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Understanding the Terrorist Threat

When the Obama administration issued its take on the Senate’s fiscal year 2010 Defense authorization legislation late last week, most of the news and analysis of the defense budget focused on whether or not the Congress will override the administration’s determination to end the F-22 fighter program after a planned production run of 187 planes. The administration’s reiterated threat to veto a bill containing more F-22 funding dominated the headlines, obscuring its position on other important defense issues—in particular, oversight of the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund.

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates introduced the idea of a counterinsurgency fund earlier this spring, we noted that the counterinsurgency effort itself was incomplete at best and that a broader strategy was needed. Unfortunately, the defense authorization bill now before the Senate doesn’t require a strategic plan for implementing the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund before the funds are released—a flaw that still needs fixing.

To be sure, Section 1517 of the defense authorization bill requires the secretary of defense to submit a report to Congress prior to the use of funds determining whether or not the Pakistani government is “committed to confronting the threat posed by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militant extremists.” The Obama administration objected to this condition on the grounds that it “would delay the release of vital funds for Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts” and duplicates other, later reporting requirements. But rather than just a report determining the Pakistani government is willing to take on terrorist and insurgent groups, Congress should require the administration to lay out its general plan for training Pakistan’s security services and the basic metrics by which it will judge success.

Too often over the past eight years has the United States embarked on programs to train and equip foreign military forces—in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, and elsewhere—without specifying what our goals are and when we will judge them successfully. The effort to train Iraqi forces, for example, has left them with severe logistical problems, while the PA security training mission faces governance and political challenges.

There’s also a broader problem. Approaching the eight-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the United States still lacks clear metrics for its overall effort to address the threats posed by Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. What are taxpayers getting for the hundreds of billions of dollars now being spent in places like Afghanistan and East Africa? A strategic document that details how we plan to spend federal dollars defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere—after the most recent terrorist bombing in Indonesia—is sorely needed.

The State Department produces an annual terrorist report that includes a global-threats assessment produced by intelligence agencies. And there are many other regular government reports on threats. But the United States does not have an assessment or report that measures the impact of resources spent in the name of reducing terrorist threats. Consequently, there is no coherent framework for evaluating progress in addressing the threats posed by stateless terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, even though the United States spends billions of dollars a month around the world in efforts to do so.

The Senate’s current proposal for a before-the-fact assessment as to whether the Pakistani government is willing to fight extremists is an important improvement over the reports issued after taxpayer money has been spent. After all, it seems more important to determine whether the Pakistani government—or any potential recipient of U.S. funds—is willing to use U.S. aid to its intended effect before that aid is doled out rather than after. Still, an initial assessment needs to be made before embarking on a project, followed by consistent and continual monitoring.

Congress has already appropriated $400 million for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund in the last war supplemental funding bill passed at the end of June. The Defense Department has requested an additional $700 million for the next fiscal year for this program, with the possibility of a total of $3 billion to the fund over the next five years. If this program is as critical to our nation’s Pakistan policy as the administration claims it is, then it is altogether fitting and proper for Congress to require the administration to produce a report before the fact answering these questions:

  • Why is the administration’s assessment on the political commitment in Pakistan to fighting the insurgents?
  • How is the program designed to function in general terms?
  • How the United States will know success if and when it happens—what are the metrics for progress?

The issue of reporting requirements for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund links back to the larger issue of oversight of foreign policy overall. Too often national security has been a “no-go” zone for congressional oversight, with little accountability for mistakes and failures. Asking the Obama administration for an assessment before it embarks on a lengthy, expensive policy is a sensible and welcome oversight move by Congress.

Pakistan is just one important case in which Congress should play an important role in asking the executive branch for a clear plan with a set of defined objectives aimed to advance America’s security. With the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks rapidly approaching and an economic crisis still reverberating at home, it’s only fair and right to demand a clear plan from the Obama administration.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Research Associate with the Center’s National Security Team. To read more on this topic please see the National Security page of our website.