WASHINGTON, April 5 (UPI) -- The Bush administration is pushing back against criticism of its pick for a new post to oversee U.S. efforts against drug smuggling and corruption in Afghanistan.
"This is a very aggressive, dynamic guy," James O'Gara, the deputy director for supply reduction at the White House drug czar's office told United Press International. "He will be a very positive force."
Thomas Schweich, a senior State Department official who was already in charge of the issue from his post in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, was given the new title of coordinator for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan last month, without fanfare.
A brief statement from the White House two days later announced that he was being given the personal rank of ambassador in his new post.
A State Department official authorized to speak to the media told UPI the new title and rank would serve to raise his profile and tighten the focus of U.S. government efforts on the issue.
In part, the new rank will "give him the stature he needs" to get the job done, said O'Gara.
The move followed a call from Republicans lawmakers for the appointment of "a high-level coordinator of overall Afghan narco-terrorism policy."
In a bluntly worded letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the lawmakers said inter-agency rivalry and U.S. policy failures in Afghanistan risked allowing it to slide back into chaos.
"The open and public dispute with our British allies on opium eradiation methods, along with the many different and often conflicting views of NATO, our Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other U.S. agencies on how best to handle the narcotics challenge does not bode well for success," the letter said.
Disputes have run the gamut of policy issues, from how to deal with local drug warlords who might be allies of the U.S. or Afghan military, to what priority to give to efforts at eradicating opium poppy growing, as opposed to taking down the smuggling networks which distribute it.
And some senior House GOP staffers told UPI there was dissatisfaction at the Schweich pick.
"We wanted a cross-agency coordinator," said one recently. "Someone at the top of the government, at the level of the White House ... to really knock heads together."
"All this has done is put another player on the field," said the staffer.
O'Gara said he "couldn't imagine a better person, in a better position" to do the job.
"The (State) Department is where those (different agency) equities come together to be brokered," he said. "The (State) Department is the major funder (of U.S. anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan)... the idea the department is just another player is mistaken."
O'Gara added that Schweich was an "ecumenical guy" who "works well with other agencies," and that the State Department had "been an honest broker" in the policy process. "It's supported all five pillars of our policy."
"He has shown his ability to work well across all U.S. government agencies in support of the President's agenda," said an official authorized to speak on behalf of the White House National Security Council.
O'Gara addressed the issue of inter-agency friction head on, saying it was inevitable and its impact should not be over-stated.
"You've got different agencies, and people are aggressive and ambitious," he said. "We want that. We want them to push the envelope, we want them to be forward leaning."
The State Department official said that Schweich would continue with his other responsibilities at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, which included a "key role in management responsibility" for the office's 4000 staff and $2.5 billion annual budget.
In addition to its role promoting drug interdiction and the rule of law, the bureau is responsible for coordinating the U.S. contribution to the international fight against cyber crime and money laundering, and negotiates international criminal conventions for the United States, the official said.
Schweich was "gonna be very busy," conceded O'Gara, adding it was fortunate he was a "very productive fellow."
Prior to his appointment to the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, Schweich was chief of staff at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. under Ambassador John Danforth. Schweich, a partner in Missouri law firm Bryan Cave, LLP, had earlier served Danforth as chief of staff when he was appointed special counsel to investigate the Justice Department's handling of the siege of the Branch Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas.
Schweich received his bachelor's degree from Yale University and his JD from Harvard University.