Congress should scale back the war budget

The Obama administration has finally crafted its official request for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the fund that is supposed to be used primarily to finance the war in Afghanistan.  The proposal is a bitter disappointment for advocates of budget discipline at the Pentagon.

According to press accounts, the new fund will clock in at roughly $60 billion.  This is a cut of less than one-third from last year, even though U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is being reduced by roughly three-quarters.

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Where is all this money going?  One new item is the president’s $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF), an open-ended program that threatens to further embroil U.S. forces in civil wars from North Africa to Southeast Asia.  The United States already has several programs that provide funding to train and equip foreign militaries to combat terrorist organizations, and they have a decidedly mixed record.  There is a real danger that weapons provided by the United States under the rationale of fighting terrorism may be used by undemocratic regimes to abuse the human rights of their own people, sowing enmity against the United States that is more likely to increase the ranks of terrorists than diminish them.

There are two troubling features of the new CTPF.  The first is its sheer size.  It is larger than what had been the biggest single U.S. military assistance program, the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. 

The second problem with CTPF is that as a purely Pentagon initiative, it will be far less transparent and accountable than programs like FMF that are authorized under the aegis of the State Department.  CTPF is a recipe for military intervention with minimal Congressional input.  The time to rein it in is now, before it involves the United States in multiple conflicts in which military involvement could do more harm than good.

As ill-advised as it is, the CTPF is just a small part of the problem with the Obama administration’s war budget request.  The biggest problem from a financial standpoint is the continued use of the OCO budget as a slush fund to pay for pet projects of the Pentagon that have nothing to do with fighting or ending wars.  Independent analyses by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the Project on Government Oversight have determined that over one-third of last year’s $80 billion-plus war budget was used to pay for training and weapons projects that have nothing to do with Afghanistan. Congress should make sure that a similar thing doesn’t happen this year.

The administration has two main arguments for padding the OCO account, neither of which is persuasive.  The first is that the extra funds are needed to pay for bringing back troops and equipment from the war zone.  But the truth is that much of the equipment is being left behind and either destroyed or transferred to Afghan security forces, an approach that is much cheaper than shipping these items back to the United States.

The second argument that has been put forward in favor of an overstuffed war budget is the need to “reset the force” by replacing equipment lost in the war.  But a 2011 study by the Stimson Center has demonstrated that the over $1 trillion the Pentagon spent on procurement during the first decade of the 2000s was enough to fully stock the armed services with new or upgraded equipment.  In effect, the U.S. military has already largely been “reset.”  The reset argument is further undermined by the fact that the Army and Marines are scheduled to be downsized over the next few years, so they will need fewer items of equipment than they did during the past decade. 

The real reason the administration is overspending on OCO is that the Pentagon is desperately trying to evade the caps on its base budget that are imposed by current law.  Since OCO is not subject to the caps, it provides a convenient safety valve to pay for programs that don’t fit within the regular Pentagon budget.  But fiscal responsibility and sound management demand that the Pentagon stick to the caps.  The Pentagon can easily abide by the caps if it cuts unnecessary overhead and reshapes the force to address the most likely threats of the 21st century, many of which do not have military solutions.  Congress should strike a blow for budget discipline at the Pentagon by substantially scaling back the OCO account. 

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.