewhere in the world? And what assurances is President Obama willing to give about the troops we are sending to West Africa? Will he announce a fixed withdrawal date? Will he preemptively rule out a combat role for our military?

It seems like there are a lot of obvious questions that are being asked about our military missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan that are not being asked about our military’s deployment in West Africa. Depending on how things unfold in the coming weeks, the American military presence in Africa could become part of the partisan political debate this fall.

Follow Ed on Twitter: @EdRogersDC

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