Because Of ISIS, Pentagon Rethinks Deployments To Sinai Peninsula

Apr 14, 2016
Originally published on April 14, 2016 8:11 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear now about a U.S. military deployment to the Middle East that doesn't get a lot of attention. For decades, American and international troops have deployed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula as part of a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The area where they're based is currently a hotbed of activity by the Islamic State. That has the Pentagon worried about whether those deployments make sense anymore. And now the U.S. may replace the troops with cameras, sensors and other technology. Joining us now to talk about that is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You visited this base back in December with a top U.S. Army general. Tell us what you know.

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, Renee, it's becoming increasingly dangerous there. In September, six troops, including four Americans, were wounded while on patrol outside what's called North Camp. They hit a roadside bomb planted by ISIS. Now, the troops there told me they occasionally get mortar and rocket attacks inside their base, where there are about 1,000 troops, including about 250 Americans. Now, most recently, two months ago, an ISIS rocket flew in and came close to a helicopter there. And what's more troubling, Renee, is an Egyptian military round, likely a tank round, flew in just two weeks ago and hit the gym. But it was before dawn, and the gym was empty.

MONTAGNE: How could that have happened? I mean, lucky, but how did it happen?

BOWMAN: Well, officials I talk with aren't sure. They say maybe it was someone in the Egyptian military bribed by ISIS - threatened by ISIS. It could be a rogue commander. Now, the Sinai is Egyptian sovereign territory. So the Egyptian military patrols outside the camps. But they're seen as ineffective in dealing with the ISIS threat. Now, what's particularly troubling for the Americans is they can't fire back at ISIS. That's up to the Egyptians. So the Americans have been provided with radar. They can track rounds coming in. They have large machine guns and armored vehicles if ISIS, let's say, breaks inside the camp. So it's basically worse than the Alamo. They're increasingly at risk, but they can't fight back. Here's another thing, Renee - these troops do not get hazardous duty pay.

MONTAGNE: Well, what does the Pentagon hope to do?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon would like to reduce the number of troops to about - from about 1,000 to about a couple of hundred. And the Americans would provide basically a quick-reaction force as part of that mix - sort of like a SWAT team. And again, you'd use cameras and sensors, again, for the peacekeeping mission - making sure that Egypt and Israel basically don't fight each other, which obviously nobody thinks will happen. Now, there are large numbers of troops on this mission from all sorts of countries - Columbia, Fiji and others, including France and New Zealand. And they rotate in and out. Now, some of these troops would move south to a camp at Sharm el-Sheikh at the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula - really away from the ISIS threat. There are now hundreds of Americans there.

MONTAGNE: And these American troops - why can't the president just order them to come home the way he can for any other unit deployed any other place in the world?

BOWMAN: Well, because it's an international agreement, and anything changes in the troops must be agreed by all parties. And that's been the problem for more than a decade. Actually, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to close it down and both the countries balked at that. Egypt likes the hundreds of millions of dollars they get in aid for this. And Israel, you know, still concerned about the political future of Egypt, the unrest there, and likes the comfort of having American troops close by. But this new push has the personal attention of the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Joe Dunford, and there's a real concern by him and others that these American troops are in greater and greater danger.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.