Obama Must Consider His Options in Afghanistan

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the last week President Obama has held a series of intense meetings on Afghanistan with core members of his national security team and in doing so has shown a seriousness and commitment to decisions about war and peace that was so clearly lacking under the previous administration.

However, it is clear that this determination to be rigorous and open minded about the US strategy in Afghanistan and beyond is being tested as he is buffeted by a combination of military hawks and neoconservatives urging him to approve a massive U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan while simultaneously increasing confrontation with Iran and delaying peace-making efforts between Israelis and Arabs. They have sought to portray the options facing the President as a stark choice between confrontation and appeasement in Afghanistan and Iran, while underplaying the importance of ending the Israeli/Arab conflict.

President Obama must reject these false choices and carefully consider the entire range of options and opportunities available to the United States at this time.

Interestingly, the leaked McChrystal report and the simplistic options being laid out by its supporters, has created an opportunity for the administration to examine, and reexamine, alternatives and for others to share their ideas in a transparent manner. It is clear that the future direction of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is too important to be made in a rushed and incomplete manner; alternatives must be considered and tested before the President makes a final determination.

Our belief is that Afghanistan cannot be secured via the military escalation proposed by General McChrystal and endorsed by neoconservatives in recent days. A historical and contemporary reading of the country suggests that only a genuine and robust regional diplomatic strategy can secure the country sufficiently to allow for the U.S. to depart in victory. Afghan neighbors and influencers including Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China must be engaged in a process that seeks to finally remove Afghanistan as a strategic battlefield for regional powers.

To be clear, finally transforming the "Great Game" into the multi-partner world envisaged by Secretary of State Clinton will not be easy, and if the U.S. is to succeed it must, from the outset, decide to go "all-in" on a new comprehensive diplomatic strategy. By "all-in" we mean that the administration will need to be willing to make significant diplomatic efforts in other arenas to secure its Afghan objectives.

The administration will need to prioritize the Afghan (and Iraq) situations in its discussions with Iran. To date the administration has sought to separate out the nuclear track with Iran from other more immediately pressing issues despite the fact that Iranian assistance is needed in Afghanistan and Iraq and that the presence of U.S. military forces that are fighting there clearly impact Iran's own security calculations. General McChrystal himself has noted how crucial positive Iranian involvement is to a stable Afghanistan, and by extension, to our own war efforts. He is right. We need a new strategic alignment with Iran. Containment may be a politically correct fall-back position, but it will not accord us any of the successes we need whether on the nuclear file or on stabilizing Iraq or Afghanistan.

The administration also needs to ensure that the negotiations it is pursuing among Israel and the Arab states quickly leads to successes. As President Obama and General Petraeus have noted, there is nothing that enflames Muslim attitudes against the United States more than our support for Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory and the continued conflict. The greater our ability to transform the Middle East through a comprehensive peace agreement, the greater resources we will have from the region to assist our goals in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Because it is clear that influential Pakistani leaders still see a need to use Afghanistan to secure strategic depth against India, President Obama will need to jump start efforts to engage Pakistan and India in comprehensive peace talks that include Kashmir. If President Obama is willing to engage directly with the pragmatic Indian Prime Minister Singh, he may be able to develop a formula that would allow Indo-Pak talks to begin in a manner that encourages Pakistan to move against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network as well as Afghan Taliban leaders in their frontier area.

The U.S. will also need to convince our Saudi allies to assist in bringing reconcilable leaders of the Afghan Taliban into a Loya Jirga called to develop a power sharing agreement in Afghanistan that is endorsed by all the Muslim countries of the region. We believe that if Afghanistan's influential neighbors are willing to play a positive role and move against spoilers in their spheres, a Loya Jirga may be successful. If such an agreement were reached it would likely lead to some form of Taliban control of certain regions, but crucially would bring them inside a less autocratic tent and create some accountability mechanisms that will have to ensure women's and minority rights, in light of the Taliban's extraordinarily misogynistic and bigoted world-view.

A comprehensive diplomatic surge, such as the one we have outlined above, does not guarantee success. However, the failure of the past decade of US Middle East policy has ensured that our successes in one arena will have to be leveraged into other arenas. It is also clear that our failures in any arena, and particularly the Israeli/Arab and Iranian fronts, will critically weaken our ability for a successful outcome in concluding our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.