On Nov. 10, the White House forwarded a request to Congress for an additional $5.6 billion to fight the war against the Islamic State. This is pocket change by Pentagon standards. The president’s new war funding request equals only about 1 percent of the Pentagon’s $500 billion base budget, and just 10 percent of the $59.6 billion that is already in the administration’s proposal for war funding for 2015.
With all this money at its disposal, why does the Pentagon need more funds now for the war against Islamic State?
The short answer is, it doesn’t.
It’s an open secret that the war budget – known in Washington-ese as the Overseas Contingency Operations account – has been used for years as the Pentagon’s personal piggy bank to pay for a whole array of projects that have nothing to do with any existing conflict.
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In fiscal year 2014, which ended Oct. 1, independent estimates suggest that as much as $30 billion of the $80 billion-plus OCO request was used for items unrelated to winding down the war in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, this year’s $59 billion request includes billions more that should not be part of the war budget. The Pentagon tipped its hand just a few weeks ago when it asked to use war funding to pay for F-35 fighters – aircraft that aren’t even certified for combat yet. Thankfully, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee blocked that move. But this budgetary maneuver made it clear that the Pentagon has extra money sloshing around looking for a place to be spent.
What’s really going on here? Basically the Pentagon is engaging in a budgetary sleight-of-hand to avoid abiding by the caps on its budget that exist in current law. Since the war budget is not subject to any caps, the Pentagon has just been putting items and activities that don’t fit in its regular budget into the war accounts. By and large, members of Congress have turned a blind eye to this practice or simply accepted it without question.
It’s time for Congress to do some real oversight of the war account. Members should demand a rigorous accounting of what the more than $80 billion for 2014 was actually spent on, as well as a more detailed breakdown of what the administration’s original, $59 billion request for 2015 is meant to buy. Only then should additional funding be considered.
The new $5.6 billion request for the war in Iraq and Syria should also be subjected to close scrutiny in its own right. A significant portion of the funds are meant to be allocated to the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, a $1.6 billion assistance program that has a number of troubling provisions.
First, funds provided under the ITEF program could be supplied to both government and non-government forces, including everything from the official Iraqi government security forces to Kurdish peshmerga forces. ITEF transfers would also make their way to Shiite militias, either directly or through the Iraqi government.
Shiite militias have engaged in vicious human rights abuses in recent months, from attacking a mosque to killing and torturing Sunni citizens to burning down entire Sunni villages. In some parts of Iraq the Shiite militias are viewed as being just as bad as the Islamic State. Arming these groups while they are engaging in these activities would be unconscionable. It would also alienate Sunni tribes whose help is essential in containing or defeating the Islamic State.
Unfortunately, not only does the new ITEF fund not have provisions prohibiting U.S. weapons from being used in human rights violations, it actually has language that would allow the Pentagon to waive any legal restrictions that might otherwise apply to this aid. This is an open invitation to abuse.
Congress must subject the president’s new $5.6 billion war funding request to careful scrutiny, and reject it if questions about the budgetary need and human rights impacts cannot be adequately answered.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in New York City. Readers may send the author email at firstname.lastname@example.org.