AMSTERDAM — The region between Egypt and Pakistan is a caldron of five discrete, explosive components: Iraq’s civil strife, Afghanistan’s insurgency, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the long-standing Israel-Arab conflict, and the risk of clashes between extremist groups and corrupt, repressive governments.

A comprehensive policy is needed, yet the threats are so diverse and complex that separate approaches have to be applied simultaneously.

In Iraq, America’s policy of building a semi-federal state of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds runs a high risk of failure because of Shiite domination, Sunni and Shiite terrorism, Kurdish separatism and meddling by Iran. The cost in lives is already unbearably high. The United States cannot sustain either the current rate of casualties (American and Iraqi) or the expense. To create the conditions for long-term stability, a negotiated separation may be needed, comparable to the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in former Yugoslavia.

Separating Iraq’s populations would be painful. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the U.S.-led coalition forces should help people who want to move to other parts of the country. One may object that to facilitate internal relocation is to collaborate with “ethnic or religious cleansing”; but the toll of prolonged war in Iraq, which could lead to its dismemberment anyway, is much worse. The principle of pluralism is valuable, but curbing bloodshed deserves priority.

A Dayton-like accord can be achieved only if the U.N. Security Council backs it. It would be in the long-term interest of the permanent members to do so. Russia and China would, however, be helpful only if America changes the Bush administration’s approach.

Such an initiative would need to be supported strongly by the European Union. Perhaps tripartite mediation, backed by the U.S., EU and Russia, would increase the chances. The Arab League and the Conference of Islamic States should be consulted and involved.

The U.S. and other coalition forces would have to withdraw gradually, beginning from the south of Iraq. Foreign forces would still be needed to help protect the Sunni population west of Baghdad and in the middle of Iraq against the Shiite south, as well as in the Kurdish north to keep Turkey from intervening.

A peaceful separation agreement would require international peacekeepers with contributions from many powers, including the Islamic states, India, China and Japan. As stability in the Middle East is essential to them, this is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Those of Iraq’s neighbors that are potential spoilers would need to be restrained by a Security Council mandate for such a Dayton-type settlement.

In Afghanistan, NATO-led military operations against the neo-Taliban and other opponents of state-building offer only a partial and temporary solution. The influx of insurgents from Pakistan will not stop. The population sees little improvement in living conditions and expects Western forces to leave after a few years. Most Afghans will then be ruled again by tribal leaders, Islamists, drug barons and warlords.

The Western aim of building Afghanistan up as a stable and more or less democratic state is extremely ambitious; it may be wiser to help stabilize Kabul and the relatively quiet northern part of the country. The difficult south will sooner or later return to Pashtun politics.

The outside world’s chief interest has been to curb heroin production and destroy terrorist training camps. But destroying poppy crops has been turning Afghan farmers against NATO. So it is smarter to go after the heroin bosses and their foreign networks while buying the poppy crop from farmers to destroy it. Encouraging a shift to legal cash crops and food requires time and heavy investment. This will only work where there is security for the local population.

In Iran, international sanctions are unlikely to stop Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons, while a preventive strike by Israel — which would not sit idly by when Iranian nuclear forces become operational — or the U.S., would encourage terrorist attacks against their populations.

The most promising approach might be sanctions against leading personalities, and against transfers of technology and funding, as well as covert operations, to delay Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

In the meantime, Iran’s youthful population may become more politically active and demand democratization and improved living conditions. It is uncertain how long the old clerical leadership and the country’s nationalist politicians can hold on to power. High oil and gas prices have shielded them so far. Gaining time before a disastrous confrontation between Israel and Iran becomes imminent would be smarter than taking an aggressive approach now.

As for Israel and its neighbors, an agreement on the Golan Heights has already been prepared, but needs external mediation and pressure to be signed.

State-building in Lebanon will require strong U.N. and EU support, and the courage to curb Hezbollah’s influence.

At present, the Israeli government and Palestinian political leaders are locked in a ruinous struggle, which merely aids extremists on both sides. The mutual struggle will therefore continue until there is strong enough external pressure to accept a peace agreement.

Israel will have to vacate a large number of Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory, and accept joint international administration or division of Jerusalem. Israel will never agree to this unless forced to do so by the U.S. A U.S.-brokered peace agreement would need to be supported by the U.N. Security Council and implemented by peacekeeping troops with large contributions from many members of the U.N.

Of course, it is unlikely that the Bush administration would bring this about.

The EU is still too slow and fragmented. So the new American president will have to take the lead in 2009. In the meantime, the EU should get its act together and take clear decisions on a joint Middle East policy.

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