If you could invest in unsolicited advice, it would be a buyer's market these days in Washington. With a new administration about to take over, bringing with it some sorely-needed new ideas that will hopefully drag American foreign policy out of the dark ages it’s currently mired in, DC is full of wise tongues wagging about the way forward.
Last Thursday, the United States Institute of Peace sponsored a gathering of just such folks in DC, with former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski placing himself right in the middle of the action, describing how he felt the United States should conduct itself during—and prior to—its eventual withdrawal from Iraq.
When the Obama administration takes office, he said, it must undertake “serious regional consultations with all of Iraq’s neighbors regarding the security implications” of American military disengagement in Iraq. And when he says “all of Iraq’s neighbors,” he means it:
“That means engaging in dialogue with Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. I think that it is important that this dialogue be conducted [prior to] to disengagement …” Strong stuff, and a good idea to boot, even if it’s not likely to happen.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Brzezinski signs on to the growing conventional wisdom that simply an infusion of more combat troops won’t do much good without trying to peel off some of the “small t” Taliban, as some have called it: “while we may have to deploy some additional forces to deal with specific problems in certain regions of Afghanistan,” he said, “the real emphasis should be put on a strategy of seeking decentralized political accommodation with those elements of the Taliban that are not related to the more global terrorist aspirations of al Qaeda.”
The idea isn’t Brzezinski’s alone. Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan has been talking about peeling off “small t” Taliban for months, and enticing less committed insurgents to come over to your side is a key piece of counterinsurgency theory.
General David Petraeus, speaking at the same event, spoke in a similar vein, though he steered his comments more toward forging a new “unity of effort” in Afghanistan. “The effort in Afghanistan will require not just more U.S. coalition and Afghan forces, but also a more comprehensive and coordinated effort than has been the case to date,” he said, adding that “progress in Afghanistan will require a regional approach.”
It’s critical to forge a “unity of effort” between Afghan and coalition elements, as well as with international and non-governmental organizations, he continued. “We’ll need more civilian contributions and greater international involvement to enable a whole of governments—plural—approach that is unified and coordinated between all of those involved.”
Most importantly, Petraeus is on board with statement made by the Obama team about the importance of regional talks and reaching out to other governments to try and build a consensus for a way ahead in Afghanistan. “It’s not possible to resolve the challenges internal to Afghanistan without addressing the challenges especially in terms of security related to Afghanistan’s neighbors. A regional approach is required.” He talked about bringing in Pakistan and India to the table, as well as other regional players like China and Russia, “and even at some point, Iran,” though he backed off from publicly endorsing talks with the Iranian government.
Although he hinted that talks with Iran might be feasible, he said he would leave the topic to diplomats and policy makers. “I don’t want to get completely going down that road because it’s a very hot topic,” he said, “there are some common objectives and no one I think would disagree.”