As President Obama and his advisors debate a strategic change in the war in Afghanistan, it has become increasingly clear that this war has become a regional conflict that stretches into Pakistan, and even India and beyond. While the original rationale for the war was the elimination of a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the conflict has now broadened into threats presented by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and, even more ominously, by a nuclear-armed and destabilized Pakistan.
While the recommendation by General Stanley McChrystal to bolster the counterinsurgency effort represents an advance in tactical military thinking, it ignores some of the fundamental political realities of the conflict. A lengthy and focused counterinsurgency effort might eventually produce results, but its chances of success are greatly diminished by the political climate in Afghanistan. Given the difficult choice between a Taliban that offers security and justice in countryside - albeit in the most harsh and backward forms - and a central government that is distant and corrupt, most Afghans outside of Kabul are forced to choose the Taliban. No foreign counterinsurgency effort can combat that kind of logic, especially when classic counterinsurgency tactics would call for more than 600,000 troops to do the job, a level that few Americans would support.
One of the early mistakes, among many, of the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq was the failure to develop an international and regional consensus for action. The rationale was that most nations would not support the invasion, and it was a waste of time to focus on international cooperation. Thanks in large part to the insistence of Colin Powell, the Bush administration did take its case to the United Nations, where Powell presented trumped-up intelligence to sell the UN on the Bush plan. However, history has shown that no sincere effort was ever made to include our allies or the nations in the region in the decision to go to war.
As the years have gone by - Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history - it has become clear that the stakes are no longer the continued existence of Al Qaeda or even the stability of Afghanistan, but rather the dangers presented by a crumbling, nuclear-armed Pakistani state. To complicate matters further, the Pakistanis themselves have not - until very recently - perceived Afghanistan and the Taliban as a regional threat. In fact, elements of the Pakistani government, including the ISI intelligence service, have continued to provide strategic support to the Taliban insurgency.
Before the United States implements a unilateral change in military and political strategy in Afghanistan, wouldn't it be a good idea to seek regional cooperation for the strategy? This means not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also India, China and Russia. Certainly there are dangers in a regional summit, and it clearly should not be a public summit. But the idea that the United States can go it alone yet again without some kind of regional support is highly doubtful. Can't the Obama administration - with all its powerful persuasive tools - hold the feet of the regional players to the fire and mold a common strategy? Perhaps not, but without some consensus, the chances of failure in our longest war are even greater.