As the Administration struggles over Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam multiply. Two relate the country itself: the third, to developments within Washington, D.C. None of them holds out much hope of avoiding another setback, albeit on a lesser scale.
In Afghanistan since 2001, as in Vietnam after 1954, we have put our trust in one local leader: Hamid Karzai now, and Ngo Dinh Diem then. Neither one has lived up to our expectations as a worthy, modernizing third-world leader, although Diem managed to put up a better front in those more innocent days. I was reminded of the comparison a week or two ago when the New York Times ran a long story about Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. It revealed, first that brother Ahmed is almost universally believed to be deeply involved in the poppy trade, and secondly, that he has been on a regular retainer from the Central Intelligence Agency. A bell rang in my head.
Ngo Dinh Diem's right-hand man was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, his "counselor," minister of the interior, and head of various security services. Nhu did not traffic in drugs, although he was widely rumored to consume them. His beautiful wife, Madame Nhu, had political ambitions, a very sharp tongue, and an unfortunate facility with the English language, which enabled her directly to address the American people with frequently disastrous results. Nhu thought of himself as an intellectual and promulgated a philosophy called personalism, which stressed the duties of Vietnamese citizens to the state. He despised all political opposition and within a few years of 1954 had become easily the most hated man in Vietnam. With rare but critical exceptions, most Americans in Vietnam regarded him as the regime's biggest liability. Elbridge Durbrow, Eisenhower's last Ambassador there, suggested bluntly to Diem that Nhu should be appointed an Ambassador elsewhere. Even Ed Lansdale, the Air Force General and one-time CIA operative who did so much to put Diem in power in 1954-5, thought Diem would be better off without him. What Americans never seemed to realize was that Nhu was far more critical to his President/brother than Robert F. Kennedy was to his. While Diem was trotting around the globe (and visiting the US) in 1954, making friends and influencing people, Nhu was setting up the Ngo family machine (which included two other brothers as well.) Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge renewed the demand for Nhu's departure in the fall of 1963, during the Buddhist crisis, but Diem told him it was "out of the question."
Nhu had patrons, however, within the CIA, which funded many of his operations. Two stattion chiefs, William Colby (from 1959 to 1962) and John Richardson (1962-3) met with Nhu once or twice a week, developing relationships at least as important as those between Diem and successive Ambassadors. Recognizing their importance, I in 1992, when I was beginning work on American Tragedy, asked the Agency to release the accounts of all the conversations between Colby and Richardson on the one hand and Nhu on the other. The Agency replied that their records could not be searched for those documents. Imagine my surprise, earlier this year, when I discovered that the CIA had published some internally commissioned histories of its role in Vietnam, including one, "The CIA and the Ngo family," which drew on almost every page upon the exact documents that I had requested. In a somewhat testy conversation with a CIA FOIA officer, I received the distinct impression that the Agency has constructed a separate database of its files for the sole purpose of responding to FOIA requests, and that it does not include anything that they are determined not to release.
Like Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was assassinated along with his brother on November 2, 1963, Ahmed Wali Karzai seems to be both a presumed US asset and a liability to his brother, another ineffective leader. The denouement of the Afghan presidential election debacle last month also recalls Vietnam. There, too, the United States insisted after Diem's overthrow in establishing a new constitution and, eventually in 1967, a presidential election designed to ratify the rule of General Nguyen van Thieu, who had supplanted another general, Nguyen Cao Ky, as the US favorite. The CIA provided get-out-the-vote money for Thieu, but his minions apparently were lax in distributing it, and in the election, Thieu won with an embarrassing plurality of only 38%. Second in a multi-candidate field was a peace candidate, Truong Dinh Dzu, whom Thieu managed to jail a few years later. The real parallel to the recent election, however, occurred four years later, when Thieu ran for re-election. Both Nguyen Cao Ky and Duong Van Minh, the Buddhist General who had led the coup against Diem, had hopes of defeating Thieu in a three-way race, and the North Vietnamese reportedly let Henry Kissinger know that a change of president would make it much easier to conclude a peace agreement. Thieu however found a legal stratagem to bar Ky from the race, and Big Minh, as he was known, realized that he had no chance in a two-man race and withdrew himself. According to recent reports, U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker offered Minh $1 million to run in order to give the election some legitimacy, but he refused. None of this could have helped Thieu much in the struggle that really counted, the long-term battle against the Viet Cong.
Viewed from across the ocean, the election in Afghanistan seems to have turned out even worse. To begin with, the Taliban successfully prevented voters in large parts of the country from taking part. In addition, Karzai evidently defeated his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with the help of massive vote fraud. An international inquiry resulted, and the Americans--replaying, in a sense, the role of Ellsworth Bunker--managed to insist upon holding the election again. But Abdullah Abdullah, arguing that the second election would be just as bad as the first, withdrew--for reasons about which we can as yet only speculate. Once again the United States retains the local leader it thinks it wants--but at an obvious cost in that leader's legitimacy which cannot bode well for his future.
The other parallel relates to those two externally very similar Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Kennedy did not inherit an ongoing war in Southeast Asia, but he did, as I showed clearly in American Tragedy, inherit a policy. The Eisenhower Administration had committed the US to fight for either Laos or South Vietnam in internal policy statements, and Kennedy as a result faced a flurry of recommendations to intervene in both countries--supported by his entire senior foreign policy team--almost as soon as he came into office. I shall leave aside the details regrading Laos today, but here are some of the key facts about Vietnam.
On July 28, Secretary of State Rusk, in a White House meeting, suggested that the United States prepare for ground intervention in Laos, an air attack on North Vietnam in retaliation for Viet Cong activity in South Vietnam, and a troop intervention in South Vietnam, if necessary, to deal with the consequences. Kennedy made it clear that he had no intention of intervening in Laos and that he doubted the wisdom of the attack on Hanoi. A new series of meetings a month later, also focusing on plans for intervention in Laos, had the same result. But Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow continued to beat the drum for military intervention during September, and in early October, the Joint Chiefs called for sending more than 20,000 men to South Vietnam right away. The State Department endorsed these plans on October 11. Kennedy replied by agreeing to send his special military representative, General Maxwell Taylor, to South Vietnam--along with Rostow--to look into the situation--and he himself revised Taylor's instructions to make it clear that he did not want the United States to take over military responsibility in South Vietnam. Nonetheless, Taylor returned with a recommendation for a small token force that could be expanded if necessary. This, however, was quickly overtaken by a new Pentagon recommendation for a larger intervention, eventually endorsed by Rusk, Secretary McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. After more meetings, Kennedy on November 15 finally made clear in no uncertain terms that he did not intend to put American forces in Southeast Asia. Such a war, he said, would draw little or no allied support and would be most difficult to explain to the American people. After that meeting he apparently had a talk with McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Adviser, in which he complained that none of his team seemed to understand what he wanted in Southest Asia. Bundy responded with the suggestion of making Averell Harriman--who was bringing negotiations on Laos to a successful conclusion--the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, while moving Rostow out of the White House. Kennedy agreed.
Press reports suggest that President Obama has beene equally dissatisfied by the proposals his team--which does not seem to have questioned the fatal flaw in the Bush Administration strategy of trying to install client regimes in the Muslim world--has been giving him for Afghanistan. Unfortunately we live in a different world, and he, unlike Kennedy, has not managed to keep the argument a secret. Thanks to the McChrystal leak, we all know what the General wants now, while very little of the pressure on Kennedy leaked through during 1961. President Obama also seems to understand that nothing the US does is going to help very much if the Karzai government, which has now been in power almost as long as Diem was before he was overthrown, cannot improve. But whether he, like Kennedy, will overrule his team is unknown. Gary Wills in the current New York Review of Books says that many believe that Obama will be a one-term President if he withdraws from both Iraq and Afghanistan. I personally think the chances are at least as good that he will be a one-term President if he does not.