Obama's defense budget shifts focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan

The administration also ends accounting practices that kept war funding from public scrutiny.

Jason Reed, pool/AP
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses troops during his visit to the Forward Operating Base Ramrod, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan Thursday.

President Obama’s new Pentagon budget requests more money for Afghanistan than it does for Iraq – the first time this has happened since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The change reflects Mr. Obama’s shifting of US priorities as the administration begins to draw down the 136,000 troops in Iraq while pushing resources toward the complex challenges posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pentagon officials released details of the new $534 billion defense budget for fiscal 2010 Thursday, noting that the additional request for war funding that accompanied it includes $65 billion for Afghanistan and $61 billion for Iraq.

“This request is where you’re going to first see the swing of not only dollars or resources but combat capability from the Iraqi theater into the Afghan theater,” said Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, director for force structure, resources, and assessment on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, during a crowded press conference.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said his budget positions the department to fight “irregular warfare” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, with more money for remote-control aircraft, helicopter crews, and special operations forces to conduct training.

At the same time, he has capped the program for the controversial F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, designed to fight a conventional war with China, Russia, or North Korea.

But if his budget reflects a bigger focus on unconventional warfare, it also illustrates Obama’s new priority in Afghanistan.

The $130 billion war funding request, of which the $65 billion for Afghanistan is a part, includes another reallocation. This one doubles the size of the pot of money used by American commanders in Afghanistan to win over the population – building soccer fields, renovating hospitals, or improving schools – and cuts in half the same pot of money for US commanders in Iraq.

“It’s a huge shift in this program,” said Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller, in a news conference Thursday.

The Navy appears to be the biggest winner in this year’s budget, receiving a 6 percent increase in its budget over last year – mainly to build new airplanes and ships. Gates has also said he wants to strengthen the overall force, which is straining under more than seven years of war.

There are budget provisions for military healthcare (costs that defense officials say are eating into the Pentagon’s budget), an increase in ground forces, and family support and housing. This year’s “reform” budget request tries to do more for troops, with a 9 percent increase in funding for military personnel – pay and healthcare, for example.

The Pentagon budget represents a 4 percent increase over last year’s budget, but defense officials say the days of wild defense spending for the wars must come to an end. The new budget takes steps to terminate programs deemed as irrelevant or that represent careless spending of taxpayer dollars.

“On balance, I believe Secretary of Defense Gates’s recent decisions as reflected in the budget released today will enhance our overall military capabilities,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a public policy group in Washington, in a prepared statement.

The controversial budget, he added, will spark a much-needed discussion about America’s “defense posture.”

This year’s budget puts a nominal end to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by using so-called supplemental budget requests. Under this accounting practice, the Bush administration funded the wars on an “emergency basis” with little public scrutiny. Starting this year, the supplemental request will become known as the “overseas contingency operation,” and it will theoretically include as much oversight as any other budgetary request.

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