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Dim prospects in Afghanistan

A Q&A with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

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Brzezinski: I generally agree with the thrust of Graham Fuller's comments. During the last two years I have been on record as skeptical about further troop deployments. Moreover, in the top-level policy discussions that preceded the US decision to intervene in Afghanistan in late October 2001, and in some of which I was invited to participate, I took the position that, while we must intervene to overthrow the Taliban regime (since it gave safe haven to Al Qaeda), after its overthrow we should not remain in Afghanistan militarily engaged in some "nation-building" exercise.

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Gardels: Why not just seek to contain Al Qaeda – as we seek to do in Yemen and Somalia – instead of seeking to transform Afghanistan, a prospect that would take decades?

Brzezinski: I agree. After all, since Al Qaeda can always relocate somewhere else; are we going to wage prolonged wars in whatever countries it hides?

But we also have to face the fact that an Afghan policy of greater emphasis on progressive political accommodation and then stabilization – and less on counter-insurgency by a religiously and culturally alien United States and NATO military – for some time yet will still require both military and economic assistance from the international community, and especially from the US.

Gardels: It is already clear that, after eight years, Americans increasingly don't support this war. What is the logic of building schools in Afghanistan for a corrupt and ineffective government when, in California for example, prisoners are being let go and teachers are being fired because of the fiscal crisis?

The inconvenient reality is that the lacking will of the American public does not match the deep commitment of the Pashtun tribal mentality against foreigners that has gone on for centuries. Haven't we been here before in another war?

Brzezinski: I would simply say, very generally, that we should get off "the corruption" slogan which we usually employ as a justification for abandoning someone who has become dependent on our support. It comes in particularly poor grace from a country whose political and financial system has not been immune to quite widespread corruption.

On the larger issue of the US role in Afghanistan, the US should accept the timely proposal by German, British, and French leaders for an international conference designed to shape a strategy for shifting security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government. Two long-term benefits could ensue: the growing risk of the war becoming a war by foreigners against Afghans might be reduced; and our European allies might be less likely to pull out entirely, which would leave the US alone in the lurch.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of New Perspectives Quarterly and the Global Viewpoint Network syndicated by Tribune Media Services and hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.