Ex-Diplomat: New Afghan Strategy Not So New Experts say President Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan has limitations. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he likes parts of the new strategy — although he says the plan is hardly new. Gelb is a former U.S. diplomat and author of the book Power Rules.

Ex-Diplomat: New Afghan Strategy Not So New

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Pakistan may be the country that worries some Americans the most, but Afghanistan is where US troops are on the ground. And General Petraeus says the military wants more troops than previously known. His commanders want 10,000 more soldiers next year, on top of those that President Obama already plans to send.

DAVID PETRAEUS: You have to provide security for the people. They have to be with you. In a sense, you have to be seen to serve them.

MONTAGNE: The general's explanation on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION underlines the challenge of winning Afghanistan, and those challenges raise questions for the man we'll meet next.


Leslie Gelb is a former U.S. diplomat and long-time writer on foreign affairs. He says President Obama's strategy attempts to do too much.

LESLIE GELB: He said he was narrowing the American objective there. It was no longer turning Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market paradise. We just were going to make sure al-Qaida didn't come back and use the area for terrorism again.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

GELB: The second problem I have with it is he said we're going to have benchmarks, but there were no benchmarks in that speech.

INSKEEP: And when you talk about benchmarks, you're just saying that some way to prove that the Afghan government is more effective, that there's less corruption, that the security forces are more effective and larger and better trained. That's what you're talking about.

GELB: Absolutely, it's a way to hold them accountable.

INSKEEP: So you don't see that the mission has necessarily been focused very well here, even though the rhetoric has perhaps been differently or better focused.

GELB: The rhetoric is much better, but nation building has come in through the back door.

INSKEEP: Doesn't that have to be part of the solution anyway?

GELB: If you think you're going to stay there indefinitely, yes. If you think you can really transform Afghanistan, yes. But I don't think anybody who understands that situation believes we can do that.

INSKEEP: Well what's the alternative? Do you just leave that country to its devices and risk the possibility that the government could fall at some point - to the Taliban or some other force that the U.S. doesn't like?

GELB: I put an alternative on the table. It's got problems with it, just like the president's policy, but here it is in a nutshell. Give our friends there a running start and to deal with the continuing problem of terrorism in ways we've done it successfully over the years through deterrence and containment. Point out to the Taliban, that if they let the al-Qaida back, we will come after them personally. And we will come after their poppy fields, and we'll go after their sources of income, which they care a lot about - in Saudi Arabia, in United Arab Emirates, and in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Why threaten all that, of the Taliban, rather than just doing it which seems to be what the administration would like to try to do?

GELB: Because it's too hard to do it, Steve. We're never going to wipe out all the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Taliban have a safe haven in Pakistan, for heaven's sake. And even if we did, by some miracle, if all this worked, there would still be international terrorists in Pakistan, in Somalia, and in Yemen that could attack us tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Mr. Gelb, you use these terms deterrence and containment, terms used during the Cold War to describe U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union. They make sense in that context, because you can say, the Soviets, if you fire a nuclear missile at us, we can destroy you. That is deterrence. And you can say, in terms of containment, we can support then nations next to you and make sure that those nations remain strong and independent of you. Isn't it harder to apply either of those concepts to a very small group that's hard to locate on the ground, some place, that is hard to reason with, and that may be hard to deal with in any sense?

GELB: Yes, but you hold accountable the government that might support their activity.

INSKEEP: So are you basically saying let's not worry too much about how Afghanistan is governed or even necessarily who governs Afghanistan, but whoever it is, we're just going to tell them, make sure there aren't terrorist attacks launched from your soil because we'll come after you?

GELB: I'm saying, yes, that is not a vital interest of the United States, exactly how Afghanistan is governed. It's vital to the people who live there. And I'm fully ready to help the good Afghans make their fight against the Taliban, but it's got to be their fight. Otherwise in the end, it won't work. We can't fight harder for their freedom than they will.

INSKEEP: Leslie Gelb, always good to talk with you.

GELB: Pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.


INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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