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Monthly costs of Iraq, Afghan wars approach that of Vietnam

WASHINGTON — The monthly bill for the U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan now rivals Pentagon spending during the Vietnam War, Defense Department figures show.

The Pentagon is spending nearly $5 billion per month in Iraq and Afghanistan, a pace that would bring yearly costs to almost $60 billion. Those expenses do not include money being spent on rebuilding Iraq's electric grid, water supply and other infrastructure, costs which had no parallel in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the last sustained war the nation fought, the United States spent $111 billion during the eight years of the war, from 1964 to 1972. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $494 billion, an average of $61.8 billion per year, or $5.15 billion per month.

President Bush announced Sunday that he will ask Congress for $87 billion for U.S. operations next year in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — $66 billion for military and intelligence efforts, $21 billion for reconstruction. Senior administration officials said the request demonstrates that the president's commitment to fighting terrorism would not be shaken by the growing financial burden.

"We must remain resolute," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on CNN's Late Edition program. The president, she said, believes that the "cost of freedom and cost of peace cannot be measured, and that it is important that we put adequate resources to this task."

There is a key reason why keeping about 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is almost as costly as the war in Vietnam, which at its peak involved up to 500,000 troops. U.S. forces in Vietnam were largely low-paid draftees, while today's all-volunteer military is better paid, better trained and better equipped — all of which means a bigger budget.

Lawmakers of both parties warned before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that stabilizing post-war Iraq could be far more expensive than waging war. For months, the Bush administration was reluctant to discuss the financial costs of the commitment, much as the Johnson administration seldom directly addressed the budget impact of Vietnam.

So far, the peak monthly costs of Iraq and Afghanistan haven't come close to the peak costs of Vietnam, which spiked as high as $9 billion a month. Nor are the current campaigns anywhere near as costly to the U.S. economy, which now is much larger than when President Lyndon Johnson's "guns and butter" spending on the war and Great Society domestic programs drove up the federal budget.

Then, war costs amounted to about 12% of the size of the economy, while now, the costs are equal to only about 0.5% of the economy, according to Steve Kosiak, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Kosiak cited figures developed by Yale professor William Nordhaus in "The Economic Consequences of a War with Iraq," part of a study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Other programs threatened

Even so, some policy experts believe the cost of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan — if they continue at current levels — could threaten other Bush administration programs and, when combined with separate rebuilding costs, strain a federal budget that is accumulating record deficits.

Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, says the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly affect other Pentagon initiatives. "We can sustain the current levels indefinitely. But to do so, other parts of the Bush agenda may have to fall off the table," Thompson says.

"If the current level of expenditure in Iraq continues, Donald Rumsfeld is going to have to kiss much of the technology part of his transformation plan goodbye," Thompson says in referring to the Defense secretary's efforts to build a leaner and more modern fighting force.

Doing what is necessary to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan today could mean a weaker U.S. military a decade from now. After Vietnam, war fatigue, restraints on Pentagon spending and other factors contributed to what some came to call a "hollow force" military.

"During Vietnam, President Johnson thought he could fight the war in Vietnam and build the Great Society," Thompson says.

Among the transformation technologies that Thompson says could fall victim to Iraq spending are Pentagon plans to build a new satellite system that uses radar tracking or space-based lasers to improve the military's communications network.

Other, less-visible impacts could include additional wear-and-tear on aging tanks, helicopters and other vehicles that won't be replaced as quickly. The Army now has about half its large combat units in Iraq. Maintenance is a constant struggle in the unforgiving Middle East environment.

The Pentagon disputes assertions that the costs of policing Iraq and Afghanistan could derail other Defense Department programs.

One high-ranking official familiar with the budget process says that the mounting bill for peacekeeping and modernizing the military are not mutually exclusive. "Transformation doesn't necessarily mean more money," the official said.

Billions for reconstruction

The Pentagon is currently spending $3.9 billion a month in Iraq and just under $1 billion a month in Afghanistan. But the military costs are only part of the tab.

Last week, chief Iraq administrator Paul Bremer said Iraq rebuilding costs could require "tens of billions" of dollars in the next year, including $6 billion for electricity and water alone. News reports last week put the 2004 cost for military and rebuilding operations in Iraq alone as high as $70 billion.

To what extent, if any, Iraq's own oil wealth will contribute to the rebuilding effort is not clear. For now, the costs reside in Washington.

"The rebuilding of Iraq will be significantly more expensive, more dangerous and take longer than the American people have been prepared for," says Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who visited Iraq last month.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who also visited Iraq in August, says Bremer's coalition authority is understaffed and "there's no excuse for it."

He says "gigantic sums of money" are needed for rebuilding and to pay for military operations. Shays says commanders told him they were stretching their funds so as not to run out by January. "We need an emergency supplemental tomorrow," he says, referring to the budget request Bush will send to Congress.

"We should not nickel and dime it. We need a five-year plan."

Chairman wants numbers

Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, the chairman House Budget Committee, wants to call Defense Department officials for hearings in front of his committee "as soon as I can work it in" to get a more detailed accounting of the costs of Iraq's reconstruction and occupation.

Nussel wants a more orderly approach to Iraq funding and some basic questions answered: "How much has been spent? How has it been spent? What do you need? How much is it going to cost? Where is the money going to come from?"

Estimates for the rebuilding costs in Iraq alone for the next five years vary from $180 billion to $245 billion. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to seek a portion of reconstruction funding for Iraq and Afghanistan from other countries in meetings this month and next.

Today's military commitments come when the U.S. economy is growing only about half as fast as it was during the Vietnam War and the government's debt is expanding.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that the government next year would have a record deficit of $480 billion.

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution, says there are several scenarios under which U.S. spending on the new missions could skyrocket: If the United States is forced to send more troops to Iraq or if the Pentagon increases the size of the Army, as some in Congress are proposing.

Michelle Flournoy, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the comparisons to Vietnam military spending are valid. Perhaps as important, Flournoy says, is the symbolism.

"The comparisons to Vietnam suggest to American people the level of effort we are asking the military to put out."

Contributing: Andrea Stone and Peronet Despeignes

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