The military mission to combat Ebola in West Africa will probably last until 2016, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon is providing logistical, engineering and other support to other U.S. government agencies and international organizations trying to contain the outbreak and treat victims. The virus has already killed about 5,000 people in recent months.
There are 1,934 Defense Department personnel deployed to the region — 1,759 in Liberia and 175 in Senegal — to participate in Operation United Assistance. Officials have said that that presence could increase to about 4,000.
“Is it a four-year mission? Probably not. But I bet it’s every bit of 18 months, which would be three rotations of six-month deployments,” Gen. Martin Dempsey told an audience at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on Thursday.
The DOD effort began in earnest in September. By Dempsey’s estimated timetable, Operation United Assistance will likely last until early 2016.
Dempsey said the results of the international effort have been mixed.
“We think we’re making some progress in Liberia,” but “Sierra Leone is not trending favorably and nor is Guinea … We’ll see what happens with that,” he said.
The Obama administration is getting ready to submit a request to Congress to fund the effort. Dempsey said the money would likely go to USAID, which would then reimburse DOD for expenses incurred.
The chairman described the mission not as a humanitarian effort, but as a “stability operation” — a loaded term within Washington policy circles because it brings to mind the protracted campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama administration officials have said that the U.S. military won’t be engaging in those kinds of missions in the foreseeable future.
“The fight against Ebola is a stability operation … We’re trying to bring stability to a region of West Africa that is inherently unstable and to contain that disease there and … try to stabilize” the area, he told the audience.
“You can call it what you want,” he said, “but it’s a stability operation … [even though] we said that we’re not going to do stability operations.”