Zakaria: Fantasy and reality in Afghanistan
A U.S. servicemember stands a post on a hill in Afghanistan. (CNN Photo)
February 29th, 2012
10:22 PM ET

Zakaria: Fantasy and reality in Afghanistan

By Fareed Zakaria

The controversy over the desecration of copies of the Quran in Afghanistan and the murder of Americans that followed is, on one level, one moment in a long war. But it also highlights the difficult and ultimately unsustainable aspect of America’s Afghan policy. President Obama wants to draw down troops, but his strategy remains to transition power and authority to an Afghan national army and police force as well as to the government in Kabul, which would run the country and its economy. This is a fantasy. We must recognize that and pursue a more realistic alternative.

The United States tends to enter wars in developing countries with a simple idea — modernize the country, and you will solve the national security problem. An articulation of that American approach came from none other than Newt Gingrich during a 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. We are failing in Afghanistan, Gingrich argued, because “we have not flooded the country with highways, we haven’t guaranteed that every Afghan has a cellphone, we haven’t undertaken the logical steps towards fundamentally modernizing their society, we haven’t developed a program to help farmers get off of growing drugs.”

Now, assuming that every Afghan got a cellphone and could travel on great highways, here is what would not change: The Afghan national government does not have the support of a large segment of its population, the Pashtuns. The national army is regarded as an army of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — the old Northern Alliance that battled the Pashtuns throughout the 1990s.

And, simply put, Afghanistan’s economy cannot support a large national government with a huge army. (The budget for Afghan security forces is around $12 billion. That is eight times the amount of the government’s annual revenue.)

As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with the nation-building approach.

Read the rest of my column over at The Washington Post.

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soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Eusuf

    Appropriate writing but will be less heard by whom it requires the most.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:57 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Gosh, how naive could Newt Gingrich be? He should learn the Afghan history before he dealt with the country's reality.

    March 1, 2012 at 6:52 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Afghanistan has a fascinating history and, like Syria had been an ancient crossroad for migrating tribes and their civilisations. The coexistence was peaceful as each tribe had its territory. Then aggressors came one by one and tried to conquer the region. The people rose up and rebelled.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Perhaps there would be more peace there if those major ethnicities: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Usbeks and Hazaras would follow Iraq's example and have their territories according to the ethnic and historical faultlines.

        March 1, 2012 at 7:00 am |
      • Harry Nightingale

        The U.S. has often assumed that democracy is best for all peoples. However, democracies require a cultural background that accepts differences in opinion, religion, etc. In cultures that have taught there is only one way to view the world, democracy cannot exist, even if the people dream of having the freedoms and advantages of a free society.

        March 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • PPSR

      Bang – on Von .... Only solution possible is too break Afghanistan along the ethnicity lines as you mentioned Pashtuns – Tajiks – Hazras and Uzbeks ...... This will bring peace as it will allow people from these major ethnicities to live according to their beliefs and customs. If they want to fight then its up to them .... and anyway they are/were fought/fighting among themselves as part of Afghanistan. If Talibans or pashtuns want to extend their influence deep into Pakistan and fight them to settle Durand line then we should let them ..... After decades of war they only know fighting ...... then let them fight among themselves. We should get HELL OUT OF THERE. No point wasting trillions of $s and 1000s of NATO lives, anymore.

      March 3, 2012 at 3:17 am | Reply
  3. Common_Sense

    If America was the least interested in modernizing any country, their first target should have been Saudi Arabia where one can be stoned to death for burning the Book and women have no role in society except for breeding.

    It doesn't take much scrutiny to figure who's benefitingfrom the money that's invested in the Afghan military.

    March 1, 2012 at 7:20 am | Reply
  4. marv

    Why is Fareed given a platform to share his ridiculous points of view?!?! THis guy is an idiot who has probably felated Obama. Go away Fareed and let us get back to the business of burning ALL of the stupid Korans!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • OSK

      Thank you, for posting such a constructive & problem solving idea !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • 1st

      Love more, hate less.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
      • SpiderCNN

        marv = stupidity

        March 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Sue

      Educate yourself instead of exposing your ignorance and stubidity

      March 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Nut are Favorite food of hindu's god monkey, sure food of human is not Favorite of monkey gods gentile hindu.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  5. Marine5484

    There is but one reality in Afghanistan and that is the fact that the Afghani people do not and never did want to be under foreign rule. This the right-wing news media never talks about as they keep trying to disinform us to the contrary!

    March 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  6. Mohammad A Dar

    Western nation building means nothing else but to be gentile to western hindus, physically, financially and mentally under the cover of hinduism, absurdity called democracy and human rights. Nothing new but old wine with a new label, called imperialism, deserving nothing but a toe of a boot in mouth of western Maggie hindus from freedom loving people of the world.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • aj

      HATE HATE HATE and Kill Kill Kill, Rock and Roll Baby!!!!

      March 5, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
  7. TheLastIndependent

    Reality bites.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  8. Brian

    I think that the United States has to stop acting like a mother to other countries. Countries like Syria need help but since we have taken down Osama. Our responibilities to Afghanistan no longer need to be present. We do nice things for certain countries like Afghanistan and Iraq and do we receive a thanks? nope. I hope when the U.S. is in need of help from some big violent crisis on day, that other countries we have helped in the past will come to our aid like we did for them. We've given our blood to so many countries for the sake of themselves. At what point will other countries be there for us?

    March 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Berkeley bound

      First of all, marv is mentally challenged. He has the right to speak, but obviously has mental issues. Mr.Zakaria does an excellent job and should be commended. Now Brian, you have to understand that tho we help other countries, 99% of the time, its a one way deal. Being the most powerfull country in the world has its price. Our ultimate goal is to spread "democracy" once we have either invaded or taken over a country. In many areas, the idea of the people actually running thier own country is completely unknown. In order to create a goverment run by the "people", there has to be a degree of trust. I believe in many countries like Afganistan, they have a natural distrust of thier fellow human beings. Unless you can overcome this first, there is no way a democratic goverment can survive. Secondly, unless Afganistan solves its problems itself, there will always be the "outside" influence factor. In a predominatly Muslim country, they view use an infidels, and will not follow our lead, even if it takes them straight to hades. The burning of the Holy Koran issue is simply a smoke screen. The book had already been desicrated by those that used it as a message board. Writting in the book itself, using it in a non-holy way, made it unworthy. To say the burning "desicrated" it is hog wash. Find religion in yourself and the people, not some rule book written by those who obviosly have some sort of macho anti-female complex.

      March 4, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
  9. JAKE

    March 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Reply
  10. 4commonsensenow

    At one time, they offered the farmers electricity and running water to change thier crops.The country has been torn by war quite some time. Just legalize weed, get out of the country, make a trade deal for the weed, and sell it in the US with tax and no more violence?

    March 2, 2012 at 4:42 am | Reply
  11. shirish patwa

    You can take horse to the water but cannot make it drink.You cannot modernize a society which doesn't want to be modernize.We may be living in 21st century but the Afgan society is still in 18th century.They don't allow their women folk to develop,consider them as child producing machine,the illiteracy is rampant and Mullas have devil's grip over the society.Even a miracle won't help the society to come out of their ignorance and poverty.If their defence budget is 10 times more than their total revenue how do you expect such a country to survive?Whether America withdraws immediately or after a year, the fate of the country is sealed.It will be a permanent ground for violence.

    March 2, 2012 at 7:00 am | Reply
  12. Hunter

    Fareed doesn't understand why the US went to Afghanistan in the first place. US did not send it its troops to Afghanistan on a nation building mission. The troops were sent to hunt down Al Queda and to disrupt the terrorist organizations that had a strong foothold there. All talk about US trying to build a democratic country in that part of the world is all for public consumption since it is very hard to argue otherwise why US troops should stay there for such a long time. US went to war with Iraq and in Afghanistan out of the basic fear that if we didn't do anything proactively, we will be paying a higher price with another 9/11 style incident in USA. The same is true as to why Israel wants to strike Iran before its too late. It is easy for armchair journalists like Fareed to write a few paragraphs with his flawed sense of US foreign policy, but to write something meaningful one has to go there in person and see what is happening. Fareed, please STOP writing about US foreign policy. I would suggest that you start writing about the Kardashians instead.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
  13. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    The greatest thing America can do is pack our bags & leave with a stern warning that we will bomb them back to stonegae if ever they conspired against us….just as Mr.Richard Armitage did.

    We absolutely have no business to be spilling the blood of our brave soldiers or sinking in trillions that we ourselves don't have while trying to IMPOSE democracy down the throats of these ISLAMIC nations. Given that of the over 50 Muslim nations just a handful are democratic, and even fewer are TRULY democratic, it's absurd that we keep flogging this dead horse.

    Likewise it's also FOOLHARDY to aid any of these Islamic nations with the HOPES of WINNING THE HEARTS & MINDS.

    As impartial studies show all too often MAJORITY OF THE WORLD's MUSLIMS incl. those in living right here in the west (Mr. Fareed Zakaria included, a bit covertly though!) HATE AMERICA. That is deeply ingrained in their MUSLIM UMMAH and that's never ever going to change.

    Quite frankly, the ONLY SENSIBLE alternative is to continue with our earlier policy of cultivating their powerful dictators who have been largely successful in keeping the flock together, Arab Spring not withstanding, b'coz as we know these revolutions again give raise not to genuine democracy but to theocracy and more dictatorships of the revolutionary kind as we see in Iran.

    Only such a pragmatic approach can preserve both America's interests and also world peace.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
    • Kevin Deziel Proud Liberal Canadian

      Your sentiments, opinion and observations are a reflection of those ingredients that add to the decline of the American Empire.
      Your racial division, lack of understanding of Muslim communities and delusion of grandeur, not only makes you a danger, but confirms your entire country is a source of unrest, insecurity and wasted resources. Not only is the commentary presented here by Fareed Zakaria full of misguided information, but it’s totally missing the narrative from the Afghanistan’s themselves. It is the habit of most American Journalist, I believe, to omit the observations of the rest of the world. It’s as if we are simply a mirage. Or as you described many of use, Amit-Atlanta-USA, “a flock.” I hope that those who visit this news source also visit other global news sources such as, Asian Times, Moscow News, Al Jazeera, The Real News Network or even the New York Times. You will then see a clearer, more accurate picture of events unfolding around the world. I laugh when you as an American talk about world peace- the USA is not admired due to its culture, political or industrial influences- the world is afraid and defensive, because of the US military complex, and their uncontrolled desire to use it.

      March 2, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • Amit-Atlanta-USA


        I do read quite a lot, and get my news from many sources on the left & right. Apart from that I have also been seeing & experiencing first hand the advent of Muslim influence not only in my (& Mr.Zakaria's) former homeland India, but also in several otehr countries I have visited incl. much of Europe, Australia, SE Asia and ofcourse right here in the US and Canada.

        Having said that, I also strongly believe that America must leave the Muslim nations to manage their affairs without our interference., and also not let Muslims MISUSE America's freedoms in the garb of religious freedoms. In this context I must say that I am also a VIVID follower of Pakistan's #1 newspaper Dawn. I must say many of Dawn's columnists incl. Irfan Husain, Nadeem Paracha, Kamran Shafi, I A Rehman, Mahir Ali are some of the greatest of enlightened Muslims I have ever come across, and I agree with every word they write either on Islam or even their Jihadist Pakistan.

        March 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
      • Amit-Atlanta-USA


        I am NOT able to post some examples of Mr.Irfan Husains writings. I have tried in vain many times to post but it's being censored! Please go on Dawn and check out his and Mr.Nadeem Paracha's artciel. You will see how insightful they are.

        March 2, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
      • Amit-Atlanta-USA

        Check for two eye-opening articles – The limits of Tolerance – 08-27-2010
        Morality and Atheism – Feb -07-2010

        March 2, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Mikah

      Fareed is Indian. He came here at age 18 and has been in love with our country ever since. Read a book.

      March 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply

      Amit-Atlanta- USA. I have notice your comments on few other articles in the past, your comments are blatant, full of bigotry and you defame prominent American Journalist (FZ). You seem to have a hidden agenda and your continuous direct attacks are apparent. In some cases you point his religion, his background. It almost appears you are stalking this journalist. CNN provides this platform for respectful comments and feedbacks and you should be ejected from his platform.

      March 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
      • Amit-Atlanta-USA

        It's Mr. Zakaria who clearly has a clear anti-Western, anti-Semite agenda, and every American needs to be aware of it.

        Unfortunately there's heavy censorship in Mr.Zakaria's columns and most often you can't have your say clearly as the messages are truncated.

        Having said that, It's my duty as an American to expose his agenda and nobody can ban someone for doing that. If you don't subscribe to that that's your choice.....this is America dude!

        March 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  14. RonPaulKicksAss

    Whatever! Quit promoting wars for the Project for the New American Century and the Foreign Policy Initiative, the think-tank which promotes: diplomatic, economic, and military engagement IN THE WORLD! I am sick and tired of mouthpieces for the CFR spouting their LIES and propaganda! I will NOT vote for any candidate who supports war! That is why I am voting for Ron Paul! The media calls him "crazy " and "dangerous." I think ANYONE supporting war is crazy and dangerous! The media has a war to sell you, are you buying it??? Iraq was ALL lies, so is Iran! The media makes me want to throw up!

    March 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  15. jim ward

    Again Zakaria sheds light on the real problems.

    March 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  16. Rick McDaniel

    There is no real hope of leaving Afghanistan capable of taking care of itself. The Taliban will see to that.

    March 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  17. Mr Everyman

    Fareed Zakaria outlines the problem but does not offer a solution. From what has been said getting a coalition government together that represents all these tribes should have been done from the beginning. We have 2012-2014 to do that. It has to include Pashtuns or it is not going to work. The other way is to withdraw. Let what ever happens happen. If a al-Qaeda or Taliban training camp is built, destroy it from the air. Afghanistan would simply turn into a big bombing range. We have to protect ourselves. Do the Afghans realize this? They should be told. They can work with each other for a truly peaceful nation.

    March 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Reply
    • MrEveryman

      Afghanistan and Pakistan need to be coordinated. Finding ways to make Pashtuns happy campers with these other tribes appears to be the key to eliminating hostility from both nations. I have probably made an understatement.

      March 2, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  18. Mrs. Davis

    How about we just get the heck out of Dodge? We have done about all we are going to be able to do there.

    March 3, 2012 at 7:47 am | Reply
  19. rightospeak

    Why are we still occupying Afganistan ? To get the 1% rich ? Ali Bhutto a few months before being assasinated in Pakistan, on the David Frost Show in 2007 stated that she knew who killed Osama Bin Laden in 2002 . The story of dumping Osama Bin Laden's body in the ocean is about as credible as the fairy tale of 9/11. We have been lied to for reasons being in Afganistan, so what is the hold up ? Why are we still there ?

    March 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply

    Complete waste of every $ we spent on Afghanistan, we must get out of there immediately, Let Afghan Army workout alliances within the region. What we need to do is have military bases around China and Russia, before it is too late. They must be laughing at us being busy in places where it makes no sense and we continue to stack up trillions in expenses that may be well spent in building those bases.

    March 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      Totally agree with you friend. That's exactly what I said in my response posted y'day at 9:26 am.

      March 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  21. just me

    A) We Announce our Withdrawal Monday
    B) The withdrawal will be done in 10 days time
    C) We Withdraw
    D) The Taliban, AlQueda, etc fighters claim their prize
    E) We Ambush them when then claim their prize
    F) Problem solved. Afghanistan will no longer be able to host terrorists
    G) Then we really withdraw

    March 4, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  22. helenecha

    Never mind, right? The Obama Administration had left no single boots in Iraq.

    March 4, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  23. 4commonsensenow

    Gotta love, getting the right message at the right time. Well put sir. It makes globalization seem all to clear.Build superhighways, instill miliatary and government the people hate. Go in debt to a system that you cant possibly afford, so that in essence you have to occupy forever and spread your seed for growth for protection. Or simply admit, its all a waste of time a nd resources and better to stay strong and defend your own borders.Hmm so neither is going to work, or maybe thats the point.I like your idea of keeping a presence or creating employment.If military is used for the proper purpose, to protect everyone from 'evil' and people want to choose that road, not forced cause someone told them, or guilt them, or lied to them as to what really isnt the reality, ie the taxpayer and the soldiers of honor, then in honorable situation stay. But if this is all for banker profits, ie the bottom line, then goodluck and see you in hell also.Im going there already, doesn't mean I have to fall into the mind control bs proganda to justify killing people.Look at it like this, if they wanna kill each other than thats thier unfortunate choice.If they want help in stabilizing a country, build an economy, send business men, not armies.Let them pay for thier own protection if they have no honor and the locals see that.Just saying, peace sounds so much better

    March 5, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  24. Kaka

    break Afghanistan in to two parts Pashtoon and non Pahtoons, Pashtoon can not be civilized.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply

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