World

What 3,000 American Troops Will Be Doing To Fight Ebola In Africa

CREDIT: AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh

Health workers attend to patients that contracted the Ebola virus, at a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia

President Obama on Tuesday will announce a new push from the United States to attempt to stem the spread of Ebola that has ravaged West Africa, the White House said in a late night statement. Accompanying the fact sheet detailing the new strategy moving forward was the declaration that around 3,000 U.S. military personnel will be deployed to help contain the deadly disease.

For seven months now, the Ebola virus has continued to spread throughout western Africa, with the World Health Organization calling the outbreak one that is “unparalleled in modern times.” In all, more than 2,500 have died since the crisis began, the WHO said on Tuesday, and another 5,000 have been infected. Almost forty percent of new infections have taken place within the last three weeks, the agency added, highlighting the increasing tempo the disease has taken on in recent months.

The U.S. response has been criticized as not being nearly enough to assist the region, but the Obama administration is now seeking to reverse that perception. “In order to contain and combat it, we are partnering with the United Nations and other international partners to help the Governments of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal respond just as we fortify our defenses at home,” the White House said in its fact sheet. “Every outbreak of Ebola over the past 40 years has been contained, and we are confident that this one can—and will be—as well.”

That will involve, the White House said, leveraging the U.S. military to assist with “command and control, logistics expertise, training, and engineering support.” That will include U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) setting up a command headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to coordinate throughout the region and be a liaison between the U.S. government and international relief efforts. That mission will involve “a general from U.S. Army Africa, the Army component of U.S. Africa Command,” who “will lead this effort, which will involve an estimated 3,000 U.S. forces.”

When asked about the size of the deployment, Lesley Anne Warner, an analyst of Africa’s political-military landscape, told ThinkProgress that “it is surprising on one hand because AFRICOM has limited assigned forces from which to draw.” In total, nearly two-thirds of AFRICOM’s 4,800 assigned personnel will be deployed to the region. “On the other hand, this deployment comes on the heels of a personal appeal made last week by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for U.S. military assistance,” Warner added, “a request that arguably carries greater weight coming from Liberia due to its historical ties to the United States.”

Once there, most U.S. forces will be assigned to a regional intermediate staging base, where they’ll be able to “facilitate and expedite the transportation of equipment, supplies and personnel.” Engineers with the deployment will build additional Ebola Treatment Units and “establish a site to train up to 500 health care providers per week, enabling healthcare workers to safely provide direct medical care to patients.”

This tracks with the historic mission of AFRICOM, Warner explained to ThinkProgress, as when the command was first created “one of its stated theater strategic interests was to ‘deter and contain pandemic influenza'” in the region. “The issue of responding to pandemics has since appeared less salient, even though AFRICOM has since held a handful of Pandemic Disaster Response tabletops focused on increasing partner nation preparedness to respond to pandemic influenza in countries like Senegal, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso,” she said in her email.

But that doesn’t mean that the shift from helping contain flu outbreaks to stopping an Ebola pandemic will be an easy one, Warner cautioned. “While the basic coordination processes to respond to pandemic influenza may be similar, the scale of this outbreak and the sheer planning and logistic requirements needed to achieve infection-control measures for Ebola differ,” she said. “Furthermore, it’s unclear whether regional militaries are expected to partner with the U.S. military in its efforts to expand Ebola treatment capacity in the countries affected by the outbreak.”

Though the main takeaway from the White House’s announcement is the AFRICOM deployment, it won’t just be the military responding to the crisis. The U.S. government will also continue its quest to find doctors willing to travel to West Africa to help tackle the crisis. The U.S. Agency for International Development has for several weeks now had on its website an appeal “to the medical community in the United States for assistance with the West Africa Ebola Outbreak,” imploring qualified medical professionals to contact organizations working in the region through the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

A sizable amount of funding is also being redirected to facilitate the new initiatives being launched in not just the Pentagon and USAID, but also the State Department, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies. The administration is asking Congress to provide another $30 million to send CDC workers and equipment to the region and $58 million to help develop an effective Ebola vaccine.

That’s on top of asking Congress to redirect $500 million in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to pay for “military air transportation of DoD and non-DoD personnel and supplies; medical treatment facilities (e.g. isolation units), personnel protective equipment, and medical supplies; logistics and engineering support, and; subject matter experts in support of sanitation and mortuary affairs” and another $60 million to allow the Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program to assist with “biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance needs.”

Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Colby College who studies African politics extensively, told ThinkProgress that the plan from the White House represents a marked improvement on what she called the government’s earlier piecemeal response to the crisis. “Whether or not it’s going to work is anybody’s guess,” Seay said. Given how long the crisis has gone on, however, “it could be a case of — I don’t want to say ‘too little, too late’ but too late to stem the tide,” she added. “It’s going to be in the several tens of thousands, the people who die before this is over and had this response come even three or four months ago, a lot of those people be alive and wouldn’t be facing infection now.”

“I don’t know how people are going to respond to an armed presence in Liberia,” Seay added, as while Monrovia clearly coordinated the response with Washington, “the Liberian government is very unpopular with its voters right now.” She was also skeptical of one of the stated points in the White House’s strategy, which “mitigating second-order impacts, including blunting the economic, social, and political tolls” that the virus will cause. “We’re terrible at livelihood provision in a positive situation when things are not going horribly wrong,” Seay said. “I think that’s some nice language and a nice idea,” she continued, but noted that the economic impact of the crisis is severe enough that “it’s hard to see how U.S. assistance would stop an economic collapse.”

As of Tuesday morning, the White House had not sent to Congress the notification required when the U.S. deploys military forces overseas absent a declaration of war. But it’s unlikely there will be much pushback from the Hill, based on the amount of attention the crisis has seen from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “This is an instance where we should be running toward the burning flames with our fireproof suits on,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said on Monday, calling the virus as severe a threat as the one the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) poses. “This is an emergency. We need to recognize it, and we need to find and work with other countries in the world that recognize it.”