I spent the last few weeks working on an essay for TIME Magazine on Barack Obama's foreign policy and, in association with that piece, I interviewed the president on Wednesday in the Oval Office. Here's an excerpt of that interview where we talk about Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
Fareed Zakaria: When you look at Afghanistan over the past three years — the policies you’ve adopted — would it be fair to say that the counterterrorism part of the policy, the killing bad guys, has been a lot more successful than the counterinsurgency, the stabilizing of vast aspects of the country, and that going forward, you should really focus in on that first set of policies?
Barack Obama: Well, what is fair to say is that the counterterrorism strategy as applied to al Qaeda has been extremely successful. The job is not finished, but there’s no doubt that we have severely degraded al Qaeda’s capacity.
When it comes to stabilizing Afghanistan, that was always going to be a more difficult and messy task, because it’s not just military — it’s economic, it’s political, it’s dealing with the capacity of an Afghan government that doesn’t have a history of projecting itself into all parts of the country, tribal and ethnic conflicts that date back centuries. So we always recognized that was going to be more difficult.
Now, we’ve made significant progress in places like Helmand province and in the southern portions of the country. And because of the cohesion and effectiveness of coalition forces, there are big chunks of Afghanistan where the Taliban do not rule, there is increasingly effective local governance, the Afghan security forces are beginning to take the lead. And that’s all real progress.
But what is absolutely true is that there are portions of the country where that’s not the case, where local governance is weak, where local populations still have deep mistrust of the central government. And part of our challenge over the next two years as we transition to Afghan forces is to continue to work with the Afghan government so that it recognizes its responsibilities not only to provide security for those local populations but also to give them some credible sense that the local government — or the national government is looking out for them, and that they’re going to be able to make a living and they’re not going to be shaken down by corrupt police officials and that they can get products to market. And that’s a long-term process.
I never believed that America could essentially deliver peace and prosperity to all of Afghanistan in a three-, four-, five-year time frame. And I think anybody who believed that didn’t know the history and the challenges facing Afghanistan. I mean, this is the third poorest country in the world, with one of the lowest literacy rates and no significant history of a strong civil service or an economy that was deeply integrated with the world economy. It’s going to take decades for Afghanistan to fully achieve its potential.
What we can do, and what we are doing, is providing the Afghan government the time and space it needs to become more effective, to serve its people better, to provide better security, to avoid a repetition of all-out civil war that we saw back in the ’90s. And what we’ve also been able to do, I think, is to maintain a international coalition to invest in Afghanistan long beyond the point when it was politically popular to do so.
But ultimately, the Afghans are going to have to take on these responsibilities and these challenges, and there will be, no doubt, bumps in the road along the way.
From the perspective of our security interests, I think we can accomplish our goal, which is to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the United States or its allies. But the international community — not just us; the Russians and the Chinese and the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Iranians and others — I think all have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not engulfed in constant strife, and I think that’s an achievable goal.