RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We're going to begin this morning with a look at a resurgent al-Qaida. Sunni leaders in Iraq are trying to retake control of two important cities in Anbar Province. Fallujah and Ramadi have been under siege by insurgents linked to al-Qaida. That is raising fears in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida operatives still reside near the border with Pakistan, and the U.S. is preparing to pull all combat troops by the end of this year.
To tie these strands together, we called David Ignatius. He's an author and columnist for "The Washington Post." And I started by asking him what it means that territory hard won by the U.S. in Iraq is now under threat again.
DAVID IGNATIUS: First, I think it's really painful for any American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar province, who fought in the battles to suppress al-Qaida in Fallujah and Ramadi, to see that these areas - the whole of the Euphrates Valley, really - has been retaken. The U.S. is saying to the Iraqi government: Work with the Sunni tribes of this area. Don't try to send the Shiite-led army in to drive these forces out; that will only alienate the population. They've had some success in Ramadi, which is a less militant town, in using the tribal fighters to push al-Qaida out.
So Ramadi is now largely back in control of the tribal sheiks. Fallujah isn't, and Fallujah is going to be a tough battle. The U.S. is trying to help the Iraqi government - trying to help them with technology, with hardware, with advice - as they try to fight the same battle the U.S. fought, to get al-Qaida out of these Sunni towns.
MARTIN: I'd like to turn to Afghanistan now. Afghan President Hamid Karzai missed an important deadline this past week, refusing to sign a new agreement that essentially, defines the U.S. military role in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. And then in another apparent snub, he released dozens of Afghan prisoners who the U.S. views as threatening to American national security interests. What's going on?
IGNATIUS: Well, I think President Karzai has grown to take a kind of pleasure in snubbing, driving crazy President Obama and the U.S. administration. Relations are so bad. They've been bad, really, since Obama came into office, but they get worse and worse. Karzai's term as president is set to expire this year. And so in a sense, the only leverage he has remaining is to make trouble. I mean, the minute he signs the basic security agreement, which would provide for a residual U.S. force in Afghanistan and stabilize the situation, his powers, leverage, disappears. I think as American officials look at what happened in Iraq when we really pulled out, when we didn't leave a residual force, there's going to be much more reluctance to do the same thing in Afghanistan. And people really will fight, despite all of Karzai's machinations to find a way to keep some American troops there, which appears to be what most Afghans want.
MARTIN: How does the U.S. leave these countries to fight their own battles but stay involved enough to further American national security interests, especially when it comes to counterterrorism? Where's that balance?
IGNATIUS: If you look at Iraq, look at Ramadi. As al-Qaida fighters rolled in a week and a half ago - I'm told they had 75 trucks with machine guns, hundreds of fighters; took over all the police stations. And they were beaten back. And the reason they were beaten back is that the Iraqi people in Ramadi didn't want them there. And I think that the evidence is pretty strong that most places where al-Qaida and the Taliban operate, people end up not wanting them to govern.
You know, we should understand that the people who are going to have to fight them, and keep them out, probably are willing to do that if they get a little help and good policy. The second thing is that even though it's obvious that sending American troops into these battlegrounds is probably a mistake - that we create as many enemies as we take down - there are many things the U.S. can do to help the governments and people that don't involve sending troops, and that are worth doing. You know, a residual force that trains armies in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan; that bolsters, you know, people who are more moderate than the extremists, and gives them some confidence that helps them get the kinds of weapons they need to defend themselves - I think those policies make more sense, the more we look at the way things are playing out; not less.
MARTIN: David Ignatius - he's a columnist for "The Washington Post"; he's also the author of a new, forthcoming novel titled "The Director." Thanks so much for being with us, David.
IGNATIUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.