A Secret Weapon to Stop the Ebola Crisis: The United States Military

The Buzz

Reaction was mixed following President Obama’s announcement that he was sending 3,000 troops to Liberia to help contain the spiraling Ebola epidemic. Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Prize-winning, normally pacifist NGO has been on the front lines of this fight begging for military support. Meanwhile, a couple of retired generals have blasted the president for the decision, asserting that it is a “misuse” of the military, whose job is to “fight wars, not medical battles.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

The threat beyond Africa is real—the clock is ticking. Although the immediate threat from cases in Texas and Spain may be overblown, experts warn that the virus is mutating and if not stopped, will spread well beyond Africa, stressing the capacity of even more developed nations like our own to contain it.

Moreover, Ebola represents a significant security issue. As the disease spreads, so does panic—and panic leads to violence. CFR’s own Laurie Garrett observes, “Lawlessness will rise as Ebola claims the lives of police and law enforcement personnel, and terrified cops quit their jobs.”

As health workers die or quit—or as people stay away from hospitals for fear of contracting Ebola—they will begin to die of other, normally treatable health problems. According to Garrett, “Women will die in delivery, auto accident victims will bleed out for lack of emergency care, old vaccine-preventable epidemics will resurge as health workers fear administering them to potentially Ebola-carrying children, and child malnutrition will set in.”

Thus, as governments fail to cope with the outbreak and associated panic, the epidemic’s spillover effects will serve to cripple government infrastructure and societal structures, creating major security issues. This spiral into chaos, in turn, will only accelerate the spread of the virus and confound efforts to control it.

Smaller steps early on could have nipped this epidemic in the bud.  But we are well past that now. Only the military—indeed, only the United States military with its vast organizational and command and control capabilities—can do what is needed to coordinate multi-national efforts and contain this virus.  As with warfare, it is all about logistics and leadership.  Here is what the U.S. military brings to the fight against Ebola:

-Leadership and coordination: The United States is deploying half of the headquarters element of the 101st Airborne Division to coordinate multi-national and interagency efforts between several actors: the Liberian government, USAID, UN aid workers, and the United States’ own forces. This is a complex organizational challenge for which the U.S. military is uniquely qualified.

-Treatment centers and mobile labs: Military engineers and support contractors will construct seventeen prefabricated treatment centers to help isolate and treat the sick. Mobile labs will allow health workers to identify and separate Ebola patients from others.


-Transportation: As commercial airlines show increasing reluctance to fly between affected countries, military transport will be needed to maintain the flow of medical workers and supplies. This includes critical aid like hygiene kits and protective gear.


-Training: Military medical personnel will be able to train 500 local health workers and volunteers a week in basic self-protection procedures to control infection. This empowerment of local workers will be the key to stopping this epidemic while also limiting the direct exposure of U.S. troops.


Such firm U.S. contribution represents an understanding that the Ebola epidemic constitutes a global challenge—one that must be met with a global solution. As with a fight against any adversary, a policy predicated solely on self-isolation and avoidance would not be a winning strategy. We will be most effective when we seek to stem the virus at its source.

This is a mission for which the U.S. military is uniquely qualified. Despite the false adage that the military’s role is only to “fight and win the nation’s wars,” it has carried out a myriad of humanitarian and stabilization operations in its 239-year history.

Doing so is not only a moral imperative—it also falls firmly within the United States’ national interests. The global community must unite to turn the tide against Ebola, and our nation—and its military—must play its part to lead it.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsUnited States

Forgotten Lessons of Counterterrorism

Paul Pillar

International terrorism has evolved in significant ways even just in what could be called its modern era, over the past 45 years or so. Policies and practices in responding to it also have evolved during the same period. Useful lessons have been learned and applied. Enough time has gone by, however, and there have been enough discontinuities both in preferred terrorist methods and in official responses, that some of the lessons have been forgotten. This has been especially true in the United States, where much of the public appears to believe that the whole problem of international terrorism began on a September day 13 years ago.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and on into the 1980s, international terrorists—including Middle Easterners, as well as Western leftist radicals who were still active then—periodically seized headlines and public attention, in the United States as well as Europe. They most often did so by seizing hostages and threatening to kill or otherwise harm them if certain demands, often relating to release of previously captured terrorists, were not met. Sometimes the hostage-taking occurred on the ground, such as with the takeover of a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975. Sometimes it was accomplished by hijacking a commercial airliner along with its passengers and crew. Some of the hostage-taking incidents became extended dramas that played out over days. One that involved Americans, for example, was the hijacking by members of Lebanese Hezballah of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. The hostages were held (and one of them killed) during three days in the plane while it crisscrossed the Mediterranean and then for another two weeks in Lebanon before they were released.

Groups that employed such tactics were using them as theater. Getting their demands, such as release of incarcerated comrades, met was surely a plus for them, but at least as important was the impact on larger audiences, in the sense either of intimidation or of getting attention for a cause. Brian Jenkins, one of America's earliest genuine experts on terrorism, summed up this principle with the observation, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

After enough of these incidents, there arose a general awareness among officials and the media that anything that increased attention to these incidents and enhanced their dramatic appeal was, intentionally or not, serving the purposes of the terrorists. There was much soul-searching by the press about this. There was not really a school solution that was developed and adopted; even the most responsible news organization cannot completely self-censor coverage of what is still a genuine news event. But at least there was awareness and discussion of the interests at stake, and some effort to find ways to minimize the harm of giving free publicity to terrorists.

Further evolution of terrorist tactics over the next couple of decades saw a shift away from capturing people to threaten to kill them and toward operations that killed people straightaway. 9/11 was not the start of this trend but was the most spectacular and deadly example of it. Jenkins's observation remained partly correct in that terrorists still wanted a lot of people watching, but killing a lot of people was the way of getting other people to watch. Countering terrorism (by the government) and covering it (by the press) became focused on bombs suddenly going off without warning. Awareness of the issues and interests involved in hostage situations atrophied.

Now the group sometimes known as ISIS represents a further turn in terrorist groups' tactics. This is partly a matter of the use of armed force to capture and hold territory, but what has captured our collective attention at least as much is the serial drama of the group's hostages being individually threatened with death, and some of those threats being carried out—a drama being served up in slick videotaped fashion to milk as much publicity as possible from it. We, the public, and the media have responded by being duly fascinated and horrified and by being stimulated by the drama to push our policymakers into deeper military engagement in the Middle East. Meanwhile the sort of soul-searching about hostage dramas that was evident three decades ago is hard to find today. The lessons about this sort of thing that were learned back then seem to have been forgotten.

This is one of the ways, though not the only one, in which we have been playing into the hands of ISIS. As with those hostage incidents back in the 1970s and 1980s, the demands terrorists make are not necessarily their main objectives. Although the threats by ISIS to kill more hostages are ostensibly intended to deter Western military action, it is at least as likely that they are intended, as in fact is happening, to stimulate such action—all the better for the group to pose as the chief defender of the Sunni Muslim umma against depredations of the U.S.-led West.

We also serve the group's objectives every time we (including our government or the press) portray the group as ten feet tall and strong enough to warrant something akin to a declaration of war. A specific objective served is to increase the group's allure in the eyes of would-be Western recruits. We even serve those objectives with the way we label the group, with much of the Western press using its preferred name of Islamic State even though we have no interest in suggesting that the group's practices are consistent with Islam or that it is worthy of being recognized as a state. The press does not necessarily refer to other entities by their preferred but non-descriptive names (how many newspaper articles about North Korea do you see that identify it as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea?); why should it do so with this one? At least the U.S. government has wisely been using instead the mundane acronym ISIL.

Just about everyone who expounds on what the United States ought to be doing these days in Syria and Iraq seems to be claiming to be an expert on terrorism. Before making that claim they ought to learn some of those lessons that had been learned 30 years ago.                                        

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

Will Falling Oil Prices Kill Iran's Economic Recovery?

The Buzz

Oil prices have been tumbling for weeks—they were at twenty-seven-month lows this morning and fell further throughout the day. That’s good news for consumers—and bad news for producers. But the man who should be most uneasy is Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. He had promised an “economic boom” and lower inflation, and has even suggested that Iran has the potential to be one of the world’s ten largest economies within thirty years. And he’s had some successes. Iran’s economy isn’t zipping and inflation is still extreme, but he has calmed the widening gyre of economic chaos that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stirred up and worked to reduce Iran’s economic isolation.

Getting the Islamic Republic’s budgets in order required serious austerity measures. Now even the shrunken budget may be in danger. The current budget, in effect until March of next year, was designed for an oil price of $100 and oil exports of 1.5 million barrels per day. Iran has struggled to hit the latter target—in June, as oil prices were peaking, it came up a few thousand barrels a day short, and then fell more the next month. Now it might have trouble hitting the former, too. Brent crude oil, whose prices tend to hug Iran’s main crudes, hit a low below $91 today (it had been over $113 in June); the futures market anticipates $93-$94 per barrel for many months to come. Compound that with the difficulty Iran has making straightforward, efficient cash transactions under the sanctions regime, and one cannot help but wonder whether Tehran will struggle to get hard currency, to sustain its expenditures, to control inflation, or to get that “economic boom.”

Rouhani will have trouble delivering on his promises, and that will weaken him at home. Conservative elements in the Majles will intensify their criticism—and more moderate conservatives may join the fray. In the longer term, Rouhani would also have to worry that reformist enthusiasm may fade. Reformists have always been split on whether to change the Islamic Republic from within—and thereby dignify it with their participation—or to withdraw from the system. Rouhani has already lost some of his shine among reformists, particularly for his recent claim that Iran would not imprison journalists. Economic weakness could compound that trend. Would a reformist majority after the 2016 Majles elections—already not a sure thing, especially if the vote is not fair—slip away?

The most pressing issue in Iranian politics isn’t the economy. The nuclear negotiations, which are coming to a head as the current interim deal is set to expire next month, are. A successful nuclear deal would bring huge, sustained economic benefits. Western money would rush in. Western expertise would help Iran boost its oil production and thus the government’s budgets. And such a major political and economic success would enormously strengthen Rouhani’s hand and create a chance of big gains at the ballot box for his fellow travelers. A sagging oil market thus increases the opportunity cost of not making a deal. Iran has less leverage at the negotiating table. Seen from beneath an accountant’s green eyeshades, an agreement now looks more likely and more likely to be favorable to the West.

But the accountants don’t run Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does—with the backing of a tangle of ideological and economic interests that stand to lose if a deal makes Iran more open to the West. And cutting a deal has always been the wise move from a purely economic standpoint. The nuclear facilities have been expensive to build, and the international response to them has been even costlier for Tehran. The only serious economic benefit they offer—the potential for nuclear energy—would take decades of construction and many billions more dollars to realize, and could have been done with foreign help for a much lower price. A bit of red ink on the spreadsheets might not be enough to make the ayatollah fold.

Khamenei also isn’t deeply invested in Rouhani’s political fortunes. Sure, he let Rouhani run, and then let Rouhani win. He’s backed the nuclear negotiations. But he’s also allowed withering criticism of Rouhani’s administration in the Majles and the hardline press. He’s let the Majles impeach one of Rouhani’s cabinet members. He’s publicly questioned the utility of the nuclear talks, and drawn red lines that limit Iranian flexibility. He won’t go into panic mode if Rouhani’s poll numbers drop a few points.

Further, to the extent that the nuclear talks also require negotiation between Rouhani and his allies on one side and Khamenei and the hardliners on the other, a weak oil price cuts into Rouhani’s leverage. So while a deal has become more likely when seen from an international lens, it’s become less likely when seen from a domestic politics lens. Thus, if oil prices hold around their current low levels, we’ll get a chance to see just how eager Khamenei and his allies are for a deal.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsEconomicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Selling Vietnam Lethal Weapons: The Right Move?

The Buzz

Last Friday, the Obama administration partially lifted the U.S. ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, which had been in place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. According to the Associated Press, on Friday, “State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the United States will now allow sales of lethal maritime security capabilities and for surveillance on a case-by-case basis.” These lethal arms sales will, for now, remain relatively limited, though the United States could sell Vietnam boats and planes, which would theoretically be used for Vietnam’s coast guard.

This first step in selling lethal arms to Vietnam, though heavily criticized by human rights groups because of Hanoi’s deteriorating record on political and religious freedoms, likely will be followed by greater arms sales, including naval and air force assets. And it is true that Vietnam’s government has increasingly cracked down on dissent of all types over the past five years. In particular, the government in Hanoi has waged a harsh campaign against Internet writers, bloggers, and social media activists of all types, jailing many and instituting some of the toughest restrictions on Internet and social media use of any nation in the world.

In general, as I have written, I think the Obama administration’s Southeast Asia policy has often overlooked human rights and democracy promotion, allowing the region to slide backwards in terms of political freedom, since the United States has said little about democratic rollback in many nations and has allied itself with some of the more autocratic countries in the region. This is, in general, a mistake, since the United States is alienating Southeast Asians while, in general, reaping little strategic benefit from its relationships with many of the more authoritarian nations in the region.

But Vietnam is the exception.  Of all the countries in mainland Southeast Asia, only Vietnam has provided–and will provide–enough strategic benefits for the United States to justify closer ties to such an authoritarian regime. Unlike in Myanmar or Thailand, in Vietnam the government, though repressive, has clear control over the armed forces, and though the Vietnamese regime certainly is guilty of a wide range of abuses, the actual Vietnamese military itself is, in many respects, less abusive and more professional than those of Myanmar or Thailand. Vietnam is, overall, more stable than Myanmar or even Thailand, and the population, despite the history of war with the United States, tends to be ardently pro-American. But there is no denying that Hanoi harshly represses dissent, minority rights, freedom of religion, and other freedoms.

Vietnam’s military is not only under civilian command but, more important strategically, is larger and, in a conflict, potentially far more effective than that of any other country in mainland Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Thailand. Vietnam’s navy is professional and well-trained. Vietnam’s strategic location, right next to the South China Sea, puts it at the center of vital shipping routes and at the heart of one of the areas where the United States and China are most likely to come into conflict; Washington and Beijing are unlikely to come into conflict over the Mekong region, despite the Obama administration’s decision to re-engage with mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay would offer the best harbor for U.S. naval vessels in case of a conflict in the Sea. And unlike Thailand or Malaysia, Vietnam, which has fought wars with China for centuries and shares a long land border with China, has few illusions about China’s rise, and is willing to back up its position on disputes with Beijing with skillful diplomacy and the real threat of force. What’s more, a younger generation of Vietnamese officials, who did not fight in the war, has come to dominate the foreign ministry and military; they see a stronger relationship with the United States as essential to Vietnam’s future security.

Paul Leaf, a defense specialist, offers a fine summary of Vietnam’s advantages as a partner:

Vietnam’s military outlays climbed 130 percent from 2003 to 2012—making it Southeast Asia’s second biggest defense spender as a proportion of GDP—which Hanoi is using to modernize its naval and air forces. Its location is strategically valuable: Vietnam shares an almost 800-mile border with China and it abuts the South China Sea. Finally, Vietnam is tough, having kept an outnumbered and outclassed group of vessels near China’s rig during their 75-day summer [of 2014] standoff.

As the most populous nation in mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam also is an economy that, if it handles its current turbulence, has far more room to grow than most other nations in the region.

Does all of this excuse Vietnam’s harsh repression of dissent? Of course not. But foreign policy, at times, entails balancing strategy and values, and despite my own strong convictions about democracy and human rights, in Southeast Asia Vietnam is the one place where, to my own sadness, the strategic side of the ledger should win out. The White House should move forward with further arms sales. In an upcoming working paper, I will examine how the United States and Vietnam could build on arms sales and move toward a formal treaty alliance.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsVietnam

Avoiding the Long War Redux

The Buzz

As bombs and missiles have begun to drop in ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, military experts are warning that the air campaign will be measured in months, if not years, and that a ground campaign must certainly follow.  President Obama said as much in his address announcing the commencement of the campaign against the IS.

The Obama plan cannot be considered a strategy yet--significant pieces are missing. It was formed as much if not more so from domestic political realities and those constraints rather than what is necessary to defeat the IS.  It is in part why there are two separate, though complementary, missions to destroy the IS in Iraq and to degrade it in Syria.  

Destruction of the IS cannot be done by airpower alone, and there are some questions of how much of it can be degraded by airstrikes. In this context, air power can be likened to trying to swat a pesky fly with a hammer – but given the number of flies and their geographic spread, an area the size of the United Kingdom, this can be a wearisome and lengthy process.

Based on how many sorties were flown over Libya, we can surely expect the air campaign to last between six months to well over a year and that was with a proxy ground force provided by the National Transition Council.  There is no such ground force in Syria or even in Iraq and so we are once again facing a long war.

Above all it is the duration of our engagements overseas, the years in Iraq and Afghanistan without satisfactory conclusions, and the billions that were spent, that have soured western publics to any sort of overseas military engagements, especially those which feature the commitment of ground forces.

Facing the threat that the Islamic State evinces--with its beheadings, its pre-medieval use of crucifixions, the purposeful elimination of non-adherents in their midst and the subjugation of what remains to servitude--has galvanized nations and people to act, notwithstanding their visceral reluctance to do so. People understand that the IS, wrapped in a cocoon of quasi-statehood represents a danger if left untouched.

In the towns and cities it holds, an entire new generation of youth is being schooled in the Islamic State’s sanguinary curriculum of terror. It isn’t our intervention that will make more martyrs and converts; it is our non-intervention that will.

In response, a coalition that includes Arab states, puts an end to the question “why it’s always only us”.  The participation of regional Sunni states is helping defy the narrative that it is the West against Islam.  

However, military action is not inexpensive. The estimates from the United States are that this will cost between seven to ten million dollars a day, or $3.6bn dollars a year, not including contributing nation costs.

Unlike the Second World War, where spending supported mobilization and increased hiring, modern wars do not produce the same economic effect and  monies spent on long wars could be directed for more productive uses.

President Eisenhower in his famous parting speech said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Beyond fiscal cost, there is a further societal cost to consider at home.

In the 19th century, Robert E. Lee opined that warfare should be fierce lest we grow too fond of it.  A century later in 2004, the historian Niall Ferguson was struck by the festive atmosphere in Las Vegas, while the U.S. Army was slogging it out in Iraq. Video of antiseptic, high tech missile strikes, mesmerizing us with their precision will become part of our daily fare of news, in a similar fashion to the day’s box scores and traffic reports. It is Orwellian in its imagery, where a society is in perpetual war but disengaged from it.  Along with that separation is the inescapable reality that prolonged war produces a drain on the national spirit the longer that conflict endures.

This is not an argument to avoid going to war against ISIS, in fact it is quite the opposite.

The quicker ISIS can be decisively degraded if not destroyed the better.  This requires a punishing air campaign coupled with a ground force follow up. Instead of one hammer employ many and end this military intervention quickly.

The air campaign, appears to be under-resourced compared to what established the winning conditions for Desert Storm for example; as if the coalition is hoping that precision will replace the persistent coverage that only mass can provide.  While an air campaign answers the public perception of action it cannot fully succeed on its own.   That is exactly what coalition leaders must openly discuss and confront.

The Obama plan recognizes the need for a ground campaign; It is short on detail on who will do that making this only a plan at the moment and not a strategy.

The mainly conventional nature of the ISIS enemy, the terrain and, a long secure allied border with Turkey mean that a ground campaign could be conducted with lighting speed.

In Gulf War One the air campaign lasted five weeks, and the ground operation liberating Kuwait was completed in 100 hours.  The point being that success is possible if aims are limited to the destruction of the IS, and not a mission to establish government or re-establish civil society by military means.

The end of conflict in Gulf War One is also instructive, as there was no “complicated” exit strategy.  When Kuwait was liberated, the troops came home.  Limited objectives, clear goals and a short war are the lessons to be drawn.

Two divisions, of a well-led modern mechanised force preferably US led that would not exceed 50,000 should have no difficulty advancing North on a Baghdad,  Mosul axis, then swinging west driving to Lake al Assad as its limit of exploitation.

Its left boundary, once in Syria, would be the Euphrates River, north of which is exclusively the IS domain.  The Turks, whose border runs across the entire line of advance would be enjoined to provide secure basing for the logistics effort, and holding attacks along the length of those borders.

That sweep, would provide Turkey the buffer zone that they have long argued for and they can be asked to man it under a UN mandate in effect reducing the creation of newly displaced and facilitating humanitarian aid delivery.

That alone is not enough and international pressure must be maintained for the creation of inclusive governments in the region.  Without the sharing of real power in Baghdad, the Sunni’s will have every reason to distrust both the current regime and the US.  In Syria, the faster the IS is destroyed, the less Assad will benefit and the Free Syrian Army might have a chance to concentrate instead of fighting a two front war – one against Assad, another against the IS.

It is important to remember how we got here in the first place and understand it to avoid another re-dux; that being the very delicate matter of the Sunnis in Iraq.

The roots of the IS were spawned in the Sunni suppression and its subsequent marginalization soon after the Iraq invasion.  When repaired by extraordinary US efforts during the surge, gains were squandered by a Iraqi government, in the absence of a US presence, that re-fomented sectarian divides further marginalizing the Sunnis; resulting inter-alia in an Iraqi army that could no longer fight despite the billions spent on creating it.

In Syria, as civil demonstrations against Bashar al Assad became a rebellion and then a full-fledged civil war, the United States and the West had nothing to offer except words.  International “Red Lines”, proved to be nothing more than posturing, adding to a long list of missed opportunities where what might have emerged as a moderate opposition with western support quickly became overrun and divided by fundamentalists.

Between those two tinder boxes, ISIS, and the IS was born.

To simply bomb the ISIS over the course of a year without becoming diplomatically engaged in resolving the baseline issue of Sunni marginalization in Iraq and Syria will only create another ISIS down the road. In both Syria and Iraq, a positive outcome is only achieved, if IS is rapidly defeated and only then, will there also be an opportunity for humanitarian aid to freely flow.

To avoid the results experienced by the west over the last decade ; the most obvious of these being that “Long Wars with unclear purpose are not good.”  Use decisive military force, including land power, now--to bring ISIS to an end, to avoid a prolonged conflict and further human suffering.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

Howard Coombs is a professor of military history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. The opinions expressed are their own.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East