What More Can Congress Do to Combat Violent Extremism?

June 9, 2016 By Amanda Boyce

At the front lines in the battle against violent extremism, U.S. Africa Command – AFRICOM – recently sought to transfer funds to USAID for community-led violence prevention programs in Niger, only to be told that it lacked the authority to do so. Transfer authority would have to come from Congress.

Most observers, including Admiral James Stavridis and General John Allenagree that combating violent extremism must include what the military calls “kinetic” tools targeting insurgents alongside the “non-kinetic” tools of diplomacy and development to counter radicalization and promote stability in weak and fragile states.

The Commander of AFRICOM, General David Rodriguez, recently said in response to a question about his request for Niger, “If efforts are to be successful, the DOD must have the flexibility to transfer funds between agencies and collaborate on holistic responses to counter current and emerging threats.” And retired General John Allen said recently about ISIS and violent extremism, “Solutions are long-term. And they must transcend the use of military force… The instrument of American power best suited to the long-term solution of this crisis is American diplomacy.”

While this is a complex issue that requires attention by the Administration and Congress, one of the challenges is that DOD and State/USAID have their budgets overseen and approved by different committees in Congress – making coordination of resources and strategy more difficult. The appropriations process and the need for the Administration to seek congressional approval to shift or reallocate funds for unanticipated threats can often hamper the need to be agile in confronting emerging challenges.

Moreover, while the Department of Defense is authorized each year through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which provides for the opportunity to grant new authorities and flexibility to respond to threats, foreign assistance has not been reauthorized since the 1970s making it difficult for the civilian portion of our response to extremism to be as nimble as its military counterparts.

These are not new challenges. Beginning in the Bush Administration and continuing in the Obama Administration, the Secretaries of Defense and State have sought greater coordination, even at times jointly testifying before Congress on matters of national security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen all endorsed a “unified national security budget” to be overseen by the respective committees, but long-standing committee structures make it difficult for such a budget structure to exist beyond the administration’s initial proposal each year.

A step in this direction was made in 2006 when Congress authorized Section 1207 of the National Defense Authorization Act which allowed the transfer of up to $100 million in DOD funds to the Department of State for stabilization and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq (authority which has since expired). Secretary Gates tried to institutionalize this model in 2010, saying our national security goals “require flexible, responsive tools that provide incentives for [interagency] cooperation” and proposed “pooled funds” for DOD and State. And in 2011, the Complex Crises Fund was established for stabilization efforts but only with an initial level of $50 million that has since dropped to $10 million in FY2016.

New ideas have recently been floated in Congress to address the issue of coordination. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) won agreement on an amendment to the House NDAA to increase coordination between DOD and State by requiring that the respective Secretaries jointly submit a semiannual report on the political and military strategies to defeat ISIS. On the other side of the Capitol, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has taken up this issue as well and is seeking authority through the Senate NDAA for DOD to transfer funds to State and USAID for the purpose of preventing violent extremism. Other members such as Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) are working with colleagues to ensure a flexible and whole-of-government approach to countering violent extremism.

While Congressional action this year is a positive step in the right direction, strengthening coordination and greater flexibility in the fight against violent extremism are issues that the next Commander-in-Chief will confront. Whoever that may be, they will need to work with Congress to ensure our tools of national security are robust and nimble enough to protect and advance America’s security interests.