O's counterterrorism fund

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Article Highlights

  • The announcement took congressional leaders from both parties completely by surprise.

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  • If foreign forces can hunt down terrorists themselves, there will be less need to employ American forces or controversial drone strikes.

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  • Congress should make sure the fund’s price tag reflects careful assessments of which countries will need assistance & how much.

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In his commencement address at West Point, President Obama described terrorism as “the most direct threat to America” but unveiled only a single proposal for making the United States more secure. The new program is called the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, and it would cost $5 billion in its first year of operation — a stunning increase from the $290 million the Pentagon plans to spend on such partnerships in 2014.

The program could become a powerful addition to the Pentagon’s counterterrorist arsenal, but only if there is a well-thought-out plan for how to spend the new money. Otherwise it will be a waste of scarce resources at a time when the military is struggling to stay in fighting shape because of more than $1 trillion of budget cuts.

So far, the evidence suggests the proposal was a last-minute idea meant to round out a speech that was short on particulars. The announcement took congressional leaders from both parties completely by surprise. According to defense expert Gordon Adams, a veteran of President Clinton’s budget office, “It’s a mystery fund.” But if the White House takes the time to craft a serious plan before pushing Congress for the money, the new fund can be a success.

What a counterterrorism partnership entails is training foreign military and police forces. If foreign forces can hunt down terrorists themselves, there will be less need to employ American forces or controversial drone strikes. As President Bush often said, “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” In this case, President Obama wants to help the Yemenis, Somalis, and others to get back on their feet.

The first rule of training foreign forces is that you need to invest in a long-term relationship. So the Obama administration needs to clarify whether the fund will become a permanent program. A permanent program is much more costly than a one-time expenditure, but partnerships depend on trust, which requires confidence that American support will not disappear in twelve months’ time.

So far, all the White House has said is that it will ask for the first installment of $5 billion as part of its wartime supplemental budget request. Yet the American combat mission in Afghanistan will be ending this year, so the program cannot survive on special wartime appropriations. Before Congress approves any funding for the new program, it should ensure that the Pentagon has a plan for the future.

Since building relationships is so important for effective training, it would actually be far wiser to guarantee $1 billion a year for five years than to provide all the money in 2015. Another rule of training foreign forces is that it’s very hard to get things right on the first try; a five-year schedule would allow the Pentagon to adjust to the inevitable surprises.

Before approving funding, Congress should also make sure the fund’s price tag reflects careful assessments of which countries will need assistance and how much. The Government Accountability Office has sharply criticized the existing partnership program for its failue to track whether its initiatives have had any measurable impact.

While $5 billion is a tremendous amount of money compared to what the Pentagon currently spends on counterterrorism partnerships, it is a fraction of the cost of building a foreign force from the ground up, as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2013, the Pentagon spent $5.1 billion on Afghan security forces. Since 2002, it has spent a total of $52.7 billion.

Plans for the new fund will have to identify realistic objectives for partnerships that cost a few hundred million dollars per year at most. The top recipient of aid from the existing fund has been Yemen, which collected $400 million over the course of eight years. But Yemen is not exactly a model of success.

While President Obama touted the achievements of U.S.-trained “security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al-Qaeda,” he did not mention that training had to be suspended in 2011 when massive protests forced out the country’s veteran strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Nor did the president mention that the Yemeni armed forces have been convulsed with mutinies since Saleh’s departure.

The lesson to take away from this experience is that a potential partner’s willingness and capability to work with the United States is just as important as the amount we spend on the partnership. Before approving any proposals, Congress should ensure that the White House has plans to direct any new funds to willing and cooperative partners.

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