Burkinabe soldiers of the 25th Regiment Parachutist Commando Counterterrorism Company train with US Army Africa's Regionally Aligned Force. (US Army Africa)
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WASHINGTON — US senators are questioning the need for a new $5 billion program proposed by President Barack Obama to fight al-Qaida and similar groups in North Africa.
Obama called on lawmakers to support the $5 billion counterterrorism fund during his commencement speech last Wednesday at the US Military Academy. The crux of the program will be training and equipping US allies in the region, while also helping indigenous forces target violent extremist groups, according to the White House.
“This makes sense from our national security interest precisely because of the way in which the counterterrorism mission and threat has changed,” a senior administration official told reporters last week.
“As we’ve seen, al-Qaida core push[ed] back and we’ve seen regional affiliates seek to gain a foothold in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa. What makes sense is a strategy that is not designed for the threat as it exists in 2001 or 2004,” the senior official said. “We need the strategy for how it exists in 2014 and 2016.”
But senators on Tuesday — especially Republicans on the Armed Services Committee — charged the commander in chief with trying to score political points rather than fight al-Qaida.
“I think it’s all for image,” SASC Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told CongressWatch. “It’s all for you guys,” he added, referring to journalists.
“We already have … train and equip programs. Every time [Obama] talks about spending money on a program, he does not identify where the money is going to come from,” Inhofe said.
“He also says we’re going to build highways [in the US], and we’re going to put $300 billion of additional money into the highway system but he doesn’t follow through,” he said. “And then he forgets about it. This is probably in that same category.”
Asked if he would support including the funding in the Pentagon’s base 2016 request if it were approved for the 2015 overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, Inhofe replied: “Well, I don’t know what his program is.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who likely would chair SASC if Republicans win control of the Senate in the November election, did not endorse the proposed CT effort.
“Since this administration’s policies have been a total failure,” McCain said, “I would have to look at it.”
Another Republican SASC member, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called the president’s desired program “no adequate substitute for abandoning Afghanistan in a fashion where we have no eyes on the problem, we have no lines of defenses against the re-emergence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.”
The administration has yet to announce how it will select which African nations would receive parts of the $5 billion or assistance under the proposed program.
Graham sees problems with Obama’s rationale for doling out even more funds under a brand-new program to governments some Americans might view as unreliable.
“The problem with the theory of a $5 billion fund is if you don’t have stable governments, you can’t invest,” he told CongressWatch.
“It just seems like more of a political talking point than an actual solution,” Graham said. “The capacity to do this already exists.”
Democrats largely held fire on the proposed program.
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he needed more information before commenting.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who oversees State Department-run CT partnership programs, told CongressWatch the president’s plan “in concept, it’s something I support but I’ve got to know the specifics.”
And, like other Democrats interviewed on Tuesday, SASC member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he has “got to learn the details,” adding he wants a briefing from the White House on its specific plans.
Program plans are still being hashed out within the administration, adding there is no clear timetable for finalizing the details and ultimately sending the full OCO to Capitol Hill.
The timing of the White House’s announcement of the North Africa CT program did not allow either the House or Senate Armed Services committees to debate the need for it when each crafted its 2015 Pentagon policy bill.
But GOP lawmakers — and any skeptical Democrats — in each chamber will get a chance to question or even shoot it down later this year when both chambers debate and vote on the 2015 OCO budget.
Inhofe shook his head when asked if the program is approved this year whether it eventually should be rolled into the Pentagon’s base budget: “He can’t continue to use OCO without offsets because there wouldn’t be adequate OCO left for his desired purpose.”
Those war-funding measures, which some government watchdogs say is mostly a military slush fund, are expected to decrease in size once most US troops are removed from Afghanistan by 2016.
“I don’t know what it is!” Inhofe exclaimed when asked if he might try to derail the proposed program. “The president doesn’t say what it is.” ■