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 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.”

JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images

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