By Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked Congress yesterday to approve an additional $42.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the Bush administration's 2008 war funding request to nearly $190 billion -- the largest single-year total for the wars so far.
The move came as Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff and former top U.S. commander in Iraq, warned lawmakers that the Army is stretched dangerously thin because of current war operations and would probably have trouble responding to a major conflict elsewhere. "The current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Casey said yesterday. "We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other potential contingencies."
The administration's funding request -- which came on the same day that the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for the split of Iraq into three semiautonomous regions -- would boost war spending this year by nearly 15 percent and would bring the total cost of both conflicts to more than $800 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service. The request comes two weeks after President Bush announced a limited troop drawdown from Iraq starting in December and the continuation of the "surge" troop increase through next summer. In the days since, Democrats have failed to force a shift in policy on troop rotations or the adoption of withdrawal timelines, but the debate over war funding offers them another chance to push for a change in course.
In a rare sign of bipartisan consensus over war policy, the Senate plan to divide Iraq, conceived by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), was approved 75 to 23, with support from 26 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Even so, some Senate Democrats yesterday expressed dismay at the administration's consistently rising "emergency" requests for war funding, calling them "habit-forming" and open-ended, while others said they think the wars are breaking the military. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, before which Gates testified, called the Iraq war "nefarious" and "infernal."
"We do not create a democracy at the point of a gun," Byrd said. "Sending more guns does not change that reality. And this committee will not rubber-stamp every request that is submitted by the president."
As lawmakers expressed concern over the rising costs and the strain on U.S. forces, Gates said he believes it is critical to continue until conditions on the ground permit a larger drawdown. "It's very important that we handle this drawdown in a way that allows us to end up in a stronger position in Iraq in terms of a more stable country, one that is an ally in the war on terror and one that is a blockade to Iranian influence in the region," Gates said. "I don't know what that timeline looks like."
Gates said the additional money is needed to pay for the continuation of the president's troop buildup in Iraq and to purchase thousands of new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.
Yesterday's request for $42.3 billion came on top of the $141.7 billion requested in February and a request earlier this year for $5.3 billion for MRAP vehicles. Gates said the new request, to be submitted to Congress by Bush, includes $6 billion to support the Army and Marine units in Iraq; $14 billion for force protection, including MRAP vehicles; $9 billion to ensure that critical equipment and technology are available for future missions; and $6 billion for training and equipment to improve the Army's readiness for future deployments. Another $2 billion would be used for U.S. facilities and to train and equip Iraq's security forces.
Gates reiterated Bush's concept of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but said it probably would be a smaller force focused on countering al-Qaeda in Iraq, training Iraqi forces and acting as a bulwark against Iran. He said he envisions a long-term force -- possibly for many years -- of about a quarter of the current U.S. force there, or slightly more than 40,000 troops.
"We're at a point where the pacing of all of this is really what is at issue, and quite frankly my biggest worry is if we . . . handle this next phase badly, then all bets are off in terms of what our commitments or what our requirements may be in the region," Gates said.
Casey, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee for the first time as the Army's top officer, expressed deep concern over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars' impact on the service. In an unusual move, Casey had asked for the hearing so he could explain the strains on the Army, according to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the panel's chairman.
"Overall, our readiness is being consumed as fast as we can build it," Casey said, explaining that U.S. soldiers do not get enough time at home to train for full-scale combat operations and that equipment is wearing out "at a far greater pace than expected." He added: "I believe we can put this back in balance in three or four years."
In his testimony, Gates urged Congress to approve the State Department's requests for additional war funding. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said in the hearing that State will seek more money on top of the $3.3 billion it has already requested.
"The challenges we face in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are fundamentally political, economic and cultural in nature, and are not going to be overcome by military means alone," Gates said. "It will be very difficult for our troops and their commanders to succeed without the key non-military programs and initiatives included in the request for the State Department."
The Senate vote yesterday calling for the division of Iraq into three regions does not force Bush to take any action, but the vote carves out a common ground in a debate that has become more polarized and focused on military strategy.
The plan envisions a federal government for Iraq, with separate autonomous regions for the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish people. The structure is spelled out in Iraq's constitution, but the Senate measure calls for local and regional diplomatic efforts to hasten the process. "This has genuine bipartisan support," said Biden, "and I think that's a very hopeful sign."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.