As the U.S. government keeps pointing people on to Iraq and Afganistan, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute is anxious about three issues. These are Kabul, Baghdad and his boss’ ending presidency.
Knowing the wars will outlast his administration, Bush gave Lute the job of fast-tracking everything from equipping Iraq's army to getting ready for next year's local Iraqi elections, from stopping the flow of foreign fighters through Syria to keeping NATO allies in the fight in Afghanistan.
Lute also advises the president on how to stabilize Iraq in a way that will not prompt Bush's successor - Democrat or Republican - to take the oath of office in one breath and abruptly order U.S. troops home in the next.
"The next president gets to reset the dial," said Lute, who just returned from his first solo mission to Iraq and Afghanistan in his job as Bush's so-called war czar. He spoke in an interview with The Associated Press.
With just 15 months left in Bush's second term, Lute is trying to get government agencies pulling in the same direction so the administration can claim progress in the unpopular war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 U.S. troops and continues to fuel funding fights on Capitol Hill.
The White House's war team can fix some problems by just getting the right people talking in the same room. Others are more complex like setting up, over the next six months to eight months, a long-term relationship with Iraq that will be acceptable to Americans, Iraqis and other nations in the volatile region. He's trying to answer the question: What will the U.S. presence in Iraq look like as Bush gets ready to leave office?
Critics of Bush's handling of the war say the president should have set up Lute's shop inside the National Security Council a couple of years ago to avert bureaucratic snarls and to streamline communications back-and-forth from the battlefields.
Senior officials in Baghdad say Lute has made it his personal mission to speed resources to the field, especially when it comes to staffing. But they say it's difficult to assess whether communications lines between Baghdad and Washington have improved because U.S. government employees are constantly cycling in and out of Iraq.
Frederick Barton, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that instead of working on operational hitches, Lute should focus on ways to prompt transformation in Iraq . Instead of worrying about military shipments and budgetary issues, Lute should figure out a closing date for U.S. involvement or find a way for Iraqi citizens, as well as provinces, to share in oil profits, perhaps in the form of an education fund, Barton said.
"We have a dead end in Iraq and we have a stalemate in Washington , and so you have to take three or four actions that are going to actually address that reality," Barton said. "If he's not on those issues, he's probably wasting a lot of time."
Lute, assistant to the president and deputynational security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan , arrives at the White House before sunup. By 6 a.m. - when the afternoon sun is beating down on Baghdad - Lute typically is on the phone with Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq . An hour later, Lute often is in the Oval Office giving Bush updates from the battle zones.
He is with the president on Mondays when Bush has a video teleconference with Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq , and other national security advisers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki takes part in the session every other week.
After being confirmed by the Senate in June, Lute made three lists of problems stalling progress in Iraq . There were those best handled in the field by Petraeus and Crocker and ones being aptly managed by a lead agency in Washington . Lute is tackling the third set of about 20 or so issues that have a fuzzy chain of command or involve multiple government agencies.
"This is a regional issue that's bigger than Iraq and cuts across multiple departments of the U.S. government and then - inside of those departments - multiple branches, bureaus and offices," Lute said. "So a suicide bomber can start in North Africa, come through Syria , and end up in Iraq - and the issue can touch four or five different agencies inside State, Defense, the intelligence communities and so forth."
There is the question of what to do about the 25,000 detainees being held in Iraqi and in U.S.-run detention facilities. There is the issue of getting the Iraqi government to disburse its money equitably to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in the provinces. And Lute's team is trying to figure out the best way to slow Afghan opium poppy cultivation, which hit a record high this year, generating billions of dollars to help finance the Taliban militants and corrupt government officials.
There is the problem with Turkey and Kurdish rebels. The U.S. is trying to pull Turkey back from the brink of sending its troops into northern Iraq , one of the most stable regions of the country. Turkey wants to go after Kurdish guerrillas who are using the region to rest, resupply and stage attacks against Turkish targets.
There is Iraq's complaint that it is taking too long to receive the billions of dollars in equipment it has purchased from the United States to expand and arm its police force. A slowdown in getting the Iraqi security forces equipped so they can take their place on the battlefield will only further delay U.S. troop withdrawals.
Delays also have occurred in getting money out of Washington to teams of U.S. civilian workers coordinating rebuilding efforts in Iraqi communities. In January, when Bush ordered more U.S. troops to Iraq , he also announced he was doubling the number of these teams and said he was giving team leaders millions of dollars to finance small projects. The quick-response funds, however, got bogged down in the budget process somewhere between the executive branch and Congress and just began flowing into the field during the past few months.
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