Pentagon war planning on hold for budget fight

The Pentagon’s Afghanistan war budget for the next fiscal year remains a mystery inside the building, due to two significant and unusual uncertainties: President Obama’s decision on U.S. troop levels for the next two years and the lingering budget fight with Congress back in Washington. Most years, by now the White House would have long ...

JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images
JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images
JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon's Afghanistan war budget for the next fiscal year remains a mystery inside the building, due to two significant and unusual uncertainties: President Obama’s decision on U.S. troop levels for the next two years and the lingering budget fight with Congress back in Washington.

Most years, by now the White House would have long ago signed off on the Pentagon’s spending requests for the coming fiscal year -- including estimations for war funding. Pentagon budget planners should have already put the final touches on their request for fiscal 2014, which starts October 1. The executive branch should be nearly ready to deliver the big ask to Congress.

But the a defense official tells the E-Ring that the White House Office of Management and Budget did not return the “passback” -- OMB’s tweaks to the draft DOD budget request -- until last week. Usually, OMB passbacks are returned to the Pentagon by November.

The Pentagon’s Afghanistan war budget for the next fiscal year remains a mystery inside the building, due to two significant and unusual uncertainties: President Obama’s decision on U.S. troop levels for the next two years and the lingering budget fight with Congress back in Washington.

Most years, by now the White House would have long ago signed off on the Pentagon’s spending requests for the coming fiscal year — including estimations for war funding. Pentagon budget planners should have already put the final touches on their request for fiscal 2014, which starts October 1. The executive branch should be nearly ready to deliver the big ask to Congress.

But the a defense official tells the E-Ring that the White House Office of Management and Budget did not return the “passback” — OMB’s tweaks to the draft DOD budget request — until last week. Usually, OMB passbacks are returned to the Pentagon by November.

The federal government is now four months into fiscal 2013 with no defense spending bill. Instead, the military is operating on a continuing resolution holding spending flat, at the levels approved for fiscal 2012.  Most budget watchers have their eye on March 1, when sequestration could kick in without another deal or delay from Congress. But war watchers are eyeing October 1, the start of fiscal 2014.

Obama’s silence on how many U.S. troops he will keep in Afghanistan this year for the warm weather fighting season, and how steadily he’ll shrink the force into next year, the official tells the E-Ring, has flummoxed DOD planners. There is simply no way they can plan for the Overseas Contingency (OCO) Account without those numbers, we’re told.

The Defense Department comptroller’s office, in an email to the E-Ring, said, "The passback did not address all the outstanding issues with OMB.” But that’s not unusual, the office said, as passbacks never fully satisfy agency planners. “As normal, there are issues that the department is discussing with OMB” regarding the next fiscal year’s spending request, “on a daily basis.”

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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