WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2015 —
President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke today in separate meetings with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who said she came to the United States to thank the U.S. government and the American people for helping Liberia fight the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Before his bilateral meeting with the Liberian president, Obama said that because of Sirleaf’s leadership, because of the heroism of so many in Liberia, and because of U.S. actions and those of the international community, extraordinary strides have been made there in driving back Ebola.
“Cases are now down 95 percent from the peak,” Obama said, “and Liberia reports only a few cases a week.”
Obama expressed pride in U.S. participation in Liberia and the stricken West African region, and named some of the areas where U.S. help made a difference.
President Salutes U.S. Troops, Labs, Technical Aid
Obama praised “our men and women in uniform who helped set up the logistical capacity to absorb additional aid and health workers from around the world.” He also highlighted the efforts of U.S. laboratories and technical assistance “so Liberian health workers and international partners could trace contacts, establish safe burial practices, raise community awareness and provide more humane treatment.”
All of those things “have contributed to confidence that we're going to be able to stamp out this disease completely,” Obama said.
Obama said that during the meeting he and Sirleaf would discuss how to “make sure that we're not complacent so long as there’s even one case of Ebola remaining in West Africa. We're now also in a position to look towards the future.”
Because of the devastating economic impact of Ebola on Liberia, Obama said, “We're going to have to work with President Sirleaf to find ways to strengthen the economy, to rebuild infrastructure [and] to make sure that some of the development goals that had been set previously are accelerated.”
Thanking the American People
In her comments, Sirleaf said, “I come to express, on behalf of the Liberian people, to you, to the Congress, to all the entities, what we call the front-line responders, to faith-based institutions, to the American people in general, for the support we received as we fought this virus.”
Sirleaf also thanked Obama for authorizing the deployment of military personnel to Liberia.
“We know this may not have been welcomed by … some,” she said, “but that made a critical difference in sending a strong message to the Liberian people that the United States was with us.”
Sirleaf said the military personnel deployed to Liberia raised the confidence and motivation of the Liberian people to save themselves, and U.S. troops are leaving behind a permanent contribution.
“Because they worked with our military … today our military can go out and they can build those structures, health treatment centers, because of their … work with the U.S. military,” Sirleaf said.
Getting Ebola Cases to Zero
As Liberia and its neighbors in Guinea and Sierra Leone work to get the number of Ebola cases in the region to zero, Sirleaf spoke about the future.
“We’d like to see a regional approach for the protection of our borders,” she said, “to be able to monitor and manage cross-border travel in our long and porous borders. We’d like to see the partnership continue as we move toward rebuilding our health infrastructure.”
This afternoon at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter greeted Sirleaf and led her through an honor cordon before their meeting. Later, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby described their interaction.
The leaders discussed the unprecedented collaboration between the Department of Defense and the armed forces of Liberia in responding to the spread of Ebola, and Carter reiterated the department's commitment to support Liberia during the next phase of Operation United Assistance, Kirby said.
Transitioning Operation United Assistance
Carter and Sirleaf briefly discussed yesterday's announcement that the 101st Airborne Division had completed its mission in Liberia and would be returning home.
Both leaders made clear they know the departure is a larger part of a plan by the U.S. Agency for International Development and DoD, and approved by Obama in January, to transition Operation United Assistance from the military to civilian and international organizations.
“Currently we've got about 1,180 Department of Defense personnel in the area of operations down there in Liberia, and we expect that they'll start to deploy home probably in April,” Kirby told the Pentagon press corps during a briefing today.
“The secretary also reaffirmed that the United States is absolutely not leaving West Africa, and confirmed his decision to send a small DoD element of about 100 military personnel, civilians and contractors to Liberia by the end of April,” the press secretary added.
Staying in West Africa
The team will coordinate U.S. Ebola-related activities and support activities, facilitate capacity-building in emergency response, engineering and medical training with the armed forces of Liberia, and support a reach-back capability for more personnel if required, Kirby said.
The leaders also spoke briefly about shared counterterrorism threats in the region, but both commented more than once, Kirby added, “about the extraordinary response by this department and by the men and women of the Defense Department in helping the people of Liberia deal with this deadly disease.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)