Fareed Zakaria’s Insidious Ignorance

by Joshua Foust on 9/13/2009 · 14 comments

Oh Fareed. Where to begin?

It’s time to get real about Afghanistan.

Oh boy. Not only has it been time to “get real” about Afghanistan for several years now, and certainly since Newsweek began declaring the place “Obama’s Vietnam,” but he should be aware of what happens when keeping it real goes wrong.

This is the challenge of Fareed Zakaria: he has almost as much knowledge as Tom Friedman. But, despite ending his books with “this is all just my opinion so who cares,” he still carries the illusion of erudition—and his ideas get taken seriously. Which is why, while I’m fine with him arguing for more limited goals in the country—he joins, after the fact as it were, a growing number of pundits in that regard—his replacement idea is simply ridiculous. How does a serious person read this:

Buying, renting, or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America’s stabilization strategy, as it was Britain’s when it ruled Afghanistan.

And concludes it is the thinking of a serious person? Perhaps Zakaria should read his history a bit more closely: THE BRITISH FAILED TO RULE AFGHANISTAN. THEY MADE DEALS, THE PASHTUNS RENEGGED AND SLAUGHTERED THOUSANDS WHILE RUNNING AWAY.

Oh, and also Afghanistan in 2009 is not Afghanistan in 1839. If a Russian looked at American Civil War history and used that as a justification for some kind of policy toward America, he’d be laughed out of the planning session. Why we think it’s okay to look 160 years into our past for ideas for Afghanistan, when we can look to the 1990s and 2000s is beyond my ability to understand.

But seriously, Fareed? Just shut up. If you won’t do basic diligence before writing something… Just. Shut. Up.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AG September 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm

“THE BRITISH FAILED TO RULE AFGHANISTAN. THEY MADE DEALS, THE PASHTUNS RENEGGED AND SLAUGHTERED THOUSANDS WHILE RUNNING AWAY.” — Umm, no, it was actually the British who stopped paying first. Hence, the slaughter. Also, it was Ghilzai’s (controlling the supply lines) who were getting paid by the British; and who were also paid by the Afghan Amirs before the British replaced them. We wouldn’t have to live with this smelly fish trotted out if the British hadn’t tried to run their empire on the cheap. That may be a lesson worth learning!

AG September 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

By the way, no fan of Fareed’s; though I do want to earn lots of money by writing drivel (just like Friedman). They say you need a degree from Harvard for that.

Toaf September 13, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Very enjoyable.

Dan September 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Very painful and funny.

Schmedlap September 13, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Do you read Zakaria’s stuff often? I only ask because what he writes is ridiculous more often than not. Well, at least that was my observation when I stopped reading him months ago (because he was ridiculous more often than not). Odd that this piece finally drew a rise out of you.

Marufkhail September 13, 2009 at 9:08 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with Joshua. I was seriously disappointed when I first read Fareed’s piece on Afghanistan suggesting that the U.S. should be bribing ‘Pashtun-Tribes’. First and foremost, this title has become a fantasy of the western media, pundits therein, and the so-called Afghan experts. Pashtuns are an ethnic group divided into large extended families, which are often termed as tribes or clans. What hot chutney headed experts like Fareed don’t understand is the fact that Taliban refer to the Pashtuns as Pashtuns in their propaganda and not as tribes! Taliban and other religious thugs in the region are exploiting the Pashtun national identity by uniting them against the ISAF. On the other hand, however, westerners are out to divide the Pashtuns whereas they should be uniting them against the common enemy.

Get this Fareed: All Pashtuns are Afghans but not all Afghans are Pashtuns. Pashtuns have the worst victims of violence in this drams being staged in Afghanistan. Yet, the media is portraying them Taliban, religious zealots, and Al-Qa’ida sympathizers etc. The truth of the matter is that the customs and culture of Pashtuns is a threat to both political and extremist Islam. It is precisely for this very reason why a demolition squad, known as Taliban, have been let loose on Afghanistan to destroy the national pride, identity, and culture of Pashtuns. Pashtuns are being bombarded from the air, and on the ground, their schools are being burned, their men and women are being humiliated and harassed, and they being displaced by the millions (Swat Valley is perfect example).

Why are people such as Fareed forgetting undisputable fact that the command and control of Taliban is in Pakistan? Why can’t ISAF dismantle and completely disrupt the base of operation inside Pakistan? Why is everyone blaming the Pashtuns for instability in Afghanistan? If President Obama is serious, I recommend the following steps:

1) Force Pakistan to reform its current Afghan foreign policy
2) Dismantle the Pakistan’s ISID and create a new intelligence organization that is only focused on securing Pakistan’s national security interests
3) Integrate FATA into the mainstream Pakistani society by extending political and judicial reforms
4) Initiate a new national reconciliation program for Afghanistan
5) Revitalize Afghan culture and traditions
6) Restore the Afghan national pride and identity
7) Liquidate all Cold War era influential figures in Kabul
8) Afghanistan needs a political discourse, create new democratic political parties
9) Draft an Afghan foreign policy

What is the U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan? In my opinion, there is no U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Afghanistan is always put in the same basket with Pakistan at the Dept. of State in Washington DC.

Fareed, it is time to get real and please stop this nonsense. I have great respect for you and you have lost much credibility by advocating an old British policy. In fact, I also believe that the U.K., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan the perpetrators and spectators of instability in Afghanistan. All three countries support the establishment of and Islamic government. And, the Iranian-Russian alliance is arming the Afghan ethnic minorities to stir trouble. Afghanistan is headed towards a new civil war and ISAF will be in the middle of it. Unless, basic steps I have mentioned are taken seriously.

AJK September 14, 2009 at 8:28 am

While I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of what you say, Marufkhail, and most of your suggestions, I can’t see any way to convince Pakistan to reorganize ISI and integrate FATA…that seems a bit impossible with how ISI is put together and pretty much runs the country. It’s a problem, yes, but it’s not a problem that Obama can solve while fighting two wars and health care and myriad other things.

Brian September 13, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Bravo Josh.

And don’t forget we can look at the Soviet model of hiring militias to rule the rural areas (ie “Concerned Local Citizens”) and no, that didn’t work.

Next it was tried as an “Afghan initiative” under Najibullah after the Soviet withdrawal, and guess what, that didn’t work either.

Yet “sons of Afghanistan” is still being widely considered. It might work to provide relative stability-in the short-term(hell maybe even in the long-term) but what it won’t do is encourage progress towards a unified Afghan nation under a centralized state with an idea of collective identity.

Toryalay Shirzay September 13, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Josh and AG, you both are right on the money regarding Fareed Z.It seems there are many such writers in the US who write a lot but of little or no substance.Considerable hyping is observable in the US media probably for commercial reasons,its effect on society and human life being not even of secondary consideration.

Dilshod September 14, 2009 at 12:14 pm

No disagreement, FZ often throws out fancy ideas that hardly correlate with reality. (also stopped reading him few years back). However trite it may sound, still: bribing leadership might prove effective when you have strong centralized power network, otherwise you’ll end up with constantly paying chiefs out of fear that they may shift loyalty.

omar September 14, 2009 at 12:33 pm

The whole “tribes” notion is such bullshit. The “tribes” were never that coherent and have become even less relevant since the Afghan war started in the late seventies. Fareed Zakariya, unfortunately, has no idea what the hell he is talking about. The taliban have already overtaken the tribal structure. It is possible to talk of local warlords being paid off or otherwise coopted, but the notion that its time to bring back the sahibs from Nikalseyn sahib’s heyday is just lazy and idiotic..and I believe that even in Nikalseyn sahib’s day, the real issue was the ability of the British to deliver retribution for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior. As long as the taliban have the longer knives and longer memories, no tribe or warlord is going to get too far on their wrong side. When the other side has shows its able to deliver both carrots and sticks and preferrably do so without raping women and kidnapping boys, then the taliban will lose, otherwise they win. And if the taliban are the power with the ability to deliver retribution, then they will get all the money you pay out in subsidies and bribes as well. Power still grows from the barrel of the gun…The real question is: does the US have a legitimate interest that makes it necessary to win this war? and secondly, does it have the ability to do so even if it wants to? I am not sure about the first question, but rather more confident about the second (maybe because i have never been on the inside, so I dont know who bad things really are?). But in any case, Zakariya cannot have it both ways: to win, and not to have to do anything terribly hard in the process. That is not going to happen. The US can give up (of course, while trying to minimize the fallout of failure, but knowing that SOME fallout is inevitable) or it can commit to winning, which will not be easy and may include buying and selling “tribes”, but cannot be achieved without showing who is boss where it matters i.e. in matters of life and death.

rh September 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Lets just hope he wasn’t part of another secret meeting where he endorses the plan w/out debating it like he did for Iraq and then apologized after it was leaked he was among many others that were advising the past admin on the value of going into Iraq rather than after OBL

Toryalay Shirzay September 14, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Omar, I find your writings to be very crafty and similar to Paki ISI ‘s attempt at shaping public opinion and manipulating the media.While Af/Pak remain the center of international terrorism,how can you say that the US may not have a legitimate reason to win this war?The Paki Establshment will be the real winner if the US decided to quit this war without winning since the Taliban were created in Pakistan to take control of Afghanistan by proxy.

omar September 15, 2009 at 10:31 am

Toryalay, You can believe what you wish, but in this case I think I can clear my name fairly easily. Attached below is my post on SWJ (written and posted before your comment) and as you can see, I have no urge to see a jihadi victory in that region, but I do have doubts about the US ability to sustain and “win” an increasingly unpopular war and am trying to see what the best alternatives may be…see post below:
Originally Posted by jmm99

So, what are your proposed courses of action toward whatever you define as the end state acceptable to you ?
MY answer:
The short answer is: “I dont know”. But you know there is going to be a long answer as well. So here goes:
1. I dont see how the US can turn around and say we are leaving anytime soon (next 2 years?). I dont think that is likely EVEN if it were the best course available.
2. I dont see how a pullout (any kind of pullout) will leave the afghan people in a better position, at least in the medium term. Any pullout will be followed by renewed civil war and massive killing.
3. I think the change of scenery in Pakistan (from the time when jihadi demos were organized in the main cricket stadium in Lahore, with posters all over town asking people to come and see mujahids rapelling down a wall and so on, to the current situation where SOME previosly beloved ISI assets, at least at foot soldier level, are being hunted down and their bodies are turning up lying around the byways of Swat) is due to American pressure and specifically the american presence in Afghanistan. If the US leaves, Pakistan could revert to the good old days, which is really bad news for India, but not just for India. Ordinary Pakistanis will pay a heavy price too.
So, you can see why I think its better if the US DOES manage to overcome the core jihadi insurgency and establish a semi-functional regime in Afghanistan before a pullout. Purely as an American, I am not sure, but as a Pakistani-American I cannot be too relaxed about the idea of a precipitate US departure.
How to “win”? Without knowing any inside details, I guess it would involve taking a realistic inventory of assets and enemies and prioritizing efforts. Which may be hard to do with an unweildy international coalition and massive bureaucratic and ideological blinders within the US establishment, but my guess is that if its done smartly, the US CAN do it..i dont think its unrealistic, but its likely to be hard and it would be a good start to know what the aim is, what the resources are, and what the priorities are going to be….This is just a collection of platitudes, but I do think its important to focus on tracking down and taking out particular leaders. Its a myth that every dead number three is immediately replaced by another number three. The issue is not who is number three now. The issue is establishing that being alqaeda or taliban number three is a high risk and low reward operation. What you are establishing is the notion that the govt (in this case, the afghan govt and its foreign supporters) has a longer arm and a longer memory than any particular gangster. That does not stop gangsters from existing, but it severely limits their ambition. Don Corleone buys judges and politicians and dreams of “senator corleone” but he is not out to overthrow the govt..that would be a step too far for him and his kind because the state has institutional resources that are much deeper and greater than his nimble but small operation. If you were fighting this war, wouldnt you have an intelligence detachment dedicated to collecting and sifting information about your opponents and building up a data base which may not hit paydirt on day one, but is eventually going to be overwhelming? firefights and FOBs are just part of the deal, its the inertia of the state that discourages rebellion and keeps things at the level of crimes rather than rebellion. What is being done about that part of the afghan state and can more be done? Again, I am focused on the fact that this kind of fluid situation where every adventurer is calculating the odds and switching sides four times a day is not sustainable and will end in disaster. Somehow, you have to move from this to a state where the default expectation is that open rebellion is just too costly…

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