Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Crisis hits defence budgets

LONDON - THE global slowdown will stretch defence budgets worldwide, notably complicating the task of new US President Barack Obama as he switches foreign policy focus, a top thinktank said on Tuesday.

As Mr Obama moves to pull troops from Iraq and bolster forces in Afghanistan he will face continuing tensions with Nato allies, themselves also tightening belts at home, said the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Elsewhere, the thinktank's 'Military Balance 2009' noted Russia's bolstering of its military stance around the world, as national pride in the country's military forces swells in the wake of Russia's conflict with Georgia last year.

Mr Obama, who has moved quickly to reverse a series of his predecessor's policies since taking office last week, will find his administration constrained more than ever by the bottom line and domestic priorities.

'The Pentagon... will have to consider (its military priorities) in the context of an economic crisis that will inevitably call into question the level of defence spending,' the publication's editor James Hackett wrote.

'The effects of the banking crisis... will have an impact on defence establishments around the world.... Nations that have spent considerable sums on foreign operations... will find future military budgets pressured by the need to spend more on other domestic priorities,' it added.

While the Iraq surge had been a success, 'tensions remain over burden-sharing in Afghanistan,' it noted, saying NATO has 'increasing problems forging a common understanding of objectives for its mission in Afghanistan.'

The United States has been the main supporter of Afghanistan since it led an invasion that drove the hardline Taleban from government in Kabul in 2001, but Washington has long battled to drum up military support from its allies.

About 32,000 US troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan to fight Taleban-led insurgents. Up to 30,000 more are expected to arrive over the coming year, but Mr Obama is also expected to press his European allies to more troops too.

The IISS also noted that Al-Qaeda elements along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in particular, 'increased their activity in Pakistan while continuing to support the insurgency in Afghanistan.'

In Russia meanwhile pride in its armed forces, which collapsed after the Cold War, 'is being restored, not only by a more prominent international posture and the victory in Georgia, but also by a raised profile at home.'

'The continuing expansion of US and Nato activities into Russia's traditional sphere of interest is a driving force behind its current military posture,' it noted.

'Certain of these activities are viewed as a direct threat by Moscow.'

Elsewhere in the study, IISS noted that former US president George W. Bush's 'surge' in troops stationed in Iraq 'undoubtedly worked in terms of dramatically reducing civilian casualties and pausing Iraq's previously relentless descent into civil war.'

It added, though, that 'despite the improvements there was little sign ...that this 'window of opportunity', conceived to allow Iraq's politicians to move towards national reconciliation, had resulted in such progress and, as a result, questions have been raised about the longevity of its effects.'

So Iraq is not going to go away as a problem any time soon, and could yet swallow more huge sums of money at a time when cash is short for military operations around the world.

'While the long-term consequences of the banking crisis on public finances are not yet clear, how governments move to balance these competing priorities will be of prime importance in the year ahead,' wrote the IISS. -- AFP
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