By Walter Pincus
Monday, June 30, 2008
The Pentagon is stepping up its counternarcotics programs in West Africa, in what can be considered the Defense Department's continuing expansion into the traditional territory of a civilian agency.
West Africa has experienced "a dramatic increase in drug smuggling and associated corruption and intimidation that turns weakly governed areas into nearly ungoverned spaces," according to Joseph A. Benkert, the nominee to become the first assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs.
"Currently the threat of the expanding illicit drug trade threatens Africa's fragile future," Benkert wrote in answer to a Senate Armed Services Committee questionnaire, which was released at his confirmation hearing last Wednesday.
The Defense Department already has a full menu of support for African governments, including training for top younger military officers, military assistance and foreign military sales support, and more recently, a new range of counterterrorism, troop-training and construction programs.
The Armed Services report on the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill raised questions about the Pentagon's new Africa command having plans to take on such nontraditional missions as "medical HIV/AIDS assistance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."
But more and more, State Department officials and Congress recognize that it is easier to fund such programs through the larger Defense Department budget.
Thus the same Senate panel, concerned about new missions, required Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in consultation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to prepare "a region-wide, counter drug plan for Africa, with a special emphasis on West Africa and the Maghreb."
Government studies have identified Ghana as a shipment point for cocaine from South America and heroin produced in southeast and southwest Asia. President Bush, in a speech, identified Guinea-Bissau as a "warehouse refuge and transit hub for cocaine traffickers from Latin America transporting cocaine to Western Europe."
Benkert provided the often-used link to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in justifying the new Africa initiative, saying: "Global illegal drug trade has connections to terrorism, financial crimes, corruption of governmental systems, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, major gang networks, insurgency and instability in many places worldwide."
As a general premise, he added that "trafficking, whatever the commodity . . . provides trans-national criminal organizations and terrorists revenue to purchase weapons and plan operations that threaten U.S. security interests" and that "by widening the [Defense] Department's role to trafficking networks -- drugs, weapons, people or money -- the Department provides critical support to undermine trans-national networks that threaten the nation."
In his role as assistant secretary, Benkert said he is "working with various policy and intelligence elements of the department to help define this new mission space," meaning his expanded office of global security affairs.
He said he plans "to consolidate and institutionalize" what he termed "the 'toolkit' of programmatic and related options available for advancing the Department's strategy of building partner capacity." Two of the biggest tools, which together may draw nearly $1 billion in fiscal 2009, are what are known as Section 1206 funds, referred to as "global train and fit" authority with $800 million; and Section 1207 funds, referred to as "security and stabilization assistance" authority with $200 million.
Section 1206 money helps build the security and military forces of partner nations to "either conduct counterterrorist operations or participate in or support military and stability operations where U.S. forces are a participant," Benkert said.
With the State Department's blessing, Section 1206 this year is covering coalition partners in Iraq, including Algeria, Chad, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Yemen, and Sao Tome and Principe. Also being added are a number of African, East Asian and Central European countries.
National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.