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Afghan war on track for troop withdrawals

  • Fareed Zakaria: Greater troop levels enhancing security in Afghanistan
  • He says Obama should begin troop withdrawals as planned next summer
  • He says Gen. Petraeus' strategy is weakening support for Taliban insurgency
  • Zakaria says loss of Richard Holbrooke is a major blow to U.S. diplomacy

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET Sundays and on CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time/ 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi/ 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- The enhanced presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is working to increase stability in that nation and could set the stage for troop withdrawals to begin next summer, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

A review of the war released Thursday by the White House found that "the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain ... reversible."

Zakaria said, "The crucial issue is going to be: Can the Afghan army take charge at this point? Can the Afghan police force take charge? Even there it does appear that there is some progress. The Afghan army is a lot better than it was two years ago. On the whole I think there's reason to be cautiously optimistic."

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Thursday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: The White House has released a report assessing where Afghanistan policy stands after the increase in troop levels. What's your assessment?

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Zakaria: My sense is that things in Afghanistan are improving, that (Gen. David) Petraeus has tried to apply some of the same strategies he applied in Iraq to Afghanistan. They're all focused on the idea of rather than just beating up the bad guys, you create a greater degree of security for the general population -- and that by doing this, you create greater support for the government or weaken the insurgency and it becomes easier in that context to go after the bad guys.

It's a more expansive strategy, it's more costly in lives and in money, but it does appear to have had some success. I would say there is clear progress in what is called the Helmand River Valley, the most important area of which is Marja, and the next phase is going to be a triangle with Kandahar and Helmand, which are in many ways the heart of the Taliban insurgency.

It does appear that the momentum of the Taliban has been broken, which is the phrase the president has used. I think it would be much too soon to say that the coalition is winning, but there does seem to be a change in the dynamic and the momentum.

CNN: On the ground what specifically has changed?

Zakaria: There is much greater security. If you read the reports coming out of these areas, shops are open, people are walking about the streets, you can walk about the streets as an American without fear of being attacked. ... I was reading a report from a couple of military experts who were just there in which they said children who used to throw stuff at American vehicles now wave at our soldiers.

That's all part of creating normal life and so I think that it would appear that there has been some considerable movement with restoring some degree of order, which makes it much harder for the insurgency. That's because insurgencies prey on chaotic, lawless situations, where people have to choose sides out of fear more than anything else and they choose the insurgent side because they think that the government has weakened and that it's spiraling downward.

CNN: And what is the time frame that you think will be needed in order to continue to make progress and to eventually reduce troop levels?

Zakaria: I think that Obama should stick with the strategy he outlined, which is that sometime next summer we will begin a gradual and conditions-based withdrawal, which means that in areas that they think are particularly secure, it would be possible to reduce troops. I would imagine that by July/August of next year the troop withdrawals will be fairly modest, but it would send a signal that these places have achieved some stability and then over time that would build.

I don't think we should hold out for some kind of perfect solution in Afghanistan. When we leave there will be some reversals and some setbacks and there will be some disorder on the ground, but you know we have to balance that against the danger that we stay there forever. If you look at Iraq after U.S. troops have left, there has been more violence, there has been more disorder, just not at a level that makes it dangerous or threatening. So, I would say similarly in Afghanistan -- we should on a careful and deliberate basis, watching the conditions, do a slow withdrawal starting next July.

CNN: Do you anticipate that the president and Gen. Petraeus will be close enough on this to be on the same page or is it going to be a source of conflict?

Zakaria: I would guess that they will be able to be on the same page. Clearly Gen. Petraeus would like as many troops for as long as he can. I think that's his prerogative as the commander. The president has broader interests to worry about. The United States defense policy, and U.S. foreign policy more generally, is about a lot more than Afghanistan. In fact, one could argue that Afghanistan is just one small piece of what America's grand strategy needs to be in the next few decades.

There needs to be a much greater focus on great power politics with Asia, on how we engage with other Asian countries, on how we engage and deter China. All these things are going to take enormous time, energy and human resources, so the president cannot have a situation where the entire American Army is stuck in Afghanistan.

I do think that the president has a broader set of responsibilities to worry about ... there will be some different perspectives between him and Gen. Petraeus, but that's natural. The president's perspective should ultimately be the defining factor because (a) he's the president and (b) because he has a broader strategic set of concerns.

CNN: How significant for the Afghanistan situation was the loss of Richard Holbrooke?

Zakaria: Well I think it's a great loss. Holbrooke was really one of a kind because he was able to operate in this very complex role where he was the civilian counterpart to the chief military person, Gen. Petraeus, when he was the head of CENTCOM. It is very difficult for a civilian to play a role in these situations because the military so outguns them in terms of resources and you needed a person of Holbrooke's stature and energy to be able to hold up the civilian side of the operation. Especially with negotiating continually with the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the regional powers, it's a very complex job.

Finally what I think Holbrooke was able to bring to this was a very deep set of connections in Washington which also helped him -- not only was he very close to the secretary of state, he was very close to the national security adviser, Tom Donilon. So for all the problems and for all the tensions that people talk about, Holbrooke had the unique ability to be an interlocutor with the military and negotiator with all the regional players and to make the various connections in Washington. It will not be easy to find a replacement.

CNN: How unusual was his career, which was bracketed by Vietnam and Afghanistan?

Zakaria: Holbrooke's sad and premature death reminds us of this fact: There are lots of people in Washington involved in foreign policy who are skilled in the arts of Washington. They know Washington, they know power politics, they're well connected, they've mastered the corridors of power, but they don't know the world. Holbrooke came out of a different tradition. He really did know the world. He had started out in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, he spent years there. He spent years in Morocco, running the Peace Corps.

Whenever he took on an assignment, he really spent time in the area he was involved in and he would really get to know it at a very granular level. If you ever traveled with him you would notice he would not just go into the meeting halls with the officers or the presidents, or the foreign ministers, he would go to the towns, the villages, he would meet people, interact with them. And that gave him a kind of intuitive grasp of the country, which was very, very important. I think that there's a danger that we lose that in American foreign policy, especially as we go into a very new world.

It's important that we retain and give pride of place to people who actually are rooted in a kind of organic knowledge of these countries and have an ability to understand them because of their past -- that they have done this before and lived in foreign countries. All that kind of expertise is crucial and Holbrooke represented that throughout his career.