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Reps. Mac Thornberry, Adam Smith Lead House Push For More Foreign Military Training; Leahy Amendment Targeted

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


CAPITOL HILL: Sequestration, Continuing Resolution, and snow be damned; the House Armed Services Committee met this morning to wrestle with long-term strategy. In a hearing not only overshadowed but outright interrupted by the House’s desperate effort to band-aid the budget crisis, top HASC leaders from both parties argued for expanding the military’s authorities to work with foreign forces — including those accused of violating human rights.

[Click here for more House and Senate testimony on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and sequestration]

Republican Mac Thornberry, the HASC vice-chairman, held his own hearing last month specifically on expanding training authorities (click here for Thornberry’s exclusive interview with Breaking Defense). Today, however, it was the committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Smith, who took the lead.

Smith started off by explicitly questioning the landmark Leahy Amendment, named for the Vermont Senator who introduced it in 1997 to restrict US aid to abusive security forces abroad — historically a cherished Democratic goal. Originally targeted at counter-drug aid to Colombia, the law in its current form applies to all US military and law enforcement assistance worldwide. It includes a requirement for (as one official summary puts it) “human rights vetting for all units and individual members receiving.. training or assistance” — a policy Special Operations Command (SOCOM) chief Adm. William McRaven boiled down to “poison person, poison unit.”

“At first blush, that makes perfect sense,” Smith said. “[But] the irony of the Leahy amendment is it forces you out at, perhaps, the time when you’re needed most…. Certainly, this was a difficulty in Mali where you weren’t allowed to train as much as you would have liked.”

Former SEAL McRaven — who has previously lamented limits on his ability to train the Malians on a “persistent” basis — responded with enthusiastic agreement. Wherever Special Operations advisors work around the world, he said, “we go in and we try to teach them what right looks like,” from combat skills to human rights. It’s precisely those units that most need US help to behave more ethically that the Leahy law prohibits us from helping, he and his fellow officers argued.

“That is, at times, stopping us perhaps more broadly than the congressional intent,” said Gen. James Mattis, the Marine (soon to retire) who helms Central Command, whose responsibilities run from Egypt to Pakistan.

Of course, American advisors have historically had very mixed success in convincing foreign trainees to treat civilians decently. Troops from El Salvador in the 1980s, to Croatia in the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Pakistan today have at times gladly taken US aid while ignoring the ethics instruction that came with it, even since the Leahy Amendment was passed. The Leahy language itself allows the executive branch to waive the restrictions, for example if it deems the foreign partner is “taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces to justice.” Nor does the law always apply to US assistance channeled through private military contractors like DynCorp or Academi (formerly Blackwater). The unanswered question is whether these flaws mean the Leahy law should be strengthened, streamlined, or done away with.

Beyond loosening the Leahy limits, McRaven and Mattis tag-teamed to argue for an array of other new authorities as well.

For example, current law generally limits the Defense Department to assisting its foreign counterparts, typically the Ministry of Defense, but in many countries the counter-terrorism, internal security, and intelligence forces are part of other agencies, typically the Interior Ministry. “I need the authority to work with them,” said Mattis. “Sometimes we have this arbitrary line, drawn originally for a very good purpose, [but] other nations don’t organize the same way we do.” (Interior Ministry police are a de facto combat force in Afghanistan, for example, while even developed democracies such as France and Italy have Interior Ministry gendarmeries complete with military-style armored cars). Perhaps, Mattis suggested, Congress could allow ambassadors to certify that a given unit outside the Defense Ministry is “working in a de facto military realm” and would thus be eligible for US military assistance.

McRaven, for his part, praised the various authorities and funds Congress has already provided but went on to lament that “unfortunately all of those have their limitations: Most of those are one-year money,” requiring congressional authorization and appropriations every year. By contrast, looking at advise-and-assist success stories like Colombia and the Philippines, he said, “in both of those cases… it has taken us almost 10 years.”

You need “a five-year plan or a 10-year plan because it takes time to build partner capacity if you do it right,” McRaven said. “So we’re looking for… multi-year funding.” He also requested “some minor MILCON” (military construction authority and money) to build small-scale training facilities for foreign forces.

The committee seemed receptive to both four-star officers, but floor votes on ad hoc spending measures interrupted the hearing. While the pending bill does not undo the automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, it would prevent a government shutdown on March 27th, when the current Continuing Resolution funding federal agencies expires, and free the Defense Department (only) from the normal CR restrictions by providing it a proper appropriation for the rest of the year.

“I too would prefer that we not have military funded at the lower sequestration level; on the other hand I know we have the opportunity before us in just an hour or two to alleviate some of the damage,” said Thornberry, who took over the hearing from HASC chairman Buck McKeon before putting the committee in recess just before noon. “We have a narrow window to get a defense appropriation bill done.”

[UPDATED: The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote, 267 to 151. Showing the limits of bipartisanship, Thornberry voted for it and Smith against.]

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