State Dept. faces skyrocketing costs as it prepares to expand role in Iraq
As the last U.S. combat troops prepare to leave Iraq this month, the State Department is struggling to implement an expanded mission that it has belatedly realized it might not be able to afford.
Beginning in September, the State Department will take over all police training in Iraq from coalition military forces, and it has proposed replacing its current 16 provincial reconstruction teams spread across the country with five consular offices outside Baghdad.
But since planning for the transition began more than two years ago, costs have skyrocketed and the money to pay for them has become increasingly tight. Congress cut the State Department's Iraq request in the 2010 supplemental appropriation that President Obama signed late last month; the Senate Appropriations Committee and a House subcommittee have already slashed the administration's $1.8 billion request for fiscal 2011 operations in Iraq.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and other U.S. officials are urging lawmakers to reconsider their plans, citing concerns that waning resources could jeopardize tenuous security gains.
"We can't spread ourselves so thin that we don't have the capacity to do the job in the places where we put people," said Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew, who has told Congress that State will not deploy civilians where it cannot protect them. "If we don't put people in a place where they have mobility, where they can go out and meet with the people and implement their programs," he said, "there's very little argument for being in the place we send them."
The State Department has signaled in recent weeks that it will need up to $400 million more than initially requested to cover mushrooming security costs, but lawmakers seem in no mood to acquiesce.
"They need a dose of fiscal reality," a senior Senate aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity amid ongoing negotiations over the State Department funding.
"If they miscalculated by hundreds of millions of dollars, they need to tell us where they propose to find the money," the aide said. "It's not going to come from [funds allotted to] Afghanistan or Haiti."
Lew, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, indicated that State might be forced to revise its plans, including limiting the number of police-training facilities to fortified, central locations in major population areas. "That means there will be other places that we don't have a police-training capacity," he said, although "anyone who has done police training in difficult environments knows that it's much better to be out in the field, working one-on-one, than to do classroom training."
Other officials have said that at least one of the "embassy branch" offices, or consulates, will have to be eliminated, most likely in Diyala province, and that at least two others will have to be scaled back.
To undertake unprecedented tasks in what is still a highly dangerous environment, the State Department plan calls for replacing protection for civilians that the U.S. military now provides with what amounts to its own armed force. It proposes to triple the current 2,700 security contractors and reinforce facilities where diplomats and police trainers will work to specifications beyond what the military considers safe for its own personnel.
To transport civilians around Iraq, including medical evacuation if necessary, State has asked the Pentagon to leave behind two dozen UH-60 helicopters and 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, heavy cargo trucks, fuel trailers and high-tech surveillance systems -- all of which are to be maintained and operated by contractors yet to be funded. Pending since April, the requests were still under military consideration as of this week.