Pentagon’s new foreign military training proposal greeted with skepticism in Congress

The Pentagon wants Congress to establish a new training program for foreign military officers, but some congressional appropriators say it duplicates a State Department program.

al-monitor US soldiers are seen at the end of "Eager Lion" military exercises at the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border, 260 kilometers (162 miles) south of Amman, May 24, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Jun 3, 2020

The Pentagon is pitching Congress on a new training initiative for foreign military officers that would run parallel to a program that currently exists under the auspices of the State Department, Al-Monitor has learned.

The Pentagon’s draft legislation — obtained by Al-Monitor — says the proposal would “not duplicate or conflict with activities under the International Military Education and Training authorities,” which the State Department oversees. Under the Pentagon’s draft proposal, the Defense Department would implement its program in coordination with the State Department.

But some purse-string holders on Capitol Hill are skeptical of the idea.

Tim Rieser, a foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the Pentagon initiative appears to be essentially a duplication of the State Department program, but one under the Defense Department’s control. “For an administration whose mantra is shrinking the federal government, you have to wonder what’s really behind this," he said. "What problem are they trying to solve?”

The State Department has requested $105 million in International Military Education and Training funding for fiscal year 2021, including $17.5 million for the Middle East and North Africa. That funding is used to train foreign military officers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The State Department has also requested $1.6 million to train officers from Turkey.

The Pentagon’s funding request for its proposed training initiative is relatively more modest, starting with just $3 million for the program in fiscal 2021 and gradually rising to $15 million for fiscal 2025. 

“Over time things have a habit of becoming ingrained and expanding, and before you know it, it’s not $3 million, it’s not $15 million, it’s $100 million,” Rieser told Al-Monitor.

Notably, Congress received the Defense Department’s proposal in March, but the Pentagon did not include it in its full 2021 budget request, released in April.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland told Al-Monitor that the proposed International Professional Military Education program would supplement the State Department one "and is intended to increase the participation of critical allies and partners in select [Defense Department] education courses.” 

Orland said that the proposal “would be a critical component” of the Defense Department’s efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy, which calls for “strengthening alliances as we attract new partners.”

He also confirmed that the proposed Pentagon training program would be subject to the same restrictions as the State Department one under a series of human rights regulations, collectively known as the Leahy laws. The State Department currently uses the Leahy laws to reject foreign officers who are potentially implicated in human rights abuses from the International Military Education and Training program.

But Rieser, who helped draft the regulations, noted that Sen. Leahy “would want the authorization for this [Pentagon] program to confirm that the Leahy law applies.”

The State Department did not comment on the Pentagon’s proposal.

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