- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Earlier this month, President Bush nominated Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as assistant to the president for coordinating operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. By all accounts, Gen. Lute is an accomplished and distinguished officer. Reportedly, he voiced reservations about the administration’s current surge strategy. If accurate, the president has picked someone capable of speaking his mind.

After Senate confirmation, Gen. Lute faces an intimidating and even Sisyphean labor. Even though prior national security advisers, including Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft, were three-star officers, Gen. Lute is not of cabinet rank and he is junior to all the key military field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the nation’s top officer, Marine Gen. Peter Pace. Rather than a dramatic presidential Rose Garden announcement, Gen. Lute’s appointment was low key.

Given these political and bureaucratic realities, if one were in the general’s shoes for a day or asked for advice, here is what might be considered. Time and conditions on the ground are the immediate enemies. Congressional Republicans and Democrats view September as the critical decision point when Gen. David Petraeus will deliver his first and probably most important assessment of what the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq has accomplished. Given the life-span of most insurgencies, that assessment is unlikely to be definitive. However, neither the public nor Congress appears in any mood to give the president more time to pursue the current strategy for Iraq without signs of significant progress.

In Afghanistan, despite military gains against the Taliban, the civil side of the house continues to deteriorate. Morale in Brussels among the NATO allies is low, especially as the prospect of long-term and even permanent military deployments looms. Worse, progress to date in weeding out corruption, implementing a legal and judicial system, training police and controlling drugs has been too slow to convince many Afghan “hearts and minds” to stay the course with us.

Facing these facts and with the absence of real authority and directive power, three action items should dominate our thinking. First, a clear-cut chain of command that cuts across all relevant U.S. agencies engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan must be established. Second, every effort must be made to ensure that Gen. Petraeus’ September story is factually accurate, rigorously analytical and contains alternative courses of action on the basis of future success, failure or lack of data on which to pass judgment. Third, an effective drug control plan for Afghanistan is needed now.

One reason why the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have stumbled is the absence of clear-cut lines of authority. In Iraq, that issue was never resolved and produced well-known infighting between the Defense and State Departments and other agencies.

Afghanistan is even more complicated. NATO is responsible for the International Security and Assistance Force. Central Command and Special Forces Command also have overlapping responsibilities. Add 37 separate engaged countries along with scores of non-governmental organizations and any command chart would resemble a picture of an exploding bowl of spaghetti. As the first order of business, lines of authority and responsibility must be established and then the president must not merely approve but enforce them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and importantly, at home among his cabinet and other government agencies.

Second, the September assessment must be more than a rigorous, factually pristine, hardheaded report on what the surge has achieved, what it has not, what it can achieve and what it cannot. Unlike many government reports, this one must be clearly written for broad public consumption without the usual jargon and caveats that confuse more than clarify. Beyond that, this assessment must lay out possible future courses of action.

The reason for future options is crucial. Debate must be on the way ahead. The administration has been defiant in deferring to any discussion of options and alternative strategies. The September assessment is one means to break this deadlock.

In Afghanistan, success on the ground cannot be achieved without controlling the poppy growth. In this regard, there needs to be a very close look at how and why successful drug control was achieved in Thailand three decades ago and later in Turkey. The means were licit. Government purchase of poppies for production of important medicinal products were based on a U.N. Security Resolution and subsequent congressional legislation authorizing these actions. Further, the medicinal drugs provided revenues for both countries.

Obviously, great debate will arise over licit purchases of poppies. Some will claim it immoral. That a strict Muslim country like Afghanistan may find legitimizing any poppy growth unacceptable is offset by the Turkish case, admittedly a secular Islamic nation. But if we are serious and look carefully at the record, this is the only proven way to control poppy cultivation.

Gen. Lute, over to you.

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