Congress on Tuesday took a first step toward scaling back U.S. spending plans for the Afghan war, reflecting a mounting political pressure to reduce budget deficits and a recalculation of what it will take to stabilize Afghanistan as U.S. and allied forces begin to withdraw forces.
Although an intense and costly program to build up Afghanistan's army and police is a cornerstone of the NATO and U.S. strategy for winding down the war, renewed effort is under way to find further savings without undermining recent progress in training and equipping the Afghan forces.
The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, in approving an overall 2012 Pentagon budget of $513 billion, cut $1.6 billion from the Pentagon's previous $12.8 billion request for the Afghan training mission. It also cut another $5 billion in other areas of the Afghan war budget.
Several defense officials in Washington and Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said NATO and the U.S. have, for planning purposes, set a target of reducing the training budget to $6 billion _ and perhaps lower _ by 2014, when all foreign troops are to be out of Afghanistan.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said no decisions about future spending on Afghan training have been made, although he noted that the expectation is that spending could be reduced. The withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces also will permit spending reductions, other officials said. President Barack Obama in June announced that the U.S. would withdraw 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 by September next year.
After the Obama announcement the Pentagon began recalculating what savings could be achieved in the training mission and other aspects of the war effort. Political momentum for spending cuts in Afghanistan also accelerated after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May.
Canadian Army Maj. Edward J.H. Stewart, the chief of media relations for the NATO Training Mission in Kabul, said in an email Tuesday that training costs can be expected to decline in coming years as initial capital investments in the program, such as adding training facilities, are completed.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, said the Pentagon informed Congress that it could get by with $1.6 billion less for training operations than originally projected for 2012, and that it could cut another $5 billion in other areas of the Afghan war budget as a result of the scheduled U.S. troop reductions. Inouye's panel on Tuesday approved the Pentagon's overall request for $107 billion in support of Afghanistan, plus $11 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq, where all U.S. troops are scheduled to go home by December.
The combined cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars for 2012 _ $118 billion _ compares with about $159 billion this year.
The search for economies in Afghanistan comes as the Pentagon works on spending cuts required in the debt legislation passed over the summer, which called for a decrease of $400 billion in spending on national security _ mostly defense _ over 10 years. The Pentagon is bracing for the possibility that much larger cuts could be imposed, although Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that further cuts would be devastating.
"Real defense cuts are coming," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the nominee for the No. 2 civilian job at the Pentagon on Tuesday. At a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for Ashton Carter to be deputy defense secretary, McCain said budget tightening will require a culture change at the Pentagon.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he did not know details of the action by Inouye's panel. But he stressed his hope that the administration would keep in sight its stated goal of developing Afghan security forces on a pace that will wind the war down by 2014.
"I would strongly favor proceeding as quickly as we can to the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan forces and would be very unhappy with anything that slowed that process down," he said.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP