Congress seeks uptick in North Africa operations

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Article Summary
The House Homeland Security panel chief wants to boost funding for counterterrorism in the Sahara region.

A key lawmaker is seeking to codify a long-standing US counterterrorism program in North Africa to fight the spread of the Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups as they fan out across the continent.

The bill put forward this month by House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas, would formally establish the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership as an interagency program under the purview of the State Department. The 13-year-old cooperative effort between US civilian and military agencies helps countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria improve and coordinate their counterterrorism efforts.

McCaul’s bill, co-sponsored by Bill Keating, D-Mass., for the first time calls on the Donald Trump administration to give Congress a whole-of-government strategy to combat terror in Africa, a congressional aide told Al-Monitor. The State Department declined to comment on the pending legislation.

McCaul is also seeking $84 million for the program for the upcoming fiscal year, the aide added. That represents an 8% increase over this year’s $78 million request, according to a budget analysis by the nonprofit Security Assistance Monitor, a Washington-based organization that tracks US military aid.

In a region where US policy is often fragmented, experts say the program has given US special forces the latitude to help build regional counterterrorism blocs to stop the spread of al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and IS subsidiaries. An upcoming State Department report obtained by Al-Monitor indicates that the partnership has achieved some success “despite setbacks caused by a restive political climate, terrorism, ethnic rebellions and extra-constitutional actions that interrupted work and progress with select partner countries.”

“It’s supposed to glue those countries together on a country-by-country approach,” Alice Hunt Friend, a former Defense Department official, told Al-Monitor.

In the past, experts say, the biggest challenges to making funds such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership work have been the Pentagon’s own bureaucracy and African countries themselves. Hunt Friend, who left the Pentagon in 2014, said US embassies' staffs in Africa tend to drive partnership funding decisions, not the Pentagon bureaucracy, which is usually consulted to ensure that diplomats and military officials are on the same page.

The fund moved over from the Pentagon’s Africa command to the State Department last year. Now, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis refocusing US military efforts on China and Russia, some worry that regional militaries could return to their old ways of asking for the latest US gadgets over lower-cost and better-adjusted assistance.

“It’s one of the challenges we see throughout security cooperation is that foreign governments want cool new toys, but it can be better to use something a bit more simple,” Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, told Al-Monitor. “Sometimes it doesn’t fit the strategy.”

If passed, McCaul’s legislation may help answer lingering questions about the fund. As oversight groups have condemned the Pentagon for failing to provide clarity on the role of US troops fighting terrorism with partners in Africa, the program has come under scrutiny for unclear reporting guidelines and requirements.

A 2014 Government Accountability Office study, for example, found that program managers often failed to collect data on the status of funding for the program and the amount of funds remaining, leaving them poorly equipped to monitor the program and make resourcing decisions. US Africa Command also faces an ongoing Pentagon inquiry into a botched capture-or-kill mission for a high-level IS target in Niger last year that left four American Green Berets dead.

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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