WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is asking Congress for $1.8 billion to continue an Obama administration program to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight against the Islamic State and resist a major commitment of U.S. ground troops.
The fiscal 2018 budget request released last week seeks roughly $1.3 billion to back Iraqi forces as the U.S. hopes to contain a post-Islamic State landscape of deadly ethnic and sectarian conflicts and keep "thousands" of ISIS loyalists from continuing to wage war.
While U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not publicly announced the administration's strategy to defeat the Islamic State group, his 2018 budget request is remarkable in its detail. For example, it proposes a hefty, three-year U.S. commitment to build a far more effective force out of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, or CTS, that has already suffered 40 percent combat losses.
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For 2018, that would take $445 million to train and equip Iraqi security forces as well as $329 million to replace past and projected equipment losses to include 200 AM General-made Humvees, 80 Iraqi light armored vehicles, 25 Oshkosh-made FMTV cargo trucks, 10 armored bulldozers and $60 million in shipping costs.
"The [Iraqi security forces] have sustained heavy losses of up-armored vehicles, some support vehicles, and heavy bulldozers which are used to clear mined areas as they counter ISIS," budget documents say. "Many of the [Iraq train and equip fund]-provided armored troop carriers, gun trucks, route clearance, and counter-IED exploitation vehicles have suffered irreparable catastrophic damage."
The Department of Defense envisions the CTS, borne of an Iraqi special forces unit created by coalition forces after the 2003 U.S. invasion, as a core security force for the future. It requests $193 million in vehicles, guns and personnel equipment for the force as part of plans to restructure it into both "an elite infantry force" and a "special operations force to eliminate terrorist organizations."
It would supply equipment and training to create a restructured 20,000-strong CTS that would shift back from its infantry role in fighting in Mosul to a counterterrorism function that would include hold-force, police and border troops.
Iraqi counterterrorism forces led operations to clear ISIS from Ramadi in 2015, and — with American-led airstrikes — seized back Hit, Fallujah and Qayyarah. They are involved in ongoing operations to retake Mosul.
That has raised a red flag with the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
"The U.S. is supporting this organization because it is outside of the normal military chain of command," said Seth Binder, the program manager for the Security Assistance Monitor program. "Is the U.S. helping Iraq long-term to create a sustainable government structure here? This unit is answering directly to the prime minister instead of the Ministry of Defense."
The Pentagon warns in its proposed budget that insufficient funding would risk "Iraqi instability, exacerbates sectarian divisions, contributes to extremism, and allows outside actors to destabilize the country." Accordingly, the Pentagon's ambition in supporting Iraq's forces is to support national stability and unity as "a political and physical counterweight to Iranian and Russian influence," as well as "reassure Iraqi Sunnis of their importance to the fight against ISIS, while gaining [Baghdad's] acceptance."
In Iraq, a joint offensive by government forces, allied militias and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been fighting to oust ISIS from one of its last strongholds, Mosul. For Kurdish Regional Government and Kurdish fighters on the Iraqi side of the fight, the DoD proposes $365 million in separate support as "a critical partner in counter-ISIS operations." A year ago, the U.S. announced a deal to allot $415 million to Kurdish peshmerga salaries and supplies.
Beyond that fight, however, the DoD envisions American-supported Iraqi forces beset by "post-ISIS challenges, such as enabling the rule of law, establishing border security, securing critical infrastructure, and addressing future extremist threats," budget documents state.
After Iraq declared Diyala province free from ISIS in 2015, for example, there were waves of attacks against civilians by its fighters and and rival Shiite militias. The DoD is preparing for the same grim forecast — that other violent and radical groups plan to fill the void by exploiting ire at the central government and religious, tribal or ethnic conflicts.
"Whatever you do in Mosul, you may have an important set of victories against ISIS, but all these other threats and risks of new ethnic and sectarian conflicts are going to continue," said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We have an American fixation on ISIS, but it's only part of the broader security and stability problem," Cordesman said. "What the U.S. is now doing is trying to create forces to hold the country together in the face of any significant new terror threat and risk of major internal conflict. Iraqi forces won't be ready to deal with a major invasion by Iran or Turkey for the next few years, but they will become able to deal with several centers of extremism and as a buffer between hostile ethnic and sectarian groups."
The DoD's $500 million budget request for the Syria train and equip program is comparatively thin in providing a post-ISIS vision for Syria after the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa and eastern Syria for reasons that may reflect the tangled international politics there.
Several fighters with the Kurdish YPG told Defense News' sister publication Military Times that they were underwhelmed by the levels of funding and equipment for vetted Syrian fighters that the Pentagon's plan contained. Several said it showed a lack of commitment to the Kurdish groups leading the fight against ISIS, and worried that there was no plan for Kurdish forces after ISIS was routed from its stronghold in Raqqa.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.