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.