By Sandra I. Erwin
The Obama administration and the lame duck Congress will be testing the waters of compromise as the president seeks rapid approval of additional war funds and a new authorization to continue the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State.
The administration will submit a request for an additional $5.6 billion in overseas contingency operations funds on top of the $58.6 billion it requested in June for fiscal year 2015. This new request comes on the heels of a separate $6.2 billion emergency funding proposal to deal with the Ebola crisis.
The president is asking for additional funds because of “unanticipated costs” in the war against the Islamic State, a White House official said Nov. 7. The proposal includes $5 billion for the Defense Department and $520 million for the State Department.
The Pentagon would send an additional 1,500 advisers and support forces — on top of the 1,400 already there — to help Iraq train its army to fight ISIL, as the Islamic State is known. Of the $5 billion in new funds, $3.4 billion would pay for U.S. personnel costs and equipment, and $1.6 billion would fund training and equipment for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The State Department would use its share of the funds for diplomatic initiatives, including assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, and humanitarian aid to Syrian opposition groups.
White House officials said Nov. 7 that they will urge Congress to approve the overseas contingency operations funds, known as OCO, by Dec. 11. That is also the date when a temporary measure to fund federal agencies expires and Congress must either approve new funding or risk another government shutdown.
The administration wants Congress to approve war funds and a full-year appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015 during the lame-duck session while Democrats are still in control of the U.S. Senate. Officials also are seeking bipartisan support from Congress to continue to fight ISIL by way of a new authorization for the use of military force. The last AUMF was passed in 2001. White House officials are asking for a new AUMF as an “expression of support” that would send a united message that the president and Congress are acting together.
“We need the authorization and the funding that comes with it in order to be able to conduct this mission,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “obviously is urging Congress to pass it as soon as possible,” Kirby told reporters Nov. 7
The administration does not want the war funding debate to drag into next year, when the Republican Party will have a dominant majority in both chambers and the president will face a much tougher political climate as it tries to push through other initiatives.
The latest actions to expand the U.S. military footprint in Iraq are only the beginning of what officials said will be a long campaign with a big price tag.
The White House insists the decision to double the number of U.S advisers and trainers in Iraq is not a reversal of the original “no combat boots” strategy that restricts the U.S. combat role to air strikes and intelligence functions. According to one White House official speaking to reporters Nov. 7, “We need a better handle on the intel picture against ISIL.” The plan is to set up two “expeditionary sites” outside Baghdad and Erbil to help Iraqis plan the ground war. Of the 1,500 additional U.S. personnel, 630 will be advisers, logistics and force-protection specialists. The remaining 870 will be assigned to set up several sites in northern, western, and southern Iraq to train 12 brigades — nine from the Iraqi army and three from Kurdistan’s Peshmerga force. The United States expects an additional 700 trainers to come from foreign allies.
The effort is fraught with political peril for the Obama administration as it tries to prop Iraqi forces that collapsed this summer in the face of ISIL’s advance. The Iraqi army fell apart less than three years after the U.S. military left Iraq and Obama proclaimed the nation’s military commitment there was over. The United States had already poured billions of dollars into the training and equipping Iraqi forces over the past decade.
“Yeah, we did spend a lot of money and effort training the Iraqi army. And when we left in 2011, we left them capable and competent to the threat that they faced,” Kirby stated. The U.S. government blames the implosion of the Iraqi army on the leadership of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who alienated Sunnis and allowed the army to become a sectarian Shiite force. “It was a surprise to us that they folded as quickly as they did,” Kirby said. Some units, however, are returning to form and are fighting back against ISIL, he said. Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked the United States for help with the training, and has assured Washington he will not pursue sectarian policies.
Kirby said the train-and-equip effort for the Iraqi army is completely separate from the one the administration is trying to get off the ground to train moderate Syrian rebels.
Kirby rejected suggestions that the request for more U.S. troops and more money to train Iraqi forces was timed to follow the midterm elections.
“There was no political angle to the timing here,” Kirby said. “It was really driven by a request from the government of Iraq and [U.S. Central Command Commander] Gen. Austin’s assessment about this being the right thing to do.”
How Congress tackles these issues remains to be seen.
What appears certain is that the administration is in for a tough slog on Capitol Hill as war costs rise and the Pentagon continues to push for more money. “Depending on signaling from the president and the strength of defense hawks in Congress, the OCO appropriation could rise into the $70 billion to $80 billion range,” wrote Ryan Crotty, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One likely scenario is the lame duck Congress punting major decisions to the new leadership. “This would suggest a continuing resolution that extends to March, giving the new Congress time to prepare an appropriations bill.” Conversely, Republicans might decide they are better off getting appropriations for 2015 off the table in order to clear the decks for the new session.
Analysts point out that the Pentagon has an incentive to bulk up its OCO requests because these emergency funding measures are not subject to the spending caps that limit federal spending everywhere else.
Critics are urging Congress to not allow OCO to become a blank check. “The Pentagon already has more than enough money to carry out any of the missions currently contemplated in Iraq and Syria,” said William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy. “The administration’s requests for OCO for the past two years have included tens of billions of dollars in funding that have no direct tie to the war in Afghanistan or any other active conflict. Before supplying new funding, Congress should demand an accounting for 2014 war funding and a detailed explanation of how the administration’s existing request for fiscal year 2015 is intended to be spent.”