Policy

Senate spending bill would slash foreign military aid

Questions raised about how Pentagon is handling funds to train and equip Afghan and Iraqi forces fighting insurgencies

The Pentagon was unable to tell the Senate Appropriations Committee how many weapons purchased under one program had been ordered, received, or were in transit or lost. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Appropriations Committee is proposing to cut more than $2 billion from U.S. military overseas aid programs largely due to mismanagement, according to documents obtained by CQ Roll Call.

Combined with cuts to previously appropriated funds, the potential reductions would affect programs to train and equip Afghan and Iraqi forces fighting insurgencies and another account to reimburse Pakistan for the same sort of efforts.

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According to the report accompanying the committee’s draft fiscal 2020 Defense spending bill, which is scheduled for a full committee markup Thursday, senators and staff are decidedly unhappy with how the Pentagon is handling the finances of these programs. The report uses phrases like “no justification” and “lack of budget discipline,” and cites risks of weapons going missing or sitting “idle.”

Fighting ISIS

For starters, the U.S. program to provide weapons for foreign fighters who’ve battled the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria is a fiscal shambles, according to the report.

The Pentagon was unable to tell the committee how many weapons purchased under this program had been ordered, received, or were in transit or lost.

“The committee sees no justification for continuing to fund large weapons purchases if the program is unable to account for weapons on hand or under contract,” the report said.

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The Pentagon recently told the committee nearly $1.6 billion that had been appropriated for the counter-ISIS program since fiscal 2018 had yet to be spent, according to the report.

Despite that, the Defense Department requested an additional $700 million in fiscal 2020, part of a larger $1 billion request for the initiative for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, the report said.

Consequently, the committee wants to deny $300 million of the fiscal 2020 request. In addition, appropriators want to “rescind,” or cancel, some $471 million appropriated in prior years for this program, because of a lack of accountability for how the money has been spent.

They also demanded an “accounting” of the program, in writing, from the Pentagon.

Afghanistan

The Afghan Security Forces Fund is a long-standing initiative to train and equip army and police forces in Afghanistan. But the committee says the program has been marked by a “lack of budget discipline that challenges effective congressional and executive branch oversight and risks wasteful spending.”

For fiscal 2019, the program got $4.9 billion. The Pentagon successfully convinced appropriators last year not to reduce the request below that figure.

But subsequently, the Pentagon transferred $604 million out of the Afghan program and moved it elsewhere in the Defense Department budget.

Citing that fact, the committee’s new report proposed cutting precisely $604 million out of the fiscal 2020 funding.

What’s more, the committee determined that, under the same Afghan program, the Pentagon was potentially wasting still more money.

The department is buying Blackhawk helicopters for the Afghan air force — and wants to eventually buy 159 of them — even though auditors found that the Afghans lack a sufficient number of trained pilots to fly them or maintenance crew to keep them operating.

The risk is that the helicopters would “sit idle,” according to a January 2019 report from John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

So the panel recommends a $463 million cut to the program’s fiscal 2020 budget request for the Blackhawk buys, essentially freezing them, because, the report said, the helicopters that would be procured are “ahead of need.”

Pakistan

In addition to these proposed cutbacks, the committee decried the Trump administration for requesting money to reimburse Pakistan for its aid in the war on terrorism. Pakistan is only legally eligible for $150 million in such aid because it has not helped enough in that war, the report said.

But the administration still requested $430 million for this purpose.

That, the committee said, has “no justification.”

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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