01/19/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Fareed's Take on Afghanistan's Future, Pakistan and the Middle East

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's flagship international affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS, is also editor-at-large of TIME magazine, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a New York Times-bestselling author. Zakaria discusses the economic and geopolitical complexities facing Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, the influence of Saudi Arabia on the region, as well as regional challenges in the Middle East.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

What is the likelihood of Afghanistan breaking out in civil war once foreign troops leave?

Fareed Zakaria: Afghanistan already has civil war of a kind. It's basically a war that has been going on for 30 years. It is a war between the Pashtuns on the one hand and the Tajiks and the Uzbeks and the Hazaras on the other hand. The best one can hope for is that there will be a series of negotiated settlements -- on that issue, because there has to be a political settlement of the claims of each side. If both sides continue to have these kind of extreme maximalist positions, and the Taliban's positions are really extreme and maximalist, it's very difficult to see how you will end up with any kind of security.

My own sense is that the Taliban is not as strong as it appears. It's easy to disrupt things, it's easy to launch a terrorist attack -- but that doesn't mean that you can actually hold and govern large areas and territories. As the international community draws down, I think we will also see that this whole idea that the Taliban is going to rise and take its place is not exactly right. The Taliban is quite unpopular in many, many parts of Afghanistan. They don't have the manpower to be able to hold territory. Also, the international military presence is not going to zero; it is going to be still fairly substantial. So, I'm hopeful that, while it will seem messy, you will not have total chaos. Remember, Afghanistan is messy today. Afghanistan has been messy for 30 years.

Do you think the Pakistani government recognizes a strong India actually works in its favor? They could go to the World Economic Forum for instance and say: "We're a good workforce and we're cheaper than India."

Fareed Zakaria: This is the big question and this is the most important question really because the way I would answer, the current strategic leadership in Pakistan just does not see things the way you describe, which I thought was very intelligent and exactly the way Pakistan needs to think of its national interests. Instead, the current leadership of Pakistan, particularly on the military side, tends to view the entire region in a very narrow, almost 19th century, geopolitical prism, that India's strength is, by definition, a threat to Pakistan, you need strategic depth, and you need Afghanistan as a buffer zone, therefore it's best to keep it weak and chaotic, which will allow you room to manoeuvre.

Similarly keeping Kashmir on edge has benefits. I think that, rather than that, I almost wish there was a kind of businessman's mentality, a kind of economic conception of national interests which would be to say, "Look, we want to be part of this great growth story that is taking place in South Asia, to the extent that we can resolve some of these issues. If we can as a result, if the payoff is trade between India and Pakistan, our economy will boom, people will get rising standards of living and, in the context of that, we'll even be able to solve the next set of strategic issues, because trust will have been built up". Unfortunately, my sense is that the civilian government, the Prime Minister, President Zardari and such are more inclined towards that view, but they have really no authority.

This has been the story of Pakistan for the last 25 years. Remember, people often forget, that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was deposed in a military coup by General Musharraf because he was trying to strike a deal with India, because he was adopting what the military thought was a too conciliatory, cooperative policy towards India. This has been a persistent strain, that even when you get civilian leadership that is far-sighted, that is more oriented towards a co-operative win/win solution, the strategic elites, military intelligence, some politicians, all band together, because they benefit from this adversarial attention. Look, here's the fundamental question: if Pakistan had good relations with India, why would you need a military that takes up 25% of the federal government's budget? Right? That is the reason why the military just does not see it in its institutional interest to take any of these risks for cooperation and peace. If you were to have peace with India, why do you need a 600,000 man army?

Do you see Islamic extremism as being a phase that will eventually go away, or do you worry that it's something that will continue?

Fareed Zakaria: You have to be worried about it because it is present in every Muslim society, let's be honest. But I have to say, what is striking about the version that you see in Pakistan, which is often very violent and nasty, highly reactionary, with abuse towards women, towards foreigners, towards Christians, the blasphemy issue, what you see is that it comes out of an enormous sense of frustration and anger. Frustration with a government that is not able to deliver on its basic promises. Just simple things like providing education and food, water and electricity. A sense of being unrepresented, even within a democratic system because, as you know, Pakistan still has such a strong feudal tradition that even with democracy what you have is just these feudal chieftains get elected to parliament and then their families. They have effectively family seats in parliament, which means that in a strange way democracy actually worsens the problem rather than strengthens it.

So, it is in that environment of really feeling powerless and helpless and frustrated that a lot of the militant Islamic movements have come up. You see much more of it now in Pakistan than you do in the Arab world, because the Arab Spring has loosened up and opened up the system, so that, while you do see Islamic movements, they are much more tolerant, much more democratic, much less violent. If you think of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, whose ideology I don't agree with, but appears to be non-violent for one. So, I do think that unless you get some fundamental change in the Pakistani political system that is more inclusive, more open and makes people feel more that their voices are heard, there will always be this temptation to very radical, very extreme, protest politics, which in the Muslim world unfortunately takes the form of Islamic extremism.

Many women in Saudi Arabia have been using examples from the Prophet's wife Khadija to change laws towards women. Do you think their progress can influence conservative religious leaders in country's such as Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Fareed Zakaria: I think you've hit on exactly the right example. What I'm struck by in the Muslim world is how little the example, for instance, East Asia matters. You can tell people that in Indonesia and Malaysia, they have these various freedoms and liberal interpretations of Islam. It doesn't seem to make much difference. It doesn't change the minds of people in the Arab world or South Asia. But Saudi Arabia is different. Saudi Arabia, I think, because it is the site of Mecca and Medina, because it has traditionally been seen as the most pure version of Islam, I do think that it would make a difference if you were to see substantial changes there now.

I wouldn't hold my breath about seeing substantial change in Saudi Arabia; it's a very conservative place. But I think that the point you make is something that's really worth people understanding, that Islam in the 7th and 8th century was actually a very progressive force in terms of the role -- the attitude towards women, the attitude towards minorities, the attitude towards business. Muhammed was a businessman, his wife (Khadija) was a businesswoman. One has to keep in mind that nothing can be taken totally out of the context in which it was created and that was certainly the impulse and aspiration behind the foundations of Islam. Unfortunately, in many ways Islam did not evolve as much as it might have. That's in a way the story of what has happened in the Muslim world.

Israel has many technologies that could really benefit the entire Middle East region. How long can Israel survive being isolated, and do you think the US government should try to pressure Israel to not be so isolated from its neighbors?

Fareed Zakaria: Look, they have tried to pressure Israel. That is what President Obama has been trying to do. But I think that the Israelis have a legitimate point when they say that the last Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, offered Mahmoud Abbas a deal, which he turned down. The Prime Minister before that, Ehud Barak, offered Yasser Arafat a deal, which he turned down. So, the problem in a strange sense is that you have these two parties and they're not on the right cycles. When the Israelis make concessions, the Palestinians get obstinate. When the Palestinians start getting conciliatory, the Israelis' political system is in a very non - in an obstructionist mood. The cycles don't meet.

If Arafat had at least negotiated seriously on the Camp David deal, there might have been a Palestinian state. If Abu Mazen {Mahmoud Abbas} had negotiated seriously when Prime Minister Olmert offered him that deal, there might have been a Palestinian state. If now that Salam Fayyad and Abu Mazen are making all these efforts that they've been making for the last two years, if Bibi Netanyahu had reached out and tried to negotiate, there could have been a deal. I think that the idea that if only America would put more pressure on the Israelis you would get a Palestinian state, it really misses the reality.

At the end of the day, you are only going to get a Palestinian state if the Israelis want to give it. They have the land, they have the guns, they have the money. They view this as a matter of national survival. They're not going to do it because the American President makes a speech. The Palestinians have to negotiate with them and they have to figure out a way to reassure them that the Israelis' security would be intact. I'm leaving aside the morality of the issue. I'm saying, practically, if you want to get the state, the only way you're going to get it is by a negotiated deal with Israel. They have the land. They are not going to give it to you because the UN passes some resolution one way or the other. They're going to give it to you if they feel that their future is secure.

So, that's one of the reasons I think that the Palestinian strategy of gong to the UN, just from a practical point of view, will not achieve the benefits they want out of it. The only way they will get the benefit they want out of it is through negotiation with Israel, but I think it's fair to say that it is clearly an act of deep frustration because Bibi Netanyahu really has not shown himself to want to negotiate seriously and has himself done -- created facts on the ground with the continued building of settlements. It's tough to be optimistic when you have a situation like this.

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