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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

GAO says Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Member Plans are not Integrated

U.S. counterterrorism efforts flounder in North Africa, GAO says
By Katherine McIntire Peters
August 5, 2008

Federal agencies agree that terrorist activity in North Africa presents a growing security threat to U.S. interests. Vast ungoverned spaces, porous borders and groups aligned with al Qaeda have raised concerns about the area becoming a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the United States.

But the agencies most responsible for implementing a key counterterrorism partnership program -- the State and Defense departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- can't seem to agree on how to implement policy there.

Disagreements between State and Defense over the control of personnel and activities, and funding fluctuations in USAID programs have hindered U.S. objectives in the region, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. In addition, agencies have no way of measuring the effectiveness of their activities.

The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership is the primary vehicle of U.S. counterterrorism policy in northwest Africa, GAO noted.

Through diplomacy, development assistance and military activities, the multiagency effort, led by State, aims to limit the spread of extremist ideology, strengthen government institutions and foster cooperation among the nations of the regions known as the pan-Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger); the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia); and the sub-Sahara (Nigeria and Senegal).

A central problem, GAO found, was that the three agencies developed separate plans related to their respective partnership activities. While those plans reflect some collaboration, "they do not provide an integrated, comprehensive approach to guide [the partnership program] overall," GAO reported.

What's more, State and Defense have not been able to agree on which department exercises authority over military personnel temporarily assigned to conduct partnership activities. Both agree that State is responsible for security and coordination of all government personnel assigned to diplomatic and consular posts abroad, except for personnel under the command of a U.S. military commander. They also agree that Defense is responsible for all activities carried out by military personnel deployed by a combatant commander.

  • State asserts that military personnel are subject to an ambassador's supervision because they seek clearance from the ambassador to enter the country.
  • Defense argues that such personnel are not under an ambassador's authority.

The consequences of this disagreement have been felt on the ground. In Niger in 2007, Defense suspended most of its partnership activities after the ambassador limited the number of Defense personnel allowed to enter the country. State said the limits were set because the embassy was worried about the country's fragile political environment as well as limited space and staff available to support Defense personnel.

In Chad, the ambassador recently called for a "strategic pause" in implementing partnership programs, "stating the need to reassess available embassy personnel to support DoD activities in country," GAO found.

"Lacking guidance from agency headquarters, country team officials have tried to establish agreements between State and DoD," but those agreements have not been considered valid by Defense and State officials in Washington.

Inconsistent funding also has plagued the counterterrorism partnership program. For example, USAID had to suspend support for partnership development activities in Mali in 2006, because the activities weren't funded (even though the agency received funding for the activities in 2005 and 2007). Agency officials told GAO the funding inconsistencies caused the Mali government to question the agency's commitment.

The partnership is not funded directly by Congress; rather agencies pay for the program at their discretion through various appropriations accounts. From 2005 through 2007, the three agencies together obligated about $230 million for partnership activities; in 2008, they have committed to spending about $123 million. Defense obligations for 2005-2007 and commitments for 2008 accounted for the bulk of that funding: $256 million. State and USAID, whose funding is determined by State's director of foreign assistance, together contributed $96 million during the same period.

Besides addressing the inconsistent funding problem for USAID and resolving the issue of authority over military personnel, GAO recommended that State spearhead the development of a comprehensive strategy for the partnership program and "include clear goals, objectives and milestones, including output and outcome indicators, and identify resources needed to achieve the program's goals."

"Given the growing threat of terrorism in northwest Africa, as well as the possibility of [the partnership program's] expansion to other countries and agencies, addressing these factors is essential to strengthening U.S. agencies' collaborative efforts to combat terrorism in the region," GAO concluded.

The value of the partnership program likely will grow in importance. State's 2007 country reports on terrorism, released in April, described the growing threat posed by al Qaeda in North Africa. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM, formed in 2006 as an alliance between al Qaeda and the group formerly known as the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. AQIM claimed responsibility for the near-simultaneous bombings of the Algerian Constitutional Council and the United Nations headquarters in Algeria on Dec. 11, indicating that foreign interests now are being targeted.

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