Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amounts allocated to the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund in the fiscal 2018 and 2017 budgets.
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump's budget announced Tuesday proposes steep cuts to former President Barack Obama's signature counterterrorism training program, long criticized on Capitol Hill as too broad to be effective — but it maintains billions for dollars for train-and-equip efforts.
The White House proposal would leave the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund on life-support at $40 million, down from $1.8 billion in fiscal 2017. CTPF, billed as a means to provide security assistance to moderate allies fighting extremists in Africa and the Mideast, endured successive cuts in Congress and criticism Obama was too light on strategy and specifics for Congress' liking.
The $40 million is proposed as a means to "enhance the capacity of law enforcement to confront terrorist ideology and recruitment; and accelerate efforts to defeat ISIS, decimate a resurgent al-Qa'ida, and crack down on Iranian-sponsored terrorism," according to budget materials. Target countries may include Bangladesh, Cameroon, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia, among others.
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The Trump administration does propose $1.8 billion for a Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Fund — a continuation of three accounts consolidated in the 2017 budget Congress passed earlier this month. That fund is meant to support Iraqi government forces as they retake Mosul, Iraq, and vetted Syrian forces as they retake Raqqa, Syria, from the Islamic State group. The proposed funding is under the off-budget overseas contingency operations (OCO) account.
The White House's request includes $850 million for a new consolidated Security Cooperation fund to replace CTPF, which was transitioned in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to a new, broader authority that includes counterterrorism, crisis response, border security and other security cooperation support to partner nations.
"Security Cooperation funds provide the ability to enable partner nations to deter and defeat existing and evolving terrorist and other transnational threats," budget materials state. "Training and equipping partner nations allows U.S. forces to be more readily available for other contingency operations, build better relationships with partners, and promote global security in a more cost effective manner."
Obama announced the CTPF in a speech in 2014 at the commencement of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as a means to "more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold." He envisioned a fund of up to $5 billion to "allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines" of Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali and beyond, he said.
But the CTPF, contained in OCO, was controversial with lawmakers of both parties, and they repeatedly acted to cut or kill it. Over the White House's strong objections, Congress funded just $1.1 billion of the total request for fiscal 2015 and $750 million of the $1 billion request in 2016.
"The counterterrorism partnerships fund was a dismal failure," one Senate aide said Tuesday. "That money can definitely be used in more effective ways."
According to budget documents, the CTPF provided $500 million to a program to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State group. But the Obama administration was forced to reboot that program after Gen. Lloyd Austin, then-chief of U.S. Central Command, told Congress in late 2015 there were no more than five U.S.-trained Syrian fighters left.
The 2017 defense policy and appropriations bills moved the CTPF money into the DoD Operation and Maintenance Defense-Wide account under the heading "Security Cooperation," which made it available for a wide range of security cooperation activities, including counterterrorism. The intent, according to a congressional aide, was to increase transparency and sustainability of security cooperation funding rather than continuing the habit of creating new standalone "funds" every time a new emphasis area popped up.
The bulk of CTPF has, since its inception, used to fight violent extremist groups in the Levant and East Africa. The Obama administration credited train-and-equip programs funded through CTPF for the ouster of militant group al-Shabaab from Mogadishu, which let the Somali government take hold.
Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor, said Tuesday there is a risk that without the fund, Africa and Central Asia will get less counter-terrorism support from the U.S.
"With the partnership fund, we saw a big increase to the Sahel, East Africa and Central Asia," he said. "Part of the challenge is the funding is pulled from that and it goes to ... these other programs."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.