- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
In a nod to the growing threat Islamist militant groups pose in Africa, the Pentagon is planning to spend about $200 million on operations targeting the Islamic State in North Africa — thousands of miles from the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria — while also making a new push against al Qaeda-linked forces elsewhere on the continent.
The money is included in the Defense Department’s new $582 billion budget, which includes $58 billion to fund the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. A total of $7.5 billion of that is specifically directed at fighting the Islamic State.
A defense official who spoke with a small group of reporters on the condition of anonymity said that the money earmarked for Africa will be focused on the north, where ISIS has made inroads in places like Libya and the Sinai Peninsula. The group has already managed to gain control of a large strip of land along the Libyan coast near the town of Sirte, and security officials in Egypt — which shares a long border with Libya — are deeply concerned that ISIS militants will use Libya as a base for planning and carrying out cross-border strikes.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently said the U.S. wants to stop ISIS from gaining more of a foothold in Libya, as “you see the same kind of ambitions on their part that you see realized in full flower in Syria and Iraq.”
Speaking in more stark terms, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford warned last month of the potential for “decisive military action” against ISIS in Libya. U.S. Special Operations Forces are already active in the country, though largely on reconnaissance missions and attempting to make inroads with local militia leaders rather than direct combat against the Islamic State.
At least a portion of the new funding request outlined Tuesday seems earmarked for Djibouti, which has long been a base of operations for U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa and a key launching pad for drone operations in eastern and northern Africa.
Speaking at Tuesday’s budget rollout at the Pentagon, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva said that the new money would be used to counter the threats presented by militant groups across Africa, including al-Shabab in the east, Boko Haram in the west and ISIS in the north. The money, he said, would allow the U.S. to work with local forces “to get at those three particular threats and others that might emerge.”
Most of the $7.5 billion earmarked to fight the Islamic State will go to sustaining the 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and continuing the air war there and in Syria, but $1.8 billion will also be used to buy more bombs. The 17-month U.S.-led air war in Iraq and Syria has used so many smart bombs and other munitions that the Air Force and Navy need to start replenishing their stocks.
In Afghanistan, Washington’s longest war, the purse strings will actually get a little tighter. The defense budget request slightly reduces the funding for the war in Afghanistan from the $42.9 billion allocated in 2016 to $41.7 billion. The money will hold the U.S. troop presence there at 9,800 through much of 2016 before dropping to about 5,500 troops by the start of 2017. The United States has already spent over $60 billion training and equipping the Afghan army and police, which have so far been unable to prevent the resurgent Taliban from conquering portions of the country.
Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Jessica DeRose