Rice Grilled on Extra Funding Sought for Iraq, Afghanistan
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Skeptical lawmakers yesterday demanded a detailed accounting of how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to spend $6 billion in supplemental funds that the administration has asked for the State Department this year, much of it for Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think you've got a lot of explaining to do," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told Rice at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations. "A huge majority of the funds in the supplemental are for military, not political or economic or reconstructive, purposes."
Both Republicans and Democrats asked pointed questions about the rising cost of efforts that seem to be failing, despite newly announced U.S. strategies for both countries. Even as the administration has asked for more money, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) told Rice, it ought to increase its diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East.
"I plead with you, I beg of you," Wolf said, "if we're going to ask a young man or woman in our military to go to Iraq three different times, it's not asking too much . . . to send somebody to engage with regard to the Syrians."
Rice replied: "We don't have an ideological problem with talking to Syria." But, she said, "there just isn't any evidence that they're trying to change their behavior."
The supplemental funding is in addition to more than $140 billion in emergency money that President Bush has requested, primarily to fund new military operations. In a Thursday address, he urged Congress to provide $11.8 billion to accelerate military and police training and reconstruction in Afghanistan, where he said al-Qaeda and the Taliban are launching new offensives after having been "driven from power" by U.S. forces in 2001.
In a video posted on the Internet yesterday, al-Qaeda appeared to ridicule Bush's latest remarks. "Bush raved in his latest speech . . . that he has deprived al-Qaeda of a safe haven in Afghanistan," said a voice attributed to and read over a photograph of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. "The entire world bears witness to his barefaced lie."
The 24-minute video, marked as a product of al-Qaeda's video arm and made available and translated by the Alexandria-based analysis firm IntelCenter, is the longest and most sophisticated to date from Afghanistan. After Zawahiri's introduction, it purports to document an undated mujaheddin attack on a U.S. military encampment in Afghanistan. IntelCenter said it thinks the voice-over narration was provided by Adam Gadahn, the California native who has been indicted in absentia on a charge of treason for alleged al-Qaeda activities.
Intelligence and military officials in Washington did not dispute that the video is an al-Qaeda product. But they noted that it is not a recent recording, because the fighters are shown in warm-weather clothing amid greenery.
Regarding the claimed military operation, a Pentagon official said that "no one has been able to verify what they're talking about." The official said that U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have not lost any direct engagements with Taliban or al-Qaeda forces. He said it is possible that the scenes of fighters preparing for battle and firing weapons may have been juxtaposed with those of a deserted compound once occupied by the U.S. military.
In yesterday's hearing, Rice acknowledged the poor results in U.S. efforts to stem Afghan opium production, which reached record levels last year.
"I have to say this is a case where priority and success actually are not linked," she said in response to a question from Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). "We have put enormous effort into this, and it's just a tough problem to crack."
"Yeah, but it's not good enough," Lewis replied. He has heard a lot about various U.S. counternarcotics programs, he said, "but there have been no results."
Panel members sharply questioned both the supplemental budget and the other funding requests, including a planned $250 million cash payment to the government of Lebanon, $86 million requested for security assistance for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and more than $500 million being spent for a new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Rice said a major portion of the Iraq money would fund the expanded Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The teams, led by U.S. diplomats, are located in Baghdad neighborhoods and elsewhere in the country, where they assist in developing the Iraqi economy and governance.
The teams, embedded with U.S. military units, are expected to "bring about 40,000 jobs [to] critical areas" in Iraq, Rice said. Iraqi government money, she said, would pay for additional job creation.
The Iraqi expenditure of $10 billion in reconstruction and job-creation funds was one of the "benchmarks" for the Baghdad government that Bush set when he announced his new strategy last month. Iraq has a $12.5 billion surplus of previously budgeted but unspent funds.
Rice pledged yesterday that the administration will see to it that Iraq's Shiite-dominated government spends the money, with at least $2 billion going to areas outside the capital. In White House remarks yesterday, after a conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush said that Maliki has already "met that benchmark" by again budgeting the money.