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Lawmakers Remain Skeptical of Obama's Quiet Military, Intel Pivot to Africa

Aug. 6, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT And MARCUS WEISGERBER   |   Comments
Western Accord 14, Africa
Soldiers from Burkina Faso receive instruction on personnel searching and traffic control point procedures from US Army soldiers in June. (Franklin Moore/US Army)
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WASHINGTON — US lawmakers continue reacting skeptically to the Obama administration’s quiet US military and intelligence pivot to Africa, this time holding up millions to counter violent extremists there.

The Pentagon wants to shift almost $7 million for, as the Senate Armed Services Committee describes in a budget document obtained by Defense News, “information operations that shape the information environment in Africa in order to counter violent extremist ideology.”

That funding shift within the fiscal 2014 Defense Department budget is part of a broader shift kicked into gear by the White House earlier this year.

A senior administration official in early June told reporters the White House’s new approach for fighting al-Qaida stretches “all the way to the Sahel,” adding the US will have “resources to allocate across the region.”

Members of Congress support generally support doing more in Africa, where al-Qaida splinter groups and ones inspired by the group are training and operating. In one section of a House Armed Services Committee-written report released this spring and approved by the full chamber, lawmakers call Africa “the front lines of the next phase of the terrorist threat.”

But even the congressional defense committees want to know more about just what the Pentagon is up in Africa.

In May, the House passed a 2015 defense authorization bill that raises concerns about the Defense Department’s use of private contractors in Africa, citing problems encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of both parties from both chambers continue to slam the Obama administration's proposed $5 billion counterterrorism program, which is in large part intended to take on extremist groups in North Africa. The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee's 2015 Pentagon spending bill, for instance, raises a slew of questions about the program and cuts the funding to $1.9 billion.

House members also are raising an eyebrow.

“We understand that these initiatives were levied on the [Defense] Department by the White House without coordination, and you’re now working to develop spending plans,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told a panel of senior Pentagon officials in mid-July.

“But while counterterrorism partnerships and reassuring our European allies are important and necessary, the president’s approach lacks detail and is too broad in scope,” McKeon said.

The lower chamber’s version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains a provision that would require the US comptroller general to deliver lawmakers a detailed report about US Africa Command’s ability to “plan, manage and oversee contractors.”

“While the challenges and deficiencies regarding the planning, management, and oversight of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have been well documented, and the department has taken several steps to address these challenges, the [House Armed Services Committee] notes that the challenges associated with contractor support for other types of operations in other regions could be substantially different,” states a report accompanying that legislation.

Now, the Senate Armed Services Committee wants more data about just what the $6.9 million for Africa info operations would be used for.

The SASC document, dated July 31, signals the panel might not hold up the proposed funding shift forever. The document states the committee is still reviewing some deferred items.

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