War Stories

Supplemental Insecurity

The revelations buried in Bush’s latest supplemental budget request.

Deeply buried in the Bush administration’s 97-page supplemental budget request for $81.9 billion ($75 billion of it for the Pentagon), mainly to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is one sentence that expresses—more succinctly and shockingly than any official statement to date—just how little progress we’ve made toward making Iraq a stable nation.

It’s there in the section dealing with the $5.7 billion requested for the “Iraq Security Force Fund,” which notes that the interim Iraqi government, with assistance from coalition nations, has already created a security force of 90 battalions, but then adds:

All but one of these 90 battalions, however, are lightly equipped and armed, and have very limited mobility and sustainment capabilities.

In other words, 89 of Iraq’s 90 battalions essentially cannot fight.

This is a far worse state of affairs than even President Bush’s critics have imagined. During Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation hearings last month, Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said he’d been told that of the 120,000 security forces that Rice maintained existed, only 4,000—or 3 percent—were well-trained. Now the administration is admitting, in the pursuit of seeking more money to improve matters, that the real number is more like 1 percent.

This section of the document goes on:

These limitations, coupled with a more resilient insurgency than anticipated … have led the Prime Minister of Iraq to request forces that can participate in the “hard end” of the counterinsurgency, and to do so quickly.

The $5.7 billion requested, it adds, will allow the Iraqi government to “begin to train, equip, operate and sustain its own security forces.” (Italics added.)

It makes you wonder: What the hell has been going on here? It’s been 18 months since Iraq’s insurgency emerged in full force. Yet only now is the Bush administration seeking funds to “begin” training Iraqi security forces to “participate” in the “hard end” of fighting the insurgency.

How long will this training take? The American in charge of the training, Gen. David Petraeus, who was commander of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the battlefield phase of this war, is a superb officer, maybe the smartest we’ve got. But the Army’s rule of thumb is that it takes two years to train a trainer. The U.S. military doesn’t have enough certified trainers at the moment. Most of Petraeus’ assistants are soldiers who have been redeployed from combat to training. Knowing how to fight is one thing; teaching others how to fight requires a different set of skills. Will his guys be up to it? I hope so. But it will take years, under the most optimistic forecasts, to whip the Iraqi security force into shape—unless, perhaps, an internal political settlement ends the insurgency sooner.

The supplemental document contains other intriguing disclosures. A couple of sections reveal, more than before, the tenuousness of the “coalition” helping U.S. and British forces in Iraq. In the section that requests $17.3 billion for Army operations and maintenance, there is a reference to $400 million needed to support “lift and sustainment costs of coalition partners”—in other words, to bring the coalition forces to Iraq (“lift”) and keep them freshly supplied (“sustainment”). In the section on a $3.5 billion request for “Defense-wide” operations and maintenance (DoD programs outside the province of the Army or any other service), there’s another $208 million “for lift and sustainment of coalition partners.”

In other words, our “coalition partners” have joined our cause, at least in part because the U.S. government is reimbursing $608 million of their expenses.

The supplemental also requests $1.4 billion to reimburse Pakistan, Jordan, “and other key cooperating nations” for logistical and other support. This money will be provided, the document notes, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” No details as to the specifics.

There’s not much in the way of specifics in any part of this document—no breakdown, beyond a billion or so, of that $17.3 billion for Army operations and maintenance, or of $5.6 billion for Air Force operations and maintenance, or of $990 million for Army military construction in Iraq. The list could go on and on.

This is one reason the administration is loading so much military spending in a supplemental instead of the regular budget. The budget is scrutinized; supplementals aren’t. Legislators who oppose or try to scrutinize a wartime supplemental will be accused of not supporting the troops. (Sen. John Kerry’s opposition to an $87 billion supplemental in the fall of 2003 goes a long way toward explaining his defeat in November’s election. Certainly, President Bush cited his vote—and, yes, his “flip flop” on that vote—as a key character issue.)

Supplementals have a legitimate, indeed vital, purpose. The budget process takes about a year to complete. A supplemental allows funding of military operations that were not anticipated—or whose costs could not be calculated—when the budget was drawn up a year earlier. This is particularly useful during wartime.

Yet this supplemental includes quite a lot of money for items that have nothing to do with the costs of war in Iraq. Last week, I mentioned one of these items—roughly $5 billion to start reorganizing the U.S. Army. A scouring of the full document—which went up on the White House Web site Monday—reveals others. A few examples:

  • $3 billion for Marine Corps procurement includes money (how much isn’t stated) for “initial procurement supporting Marine Corps Force Structure changes.” This is the Marine counterpart to the $5 billion in initial funding for the Army’s long-term reorganization.

  • Of the $2.4 billion request for “procurement of weapons and treaded combat vehicles,” some part goes to repairing wear and tear, but another part (again, nothing is broken down) goes for “upgrading” M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers to the latest version. Repair and maintenance is a legitimate item for a supplemental; procurement of whole new weapons—not replacing but upgrading—is generally a regular budget item.

  • $250 million to support the establishment of the new office for the Director of National Intelligence (the centerpiece—as yet unfilled—of President Bush’s bogus intelligence-reform bill), including the construction of a new facility.

The list, once again, could go on.

Finally, there is the slush fund for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When that $87 billion supplemental came out in the fall of 2003, I noted provisions giving Rumsfeld the authority to move around $9.3 billion—11 percent of the total amount—from one account to another at his discretion. This time, I’ve spotted between $7.5 billion and $11 billion (10 percent to 14 percent), depending on how it’s counted.

One section reads:

Upon his determination that such action is necessary in the national interest, the Secretary of Defense may transfer between appropriations up to $5 billion of the funds made available to the Department of Defense in this Act.

Another section allows “up to $6 billion” to be transferred between accounts, to “give the Secretary the necessary flexibility to accommodate changing circumstances as the War on Terror is prosecuted.” This clause is an amendment to a similar section of the Fiscal Year 2005 budget, authorizing Rumsfeld to reprogram $3.5 billion. So the supplemental upgrades this leeway by $2.5 billion. (If you consider the whole slush fund, it’s 5 + 6 = $11 billion. If you just add the upgrade, it’s 5 + 2.5 = $7.5 billion.)

These sections require Rumsfeld to “notify” the relevant congressional committees—but not the Congress as a whole—if he makes such a transfer. In any case, the legislature has no power to approve or reject the transfer.

The Defense Department’s share of the military budget for FY 2005 totaled $400 billion. This supplemental would boost it by around 19 percent, to $475 billion. War has unknowns and even, as Rumsfeld once put it, “unknown unknowns.” That’s why there are supplementals. But it doesn’t mean Congress and the public must be left in the dark over how the Pentagon spends nearly one-fifth of its money.