No Iraqi Training Until Congress Approves the Money

M.Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

In a one-on-one sit-down with CBS Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer on Sunday, November 9, President Barack Obama was adamant that the ISIL war strategy that he outlined to the nation three months earlier was not only working, but was right on schedule. The military capabilities of the Islamic State, Obama asserted, have been severely degraded by the daily air raids conducted by U.S., European, and Arab pilots, and the senior leadership of the organization was experiencing a world of hurt that they have never had to deal with since sweeping into Iraq earlier this year.

"It's going to take some time. What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government. That was inclusive and credible. And we now have done that. And so now what we've done is rather than just try to halt ISIL's momentum. We're now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL's capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops that can start pushing them back."

What the president was referring to, of course, was his request for an additional $5.6 billion attached to the Pentagon's Overseas Contingency Operations fund -- all of which would go to the U.S. personnel who are flying the planes, dropping the payloads, staffing the advice-and-assist centers, and training the Iraqi soldiers. $1.6 billion of that request will go into a separate account called the "Iraq Train and Equip Fund", a slice of cash that will be used to "provide assistance to military and other security force of. or associated with. the Government of Iraq, including Kurdish and tribal security forces, with a national security mission, to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." This presumably is the offensive step that President Obama was talking about in his CBS interview: getting the Iraqis to the point where they won't strip off their uniforms, drop their weapons, and run away, but rather defend their positions and execute operations against ISIL on their own.

All of this is well and good. The Iraqis desperately need this type of training assistance if the country has any chance at recapturing the territory that ISIL militants hold today. And, unless the U.S. Air Force and Navy are prepared to continue flying daily missions for years at a time, it also happens to be the only long-term, sustainable counterterrorism solution to the ISIL problem.

But there is an issue that could hamstring the president's talk about an offensive war, at least from the administration's perspective: None of this training can happen and not one single additional U.S. adviser can be deployed into Iraq until Congress, just now getting back to work, approves and allocates the money. This wouldn't be a bad thing, if Democrats and Republicans could work together quickly and constructively like they did in September, when $500 million for training the moderate Syrian rebels was approved (which has not even gotten off the ground yet). Yet, that act of bipartisanship occurred before the U.S. air campaign against ISIL was expanded into Syria. A lot has happened since then (including additional deployments of U.S. personnel), and some of the more dovish members of Congress have had concerns since that the White House is engaging in "mission creep." Others, like Republican Buck McKeon, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, are concerned that the plan the Obama administration has implemented over the past three months has been "insufficient" to the objectives that have been outlined (degrade and destroy ISIL). Chairman McKeon expanded upon his concerns during House Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey. "My fundamental question," McKeon asked, "is: How can you successfully execute the mission you've been given -- to 'degrade and ultimately destroy' ISIL -- when some of your best options are taken off the table."

So, before the president gets his money, he will need to go beyond the phone diplomacy that he is known for when communicating with Capitol Hill. The congressional leadership and the leadership of key national security committees will need to be invited to the White House for a conference on this Iraqi training proposal, and President Obama himself will need to make the case why this money is absolutely critical to the mission. The White House exhibited just this kind of urgency in September, and they were rewarded with a bipartisan vote supporting his strategy for essentially creating a new army of moderate Syrians capable of fighting both ISIL and the Assad regime.

The sooner Congress passes the Pentagon budget for 2015, or at least another continuing resolution, the sooner the president will receive the money. And in fighting terrorism, sooner is often better than later.