WASHINGTON — This was to be budget week on Capitol Hill for the Pentagon. Hearings were set for almost every day to give top defense officials the opportunity to explain money requests, parry with House and Senate members over priorities, and answer questions on where all the dollars really go.
The partial government shutdown changed that, delaying the budget proposal until March. The hearings, however, already scheduled, went forward.
And thus, subjects not often discussed in open meetings became the topics asked of the high-level witnesses. It provided information and nuggets of data that often would take weeks to cajole out of Pentagon officials — especially on the record.
For example, this week it was made public that ISIS has only 20 square miles of territory left in Syria yet had maybe 30,000 or more forces scattered about that nation. Pentagon reporters have been seeking such data since September, when the ground assault Syria against ISIS was in its last phase. No clear answers had been provided.
Additionally, those testifying conceded the Pentagon really does not know how many ISIS foes are on the loose. Likewise, that question was never addressed in a straightforward response to the media.
It was also made clear in testimony that neither the Pentagon nor any top commander was consulted prior to President Donald Trump’s declaration that he would order the quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.
Also learned was — no matter what had been reported — there is no peace deal yet with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan. Talks are “simply one step in a long process that would eventually lead to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban,“ Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Service Committee.
It was also made public that the Chinese plan for influence in Africa is moving ahead rapidly and forcefully to the point when the Pentagon feels it is at a disadvantage. For example, Pentagon officials warned that China may become the dominant foreign power on the west coast of Africa — the Atlantic Ocean side that faces the United States.
Other Pentagon officials gave deep detail on how Cuban, Russian and Chinese elements are propping up the Maduro government in Venezuela — giving a hint as to how the Pentagon projects the next steps it may have to take in that ongoing stalemate.
There was the candid response that, yes, the Pentagon is ready to protect U.S. diplomats and facilities in Venezuela, should that be required. And there was candor in acknowledging the U.S. air strikes against the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia will not defeat them without significant help from Somali forces — even as the number of strikes and those killed increase.
Of course, there were some budget-like moments. For example, commanders asked for more spy drones and ships, issues that will be part of the budget balancing to come.
The Pentagon budget request for fiscal year 2020 is expected to be in the $750 billion range, Pentagon officials have said.