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Obama is scaling back the war goals

  • Fareed Zakaria: Obama is sending many more troops but with a new mission
  • He says president is scaling down the objectives for Afghan war
  • Zakaria says aim is to protect population centers and harm Taliban, al Qaeda
  • He says goals don't include nation-building mission of classic counterinsurgency

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET

New York (CNN) -- When President Obama announced plans Tuesday to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, it appeared to be a major escalation of the war in that country. But, foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria says that the United States may in fact be "scaling down" the goals of the military operation.

In an interview with CNN, Zakaria gave the new plan a good chance of succeeding in achieving its more limited objectives. But he said Obama's idea of setting a target date for starting to draw down U.S. troops was a strategic mistake -- though he suggested the president may have needed to do so for political reasons.

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria: GPS," spoke to CNN Wednesday.

CNN: The president outlined an intensive but short-term boost of the military resources in Afghanistan. He didn't call it a surge but is this effectively the same as the Iraq surge?

Fareed Zakaria: Actually I think this is a different surge than the Iraq surge. And not enough people have noticed that -- because the president did increase the number of troops and in fact, in many ways the number of troops that he has increased in percentage terms is much larger than the Iraq surge.

The Iraq surge added ... something in the range of a 15 percent increase. Obama is effectively doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan, if you consider he'd already sent in about 17,000 extra.

But unlike in Iraq, I think that what Obama is trying to do is to scale back the objective. The objective is far more clearly defined as dismantling and disrupting al Qaeda, which means creating conditions on the ground which make it more difficult for al Qaeda and its allies to create bases, to create strongholds or to topple the Afghan government.

The major population centers of Afghanistan will be protected. They'll work to train Afghan forces, buy/rent any tribal militias you can, but not get into the broader nation-building aspects that were very much part of the Iraq strategy.

So in a way, while this is a surge, it is not the kind of big counterinsurgency doctrine with its very expansive governance and development components that the Iraq surge entailed. On the surface, it looks like a scaling up. In fact, in many ways, this is a scaling down of objectives in Afghanistan.

CNN: So it is a rejection of the strategy that Gen. McChrystal was pushing for?

Zakaria: I think it is a refinement of it, or a modification of it. I think it is an attempt to recognize that in Afghanistan, you could not do classic counterinsurgency, because the country's too big, too spread out, the geography's punishing. So in that context, real counterinsurgency would require hundreds of thousands of troops.

I asked the president -- the day he gave the speech, he talked to a few of us at lunch ... I put this exact question to him. He said, the way I would put it is that we've drawn on the wisdom of the counterinsurgency doctrine and adapted it to Afghanistan, recognizing that it cannot be completely or fully implemented in Afghanistan. ...

He did not talk very much about the issues like the eradication of drugs, development, female education that have tended to be part and parcel of this broader conception of the mission in Afghanistan.

So yes, to the extent that the counterinsurgency strategy had a very expansive mission that was non-military, this one seems a little bit more targeted, more focused and comes closer to being really more counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency.

CNN: Do you think it will work?

Zakaria: I think there's a very good chance that militarily it will put the Taliban on the defensive. It will disrupt them. It will allow us to secure population centers.

There is a longer-term question though: What can you really achieve in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is one of the worst countries in the world -- very decentralized, very tribal in nature and I think it is going to be a place that is going to be troubled. It is going to have elements of instability and insurgency, corruption, drug production, for a long time.

I hope the Obama administration recognizes that if the goal in Afghanistan is to cure all those troubles, we're going to be there forever. So I think a surge like this can work in the tactical sense of giving us an upper hand, of putting the Taliban on the defense. But ultimately it's not going to turn Afghanistan into France.

CNN: What do you think the impact of the new strategy will be on Pakistan?

A surge like this can work ... but it's not going to turn Afghanistan into France
--Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria: That's the crucial question in a sense. I was struck by how, if you were to look at this from Mars, at what is happening on the ground, you would notice that all of al Qaeda is in Pakistan, the entire leadership of the Afghan Taliban who are directing the insurgency are in Pakistan. They are called the Quetta shura. Shura means council. Quetta is a city in Pakistan, in fact some of them are now apparently in Karachi.

So you look at the situation and say why are we adding troops in Afghanistan when the problem is in Pakistan? ...The president framed the issue of Pakistan in a way that suggested that there was a growing partnership between Pakistan and the United States. I hope that's true. It's alas been true in the past that Pakistan's basic objective has not been to strengthen the Karzai government but in fact to weaken it because they view the Karzai government as pro-Indian.

The real weak spot in America's strategy ... remains that we do not have much control over what Pakistan will do, and Pakistan's cooperation is crucial to making this work. Because otherwise the terrorists have a safe haven, they have support, they have funds, they have arms and with all that, it becomes essentially impossible to do much more than play a game of whack-a-mole -- you hit them in Afghanistan and they retreat back to Pakistan.

CNN: Do you think the president was justified in raising the specter of nuclear disaster in connection with terrorism and Pakistan?

Zakaria: I used to believe that the Pakistani nuclear weapons were secure and the Pakistani army was strong enough to maintain control over them, but I have seen recent reports, including one from Bruce Riedel who is advising the president on this which cast doubt on the security of nuclear command and control, the security of the weapons themselves.

So yes, reluctantly I would have to say the president was right to raise the specter of some possible collapse of parts of the Pakistani state which could put the nuclear weapons in the wrong hands. I think it's remote, but ... you want to do what you can to minimize the chances of a remote but very bad outcome.

CNN: In your meeting with the president, did you get a sense of what toll this decision-making process is taking on him?

Zakaria: No, the president is amazingly calm, amazingly collected. He's a very cool character. He was deliberate, rational, he never got ruffled. We asked some tough questions. That is his style. ... We talked about the political costs and he was very clear about that. He said, I understand that this is not popular, I understand acutely this issue because it is least popular in my own party. But I can't make decisions like that.

He said if I made decisions on the basis of the polls, we might not have a banking system today, meaning he would have not come to the aid of the banks and they would have collapsed. We might not have had General Motors today.

In a short period, he's actually had to go through a lot of these trials-by-fire and I think he sees this as one of them.

CNN: Do you think it was a good idea to set a timetable?

Zakaria: No, I think the timetable doesn't make any strategic sense. You can plausibly claim that it is a forcing mechanism for the military, that it puts Karzai on notice -- which may be true, but all of that could have been conveyed privately. ... The public declaration is a political act.

I think the president felt that with the country where it is, and his party where it is, he simply would not get the support he needed without some sense that this is not open-ended. .... It's a bad strategic idea but is it cripplingly bad for the strategy? I don't know, I think these things can be exaggerated. ...

He said, we're not going to be sitting around doing nothing while they wait us out. We're going to be taking control of population centers, building the Afghan army, taking territory from the Taliban, hammering them where we need to, so they will be in a much weaker position 18 months from now than they are now. ...

Still the best-case scenario would be simply not to say anything but I think he made a judgment that he would not have the country with him if he did that. We're not talking about a war that is just beginning. We're in the eighth year of the war. And there are political realities he probably has to take into account.

CNN: Let's jump ahead to 2011. What would be the indication that this operation had been successful?

Zakaria: What we should be looking for is two things. One, in the key population centers that would contain 70 percent of the Afghan population, is the government in Kabul, with our assistance, clearly in control or does it still face a Taliban insurgency?

Point two: Are you finding that there are elements of the Pashtun community that are moving away from the Taliban and toward the government so that you now have a kind of relatively stable majority coalition within the country. ... If those conditions are true, you then can start thinking about drawing down.

It's very important to remember we're only talking about drawing down the surge. We're not necessarily talking about drawing down American troops to zero. My guess is that there will be a substantial American presence in Afghanistan for a long time.