As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan to meet with U.S. troops and to assess the state and the pace of the war there, our putative ally, President Hamid Karzai, asserted the most unbelievable charge against the United States. He said that “Americans and the Taliban had a common goal in destabilizing his country,” according to news reports.
Considering that the Taliban harbored the man and the movement that planned the 9/11 attacks, the charge is beyond any reasonable understanding. To be fair, the United States has indicated that a final settlement there might have a place for the Taliban under certain conditions, but insofar as anyone knows, no agreement has been reached.
The points of friction are many. There are disagreements over the control of prisons, the conduct of operations by U.S. special operations forces, the handling of battlefield detainees and other unresolved issues. Beyond 2014, Karzai will have to deal with the Taliban essentially on his own, so one suspects that he is lining up the political support to survive once the United States departs.
The unbelievable part of all this is the fact that the Taliban and al-Qaida still survive after 12 years of war and expenditure of much treasure, and that we are negotiating our departure with our nominal ally and our declared enemy.
In Iraq, the Shiite-led government is firmly in charge and cozying up to Iran, while the Muslim Brotherhood is, at least for now, running Egypt. And in Libya, no one appears to be in the control. All this turmoil is running hard, just as the United States begins to unwind its engagement in that part of the world.
On top of all this is the crisis at home. The United States unfortunately finds itself unable to govern its affairs effectively. Washington cannot control its finances and balance its budget. Both sides have been unable to accomplish much, and continue to bicker over whether the nation has a spending problem or a revenue problem.
Some things seem certain, though. One is that trillion-dollar deficits can’t continue indefinitely. It is also a fact that the nation has spent too much, promised too much and borrowed too much.
This leaves the country at a point where more borrowing is unlikely to dig us out of the hole we are in, and that the actions by the Federal Reserve to move markets along and keep interest rates at almost zero cannot keep up for much longer.
When considering the nation’s budget problems at home — how do we fund increasingly expensive government programs, keep faith with all promises and underwrite U.S. security and worldwide commitments? The answer is that we cannot do it all.
In the fight over promises and deficits, U.S. national defense has become an innocent victim of Washington’s inability to agree on how to fund our government. The sequester that was triggered by the implementation of the 2011 Budget Control Act is now upon us and the dire warnings of what might happen have proved somewhat hollow as most informed watchers knew that the “immediate” impact would be relatively mild, but that the downstream consequences would be severe, though occurring more gradually than many experts had forecast.
One way or another, something will have to be fixed by March 27 as the continuing resolution runs out on that date. So either a government shutdown or some kind of budget accommodation must be reached.
The House of Representatives passed a spending bill March 6 that gave appropriation account flexibility to the Pentagon, but keeps the sequester in place for all federal agencies.
The bill provides $982 billion for government spending. The defense portion of the legislation provides $518.1 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, which does not include war expenses. The top line is equal to the fiscal year 2012 level and $2 billion above the president’s request. An additional $87.2 billion is proposed for overseas contingency operations. All this funding is subject to sequestration, except military personnel. The legislation provides $127.5 billion to support a force of 1.4 million active-duty troops and 843,286 reserves. The bill, too, includes a 1.7 percent pay raise for the military. There is $173.5 billion for operations and maintenance, $70 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation of military technology. Procurement totals $100.4 billion, which is $4.2 billion below last year and $1.3 billion below the president’s request.
In response to the military’s readiness challenges, the bill seeks to give the Defense Department some flexibility to shift more money into military operations and maintenance funding.
Some Democrats in the House supported the bill, but most opposed it. It now goes to the Senate, where it is sure to be modified. President Obama has been actively courting Republicans to support some kind of deal, so there may be some reason to have a bit of hope that we might reach a budget, which the Pentagon desperately needs rather than a continuing resolution.
What is certain is that many in Congress and the administration are comfortable with more cuts to the defense budget, whether through sequester or through a leaner defense budget, as many have been predicting for some time.
This all comes at a time when the burdens on our military are at a high point and equipment inventories across the services are old and tired.
Some will say this is OK after a decade of soaring spending. But some of the same politicians who are comfortable cutting military budgets are the same ones who are quick to commit the military to the next crisis, which is sure to come. All this in a time of great turmoil from the Middle East to the Far East, as North Korea remains a significant problem.
With political uncertainty both at home and abroad, and with the United States unable to conduct normal budget operations, one could be forgiven for wondering just where this train is heading, and whether there is an engineer in the cab.
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