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Afghanistan is still worth fighting for

A Q&A with foreign affairs scholar Francis Fukuyama

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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?

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Fukuyama: Again, nation building isn't something we're doing as a favor to them, but as an integral part of a counterinsurgency strategy. You don't get people to turn against insurgents unless you can offer them some concrete benefits for doing so.

Gardels: Is there another alternative?

Fukuyama: You could try to wall them off in Pashtunistan and create a rump Afghan state in the Tajik areas to the north. It's probably possible to contain Al Qaeda with drones and air power. But this new Pashtunistan will still present a threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and possibly to us as well. It is also likely to lead to unpredictable consequences for our broader credibility in the region. This is not to say that it's an obviously bad option, but one that needs to be thought through carefully.

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, we are letting prisoners go and firing teachers because of the fiscal crisis?

Fukuyama: To try to answer this question in yet a third way, we are not building schools because we are interested in development per se in Afghanistan. It is part of a military counterinsurgency strategy. You do not win a counterinsurgency war "kinetically," you win it politically by offering the broader population a better deal than the insurgents.

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

Fukuyama: Yes, but every war is different. There's actually not a whole lot of political pressure on the Obama administration for a near-term withdrawal. The costs of the war have mounted, but they are ones we could bear almost indefinitely.

Gardels: On the advice of the "best and brightest" minds in counterinsurgency theory and practice, isn't President Obama making a mistake by getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan?

Fukuyama: Yes, he is getting more involved on the advice of the best and brightest, but whether that's a mistake or not remains to be seen.

Francis Fukuyama, author of the seminal "The End of History and the Last Man," is director of the International Development Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. 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.