Too high a cost to send troops to Mid-East: Obama

US soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan 5, 2015.
US soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan 5, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

Toll every month could include '100 US soldiers dead with 500 injured, up to $14b in expenses'

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama, seeking to counter pressure for a military escalation in response to terrorist attacks, told a group of news columnists this week that sending significant ground forces back to the Middle East could conceivably result in the deaths of 100 US soldiers every month.

In a private session at the White House, Mr Obama explained that his refusal to redeploy large numbers of troops to the region was rooted in the grim assumption that the casualties and costs would rival the worst of the Iraq War.

Such a renewed commitment, he said, could require up to US$10 billion (S$14 billion) a month and leave as many as 500 troops injured every month in addition to those killed, a toll he deemed not commensurate with the threat.

Mr Obama said that if he did send troops to Syria, as some Republicans have urged, he feared a slippery slope that would eventually require similar deployments to other terrorist strongholds like Libya and Yemen, effectively putting him in charge of governing much of the region.

In a private session at the White House, Mr Obama explained that his refusal to redeploy large numbers of troops to the region was rooted in the grim assumption that the casualties and costs would rival the worst of the Iraq War. Such a renewed commitment, he said, could require up to US$10 billion (S$14 billion) a month and leave as many as 500 troops injured every month in addition to those killed, a toll he deemed not commensurate with the threat.

He told the columnists that he envisioned sending significant ground forces to the Middle East only in the case of a catastrophic terrorist attack that disrupted the normal functioning of the United States. But Mr Obama said he now realised that he was slow to respond to public fears after terrorist attacks in Paris and California, acknowledging that his low-key approach led Americans to worry that he was not doing enough to keep the country safe.

He had engaged in a blitz of public events lately to try to convince them otherwise, including a visit on Thursday to the National Counterterrorism Centre.

The session with columnists was off the record, but the President's remarks were recounted on Thursday by several people who were in the room after one of the writers, Mr David Ignatius of The Washington Post, described some of the President's thinking in a column without attributing it directly to Mr Obama.

The President's defence of his approach came as Republican presidential candidates have been branding him as weak and competing in their calls for more robust action to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

Mr Obama is struggling to fashion a message that reassures Americans that he is serious about battling the threat of ISIS while also avoiding what he considers the alarmism voiced by some Republican presidential candidates.

Mr Obama argued that while there were potentially threats that would merit the kind of investment of lives and money equivalent to that made in the Iraq War, ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the US and therefore the response should be measured.

The US needs to take on the group, in part to defend allies in the region, he said, but it should not be an all-out war.

Moreover, he added, part of the group's strategy is to draw the US into a broader military entanglement in the region.

A sustained but limited campaign may be slow and politically unsatisfying, but ultimately will be more successful, he contended.

Mr Obama claimed progress in pushing back ISIS, through a strategy of air strikes combined with Special Operations raids and support for local forces on the ground.

He said that currently, there is no "specific and credible information about an attack on the homeland", although he added that Americans should remain vigilant.

Mr Obama said that it was "understandable" that Americans were concerned, but that they should be reassured. "Here's what I want every American to know - since (the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, or 9/11), we've taken extraordinary steps to strengthen our homeland security," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Too high a cost to send troops to Mid-East: Obama'. Print Edition | Subscribe