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Saturday, April 03, 2010

1963, 2010

At least three critical stories about the U.S. and Afghanistan appeared in this week's New York Times, each full of echoes from Vietnam in the critical period from 1963 to 1965. (I should mention that two weeks ago the cover article in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, on Afghanistan, was written by myself. Unfortunately it is not available to anyone but subscribers and it would not be fair for me to reproduce it here.) The problem, as in Vietnam in those critical years, is that our ally--or client--simply does not share our goals.

Like Ngo Dinh Diem, Mohammed Karzai became the American hope in his nation by being in the right place in the right time. Diem in 1954 sold himself as an anti-Communist, pro-western nationalist; Karzai sold himself as an anti-Taliban, anti-Soviet, Pashtun leader. Like Diem, he became the favorite of the Americans, but has failed to broaden his base of support in the eight years since we put him in power. Like Diem, he has rigged his re-election campaign. (Diem did not allow opposition and claimed over 90% of the vote; Karzai had opposition and apparently prevailed last year with the help of widespread fraud.) Like Diem, he has a powerful brother who is suspected of corruption--in Karzai's brother's case, this involves the drug trade. Karzai's brother does not apparently have a photogenic and publicity-hungry wife, but the similarities still outweigh the differences.

None of this would matter if Karzai genuinely agreed with the United States about what is needed in Afghanistan, but evidence is mounting that he does not. Like Diem in 1963, Karzai is angry at increasing American influence (and increasing numbers of Americans) in his country. The first story in the Times last week, which appeared on Tuesday, characterized the situation well. "Neither Mr. Karzai nor his spokesman, Waheed Omar, could be reached Monday," wrote Dexter Filkins and Mark Lander. "But according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban. During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows."

Those of you who have read my book American Tragedy will have no trouble recognizing this pattern. Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu both needed and feared American help. They consistently resented American attempts to tell them what to do, and by 1963 Nhu was complaining that there were too many Americans (abut 17,000) in Vietnam. Filkins and Lander also reported that Karzai invited Mahmoud Achmedinejad, the Iranian President, to visit Kabul, where he made a typically violent anti-American speech. Ngo Dinh Nhu was also fond of this kind of psywar, and in 1963 there were even rumors that he was negotiating with the Viet Cong. I never found any evidence that those rumors were true, but those were the days of the Cold War, when the division between the two halves of the world was nearly absolute. Karzai's invitation to Achmedinejad told us that he does not divide the world into friends and enemies along the same lines that we do.

The second point of the story--that Karzai wants peace with the Taliban--obviously also reminded me of Nhu in 1963, but it also brought to mind one of Diem and Nhu's successors, Nguyen Khanh, in 1964-5. Khanh staged the next military coup after Diem's overthrow at the end of January 1964, and held power for a bit over a year. By early 1965 it was clear that Khanh did not want a long war against the Viet Cong, fought with American troops, but would prefer a settlement with the Viet Cong and the Buddhists--the kind of settlement President Kennedy had helped bring about in Laos in 1961-2. President Johnson, however, was determined to defeat the VC, and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor determined that Khanh had to go to make the new war possible. After a brief interlude of weak civilian rule, Generals Ky and Thieu took over in mid-1965 enabling the US to take over the war. At no time, however, did any Vietnamese leadership actually ask for the intervention of more than 100,000 American troops. It is not clear at this time whether Karzai actually signed on to the surge in Afghanistan, and it is possible that he has become so obstreperous because in fact he did not.

The Times carried another story yesterday about a speech Karzai made on Thursday. In that speech, Karzai claimed that any election fraud last year had been carried out by westerners, not by his government. (I couldn't help remembering how Diem told a visiting American, after Nhu's secret police beat up some American reporters covering a Buddhist demonstration, that the reporters had started the fight.) "In his speech on Thursday, which was later broadcast on television," wrote Peter Baker, "Mr. Karzai rejected allegations that his allies were involved in widespread fraud in the election last year that awarded him a second term as president, and pointed the finger instead at the West, naming particular United Nations and European Union officials.

“'There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread,' Mr. Karzai said,
'but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners.' As for American, British and other NATO troops now fighting the anti-government Taliban insurgents, Mr. Karzai said 'there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance.'"

That was enough, apparently, to send the telephone wires a-buzzing between Washington and Kabul, and the next day, Karzai backtracked, claiming that he was attacking the western media, not the NATO governments who are trying to keep him in power.

Today's story is equally troubling--from the other point of view. It deals with the aftermath of the American operation of the Marja district, the operation that kicked off the surge. US forces hoped to win the loyalty of the people to the Afghan government by promptly compensating them for any property damage and putting them to work, but the Taliban among them--who remain very difficult to identify--have successfully intimidated many of the people and stopped them from cooperating with us at all. As the story explains, the US forces have managed to keep some Afghans on their side, but many have defected, and some of the cash we are handing out (at the rate of $150,000 per week) is finding its way to the Taliban, whose local governor met with local elites last week to warn them against cooperating with the Americans. The Viet Cong countered many pacification efforts in the same way.

The battle over health care and the coming battle over the regulation of the big banks have moved Afghanistan and Iraq (where interesting developments are also taking place) off center stage. That, in my opinion, is as it should be: neither country matters nearly as much to us as the need to get our own house in order. Yet both conflicts--and now, especially, Afghanistan--drain much-needed resources without, it seems, doing much to advance our broader goals. There is no reason for the Obama Administration to give the same significance to Afghanistan that LBJ gave to Vietnam in 1964-5. If Karzai wants peace with the Taliban, I hope we let him have it.


Anonymous said...

Karzai was picked for his role by Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, and started his career in Reagan Administration.

As of this evening, APril 3rd, karzai was slamming the West again. he said:

President Hamid Karzai lashed
out at his Western backers for the
second time in three days on
Saturday, accusing the U.S. of interfering in Afghan affairs and
saying the Taliban insurgency
would become a legitimate
resistance movement if the meddling doesn't stop.

Article at:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

my apologies for going off topic.
I was wondering what your opinion
on such possibility would be:

David Petraeus for President: Run General, run

Article at:

Anonymous said...

David , I have never seen you this far off the mark before. The very idea of trying to compare the lives, political or otherwise of Ngo Dinh Diem (Ziem) and Karzi of Afghanistan is a stretch that just will not reach . Ziem was not corrupt , he was a true nationalist and had the USA actually listened to him and only used US Troops as ARVN advisors who were willing to eat the same food and live under the same conditions as their ARVN counterparts or been on a true military footring to prevent infiltration from NVN the end result would have been much different . Also the very fact that 8 years ago , Afghanistan was supplying 15% of the world's heroin and today over 90% which results in about a Billion US Dollars a week in revenue to war lords and some of our allies in Afghanistan make the situation far different from Vietnam .

Bruce Post said...

1. I am of the Viet Nam war generation and was scheduled for a Regular Army commission in a combat arm when I became ill and was disqualified from service. I am thankful I did not have to go. I did go in 2008 with my wife to visit one of our daughters who was teaching there. The Vietnamese people I met were warm and industrious. My daughter also told me that the Vietnamese are not fixated on our war. Most were born after the war. Additionally, they call our war with them the "American war"; since then, they have had two more wars: the Cambodian War and the Chinese War.

2. I do not mean to imply that "we should just move on." Quite frankly, despite Obama's transparent attempts at revisionism regarding Viet Nam, we keep -- as you suggest in your posting -- doing the same thing and expecting different results. Isn't that a symptom of insanity?

3. I have not read your article in Commonweal, but I did note there the article on Archbishop Romero. I juxtapose his witness against the cascading revelations about the pedophilia scandal and the role of the hierarchy then and now.

4. I wonder how far we -- meaning Roman Catholics (myself included) -- have fallen from the prophetic tradition that opposed violence, including state-sanctioned violence as we witnessed in Viet Nam and are witnessing now in Afghanistan and Iraq?

5. Given your background, I imagine that you are aware of the topic of postmodernism, where the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, the faith in reason and science, were incinerated in the WW II death camps and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

6. Therefore, I wonder if we, in this nation, have reached the stage where there is only one meta-narrative: on-going, incessant violence. Our economy is built on a foundation of war and violence. Yet, as I am sure readers of Commonweal are aware, when the Roman soldiers came to arrest Jesus and Peter raised his sword to defend him, Jesus admonished Peter to put down his sword lest he who would take up the sword would perish by it Matthew 26:52.

Sorry for the sermonizing. Please note also that the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has declared this the year of religion and is studying how religion affects international affairs. I wonder if the folks at SAIS have any intent to speculate on the meaning of the Matthew 26:52.

ginstonic said...

I do not have your background or your knowledge of the particulars of our Vietnam experience, but I certainly agree with your post. You always educate us on some past event that parallels our current crises. I just watched the movie "Bobby" and was startled at the relevance of the campaign speeches R. Kennedy gave to the events we are experiencing today. Unfortunately the US seems as idealogically divided today as we were then. Thank you for your insights. You are one of my weekly must-reads. You have taken on a responsibilty to your readers, to keep feeding us knowledge of the past.

Bill Mahoney said...

Prof Kaiser -

Enjoyed reading your analysis. I'm currently in Kandahar and work along side the author of this post http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/04/stop-lecturing-karzai/ "Robert C. Jones:
The author [of the prvious SWJ thread] states that the US wishes to create a "stable, democratic state" in Afghanistan. I agree. But I disagree completely with the Author's analysis of these recent events.

In order for Karzai to have any prayer of establishing a "stable" state, he must resolve the insurgency; and to resolve the insurgency he must establish the Legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan in the eyes of his populace at a minimum. Karzai is right, he can't do that if he is perceived to be a stooge of the West. He needs distance. Such statements, his visits with China and Iran, his talks with opposition/insurgent leaders, his coming Peace Jirga, all trend toward establishing the number one thing he must have to end the insurgency: Legitimacy.

That said, he also is creating so much separation, in such a way that he also provides Mr. Obama what he needs: An Exit Strategy.

So, as a guy who focuses a lot of energy in attempting to understand insurgency at the strategic level; I really don't see a down side to this, unless of course we play it wrong.

A. Karzai establishes legitimacy, and comes out of his Peace Jirga with meaningful roles for opposition leaders in the government of Afghanistan. This takes the top off of the insurgency, allowing the Coalition to downsize, which takes the gas out of the resistance insurgency that we're dealing with on the ground.

B. The Peace Jirga is a flop, the U.S. proclaims Karzai to an ingrateful host, and we obilige him by packing our bags and going home; with the caveat that we withhold the right to return for episodic strategic raids if Afghanistan at any time under this management or the next, opts to get back into the terrorist training camp business.

This is highstakes poker at it's best. Karzai just raised with Duce-Trey showing. Either he has great hole cards and knows how to play them, or he's about to go bust. Will he back off, or go all in? We'll know soon."

We should know in a couple months whether to judge Karzai by what he says or what he does.

Nov 2009 class iconoclast

Anonymous said...

Former UN envoy: Karzai "off balance"

"Former deputy head of the UN
mission in Afghanistan Peter
Galbraith today told MSNBC that he
questions Afghan President Hamid
Karzai's "mental stability."

"He’s prone to tirades," Galbraith
said of the Afghan leader reelected to a second, five-year
presidential term last year.
"He can be very emotional, act impulsively."

"In fact, some of the palace
insiders say that he has a certain
fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports,"

Galbraith charged, referring to
opium or heroin."

More at:

Heather said...

Dr. Kaiser,
I am sorry to say that I have never heard of you before today. Today I received and chain email with your article attached in which the first line reads "I am a student of history." I too consider myself a student of history, an American mother, and a soldiers wife. I pray to whoever will hear me that the things you say in this article are an impossibility, but I sit here now with a gut wrenching stomach and goosebumps. History, in most cases, is made up of facts. The facts and evidence you have compiled for this argument are unsettling. I applaud you for your bravery in saying things most others will not. I am looking forward to reading your past postings and the future ones as well.
Heather H.

Bozon said...

Americans have been lead into a morass as old as recorded history.

As Rufus Fears, with whom I do not always agree, has pointed out, the Middle East is the 'graveyard' of empires.

More lastingly truer words have seldom been uttered.

all the best
Gerald Meaders