OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Dems move forward on Hagel

Republicans haven’t tipped their hands yet on their plans post-committee vote, although Inhofe and his ranking member predecessor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both said they were opposed to a rumored GOP walkout on the vote.

After that, Inhofe told National Review Monday that it was “going to be a long, long time before he hits the floor.”

“We’re going to need as much time as possible, and there are going to be several of us who will have holds,” Inhofe said.

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White House press secretary Jay Carney slammed Republicans for threatening to hold up Hagel’s confirmation any longer, as well as the confirmation of President Obama’s pick for CIA Director, John Brennan.

“What is unfortunate here is the continuing attempt to politicize an issue, in this case through nominees that themselves had nothing to do with Benghazi, and to do so in a way that only does harm to our national security interests,” Carney said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

For the floor vote, two Republicans have said so far they are supporting Hagel, and several others have said they were opposed to a filibuster. No Democrats have said they oppose the president’s pick to run the Pentagon.

DOD brings benefits to same-sex soldiers: As Congress continues to battle over the fate of the Defense Department's future leader, its current chief took another step toward cementing his legacy at the Pentagon. 

On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the department open up more than 40 benefits to the families of same-sex couples in the military. Gay and lesbian military personnel will be able to access benefits — ranging from life insurance beneficiaries and hospital visitation rights to access to base commissaries and child care services — by August, DOD officials told reporters. 

The benefit changes will affect roughly 5,600 active-duty and 3,400 Guard and Reserve members and their partners, as well as 8,000 retired military personnel, the official said. 

However, same-sex couples will continue to be denied healthcare and housing benefits provided by the military, due to due to concerns over the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 law defines marriage as the union of one man and woman for federal purposes, including insurance and Social Security benefits and tax breaks.

Short of creating an entirely separate category for gay and lesbian spouses in the military's benefits regulations, there was no way to extend health and housing benefits to those couples under DOMA, defense officials said during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

Panetta's decision to exclude those benefits from Monday's directive was intended as a delay, to give the department more time to evaluate how best to integrate those benefits into the military personnel system. "It is not off the table ... for consideration," one DOD official said. "He did not reject them, but he did not approve them." 

The decision to open up benefits to gay and lesbian members of the military is only the latest in a number of landmark changes at DOD, ordered under Panetta's watch. 

Aside from the benefits issue, Panetta also made the decision to open up combat positions, such as those in the infantry and special operations forces, to female soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. It is the first time women in the military will be allowed to fight on the front lines alongside their male counterparts.

Rolling out: On Monday, the first tranche of U.S. supply trucks hauling American weapons and equipment began its long journey from Afghanistan to the United States, marking the beginning of the White House's plan to have all U.S. combat forces out of the country by next year. 

Roughly 50 shipping containers filled with U.S. armaments and supplies made their way across the Afghan-Pakistan border toward the Pakistani port city of Karachi, where they will be loaded onto ships bound for the United States. 

They moved along supply routes into Pakistan that had only recently opened up to American and NATO commanders within the past year, according to The Associated Press.

Washington and Islamabad reached an agreement to reopen the critical supply lines last year, ending a stalemate that had hindered previous U.S. and NATO efforts to resupply American and coalition forces still fighting in Afghanistan. 

The initial shipments come a day after Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford took the reins of the U.S. and coalition operation in Afghanistan from Gen. John Allen.

Allen, who is slated to take over as head of European Command, is the longest-serving U.S. general in the war's 11-year history, with 19 months as the top American officer in Afghanistan.

It remains unclear how fast the U.S. withdrawal will proceed under Dunford, as Washington continues to weigh its postwar options once the last of the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops come home in 2014.  

In January, President Obama announced a decision to accelerate the handover of security operations to Afghan forces, moving to hand over all security operations to Afghan forces by mid-2013. That transition was scheduled to take place sometime in early 2014, ahead of the American withdrawal from the country. American troops will remain in country after the handover this spring, but will take a backseat to Afghan commanders.

But as American and NATO forces start rolling out of Afghanistan in earnest, serious questions remain over whether Afghan forces can pick up the slack when those units leave the country for good. 

Footing the bill: Afghanistan's central government does not have enough money to properly equip and maintain their national military and police forces once American and Western forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. 

In that report, government auditors found Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government will be unable to afford the roughly $25 billion needed to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2017. 

During NATO's annual summit in Chicago last year, Washington and other alliance members agreed to begin making payments of $500 annually to support the ANSF, beginning in 2015 a year after the final withdrawal of American combat troops from Afghanistan. 

That amount, according to the GAO, would come out to roughly 14 percent of Afghanistan's total domestic revenues for defense and non-defense spending. 

"However, even if the Afghan government committed 100 percent of its projected domestic revenues to funding ANSF, this amount would cover only about 75 percent of the cost of supporting security forces in fiscal year 2015," according to the GAO's analysis. 

That kind of focus on security spending would force Kabul to abandon or dramatically reduce other non-security programs, such as education and public health, the report states. Prior to the Chicago summit, the U.S. and its allies had funneled more than $30 billion into Afghan security forces beginning in 2006, with the majority of those dollars coming from American accounts. 

Government auditors do not provide recommendations for how much U.S. and allied investment into the ANSF should be increased by, but ensuring local government forces can take over the security mission in Afghanistan after American forces leave is a key to the administration's 2014 withdrawal plan.

Washington and Kabul are still hammering out the details of what the U.S. postwar involvement will look like in Afghanistan. In January, President Obama announced the United States would be accelerating its handover of security operations to the Afghans. 

That handover will now take place this spring, instead of sometime in 2014 to, coincide with the American pullout.


In Case You Missed It: 

— Obama OK's military support for French in Mali 

— Afghan vet awarded Medal of Honor 

— Carney says no new nuke plans in State of the Union 

— SEAL who killed Bin Laden struggles with health care costs 


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