- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Last week’s news was largely dominated by the Iraq Study Group and the release of its report. But what is also sorely needed is an Afghan Study Group.

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The unstated purpose of the Iraq Study Group was to shock President Bush out of what many Americans saw as a state of denial over Iraq. The first line of the group report could not have been starker. “The situation is grave and deteriorating.”

What was even more sweeping and largely missed in the study group’s thinking was the seismic shift of the strategic center of gravity from Iraq to the region at large, a complete rejection of the Bush policy foundations that regarded Iraq as the critical battleground in the war on terror. The first 18 of 79 recommendations fell under the title “The New Diplomatic Offensive.” The harsh, unstated conclusion was that Iraq is not salvageable without a regional approach to limit damage.

That no calls have gone out for an Afghan Study Group is interesting. Conditions in Afghanistan are also grave and are deteriorating. British Gen. David Richards, commanding NATO forces there, believes we have only three to six months to win Afghan hearts and minds. However, because Afghanistan has largely been an invisible (and, as I have written before, the “uncola”) war, it has not received the attention it must.

The distinctions between Iraq and Afghanistan are at least two-fold. First, Afghanistan is reparable if we act now and a regional solution is not crucial, Pakistan very much withstanding. Second, a de facto Afghan Study Group of one already exists. The question is if the president will listen to it.

In the run-up to the Riga summit last month that brought NATO’s heads of state together for the biennial meeting in Latvia, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked NATO’s commander, Marine Gen. James L. Jones, for a memo to the president on Afghanistan and what needed to be done to win. The fate of that memo is uncertain. Gen. Jones, in overall command in Afghanistan, turned over NATO command last week, culminating an exceptionally distinguished 40-year career of service.

Solutions for Afghanistan are inherently political and organizational. Yes, on the military side, a relatively modest investment of additional troops and equipment is needed. Yes, so-called national caveats or restrictions on member state forces deployed to Afghanistan need to be loosened so that troops can be more readily used in combat. But if the larger political challenges are not addressed now, and time is running out as the new poppy crop has been planted and the Taliban are regrouping, the opportunity for turning Afghanistan into a stable nation will be irreversibly lost.

First, a high commissioner who can ramrod and oversee the civil reforms undertaken by outside states must be appointed to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the building of a functioning legal, judicial and police system as well as an effective government. Second, the good and largely uncoordinated efforts of Provincial Reconstruction Teams assigned to 24 of 30 provinces must be integrated and reinforced by senior mentors and other capabilities to bring the necessary experience and clout to rebuild Afghanistan. Last, a comprehensive development and agricultural reform plan must be implemented.

None of these steps requires huge amounts of additional personnel or tens of billions of dollars. Here is where the Afghan Study Group of one comes into play. The “one” is soon-to-be-retired Gen. Jones. He is among a handful of people who readily understands how both political and military measures can be brought to bear to make Afghanistan a success story. The simple question is how this group of one can get the ear of President Bush.

All presidents are isolated. Legions of gatekeepers plus a nearly infinite list of petitioners seeking some favor or request from the president clearly restrict access. And, aside from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who by law is the senior military adviser to the president, generals and admirals on active service (except perhaps the current head of the CIA, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, because of his post) do not normally gain individual sessions with the commander in chief.

The Iraq Study Group consisted of 10 very distinguished Americans. Their labors and report received great visibility and press coverage — the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. But do not expect much more than that, as long and short political knives in Washington are already slicing the recommendations and arguments into pieces. Fortunately, Afghanistan is not Iraq.

Turning Napoleon on his head, sometimes God is on the side of the smallest battalions. There is no Afghan Study Group. Yet, if we wish to prevail in that nation, the president would be well advised to schedule a few minutes with Gen. Jones.

Harlan Ullman writes for The Washington Times. In full disclosure, he has served on the NATO/European Command Advisory Board for nearly four years.

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