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The bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan has still not been signed, sealed and delivered, creating budget uncertainty and potentially significant logistical problems, according to military and congressional leaders.
Without a bilateral accord, which is currently stalled by Afghan President Hamid Karzai (who negotiated the agreement in the first place), planning in Congress and at the Pentagon has become increasingly complex, affecting the overall defense budget and jeopardizing the ultimate success of the Afghan government.
Lawmakers have been asking pointed questions about Afghanistan planning in recent hearings whose sparse attendance reflects the diminishing attention being paid to the war effort.
“This is a serious hole in your budget here,” said Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “It’s difficult for us to put a bill together with that issue open.”
Frelinghuysen’s comments followed revelations last week that the Pentagon does not plan on providing a specific request for war-related operations until it is clear whether U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale explained it would be difficult to finalize the budget details until a bilateral agreement with Afghanistan is finalized.
“When we get an enduring presence decision, as soon as we can after that, we will get a formal budget amendment to you for” the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is used to support the war and the wider war on terrorism, Hale said. “If that doesn’t work with the timing issue, then we’re gonna have to look at other options. And we are thinking of them now, as to how we proceed if we don’t get an enduring presence decision.”
Hale’s comments were the clearest indication that the Pentagon is not planning to make a specific OCO request until at least April, after the election of a new Afghan president.
U.S. military commanders hope to station between 8,000 and 12,000 U.S. troops, plus thousands of allied forces, in Afghanistan after 2014 if a security deal is finalized.
If the security pact is not signed, all U.S. and allied forces would depart Afghanistan by the end of the year.
This complicates congressional plans for Defense appropriations and authorization bills. Frelinghuysen said his panel needs to bring its bill up for a House vote this summer. This is particularly important in an election year, when lawmakers’ attention increasingly turn to their states and districts.