Responded Sen. John McCain: we won’t keep bankrolling an “absolute failure.”
Congress is simultaneously slamming and stymieing the fight against the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He noted that the committee has held 58 full hearings this year, but only three to help fill key Pentagon jobs, and that Congress is holding up money for the Syria train-and-equip program.
At his second appearance before the committee in six weeks, Carter noted that the four congressional committees on defense have failed to act on his personal request a month ago to provide the final $116 million for the U.S. program to train and equip fighters in Syria.*
“All four committees have failed to act on that request, and I ask you to release these holds urgently,” Carter said. “We should not be impeding the very momentum we are trying to build.”
Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., hit back. He noted that the full Senate will consider four of the nominations later Wednesday. On the train-and-equip program, he disputed Carter’s timeline and, citing an obligation to taxpayers, cited that the training effort had consumed $43 million to produce just a handful of fighters, a far cry from the planned 15,000. (And the weapons handed to some of that meager batch wound up in the hands of an al Qaeda-affiliated group.)
“You know very well it’s a result of this absolute failure of the expenditure of what was judged then to be $43 million and four or five people were trained,” McCain admonished Carter. “If you want that kind of funding to train and equip, we want to know what the plan is.”
Finally, McCain threw in “your failure” to give lawmakers a plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after Carter personally promised McCain the plan in his Hill office some six months ago.
Though the administration announced an “operational pause” to the train-and-equip program in October, Pentagon officials have maintained that the program has not been ended but evolved. Just after that October announcement, the Pentagon airdropped a first 50-ton batch of gear to the Syrian Arab coalition, a group described by Col. Steve Warren, spokesman in Baghdad for Operation Inherent Resolve, as a “team of teams.”
On Wednesday, Carter reiterated that, saying that equipment and efforts have been redirected to other more reliable groups, such as the Syrian Arab coalition, which has made gains alongside Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.
“I don’t describe it as a restarting of the old program … we learned from the old program,” Carter said. “What we’re asking for is funds that were previously earmarked for that to a new approach that we think is more effective.”
And yet, Carter has said problems with the old approach were caused in part by strict legal standards for vetting potential participants and the Obama administration’s guidance that the fighters pledge to only target ISIS.
McCain told Defense One recently that the Pentagon train-and-equip program won’t be successful when fighters are told they can’t go after Assad, as opposed to a parallel effort run by the CIA.
“The difference between the Defense Department program of train, arm and equip, and the CIA program of train arm and equip, was that they made the Defense Department people swear not to attack [Assad], so they collapsed,” he said in the interview. “But the CIA-sponsored program is still in being and has some vitality.”
Pentagon officials say they are now vetting leaders, rather than individual fighters, in groups with whom they have preexisting ties, a shift officials say is within the confines of the authority granted to them by Congress and is secure.
But lawmakers have expressed concern that there is not enough transparency or security assurances.
Armed Services committee member and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Defense One last month he would be sending a letter to Obama asking about the safeguards and authority for the new strategy.
“I don’t want to throw good money after bad,” Graham said. “I don’t want to put the money we’ve already obligated at risk … before you access this pot of money, tell us what the new plan is.”
At the Wednesday hearing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva how the U.S. is currently vetting fighters. The Air Force general replied that the U.S. has vetted 20 leaders of the Syrian Arab coalition by convincing them to come to the Iraq side of the border and using public and classified databases to study previous conduct and allegiances. Those leaders have brought roughly 1,600 fighters to the battlefield.
“Our relationship with them is relatively transactional,” Selva said. “We supply them with the ammunition and advice required … we don’t exercise command and control, we exercise influence.”
Said Carter, “It is their leaders that are vetted rather than down to the individual level.” He noted that only “selected individuals” are being given “specialized training...not the whole unit.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Elissa Smith told Defense One recently that leaders from the Syrian Arab groups that underwent training “swore an oath to fight ISIL, uphold [laws of armed conflict], and respect human rights.” Smith said all those in training are vetted individually, “in part for the safety of coalition personnel conducting the training.”
Smith said the fiscal 2015 defense authorization act allows the Pentagon to carry on with its new approach: “The Department can provide assistance including equipment to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition to fight ISIL.”
“The groups receiving resupply from the airdrop [of equipment] will not be trained by or work in direct contact with Coalition forces,” Smith said. “We will monitor 1209 assistance recipients [the relevant NDAA section] to ensure weapons and equipment are used appropriately.”
The next funding battle has already begun. The $607 defense authorization bill Obama signed on Nov. 25 sets roughly $400 million for the train-and-equip program in fiscal 2016 — some $200 million less than the amount requested, in part to help make up for a $5 billion shortfall between the NDAA and the budget agreement.
Those funds won’t be allocated until Congress passes the fiscal 2016 appropriations bills, but lawmakers are indicating they won’t reach an agreement before the next funding deadline on Friday and will pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running.
While the Obama administration has come under fire from critics for “micromanaging” the Pentagon on national security, Carter turned that attack around.
“People decry micromanagement, but micromanagement can come from many sources, and I would urge you to please avoid that,” Carter said. Whenever the train and equip request was received, Carter said, acknowledging lawmakers are “busy people with lots of things to do,” “This is a war.”