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Zakaria: Stop trashing Karzai and help him govern

  • Hamid Karzai declared winner of Afghan election after opponent withdrew
  • Fareed Zakaria: Karzai needs to take steps to increase his legitimacy
  • He says the U.S. needs a Pashtun leader and should get Karzai to win back support

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET

NEW YORK (CNN) -- President Hamid Karzai was declared the winner of another term in office as Afghanistan's leader Monday, after his opponent in a planned runoff election withdrew.

President Obama called Monday for a "new chapter" of improved governance in Afghanistan now that Karzai's re-election as president is complete. Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission announced Karzai's victory Monday after it canceled Saturday's presidential runoff because of the withdrawal of candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

Fareed Zakaria, author and host of "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" spoke to CNN Monday about Karzai's election.

CNN: What do you make of today's developments?

Fareed Zakaria: In a sense, it adds to the drama and tension surrounding the politics of Afghanistan, but it doesn't materially change very much because Abdullah was not going to win. Karzai was going to be the next president of Afghanistan. Imagine there had been a runoff and Karzai had won. We would have been roughly where we are today. The big problem is that it has not rebuilt Hamid Karzai's legitimacy. What he needs right now is not power or position, it's legitimacy.

CNN: How can he rebuild his legitimacy?

Zakaria: The election had the potential to give him a quick shot in the arm. Gaining legitimacy involves dealing with corruption, delivering services effectively. One could hope that things improve but at best it will be a long, hard slog.

CNN: Will the failure to have a runoff affect the American decision on troop levels?

Zakaria: Not really, and it's in some sense a little better to make the decision under these circumstances rather than under the very temporary halo effect of a runoff. The reality is that we have a very mixed partner in Afghanistan, the good side is that he's not anti-American...The downside is that there are allegations of corruption and clear ineffectiveness. In a way, if Karzai had won a runoff, he would have had two good weeks. But it's better that the U.S. is not temporarily blinded by that.

CNN: What stance should the U.S. take in dealing with the Karzai government?

Video: American leaves Afghanistan

Zakaria: My own view, which is not particularly popular, is that we should stop trashing Hamid Karzai. Look, we have no good option. We need a Pashtun leader in Afghanistan. It's 60 percent of the population, 100 percent of the insurgency. Is he the best Pashtun leader we could have? He's the one we have now. It would be great if we could get Karzai to improve governance, [but] I'm not sure it's worth expending large amounts of American political capital attacking corruption, at this point, in Afghanistan. It's definitely a huge problem, it's part of the cancer that's eating away at the country.

At this point we need security, stability, some form of economic development. This is one of the worst situations in the world. If this is not a place that you have to have priorities -- have triage -- I don't know what is. Achieving basic political order is more important right now than eliminating corruption.

CNN: What policy should the U.S. follow about the drug trade in Afghanistan?

Zakaria: Does the government have the ability to put down laws that will be obeyed? Are farmers more scared of the army than the Taliban? The drug trade is a huge trade in many places in the world. The crucial problem of the drug trade in Afghanistan is that the money is going to the Taliban. I'm more concerned about that second issue than the first. We need some realism about what we can achieve on the drug trade.

CNN: In light of today's developments, do you still believe the U.S. should test higher troop levels in some parts of Afghanistan?

Zakaria: The [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal thesis is a valuable one, and it's clearly important in the big population centers of the country. Whether it will work in the outlying regions of Afghanistan, whether the introduction of foreign troops there creates stability or whether that whole introduction of outside forces into these regions makes the locals resistant and rebellious is something that I would really like to see tested.

It's not about anti-Americanism, the Afghans are really quite pro-American. There's an intense degree of localism and "don't tread on me" feeling. We have to think about where to apply counterinsurgency. It's not clear to me that an incremental approach is so bad. We're feeling our way, it's very difficult terrain. This way we can build on success rather than take a blanket approach.

CNN: Any other thoughts on the implications of Karzai's new term in office?

Zakaria: This probably makes it less likely that you will have a grand coalition that everybody was talking about. The U.S. should try to push Karzai into power-sharing. It's not a matter of power sharing with Abdullah, who's a Tadzhik ... Karzai has lost the support of a large segment of the Pashtun population.

The real question is how we should reach out and win them over, thus dividing the insurgency. We should be trying to get Karzai to make very dramatic overtures that will win back the support of the Pashtuns. We tend to think about this in ideological terms, as radicals vs. democrats. In Afghanistan it's entirely seen in ethnic terms as Pashtuns versus the non-Pashtuns.