WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush’s nominee to be top military adviser said on Tuesday the United States will be in Iraq for “years not months” and a Pentagon official said the war was costing even more than expected.
Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, picked as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned U.S. lawmakers unhappy with the conflict against seeking a rapid pullout from Iraq, saying it could turn the country into a “caldron.”
While prudence dictated planning for an eventual pullout, Mullen said that under one scenario it could take three to four years just to halve the 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Many Democrats want to pull out combat troops by April.
“I do think we will be there for years, not months,” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing. “But I don’t see it (Iraq) as a permanent -- you know, on a permanent base at this point.”
Mullen, 60, now chief of naval operations, was nominated last month after the Bush administration decided against seeking a second two-year term in the job for Marine Gen. Peter Pace. Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded Pace’s role in the unpopular Iraq war would have led to contentious hearings to reconfirm him. Mullen appeared headed for approval.
In testimony to the House Budget Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said next year’s war tab will exceed the administration’s existing request for $141.7 billion. That’s on top of over $600 billion in war checks already written for Iraq and Afghanistan, with 70 percent for Iraq.
Besides needing more money to build and deliver mine-resistant vehicles to repel insurgent attacks, England said Bush’s request did not include next year’s costs for the extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent into combat this year.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, the South Carolina Democrat who must juggle war funding, pay for skyrocketing health and retirement benefits for the elderly and also make the budget deficit vanish, complained, “We’re actually spending more and more each year” on the war.
Spratt called it an “ominous indication the costs are continuing to increase.”
House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha said he thought next year’s war tab would rise by tens of billions: “I think they (the administration) will need $30 billion to $40 billion more” than the $141.7 billion request, he told reporters outside the House chamber.
Murtha said the extra cost was likely even though he also thought the Pentagon might announce a drawdown of 30,000 troops in the autumn. “They say things are going better in Iraq; if things are going better, they can get them out.”
The Pennsylvania Democrat had planned to offer an amendment this week to start withdrawals in 60 days. But he said he would wait until fall, when he hoped for more Republican support.
In the Senate, Mullen said Bush’s troop buildup brought more stability to Iraq but there was not much political progress.
“Based on the ... lack of political reconciliation at the government level, obviously ... I would be concerned about whether we’d be winning or not,” he said.
Ultimately “no amount of troops” could solve Iraqi political problems, Mullen acknowledged, but he said strategic decisions should wait until U.S. Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus report in September.
Mullen expressed concern about the “increasingly hostile” role played by Iran. He said Tehran supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and was trying to drive the United States out of Iraq but he hoped the issue could be solved diplomatically.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office provided an analysis for long-term war costs. It estimated that if troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were reduced to 75,000 over the next five years and stayed at that level through 2017, it would cost the U.S. Treasury $845 billion over the 10-year period.
“We don’t have that sort of assumption,” England said of the 75,000 troop estimate. He did not give any estimate of how large a U.S. force would be over the next 10 years.