April 28th, 2011
12:19 PM ET

Fareed Zakaria on scaling back the U.S. role in Afghanistan

Last night I talked to Eliot Spitzer about reports of an April 16 meeting between leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan where, as Eliot said, "these two supposed U.S. allies conspired to throw the U.S. out and look toward China as the benefactor."  Here's my view:

Sometimes the United States enters places in South Asia and we assume it is all very simple - there are good guys and bad guys. We are coming in support the good guys, so we presume they should be on our side against the bad guys.

But actually there is an existing set of regional dynamics at work. We’re the interloper. We’re coming into this game pretty late. The regional actors think we are going to leave.

So what you are watching in this event is the return of geopolitics in South Asia. Afghanistan and Pakistan think the U.S. is going to leave so the Pakistanis are trying to become the dominant player. The Afghans aren’t cooperating yet, so the Pakistanis are trying to tell the Afghans, "Don’t rely on Uncle Sam – they’re weak, they’re declining."

What we should do is try to stress to Afghanistan that our commitment to them cannot be measured by whether we maintain 100,000 troops there in perpetuity. Of course we wont do that. But we will have troops. We will give aid. We will politically support Afghanistan.

We should tell Afghanistan: “You don’t want to be a client state of Pakistan. You want to have your options. You want to be a proud, independent country.”

Right now, we're caught in the midst of a regional power dynamic. But we have only one interest in this region: Al Qaeda. Our goal is to make sure that Al Qaeda does not create training camps for people who go out to kill Americans and Westerners.

To do this, we  should maintain some level of troop presence - 20,000 or 30,000 troops - along with some relationship with the Afghan government that allows us to do that. This is something that the Indians would strongly support. The Pakistanis and Chinese say publicly that they support this too.

Other than that, if Pakistan thinks the prize is Afghanistan, we should let them have it.

The big question is: Do we need to have this level of involvement in the region? It’s a mess there and all the regional powers are battling for influence. But we don’t have a dog in that fight. Our interest is Al Qaeda.

So we have to ask ourselves: How do we maintain our security and combat Al Qaeda? Now, I may be slightly off about the numbers needed to achieve this goal. If the military tells me you need 32,000 troops to fight Al Qaeda, fine. But you don’t need a 100,000 troops.  More importantly, even if 100,000 troops work, they can only continue to work if you keep 100,000 troops there, which we don’t have the finances or the will to do.

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Topics: Afghanistan • From Fareed • Pakistan • Security • Strategy

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The core issue is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan, which wants to be recognised as the key player in the region. Playing games is their foreign policy. The U.S. has been double-crossed by Pakistan lately and there was an altercation between the two. Pakistan is hard up for cash and needs support. Knowing China is keen on securing its access to the Arabian Sea for goods transport and the U.S. is wary of China's spreading influence in the area, it plays game with the U.S., hoping to get more out of a new negociation. There aren't so many al Qaeda people around in Afghanistan and they could be contained, had Pakistan not taken advantage of the fear of the West to boost its importance in the international community.

    April 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • John Denver's ghost

      The US should immediately abandon the area of the Chinese copper mine. Leaving it to the Chinese to protect. Or the US should ask for concessions from China, such as money or the release of unlawfully held prisoners.

      April 30, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • Jerry Antonatos

      Pakistan has never been a true ally of the US. They have always used us for money and support whenever it was beneficial for them. They have consistantly lied about supporting terrorist acts, and terrorists themselves all to gain influence in areas across their borders. This includes not only Afghanistan but India. Pakistan knows that both Afghanistan and Kashmir region in India are tremendous reserves of natural resources. Its economic benefit will enrich all in Pakistan. Its dreaded ISI secret intelligence agency is nothing but a money for hire terrorist organization involved in hijackings, murders, thefts and supporting OBL and its biggest benefactor the Haqqani Network which is the primary organization that recruits, funds, trains and supplies terrorists to go into Afghanistan to kill not only US personnel, but anyone that does not agree with them and their believes. The excuse that Pakistan just does not have enough troops to go after Taliban and other terrorist networks is ridiculus after considering that roughly close to a million troops were de-militarized from the Indian border after tensions decreased, thanks to the US. The US should have taken the offer by India to invade and destroy all terrorist camps in Pakistan back in 2001. India is a more reliable ally that Pakistan can ever be. Pakistan afterall placed the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, and still supported them until they got too big and strated to attack Pakistani's that did not agree with them.

      May 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
      • haroon akhtar

        Jerry, your knowledge is very limited on this subject. There are many facets to every crisis.You probably believe everything that U.S. media airs on television. The Reality is very different. The truth is often hidden by the Jewish controlled media of U.S., who view all Muslims as their sworn enemies.

        May 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • haroon akhtar

      Pakistan is also a victim of "Terrorism". Suicide bombings within Pakistan have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Pakistanis. Many Pakistani Government officials have also been targeted by the terrorists. It is in the National Interest of Pakistan to uproot terrorism from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

      May 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  2. james2

    After thinking about this issue for a bit and listening to Fareed on In the Arena, I think Fareed's suggestion to let somebody else do it is the right policy to pursue. The key line in the interview was, "If Pakistan thinks the prize is Afghanistan, they're welcome to it". Is it really worth the money to try to stabilize a country whose government can't even prevent a simple jailbreak? Don't forget that before America, the Soviets tried unsuccessfully to invade Afghanistan as well. Other countries are always beating the US over the head for spending so much time and money on Afghanistan and Iraq while other problems persist, so why don't we let Pakistan and China waste their money instead? As rising powers, they sure are acting like babies, so why don't we let them handle the responsibility instead?

    April 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  3. Lary

    How about no troops in Afghanistan?

    90% of Afghans of the South have never heard of 9/11 and according to General Petraeus, there are less than 100 Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not concerned with attacking the United States. They are an indigenous group who simply want to defend their homeland against who the perceive as the aggressors. As long as we have troops in Afghanistan, there will never be real stability.

    The solution to this war comes about through diplomacy and bringing regional countries together for negotiations, including Pakistan, Iran, India, and Saudi Arabia.

    April 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Sur

      I wish you had role in US foreign policy.

      April 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Onesmallvoice

      That's one of the most sensible comments here yet. Thank you,Lary.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Christitan

      Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan understand or are ready for 'Democracy'. They are uneducated tribal societies that have not concept of individual responsibility, the heart of democracy. The British tried, the Soviets was another story....but if they think their 'friend' China is the solution, they'll soon get a nasty wake-up call...too late.

      There is simply no use wasting any more lives and money on these countries. You can lead a horse to water........
      Let's just declare victory and get the hell out of there! We have enough problems to deal with in our own country!!!

      May 2, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  4. Sur

    British tried on Afghanistan but failed, Soviets tried but failed and now Americans failing. I feel sorry for the common people of Afghanistan like me. I have seen war since I remember. 🙁

    April 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Onesmallvoice

      I only wish that the right-wing thugs in Washington would see things that way,but sadly enough,they won't and that's bad all the way around.

      April 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Cam Rankin

      We (U.S.A) are not imperialist, the other two at the time were. Sur we forget that afghan people have known nothing but war for last few decades. That is a sad story.

      May 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  5. khan

    keeping in view the current scenario of Afghanistan and Pakistan , it is much better for US to say " good bye " to Afghanistan , having 100000 troops is a burden on US economy as well as its image. Afghanistan is country where two super powers in past tried to invade and stay there but >> all in vain . Secondly being a Pakistani i can tell you that Pakistan is the victim of so called war on terror , we have lost thousands of civilians and armed forces, we have destroyed our economy, , so if Pakistan takes any move, it should be considers as a legitimate move, because Pakistan is the main stake holder of this war , we fought against Russia as a front line state and when Russia disintegrated ,US left us in the midst of chaos and anarchy ... Live long Pakistan

    April 28, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • I.Zaman

      I agree 100%, good job of presenting Pakistan.
      Long live Pakistan

      May 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm |

    China brings a new way to international relations. It doesn't seem to be control or dominance based. Maybe that's naive but that's what it looks like. We bring weapons and warfare, they bring money and a market for whatever they have. Seems like a no brainer to me. We've gone from straight up colonialism to economic colonialism to a new game. NO colonialism is the game China is playing and we better learn it. Going around mapping the world with artificial borders, organizing the indigenous people in ways that make no sense to them or have any historical relevance may make money but hasn't made friends. Why is it so hard for us to reevaluate?

    April 28, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      That's why we see so many flashpoints around the world to-day. After WWII, when the Brits and the European gave up their colonies, new borders were mapped and artificial states created. Best examples are India and Paksitan and a number of states on the African continent. In order to forget their colonial past, the people there shun all western values that democracy.

      April 29, 2011 at 4:48 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        correction: values that nurture democracy

        April 29, 2011 at 4:49 am |
  7. Shawna

    Mona Lisa Mouallem is a plagiarist.

    April 29, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  8. Globe2020

    A nation that fought communism and lost two million people until the wall of Berlin fall down deserved a true and honest friendship from Nato but, since 2001 what type of horror and atrocities isn't there that Nato hasn't committed in Afghanistan. Today it has reached to a point that if they want to stay is costly and if they want out they CAN NOT. The problem is not Afghanistan it is the Nuclear state of Pakistan and it's extremists. They have seen their country's name on the list while on the other hand the Chinese will be more than happy to keep Afghanistan as a hammering tool once there is not enough trade with the US or not to much follow of US dollar that will be the time for the return of Changis Khan and his lost empire.

    April 30, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  9. haroon akhtar

    The destinies of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked. Pakistan has acted as the big brother in the past and has meddled in the affairs of Afghanistan but it must not be forgotten that Pakistan has also supported Afghanistan financially and militarily during the Soviet Invasion. Pakistan has provided shelter and refuse to millions of Afghan refugees many of whom are still residing in Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan wants to maintain cordial relations with Afghanistan which were severely affected during the reign of the Taliban.The Indian Government has also tried to drive a wedge in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan.The Pashtuns in the North of Pakistan have familial ties with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan who are separated by the Durand Line created by the British.

    April 30, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Chandra

    I think Fareed is completely wrong when he says we don't have a dog in this fight. Our dog is Karzai !! He may be America's worst mistake but he is America's dog in this fight. The problem that U.S has is not Afghanistan but it is Pakistan. On one hand, every year U.S pays tens of billions of dollars and arms to prop up failed state like Pakistan and calls it its ally but who can believe that U.S can not stop Pakistan from supporting Taliban who openly wage war against U.S troops ?
    I think there is very strong evidence to suggest that U.S does not want to solve Afghanistan problem. Unfortunately lot of young soldiers are getting killed for no good reason. The reason why U.S is not fixing Pakistan is unknown but it is very true that leadership in Washington clearly knows where the problem is and for some strange reason decided to let the situation continue.
    Fareed is completely wrong about China and India as well. China is very smart in not getting directly militarily involved in the conflict. I don't think they will ever send troops there. India also has denied sending any troops to Afghanistan except training Afghan military. For centuries, Indians have fought in Afghanistan sometimes on the side of Afghans and sometimes against them so they know the difficulties there. In addition people in India will never support any military presence there and in democratic country like India no leader can afford to loose soldiers for worthless cause.
    The only country who can bring peace to Afghanistan is U.S. Even with rising China, the Chinese are still not a match for U.S influence in the world in both economic and military terms. Pakistanis have failed to bring peace and prosperity to their own country and no one in the region thinks they can be trusted. Afghans may be uneducated but they are intelligent people. The major problem with Afghans is that in more than thousand years of history Afghanistan was one independent country only once for brief period under Ahmad shah Abdali. Most of the time various regions of today's Afghanistan were under the influence of Persia or India.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • haroon akhtar

      Indian propaganda against Pakistan will continue till the end of time. India is one of the most insecure nations on the planet earth. India has no friends left in its neighborhood. It bullies its smaller neighboring countries and wages a cold war with China.It has broken up Pakistan and continues in its effort to further damage the economy and political stability of Pakistan. Indian occupation of Kashmir has been called on of the most brutal occupations by its own intellectuals.

      May 1, 2011 at 9:03 am |
      • Cam Rankin

        I think the world forgets that India and Pakistan are bitter enemies.

        May 1, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  11. Cam Rankin

    James2 and Lary are both on the right track. I agree that our aim is to defeat al-queda not country building. If India, China and Pakistan think they are big dogs then let them have it, as long as we secure our intrest and promote our ideals, the local people of the region will decide for them selves. I say let'em have at it!

    May 1, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. John Ruchalski

    You sounded as only bankers and sportstars are receiving wage increases.how about tv hosts ,congress ,state and federal workers,etc?????You have begun to move to the left alarmingly quickly.

    May 1, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  13. Sum of Squares


    May 2, 2011 at 7:07 am |

    Do you really still believe that american intervention in Afghanistan is for a good cause NO
    The only reason is to protect the american interests in the region,to be closer to China and Iran,to secure the oil pipes TAP Tajikistan Afghanistan Pakistan from the Caspian to Indian ocean,and protect the opium fields in Hellmand province.
    Dont let them brainwashi you with bullshit.Real terrorism derives from the global terrorists lobbies,bankers e,t,c
    An Afghanistan veteran

    May 2, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  15. C. Cantu

    World peace will come when Muslims convert to Christianity, preferably to any of the old Middle Eastern Christian Churches which share the same language and culture as Muslims but their ethical and moral standards are much higher and without the hatred, violence, terrorism, resentment & discrimination as Islam. This ideology is capable of transforming an ordinary person into an irrational beast and the Islamic clerics are the main instigators of all these violent actions.

    May 2, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • nemo

      peace comes when we give southern right wing christians an education

      May 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  16. nemo

    short termers? we have been there almost 10 years, we went there to get bin laden and eliminate alqueda in Afgahnistan, we have done that. We need to leave. Unless of course are goal is really the trillions of dollars worth of Iron under that country.

    May 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Patrick Daly

    Fareed Zakaria, you may have a doctorate, but that does not make you a military strategist. Unless you have sat down to analyze what kind of activities the troops are going to be having, and the total number required for the types of activities we wish to pursue, I cannot believe your analysis of 32,000 being a sufficient number of troops for the Afghanistan presence is anything more than a wild shot in the dark.

    May 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  18. LarryKegel(USArmy)

    Obama will be closing up The Afghanistan War by the end of This Year like He did the Iraq Way!!! He is a doer not a talker like Bush was... He is the type of President like Clinton was... One to make things better not worse like the Republicans!!! We have to get all the Republicans out of office... So that This Country can be given back to the People!!!

    May 2, 2011 at 10:33 pm |


    May 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  20. tanya

    Obama will just ending up sending them to Lybia

    May 3, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  21. Larry Kegel (USAMY)

    The President is doing everything He promised to do!!! Even with the Republicans and Tea Party fighting Him all the way... They will lose all the election in 2012!!! At least Obama is listening to those that knows what should be done... Not like Bush just listening to Cheney!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  22. nemo

    Larry, the Iraq war didn't end. It is still going on they just changed the name, There are still 50 thousand troops in Iraq. are you that gullible?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  23. Mr Anderson (U.k)

    The problem is not Pakistanis Muslims Christan Americans or any afghan's all citizen are fed up by the drama diplomatic give and take Between Pakistan,India,America,Afghanistan and middle east Pakistan and India are the biggest markets of export of drugs at cheap price and are sold openly i went to Calcutta and saw a man selling chars openly on road in india and after that i went to Pakistan and saw the same thing there so there is no difference between both countries both the countries try to cut each other but in the end both are not good allies for Europe and US any non Christan state is our enemy from heart people there want good life and relations but the officials have their own business and if Pakistan has Taliban then the Indians have shiv Sena and they scare away white guys tourists and say them killer of their gaoo mata ie mother cow their god they harass them like Taliban so never think India as our ally the whole subcontinent is our enemy they are all untrustworthy its better for us to stay in our own continent and solve our own issues let them die of their own death today war is is not about arms its an economical war instead of producing arms produce markets

    May 20, 2011 at 7:16 am |

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