President Obama’s request for fiscal 2013 assumes the military would have about 68,000 troops still in Afghanistan throughout fiscal 2013, which is more than are expected to be there under current plans.
In 2010, the president sent a “surge” of 33,000 additional troops into Afghanistan to change the war’s momentum, raising the U.S. military force to a total of 98,000, a senior congressional aide said. By the end of this calendar year, if not sooner, all the surge forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, barring any unforeseen changes in the war.
This means that early in the new fiscal year, the military could have several thousand fewer troops in Afghanistan than envisioned in the budget request for the Overseas Contingency Operations account (OCO), which pays for the war, stabilization efforts in Iraq and counterterrorism operations. The number of troops could also be reduced further during the fiscal year, ahead of a planned withdrawal by the end of 2014.
The extra padding in the war spending account makes sense, officials say, because it gives the Pentagon flexibility if the war in Afghanistan worsens.
But if the U.S. military drawdown proceeds as planned, the account could be used the same way it was in fiscal 2012: to pay for such things as operations and maintenance items that don’t fit in the base budget.
The issue came up Jan. 25 when Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during a briefing over dinner with top defense lawmakers if further troop reductions were planned in Afghanistan during 2013. Panetta could not say definitively, sources indicated.
The president is planning to request $88.4 billion for the war in fiscal 2013, significantly less than the $115 billion enacted in fiscal 2012.
Some of that extra room may be needed in the event of automatic spending cuts, known as a sequester, which was part of last year’s Budget Control Act (PL 112-25). Budget experts said the law appears to require that the sequester be applied to the OCO account in fiscal 2013 and beyond. That would eat away at some of the cushion built into the war funding.
Of course, a sequester is far from a foregone conclusion, several experts noted. And the final call on whether sequestration applies to the OCO account will be made by the Office of Management and Budget through a report to the president due Jan. 2, 2013.
Separately, the conservative planning is justified “given the amount of uncertainty” in the war’s progress, a senior congressional aide said. “They always say they will make decisions on troop levels based on what is happening on the ground,” the aide explained.
Another senior congressional aide said all the surge forces could be out of Afghanistan within several months.
“My strong belief, however, is that the next troop reduction announcement will be made around May (and I don’t think they’ve officially decided on that number),” the aide wrote in an email, noting that the 68,000 troops assumed in the request “is probably just a place holder.”
What’s Past Is Prologue
A third senior aide noted that the administration, in its fiscal 2012 OCO request, had built in funding for thousands more troops than the existing agreement with Iraq permitted. But the administration was unable to work out an agreement for some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.
The end result, the aide said, was that appropriators were able to shift to the war fund billions of dollars in operations and maintenance costs and other items typically in the base defense budget.
The flexibility was useful because of reductions that were mandated by the Budget Control Act, which forced lawmakers to reduce the fiscal 2012 base defense budget from Obama’s request of $539.5 billion down to $518 billion.
“Last year it was an extreme situation because so much happened late,” the senior aide said. “The reductions caught us by surprise.”
The budget law set caps that mandate reductions of $487 billion in planned defense spending over 10 years. In addition, the law’s sequester mechanism could force cuts of an additional $450 billion from planned defense spending. The sequester could be averted if lawmakers reach a deal to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, which would overturn the mechanism.
Regardless, the reduction in planned defense spending is already causing difficult budget pressure, and the war fund could serve again as a relief valve.
One senior congressional aide said, “I don’t know what we’ll do this year. We have a whole year to consider it.”
But a second senior aide who watches the issue closely said, “I would, however, not be totally shocked if that number also represented a future slush fund to offload some base budget costs,” adding that there are “lots of possibilities for end-of-the-year reprogramming.”
Kerry Young and Megan Scully contributed to this story.
Link to original article: CQ Today