By Matthew Leatherman:
Your first question is likely: ‘We have American soldiers deployed in Egypt?’
In December, the U.S. Army proposed cutting the combat pay bonus that soldiers earn while deployed to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Your first question should be: “Wait – we have American soldiers deployed in Egypt?”
We do. Roughly 700 American soldiers, along with hundreds of others from 11 additional countries, are there to maintain a peace deal that President Jimmy Carter negotiated between Israel and Egypt more than 35 years ago. Of course, the world has changed since then, so much that Israel and Egypt now are on the same side of a new fight against regional insurgents that have taken on the ISIS brand.
Our troops remain in this mission because of inertia – a common threat to bureaucracy, especially one as large as the Pentagon – even as the surrounding environment changes radically.
But some Army bureaucrats at Fort Bragg’s 1st Theater Sustainment Command are tired of footing the combat pay premium that comes along with this inertia, so they’ve recommended cutting it. Implicitly, that’s an acknowledgement that we have completed the mission of building peace between Israel and Egypt.
White House and Pentagon officials ought to make this acknowledgement explicit. They are reviewing the Sinai mission right now, and their decision should be to end it. Anachronistic deployments like this one burden our troops, and our taxpayers, with unnecessary cost. And this inertia is about to drag us and our soldiers into an entirely new fight.
In September, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said that “we are concerned over security conditions in that area of the northeastern Sinai, where…U.S. military forces stationed at theMFO [Multinational Force and Observers] north camp are exposed to potential risk.”
Bringing these troops home sounds like common sense, but it will not be easy. Like a snowball that becomes an avalanche, their mission has accumulated other goals along the way. Today, their presence in the Sinai serves several bureaucracies’ interests.
Among them is the Army National Guard, which conducts this mission and thereby justifies some part of its status as an operational force, not just a strategic reserve. Being “operational” in this way helps the Guard as it struggles for budget dollars with the active-duty Army.
But the active-duty Army benefits as well. The force is already being cut as fewer troops are called to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its budget will remain at risk as many question the wisdom of such large-scale ground wars. Every mission that the Army can get right now buttresses its relevance.
The State Department benefits as well. It actually gets these budget dollars through its Peacekeeping Operations account, and that creates an interest as well.
More broadly, interventionist-minded officials across our national security institutions stand to gain as well. They favor a military answer to ISIS — or, more specifically in this case, some upstart insurgents calling themselves ISIS — and this historical peacekeeping mission offers a very convenient segue into that contemporary fight.
And the interests don’t stop at the water’s edge. Egypt and Israel will gladly continue to take our money and manpower as they try to sort this conflict out.
Some of these interests really are important. The Army National Guard is an especially efficient force, for instance, and the experience they get in the Sinai helps maintain that efficiency. Additionally, Sinai-based insurgents are responsible for some international terrorist acts, and counter-terrorism raids by the military are one tool available in response.
National interests are much bigger than bureaucratic interests, though, and we have no national interest in the fight with these particular insurgents. All these bureaucratic benefits are outweighed by the potential costs of a coincidental fight.
Even avalanches eventually stop when they run into a greater force. Cost-consciousness, both in terms of our soldiers’ sacrifices and our taxpayers’ wallets, should finally put a halt to the Sinai mission.
Taxpayers front one-third of this multinational mission’s cost, amounting to $35 million last year. (Perversely, this threatens to function as seed money for a much bigger and costlier combat mission if we leave our troops in the crossfire.) And here’s a quick recap of the costs that our troops already have paid in the Sinai. They have faced rocket attacks on their airport. They deal with gunfire on their camps, with at least one soldier being hit. They have tripped several roadside bombs while driving in convoy. Cutting combat pay for these troops is an affront when measured against the violence they face rather than the ostensible mission that they have been assigned.
The answer, though, is not restoring the combat pay bonus. Rather, the White House should acknowledge the Army’s implicit message that this mission has been accomplished and, as after any completed mission, should bring these soldiers home.
Matthew Leatherman is a Nonresident Fellow with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center.
This piece originally ran in Defense One, February 1, 2016