Gates ‘concerned’ about delayed war supplemental

Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Congress to approve additional war funding by July 4 or risk forcing the Pentagon to curtail defense operations and eventually stop paying some active-duty service members.

Gates told Senate appropriators he is “becoming increasingly concerned” by the delay in the approval of a $33 billion war supplemental for the remainder of this fiscal year.

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The Senate has approved its version of the supplemental, but the House has yet to act.

If Congress does not approve the funding by July 4, he warned, the Pentagon would have to start scaling back defense operations.

“We begin to have to do stupid things if the supplemental isn’t passed by the Fourth of July recess,” Gates said at a hearing on Wednesday.

Gates explained that the Navy’s and Marine Corps’s overseas contingency funds will begin to run out in July. To fund those branches’ war operations, the Pentagon would have to siphon money from the operations and maintenance accounts in the base defense budget, which would cause the disruption of other programs, he said. The Army’s war accounts will dry up soon after the Navy’s and Marine Corps’s, he said.

“We could reach a point in August, in early to mid-August, where we actually could be in a position where the money that we have available to us in the base budget runs out and we could have a situation where we are furloughing civilians and where we have active-duty military we cannot pay,” Gates said.

Gates’s plea comes as Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed serious concerns about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan after a series of setbacks, particularly in the southern part of the country.

Pentagon and military officials this week have been trying to allay congressional concerns over Afghanistan and retain support for the president’s strategy as part of several congressional hearings in both the Senate and the House.

Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a significant portion of the appropriations hearing answering lawmakers’ questions about U.S. strategy.

Mullen said he is “comfortable with the progress to date,” but stressed the need to continually monitor progress, stay flexible and “adjust accordingly.”

“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture here. It is a very, very tough fight. But we see steady progress,” Mullen said.

Gates said he has confidence in Afghanistan’s top leadership, including Hamid Karzai, with whom the Obama administration has had a shaky relationship, in part given concerns over endemic corruption.

“From my own conversations with President Karzai, I think that he is embracing his responsibility for this — for this conflict in his country,” Gates said. “His visit to Kandahar just a few days ago … was very important, in terms of helping set the stage for the continuation of the campaign there.”

As he sought to reassure increasingly skeptical lawmakers, Gates said the “narrative” of the Afghanistan operations had become “too negative.”

“I think that we are regaining the initiative. I think that we are making headway,” Gates said.