WASHINGTON — The US government's military foreign-assistance programs are facing a quiet but consequential overhaul that has State Department officials privately balking at proposed changes to the division of labor between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.

The complex system of policies involved in propping up foreign forces — allies to some, enemies to others — is often derided as an impediment to national security. So when the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to reform the system in this year's defense policy bill, the 2017 National Authorization Act, its attempts to consolidate authorities, create a flexible funding pool and boost congressional oversight should have cruised by with little pushback.

But the effort to fix the Pentagon's security-cooperation bureaucracy, which has ballooned since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is prompting panic at the State Department. Diplomats there believe that the bill will let DoD muscle State out of the military aid business permanently.

"The new NDAA is the end of State Department security assistance," one US government official said bluntly, using shorthand for the pending bill. "The writing is on the wall." That stance has in turn prompted frustration and pushback from Senate Armed Services Committee staff, whose version of the legislation passed the full Senate with the reform language intact. Committee spokesman Dustin Walker said the goal is not to pick a side in the long-simmering turf battle, but to get the two departments to stop talking past each other.

"The Senate NDAA is designed to make DoD's current role in security cooperation more efficient, more effective and more responsive to emerging national-security requirements," Walker said. "An important part of that effort is formalizing and strengthening coordination between DoD and the State Department. The NDAA would require more integration of DoD and State security cooperation efforts, not less."

Be that as it may, officials at Foggy Bottom are on high alert over the language, and they are trying desperately to stop, or at least change, what the Senate wants to do.

A steady build

US military aid programs have grown steadily over the last decade. Under section 1206 of the 2006 defense-policy bill, the Pentagon launched its first train-and-equip program at $350 million; today, DoD oversees $3 billion in security assistance and foreign military financing for nations other than Afghanistan and Iraq, which have their own funding streams. By contrast, State has about $6 billion, of which $5 billion is legally obligated to Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

On security cooperation, DoD has edged out State through the 2000s, arguing it has more resources and is able to move more quickly than its State counterparts. During the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the department started pushing back, however, and it appears to be doing so again, according to Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center.

"I’m not surprised we’re having this debate again, particularly as the administration comes to an end and people are looking to institutionalize programs and protect their entities," Stohl said.

One central argument of State’s advocates is that DoD’s parallel security-assistance apparatus undermines statecraft. By creating a second track where nations can go to get American military goods, ambassadors in the field are robbed of key carrots and sticks when pushing on issues such as human rights.

For example, in 2015, Kenya received $48.2 million in funding for 1206 counterterrorism train-and-equip missions, according to figures compiled by Security Assistance Monitor. That same year, a State Department human rights report cited Kenya’s "security force abuses, including alleged unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, and use of excessive force; interethnic violence; and widespread corruption and impunity."

The Pentagon is concerned primarily with security advances, such as combating the Al-Shabaab terrorist group responsible for over 140 deaths in Kenya in 2015 alone. If State had full control over military funding, however, assistance could be used as a lever to correct human rights issues that lie – rightly or wrongly — outside DoD’s main area of concern.

"Talk to the military guys coming back from Africa or Asia and they say, ‘We’re just running the mission, we don’t worry about diplomatic aspects or the relationships being formulated, we’re building mil-to-mil bridges,'" Stohl said. "It’s an important relationship, one that should be cultivated, but it is not separate from the diplomatic and foreign policy relationships that have to be developed and take time. If you lose the foreign policy piece and just focus on the security piece, you’re doing a disservice to the larger strategic objectives."

Streamlining Authorities

The Senate-passed bill would collapse the collection of security-cooperation authorities from Title 10 and elsewhere into a single chapter of US law. It also repeals the Pentagon’s many "train-and-equip" policies and rolls them into a single authority.

It consolidates more than $2 billion in security-cooperating funding into a new Security Cooperation Enhancement Fund, a balm to senior DoD officials who were scraping dollars together from various accounts. In return, the defense secretary must submit an annual budget justification, report on the effectiveness of its efforts, and take responsibility for management oversight.

While the bill doesn’t give the Pentagon new authorities, it allows more flexibility within the framework, said Rand Senior Analyst Michael McNerney. While that has sparked fears at the State Department that the bill would grant DoD with a slush fund, McNerney said that appears to be balanced with greater congressional oversight.

"I think they felt it was a worthwhile tradeoff to give the Pentagon more flexibility if they can start showing their work," McNerney said of the bill.

The Senate bill also answers criticism that troops chosen to become security-cooperation officers — essentially a US representative to a foreign buyer — are ill-prepared by a three-week crash course to enter the job. It directs the defense secretary to create a DoD security-cooperation workforce program.

"Building security capabilities of a partner nation through security cooperation requires a specialized set of skills, and the current system neither develops those skills among its workforce nor rationally assigns its workforce to match appropriate skills with requirements," a bill summary reads.

Those who crafted the bill say it was drafted to comply with a 2013 White House directive on security assistance, Presidential Policy Directive 23, which is meant to define the security cooperation status quo for the State Department and the Pentagon.

"The Senate NDAA was deliberately designed to be consistent with that directive, which maintained the State Department’s primacy on foreign policy and security-sector assistance, but also acknowledged DoD has an important role in security-sector assistance," Walker said. "We worked hard to thread that needle."

In the patchwork of authorities, some DoD security cooperation programs gave State concurrence authority while others mandated "joint-formulation" programs, meaning State and DoD would plan programs together from inception. In the Senate’s consolidation plans, State would gain concurrence but lose "joint formulation" rights.

According to Walker, the two sides need to come together on a process to plan and prioritize together.

"Everyone recognizes that there have been shortcomings on both sides in planning and prioritizing integrated security-cooperation efforts," Walker said. "Congress has to continue to work with DoD and State to ensure we achieve the unity of effort we all seek."

Pro-State government officials, speaking on background, were not as conciliatory. The new legislative action, they fear, would spell the end of a meaningful role for State because DoD’s structure would legitimize a separate foreign-assistance avenue controlled by the military. And because the military tends to beat diplomacy in budget fights, the system would by default tilt toward the Pentagon, the thinking goes.

And those backing State fear that losing the ability to attach human-rights and geopolitical concerns to weapon sales or training will blow up in the face of the US government. They point out how arming a nation like the Philippines to counter China, with a focus solely on the military results and not the greater political picture, could end up with a US-backed nation striking against the larger Pacific country.

"I’d rather have a system that is duplicative and wasteful than see it all go under the Pentagon," said one US government official. "At some point, doing so will cause a huge [geopolitical] problem."

Congressional Action

It’s unclear how much traction State’s concerns will have in Congress. Crucially, the White House mentioned the matter in its policy statement on the Senate’s NDAA but stopped short of threatening a veto over it.

State does have allies. The Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee — chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — pushed back against the NDAA language in its appropriations bill, approved by the panel on June 29.

It cites existing law to assert "the primacy of the Secretary of State in the conduct of foreign affairs," pushing to enshrine the secretary’s "responsibility for the continuous supervision and general direction" of economic, law-enforcement, justice-sector and military assistance, to include military training programs.

The report blames the National Security Council, under President Obama and previous administrations, for failing to coordinate relevant policies for better cooperation. That, combined with ad-hoc responses to recent crises, "created parallel and competing foreign-assistance programs, particularly at the Department of Defense," the report said.

When these programs are allowed proceed outside "a whole-of-government" approach under the direction of the president and the secretary of state, it "erodes the coherent, coordinated, and effective implementation of U.S. foreign policy," the report warned.

To boot, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md., in June introduced an amendment to the bill to re-establish the State Department’s joint-formulation authority. However, procedural gridlock prior to the bill’s passage June 14 derailed it, along with hundreds of other amendments.

The language remains in the Senate-approved bill, which is due to be resolved with the House version through the conference process. Corker said Tuesday he had spoken with McCain and hoped the conference process would allow senators to "improve upon" the language in the defense policy bill.

Lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations committee have since been trying to get the administration, the Pentagon and the authorizing committees to agree on follow-up action, "in the best interest of our country, and not worry so much about turf," Cardin told Defense News.

In a closed-door hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 22, State and Pentagon officials had a frank discussion with lawmakers about the pitfalls of the Pentagon providing countries with security assistance without working with the State Department toward an overall diplomatic goal.

The hearing included testimony from Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary for State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and Vice Admiral Joseph Rixey, chief of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Corker was sympathetic to the argument that without State’s input, DoD could hamper larger foreign policy goals.

"You can also have a forum shopping thing," Corker said, referring to the informal term for parties choosing a path most likely to meet their interests. "You’re trying to speak with one voice, and countries see there are myriad authorities at the Pentagon and don’t want to line up with the overall diplomatic efforts of the US—but if we forum shop, we might find aid another way."

Before there is a legislative solution to the tangle of authorities, Congress needs a better grasp of the issue, Corker said.

"We all love and respect the military, all of us do," Corker said. "At the same time, the folks at the top understand the limitations they have at this regard. What came out of that [June 22 hearing] is for the two to work together towards one goal."

Email: amehta@defensenews.com| jgould@defensenews.comTwitter: @AaronMehta|

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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