Pentagon seeks authority to train and equip foreign militaries
By Thom Shanker
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Congress on Tuesday to grant the Pentagon permanent authority to train and equip foreign militaries, a task previously administered by the State Department, and to raise the annual budget for the effort to $750 million, a 250 percent increase.
Gates said that rapidly building up the armed forces of friendly nations to combat terrorism within their borders was "a vital and enduring military requirement" and one that should be managed by the Defense Department.
Representative Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who is the Armed Services Committee chairman, voiced apprehension over "what appears to be the migration of State Department activities to the Department of Defense."
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who testified with Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, expressed full support for plans to make the Defense Department the lead agency for what is known as the Global Train and Equip Program, which emphasizes rapid assistance.
The State Department also would benefit under a parallel proposal that would double the budget, to $200 million, for a program aimed at assigning civilian experts to work overseas alongside or instead of the military. That joint Pentagon-State Department effort would be led by the State Department.
The new budget proposals would not do away with traditional State Department efforts, including Foreign Military Financing, which are intended to develop relationships and ensure access over a longer period of time.
Three years ago, in an effort to more rapidly assist allied militaries, Congress authorized the Pentagon to develop the Global Train and Equip Program, but that authority expires at the end of September.
The current program has paid for parts and ammunition used by the Lebanese Army against terrorist threats in a Palestinian refugee camp as well as for helicopter spare parts, night-vision devices and night-flight training for Pakistani special forces fighting suspected members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda along the Afghan border, Gates said.
The separate State Department program that is aimed at civilians has already developed local police forces in Haiti and improved health and education programs in Colombia. The increased budget was requested to expand efforts to assign civilians to conflict zones, or potential conflict zones, to carry out tasks that now sometimes fall to military personnel.
State Department officials also said Tuesday that a cable had gone out within the last two weeks to all Foreign Service officers alerting them to the need to fill about 300 positions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year. If sufficient volunteers do not come forward for those hardship posts, the cable said, the State Department has the authority to compel diplomats to serve in those two countries.
The department issued a similar warning last year but was able to fill the hardship posts with volunteers.