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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Funding has major impact at MacDill

As always when something emanates out of the nation’s capital relating to defense or intelligence, I parse it for the effect on Tampa. With two military commands headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base that oversee operations in one of the world’s most dangerous regions and one that sets the tone for commando activities worldwide, that’s not really a stretch.

Which brings me to President Barack Obama’s unveiling last week of details of his war funding and Counterterror Partnership Fund plans.

On Thursday, Obama announced that he was calling for $58.6 billion for what the Pentagon calls Overseas Contingency Operations funds or, in English, war funding. He also spelled out in more detail what he envisions for the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.

Both recommendations have an enormous impact on Tampa. We are home to U.S. Central Command, overseeing military efforts in the Middle East; U.S. Special Operations Command, overseeing commando training and doctrine globally; and Special Operations Command Central, which oversees commando operations in the Centcom region.

The president’s war funding recommendation is nearly $21 billion less than what had set aside as a “placeholder” in current budget deliberations.

There were already concerns raised by the Government Accountability Office about how the Pentagon would fund future operations of Centcom, which relies heavily on war funding. Of the more than $800 million that flowed into Centcom headquarters in the fiscal year ending last September, nearly $600 million was war funding, according to the GAO.

The Pentagon and the MacDill-based commands, which have large numbers of people devoted to planning for futures known and unknown, have to wait for congressional blessing, which requires, of course, guidance from the White House before they can say yea or nay.

What that reduction means to the commands in Tampa remains up in the air.

The president’s plan, which assumes newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signs a mutual security pact with the United States, calls for a post-2014 military presence largely in the realm of special operations — training and assisting, and counterterrorism. But so far, no one in Washington has shown Tampa the money.

Pentagon officials did not comment about the effect of the proposals here.

Centcom officials say it is too early in the process to comment, as do officials from Socom, which also relies heavily on war funding, with a little less than a third of its roughly $10 billion current budget coming from Overseas Contingency Operations funds.

Obama on Thursday put a bit more meat on the bones of the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund he unveiled during a speech at West Point.

Most of the money — $3 billion — is earmarked for “enabling and supporting partners,” according to the White House.

Of that, Obama wants $2.5 billion for “engagement to train, equip, and enable international partners to counter terrorist threats that pose the greatest challenge to U.S. and allied interests and to enhance DOD counterterrorism capabilities,” according to a White House fact sheet.

“Targeted training and assistance efforts can support partners as they conduct counterterrorism operations within their own borders, prevent the spillover of terrorist activities from neighboring states, and participate in multinational operations to degrade terrorist threats,” the fact sheet says.

Of interest to folks here is how much of the money would cover the cost of commandos or conventional units deploying in greater numbers to perform those missions.

The remaining half-billion out of the enabling and supporting funds is proposed for the State Department and partner agencies to support counterterrorism, counter violent extremism, and meet stability needs in partner countries.

Another pile of money — $1.5 billion — is proposed for advancing “U.S. interests in partnership with Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq — to promote internal stability and to provide support to communities hosting refugees,” according to the fact sheet.

That also includes $500 million to “ramp up U.S. support to the moderate Syrian opposition,” training and equipping “vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.”

The remaining half-billion of the proposed counterterrorism fund is “to address unforeseen contingencies related to counterterrorism or regional instability,” according to the fact sheet.

The commands at MacDill will clearly be at the forefront of all this should Congress approve Obama’s request. That point was driven home when the Pentagon appointed Army Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, who will report to Centcom as the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

A few local politicians I spoke with have concerns about what it all means.

Sen. Marco Rubio, often considered a potential Republican presidential candidate, expressed perturbance at the timing of Obama’s request.

Rubio said he would have been asking the same questions about MacDill for the past five months, “but the administration waited until after the appropriations process was nearly complete in the House to drop this request. And they did so without notifying members of Congress — we read about it in the news ... so we still have a lot of questions.”

Rep. Tom Rooney, an Army veteran, expressed similar frustrations, but drills down deeper.

“My concern is that the administration is using this request for emergency war and counterterrorism funding as a Christmas tree for other programs — like funding for Syrian rebels — that the House has already rejected,” he said in an email. “In past years, the (Overseas Contingency Operations fund) has been used to fund congressionally authorized operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’m worried that this ... goes beyond that scope, escalating U.S. involvement in places like the Democratic Republican of the Congo and Syria. The U.S. might have a role to play in those conflicts, but the Administration needs to make that case to Congress and seek authorization and funding — not use an emergency funding bill as an end-run around the War Powers Act.”

Republican Rep. David Jolly said it is too early to know how the war funding will affect the Tampa commands, and like Rooney is concerned about the counterterrorism funding because “it adds an unnecessary and tenuous budget layer to our current operations. We should be finding ways to better fund our special operations and intelligence agencies through a more regular budget process, and through emergency funding vehicles when required. Instead, the (counterterrorism funding) risks merely creating another contingency fund subject to less oversight and ultimately obfuscating traditional command activities.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson never got back to me.

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The Pentagon announced the deaths of four Marines in Afghanistan last week.

Sgt. Thomas Z. Spitzer, 23, of New Braunfels, Texas, died June 25 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Staff Sgt. David H. Stewart, 34, of Stafford, Va., Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Garabrant, 19, of Peterborough, N.H., and Lance Cpl. Adam F. Wolff, 25, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, died June 20 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province. They were assigned to 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

There have been 2,323 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

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