March 4th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Time to get real on Afghanistan

Editor's Note: Be sure to catch GPS every Sunday at 10a.m. and 1p.m. EST. If you miss it, you can buy episodes on iTunes.

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

The controversy over the desecration of copies of the Quran in Afghanistan and the murders of Americans that have followed is, on one level, one moment in a long, complicated 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 approach came from none other than Newt Gingrich during a 2010 speech:

"The fact that we have been in this country for seven, eight years, and that we have not flooded the country with highways, we haven't guaranteed that every Afghan has a cell phone, we haven't undertaken the logical steps towards fundamentally modernizing their society."

Now, assuming that every Afghan got a cell phone 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 today is around $12 billion paid for by the US of course. 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 this nation-building approach. First, it is extremely difficult to modernize a country in a few years. Second, even if this were possible, the fundamental characteristics of that society - its ethnicity, religion, and national and geopolitical orientation - persist despite modernization.

Accepting reality in Afghanistan would not leave America without options. We could have a smaller troop presence; we can pursue robust counterterrorism operations.

The United States could, of course, maintain its current approach, which is to bet on the success of not one but two large nation-building projects. We have to create an effective national government in Kabul that is loved and respected by all Afghans, whatever their ethnicity, and expand the Afghan economy so that a large national army and police force are sustainable for the long run.

To succeed, we would also have to alter Pakistan's basic character, create a civilian-dominated state that could shift the strategic orientation of the Islamabad government so that it shuts down the Taliban sanctuaries and starts fighting the very groups it has created and supported for at least three decades. Does anyone really think this is going to happen?

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Be sure to catch GPS every Sunday at 10a.m. and 1p.m. EST. If you miss it, you can buy the show on iTunes.


soundoff (237 Responses)
  1. Pablo (Col)

    It's just shameful how the US thinks it has the "duty" or responsability to modernize countries. The US, although powerful as it may be, does not rule over the world. It is corporations who do that: how else would you explain that cell phone accesibility is an important fact to achieve in a "developed" country. Afghanistan is a country of it's own and Id ont believe the US has bothered to learn about it, in the rue sense of teh world. If it hasnt bothered to do that anywhere else, why should it do that in afghan territory? The only solution is the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the installation of a UN permanent envoy (blue helmets) to help the government.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  2. fair_is_fair

    "We have to create an effective national government in Kabul that is loved and respected by all Afghans, whatever their ethnicity, and expand the Afghan economy so that a large national army and police force are sustainable for the long run."

    Why Fareed, Why? Why is it upto your country to create a government in another country? Is that not pupetteering?

    March 12, 2012 at 6:19 am | Reply
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