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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Washington avoids discussion of costs of war on the Islamic State

If the US war against the Islamic State were a social program there would be immediate requests for an estimate of the costs. If the duration and extent of the program was indefinite criticism would be immediate and harsh.



With respect to the Obama long term program to degrade and eliminate the Islamic State, costs appear to be irrelevant and in any case not worthy of discussing. We have no idea how long the attacks on the Islamic State will last nor the extent of the program but even now the attacks have extended from Iraq into Syria. While Obama so far has ruled out any boots on the ground, he has already sent about 1,500 special forces to Iraq. Apparently they do not count as boots on the ground.
The White House refuses to even estimate how much the war has cost up to now let alone what it might cost in the future. When press secretary Josh Earnest was pressed on the cost issue he said: “I don’t have an estimate on that. I know that we’re interested in having an open dialogue with Congress to ensure that our military has the resources necessary to carry out the mission that the president has laid out.” There is no budget for the war. Up to now, the US has been paying for the air attacks from the Overseas Contingency Operations budget. There is $85 billion in that budget but who knows how long that will last. The last US Iraq War had a total cost of over $2 trillion. While so far this new war has relatively few US forces present on the ground, over time with continued bombings and no doubt many contractors helping out with various tasks the bill could add up.
Last month, Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters the Iraq operations were costing about $7.5 million a day but no doubt that has increased considerably by now. Already the US has made over 170 airstrikes and there are about 60 surveillance flights each day.
 Unlike the first Iraq war, this new one will use mostly proxy troops such as Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga. In Syria the proxies will also be Kurds as well as many rebel groups who have clashed with the Islamic State. Obama has requested funds to train and arm more "moderate" rebels even though the weapons may end up in the hands of the Islamic State The tactic of using proxy troops will minimize casualties among Americans that might cause negative political reactions on the home front. However, Obama has made it clear that the fight against the Islamic Front will be long term. So will the costs.
 As was the case with the first Iraq War the US will try form a coalition of allies to share the cost of the battle. More than 40 countries have already pledged support for efforts to curb and destroy the Islamic State. France has already joined air strikes in Iraq and several Arab States joined in an attack on the Islamic State in Syria.
 Just last week, Obama again emphasized that he was not about to get the US involved in a ground war in Syria saying on TV: “American forces will not have a com Abat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however revealed that on at least one occasion small teams of US advisers have gone into battle with Iraqi troops. He also noted that if circumstances changed, Obama could change his mind about sending in US troops.
 So far, Obama has not sought congressional authority for his air strikes even in Syria where Assad has not given permission. The attacks are seen by Assad and Russia as against international law. White House spokesperson Earnest said that Obama "will not hesitate to use his authority to keep Americans safe". He went on to claim that the contemplated attacks in Syria were not against the Assad regime: “What we're talking about now is not about the Assad regime, but about this threat that's posed by [ISIS] that's operating both in Iraq and in Syra". This does not change the fact that the attack is on Syrian territory without the permission of the Syrian government.
 No doubt the air strikes will help slow down if not reverse Islamic State advances, although in northern Syria in the last few days, the group has made significant gains of territory sparking a huge flood of refugees into Turkey. Air strikes have hit the main Islamic State held city and stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Such strikes are almost bound to kill civilians and cause a great deal of damage to infrastructure. The same can be said of attacks on Iraqi cities. Just as many locals in Iraq prefer the Islamic State to the Shiite-dominated central government so in Syria many locals may prefer the Islamic State to Assad.


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