Ex-Envoy Khalilzad Weighs In On Afghan Policy

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Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., talks about a possible shift in U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. Khalilzad, a former envoy to Kabul who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says possible changes may focus on drug eradication and redefining what success would look like.


The new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is heading on his first trip to the region. His mission comes amid reports that the U.S. will scale back its goals for Afghanistan. The Obama administration will soon get three strategy reviews recommending a new direction for U.S. policy. Those reviews reportedly say the U.S. goals for Afghanistan have been too ambitious, that the focus should be on protecting the population and going after the Taliban and al-Qaida, not on establishing a vibrant democracy, at least, not now.

Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Welcome back to the program.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, United Nations): Well, it's great to be with you.

BLOCK: I'd like to have you respond to the comments of Defense Secretary Robert Gates a couple of weeks ago before Congress. He said that the goals were too broad. In his words, Afghanistan is going to be a long slog. And he said, if we set the goal of a central Asian Valhalla, we will lose. Do you think there's a reasonable thing to do here, which is to downsize expectations?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, it is realistic to assume or to believe that it's going to take time to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. It's unrealistic to believe that you can succeed in defeating the insurgency without also dealing with the problem of governance, without also dealing with the other issue of narcotics, without also dealing with the problem of sanctuary in Pakistan. I think President Karzai, his government has had problems with regard to governance.

But I think we have not been adequately paying attention to the problem of sanctuary in Pakistan over the past few years. But I think it will be unrealistic to assume that you can defeat the insurgency and defeat terror without dealing with these other problems.

BLOCK: The government of President Hamid Karzai is seen as so weak and so corrupt. Do you think that the ultimate goal of a democratic Afghanistan can be achieved with Hamid Karzai at the helm?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: I believe that during the first three years of President Karzai's government he was regarded to be very effective, very courageous. And now, the last couple of years, especially in the last few months, he's been very heavily criticized for being ineffective on the issue of corruption. I think he could do better. His government could do better. The Afghans need to do better. Afghanistan cannot succeed without Afghans doing their part.

But we also need to look at what we have done well, what we haven't done well. There have been problems with regard to our military strategy. We don't have enough forces, Afghan and U.S., to do what is required in a good counter-insurgency strategy, which is to clear, and hold and build. And we kept the Afghan forces to a small number, because we thought they wouldn't be able to sustain a larger force. And therefore, although the Afghan military is relatively effective, but it's too small to do what's needed.

I think a joint approach, a strategy that has Afghan buy-in and American buy-in, regardless of whether President Karzai is the president of Afghanistan or someone else becomes the president of the country, our role is to facilitate the free and fair elections, working with the U.N. and others.

BLOCK: We should mention here, Ambassador Khalilzad, that you are Afghan. Your own name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to run against President Hamid Karzai. Will you be a contender?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Oh, well, I've said repeatedly, I know this question keeps coming up, that I'm not a candidate. I think there is some nostalgia about the period that I was there, because people think things were going relatively well when I was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. I'll do what I can to help. But the key issue is that there be fair and free elections, and that there is an Afghan - U.S. or U.S. - Afghan strategy together for Afghanistan.

BLOCK: Does that mean you're definitively ruling out any run for office in Afghanistan?

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, I've said that I'm not a candidate, and I don't plan to be. I care about Afghanistan, as I care about the United States, and I will do what I can to help.

BLOCK: Ambassador Khalilzad, thanks very much.

Ambassador KHALILZAD: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: That's former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. He's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

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