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Zakaria: Obama must 'laser' focus on economy

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  • Fareed Zakaria: Obama should save presidential time, energy for the economy
  • U.S. economy is in dangerous paralysis, says Zakaria
  • Zakaria: War in Afghanistan is top foreign policy problem Obama should address
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Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is a foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" on CNN at 1 and 6 p.m. ET Sundays.

Fareed Zakaria

"Banks are still reporting large losses, credit remains tight, home prices continue to fall," notes Fareed Zakaria.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- President Barack Obama offered more detail on his plan to restore economic growth Friday, saying the economic stimulus program being debated in Congress is just one of at least three parts to his recovery plan.

In a meeting to discuss the stimulus proposal with Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, Obama said America also needs an improved financial system stability program as well as an overhaul of financial market regulation.

CNN talked to world affairs expert and author Fareed Zakaria to get his thoughts about the most pressing issues facing the new president.

CNN: What should be President Obama's first order of business?

Zakaria: Oh, without question, the economy. This is a problem that isn't going away. Banks are still reporting large losses, credit remains tight, home prices continue to fall.

It's difficult to tell whether the measures enacted have not had time to work, or that they are not working. But the basic reality remains -- the financial system is in crisis, and as a result, the American economy is in a dangerous paralysis. President Obama needs to focus like a laser beam on this issue above and beyond everything else.

'Fareed Zakaria GPS'
This week on Fareed Zakaria GPS, Obama plans on pouring billions of dollars and thousands of troops into Afghanistan. Can anyone fix Afghanistan?
Sunday, 1 & 6 p.m. ET

CNN: Does that mean foreign policy takes a back seat?

Zakaria: Not a back seat, but if I were advising him, I would suggest that he save his presidential time, energy and political capital for the economy. He will probably need to go to Congress soon and ask for more money and more authority.

Now, having said all this, the trouble with foreign policy is that it doesn't wait around for you until the time is convenient. Things happen and you have to react to them -- like the violence in Gaza. That's probably why the president called the foreign leaders he did on his first day -- [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, [Saudi] King Abdullah and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. He had to make sure that the situation didn't spiral downward.

CNN: What's the first major foreign policy problem President Obama should address?

Zakaria: Afghanistan. This is his war; the one he said was the right war. And it isn't going well. The Taliban is gaining strength and the central government is losing power and legitimacy.

CNN: The Taliban is back? I thought we defeated them.

Zakaria: The Taliban was not defeated: They retreated. They retreated into the rural areas of Pakistan. If you remember, the Taliban was born in Pakistan and supported by the Pakistani military as a tool to destabilize Soviet-controlled Afghanistan and India.

Since they retreated, they have been able to slowly reassert their influence. Rory Stewart, who was just in Afghanistan, is on our show this week and he mentions that in the past, the Taliban only had a presence in southern Afghanistan. But they now can be found in Kabul. The fact they have such a presence in the capital, an area we considered secure, is very troubling.

CNN: Why are they experiencing this support within the country?

Zakaria: There are many reasons. But you have to remember, this is still a very poor country that is very fragmented. Security and the rule of law are missing and the Taliban provides it.

Barney Rubin remarked that the first thing the Taliban creates when they go into an area is courts. It may not be the type of justice we would like; but for the Afghans it's better than the corrupt system that exists.

Also, we shouldn't assume our image of the Taliban is correct. It is a very dynamic organization and changes. We may need to find a way to negotiate with them.

CNN: Negotiate with the group that harbored al Qaeda?

Zakaria: It may be a political necessity. Rory Stewart said, "It's not 'what ought we do,' but 'what can we do.'" He argues that at some point, the reality of troops and money will force us to revaluate our goals and we should start that process now.

And there are many other crises America must deal with -- Iraq, Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, Iran -- so we can't be obsessed with Afghanistan.

Barney Rubin added: The question is, whether we can separate the terrorist al Qaeda connections from the political issues of the Taliban.

If that can occur, then it may be possible to find a solution in Afghanistan as [Gen. David] Petraeus helped broker in Iraq. We'll have to wait and see what Gen. Petraeus advises the president and what he decides to do. Done in [the president's] spare time, when he's not handling the economy.

[Barnett Rubin is one of the nation's foremost experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the author of eight books. Rory Stewart, who lives in Kabul, has traveled extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq and written books about his experiences.]

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