Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”
And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.
Moreover, the contingency funds are also used to support Afghan security forces. A 15 percent cut in their ranks—soon to be 350,000—could result in the layoff of 52,000 soldiers and police. That is a huge number and could tilt the balance of power in favor of the Taliban in critical areas even as Afghan security forces are being asked to step into the lead. One consequence would be that the remaining U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be in greater danger and could suffer higher casualties.
It is hard to imagine a more ill-advised idea than cutting funds for troops in combat—yet that is what will happen unless Congress can somehow agree on an alternative before Dec. 31. That seems increasingly unlikely to happen, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems intent on extracting big tax increases from Republicans in return for turning off the sequester. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, therefore, has the potential to “devastate” our fighting men and women even as they are on the frontlines.