The Afghan war effort eventually would be harmed by across-the-board budget cuts, even as the Obama administration intends to shield the military's combat mission from the reductions, the Pentagon's No. 2 official said Friday.
"There will be second-order effects on the war," Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary, said in an interview in his office with a small group of reporters. Deferred maintenance on weapons and other equipment, for example, will eventually erode the combat fitness of military units deploying to Afghanistan, he said.
The U.S. has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, with an undetermined number of withdrawals expected this year and in 2014.
The administration holds out hope that Congress will come up with a deficit-cutting mechanism to replace the across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect March 1, but Carter suggested that hopes are not high.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly warned that the threatened defense cuts, amounting to about $50 billion this budget year, would hurt national security. Carter said he feared that the message has not been heard widely enough in Congress and across the country.
If the cuts take effect in March, hundreds of thousands of Pentagon civilian employees will face furloughs and reduced paychecks by April, Carter said. They would lose one day of work per week for the remainder of the budget year, which ends in September, he said.
"This is painful to us," Carter said.
The Pentagon has about 800,000 civilian employees; they have not yet been officially notified of furloughs. Carter said the furloughs would be expected to save $5 billion. No military positions will be cut, he said.
Carter said the Pentagon already is eliminating all 46,000 of its temporary civilian workers in anticipation of budget cuts.
Carter also disclosed that he will remain on the job as deputy defense secretary in President Barack Obama's second term. He said Obama had called him after nominating Chuck Hagel to be his next defense secretary, asking Carter to remain.
"I agreed to do that, and I'm enthusiastic about doing that," he said, adding that he believes Hagel will be a good Pentagon chief.
Carter had been mentioned as a possible Obama choice for energy secretary.