Key Obama Counterterrorism Initiative on the Chopping Block

Middle East and North Africa

The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to eliminate a key Obama Administration counterterrorism initiative to provide military aid to the Middle East and Africa this week because of lingering questions about the administration’s plan and strategy for the newly created Counterterrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF). Starting on Wednesday, the House will debate the House Armed Services Committee approved National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2016 (H.R. 1753), which authorizes U.S. military programs and includes the cut to most of the Defense Department’s request for CTPF.

Unveiled during President Obama’s 2014 West Point speech, the President called on Congress “to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” As originally requested for FY 2015, the CTPF would have provided the Department of Defense (DoD) with $4 billion, with the remaining $1 billion going to the State Department. The request included $2.5 billion for counterterrorism operations for “direct partner support;” $1 billion for the Syria Regional Stabilization Initiative; and the remaining $500 million for “crisis response.”

Congress funded just $1.3 billion of the total CTPF request for FY 2015, allocating $800 million for counterterrorism and $500 million for the Syria Regional Stabilization Initiative under the Defense Department’s budget. For FY 2016, the administration requested $2.1 billion for DoD and $390 million for the State Department, with $2 billion for counterterrorism and $100 million for crisis response. Within the FY 2016 request, DoD proposed giving to help the Kingdom acquire new Black Hawk helicopters to continue interdiction operations against the Islamic State and enhance its border security. The proposed CTPF would also allocate $47 million to help fund the Security Governance Initiative (SGI).

On April 29th, however, the House Armed Services Committee decided not to fund the administration’s FY 2016 CTPF request in their approved National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2016. According to the Committee’s report on the NDAA, the “committee is concerned that the Secretary of Defense has not provided the plan for CTPF, as required by section 1534 of Public Law 113-291, and has not devised a strategy for this fund.” Instead of supporting the CTPF’s suggested $150 million for Jordan, the Committee authorized DoD to support Jordan’s border security efforts with up to $300 million dollars, which will likely include the Black Hawks.

According to the White House, the CTPF seeks to enable the United States to pursue “a sustainable and effective approach to combating terrorism that focuses on empowering and enabling our partners around the globe.” White House officials stressed that the new initiative provides “additional resources that can be used by the United States to build up effective partners so that when the United States has to confront threats like [the Islamic State] … we have well-trained, well-equipped, effective partners that we can work with to confront these problems.”

Despite these claims, the new program faces the question of how it differs from other U.S. security assistance programs. Some of the other programs include: Section 1206, which provides DoD funding to train and equip foreign militaries to undertake counterterrorism or stability operations; Global Lift and Sustain, which leverages U.S. air and logistical assets to transport forces operating in joint missions with the U.S.; Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to help countries purchase U.S. military equipment and training; and Section 1208, which grants U.S. Special Operations Forces the ability to train and equip regular and irregular indigenous forces to conduct counterterrorism operations, among many others.

These similarities led one analyst to conclude, “The relationship of the proposed [CTPF] to the rest of this organizational muddle and to the president’s existing security assistance policy is entirely unclear. In fact, it seems like that question was not even considered as the [CTPF] proposal was put together.” When asked about the CTPF at a recent event in Washington, the same analyst noted that the fund is simply a “bad idea.” Significantly, others have noted that the fund could “fall short” because it ultimately does not “work on the grievances that are the drivers of instability” in areas that function as terror safe havens.

Policymakers expressed similar skepticism last year. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) originally labeled the proposal “really poorly drafted in terms of narrowing it down to a specific set of purposes,” and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) argued “$5 billion in additional off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations funding is not an acceptable substitute for determined leadership to confront the growing threat of global terrorism.” Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-CA) also noted that, "We understand that these initiatives [including the CTPF] were levied on the department by the White House without coordination...” Others on Capitol Hill have echoed these sentiments.

However, others have expressed cautious optimism about the fund. One analyst argued: “This is potentially everything Socom [Special Operations Command] asked for and needs in security force assistance.” Other experts concluded that the CTPF represents a positive development for the special operations community, which has seen its funding decline following the conclusion of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Debate about the efficacy and future of the CTPF can and should continue. The administration continues to lobby for support for the fund, but it has yet to convincingly sell the idea to some members of Congress. Whether the CTPF becomes a unique security assistance authority, or just another of many defense initiatives, remains to be seen.