Reproduced from The New York Times, nytimes.com

February 6, 2008

Next Year’s War Costs Estimated at $170 Billion or More

By DAVID STOUT and THOM SHANKER

WASHINGTON — The military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $170 billion in the next fiscal year over and above the $515.4 billion regular Pentagon budget that President Bush has proposed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Wednesday.

Mr. Gates gave that estimate in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee after cautioning the panel that any estimate would be dicey, given the unpredictability of war.

“Well, a straight-line projection, Mr. Chairman, of our current expenditures would probably put the full-year cost in a strictly arithmetic approach at about $170 billion,” Mr. Gates said in response to questions from Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the head of the committee.

So, Mr. Levin pressed, “That would be a total then of $685 billion” in Pentagon spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. “Does that sound right?”

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Gates replied. “But as I indicated, I have no confidence in that figure.”

Mr. Levin has been a persistent critic of the war in Iraq, and he has complained that the Bush administration has been less than straightforward about the financial costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns by seeking supplemental funding outside the regular Pentagon budget. Congress has gone along with the supplemental requests, with members of both parties pledging to give American troops whatever they need.

“While the monetary cost is not the most important part of the debate over Iraq or Afghanistan, it does need to be part of that debate, and the citizens of our nation have a right to know what those costs are projected to be,” Senator Levin said.

Mr. Gates said he was concerned that some countries who have pledged troops to Afghanistan were not fully meeting their commitments, and that he would bring up the subject with his counterparts from other NATO countries.

“I think we have to be realistic about the political realities that face some of the governments in Europe,” Mr. Gates said. “Many of them are coalition governments, some of them are minority governments, and they are doing what they think is at the far end of what is politically acceptable.”

The secretary added: “There are allies that are doing their part and are doing well. The Canadians, the British, the Australians, the Dutch, the Danes, are really out there on the line and fighting.”

While Mr. Gates was before the committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was making the same point during a visit to London.

Mr. Gates got a relatively friendly welcome, perhaps in part because he has tried to adopt a style less confrontational than that of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Adm. Michael G. Mullen was also welcomed warmly by committee members in his first appearance before the panel as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,

Senator Levin complained, as he has before, about what he sees as the failure of the post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. “For years, the Iraqi leaders have failed to seize the opportunity our brave troops gave them,” he said. “It is long past time that the Iraqi leaders hear a clear, simple message: we can’t save them from themselves; it’s in their hands, not ours, to create a nation by making the political compromises needed to end the conflict.”

Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Republican and one of his party’s most influential voices on military matters, did not disagree with Senator Levin on Iraq. “I think by any fair standard, that level of progress to date is falling below the expectations that we had hoped,” he said. “Senator Levin quite appropriately observed that the elected officials in Iraq are simply not exercising the full responsibility of the range of sovereignty, and that puts our forces in a certain degree of continuing peril and risk.”

Mr. Gates said in response to questions that he will soon visit Iraq again and confer with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander, on whether and when to reduce American troop strength to the “pre-surge” level of about 130,000.

Also on Wednesday, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, agreed that the international military mission there was “under-resourced,” in particular when compared with deployments to Iraq.

“Afghanistan, land mass-wise, is half again as big as Iraq, for example, if you want to get some relative bearing there,” General McNeill said during a Pentagon news briefing.

In Afghanistan, the population is “estimated to be perhaps as much as 3 million more than Iraq, yet we have, in trying to operate in a counterinsurgency environment, only a fraction of the force that the coalition has in Iraq,” General McNeill added. “So there’s no question it’s an under-resourced force.”

General McNeill said that if the official American military counterinsurgency doctrine were applied to Afghanistan, then well over 400,000 allied and Afghan security troops would be required. He acknowledged the impossibility of fielding a force of that size.

“The trick, then, is to manage the risk that’s inherent in having an under-resourced international force and reaching the level of capacity at which the Afghan national security forces ought to be,” he said, stressing especially the importance of training the local police.

The NATO-led security assistance mission has about 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which 14,000 are American. Separately, the United States has 12,000 other troops there conducting counterterrorism and support missions. Mr. Gates in recent days signed a deployment order for an additional 3,200 marines for temporary duty in Afghanistan.

The general also disputed public assessments that the Afghan insurgency was growing, and he cited the number of low- to high-level insurgent leaders who were killed or captured. “That number is significant,” General McNeill said. “Many of those were jihadists who cut their teeth fighting the Soviets. They were good at their skills. They’re no longer on the battlefield. That’ll be very helpful.”

Commenting on a recent public debate about skills of various NATO nations at waging counter-insurgency missions, General McNeill said that “it is probably an incontrovertible truth that if you pull a huge alliance together, that the going-in position of different nationalities of that alliance, or at least their military forces, is somewhat different.”

He acknowledged differences in training, as well as varying political pressures from individual home capitals that affect the capabilities of those forces in Afghanistan.

Looking to the future, General McNeill predicted an exceedingly large opium harvest, and warned that significant portions of narcotics profits would go to Taliban and other insurgent activity.