Afghanistan collapse won’t dramatically alter defense spending

House appropriators have already approved a $705.9 billion defense bill; Senate appropriators may release draft bill next month

The collapse of the Afghan government may cause handwringing in Washington, but “it ultimately does not affect the defense authorization or appropriations process in any significant way,” says Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The collapse of the Afghan government may cause handwringing in Washington, but “it ultimately does not affect the defense authorization or appropriations process in any significant way,” says Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2021 at 5:00am

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan could mean changes for the billions of dollars the Pentagon sought in the next fiscal year, but is unlikely to change the trajectory of the larger defense policy and spending bills currently under consideration in Congress.

The sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban required the emergency evacuation of the embassy in Kabul. President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of 7,000 additional troops to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport amid an effort to relocate Afghan nationals, and their families, who aided the U.S. military during the two decades-long war in Afghanistan.

“The most likely outcome is there’s a lot of handwringing, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of disappointment in the way things are going down in Afghanistan,” said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it ultimately does not affect the defense authorization or appropriations process in any significant way.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee already has finished marking up its version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. House Armed Services subcommittees marked up their portions of the House bill in July, with the full committee scheduled to hold its marathon markup session of the massive defense policy bill on Sept. 1.

On the spending side, House appropriators have already approved a $705.9 billion defense bill. Senate appropriators have not yet unveiled their draft spending bill, but one could be released as soon as next month.

All of this progress ahead of the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 doesn’t mean policies and dollar amounts are set in stone for the Department of Defense, and couldn’t be altered in response to events in Afghanistan. They could still be changed in conference, as conferees reconcile the Senate and House versions of the NDAA, but Harrison doesn’t envision big changes due to the fall of Kabul.

“It’s not going to have a significant funding effect for DOD, nor will it change the focus for DOD planning or strategy, which is on near-peer competition with China and Russia,” Harrison said. “I don’t see it changing investments in weapon systems, I don’t see it changing force structure, I don’t see it changing military personnel policy.”

Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a note to investors that money in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2022 budget request for Afghanistan could be repurposed for other priorities. These include $3.3 billion in aid for the Afghan Security Forces, and $14.3 billion in unspecified “direct war requirements” that include Afghanistan, Callan noted.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the defense budget, cautioned against assuming Congress will zero out spending related to Afghanistan now that it is under Taliban control. Congress will shift some funds around, she said, “but not nearly as much as some are estimating because the situation is so fluid.”

Additionally, the long-distance air operations that the Pentagon expects to use to counter terrorist activity in Afghanistan will be expensive, she said. And the cost to airlift interpreters and other non-combatants who helped U.S. troops will add up quickly, especially if the effort lasts for weeks or months.

“Further, more Afghans could end up at U.S. military facilities (similar to what we see at Ft. Lee today) and that will require funds,” she said, referring to the thousands of evacuees who are housed on military bases in the United States.

Harrison said lawmakers may add language to the report accompanying the legislation that tries to get a better understanding of what happened and could have been done better, possibly even creating a commission to study it.

“We could see some report language put in to do an after-action assessment of what went wrong with the withdrawal,” he said. “But as long as the Biden administration maintains discipline and doesn’t look back, and doesn’t try to go back in and add troops like Obama did in Iraq after the pullout, then this will pass.”