Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Diem TKOs Abdullah After First Round!


On Monday the Afghan Independent Election Commission certified that Afghan President Ngo Dinh Diem had won reelection against rival Abdullah Abdullah, removing the need to conduct a second round of voting at the onset of winter in an increasingly insecure country.

Oh, sorry—Diem didn't win reelection; he's been dead for decades!

It was Hamid Karzai who was (ahem) reelected.

You can't blame me for making an analogy to the one-time leader of South Vietnam. Vietnam War comparisons are a dime a dozen in the pundit business lately.

Unfortunately, they're usually the wrong Vietnam analogies.

These wrong analogies focus on the Afghan war based on how it impacts the U.S. They focus on U.S. forces, on the war's cost, on its impact on domestic politics, on how it affects presidential legacies. They focus on the problems of exiting a Vietnam-like quagmire, on sustaining Vietnam-like casualties, on how each new insurgent offensive is a potential Tet, on how our men and women train and strain to be capable soldiers, diplomats, medics and engineers, and how some of them die.

All this echoes how the U.S. focused on itself (or on the Cold War contest) during the Vietnam War, rather than on South and North Vietnam themselves.

The Vietnam analogy I rarely hear relates to how the U.S. is making precisely the same mistake with President Karzai as it did with President Diem of the Republic of South Vietnam.

As in the case of Diem, the U.S. wants an Afghan leader who can be effective on behalf of U.S. policy. And certainly, like the former South Vietnamese strongman, Karzai cleans up well (he wears recognizable clothing and speaks excellent English). His corruption, or that of his family and friends, is tolerable (if it's not overly publicized). There are few other Afghan leaders in Karzai's league (who aren't warlords).

Also like Diem, Karzai's writ stops a few kilometers outside the national capital. His military is undisciplined and untrustworthy (although not yet as treacherous as the ARVN, which shot Diem in 1963). Both Diem and Karzai rely/relied on U.S. aid and military force for their positions, and both made themselves appear indispensable to keep these resources flowing.

There are differences. Tribe was relatively unimportant in South Vietnam, although Diem belonged to the Catholic elite that helped the French rule a Buddhist nation; Karzai belongs to Afghanistan's majority tribe and Islamic denomination. Thanks to both royal and French rule, South Vietnam had a functioning civil service that Afghanistan lacks. Vietnam did not suffer through decades of civil war before U.S. intervention, as Afghanistan has.

Importantly, I don't see the Taliban as a primarily nationalist movement in the way the Vietminh and Vietcong are now considered (or at least nationalists first, Communists second). I see the Taliban as Arab-influenced provincials who manipulate Pashtun affiliations to their own ends.

The fact remains, though, that the U.S. is again propping up an ineffective leader and his light-fingered cronies in a nation that rates domino-like deference from U.S. policymakers. It is maddening to watch the U.S. support an election-stealing figurehead who alienates Afghans from the Kabul government as much as the Diem (and Nhu) families did the South Vietnamese.

Petraeus and Nagl's Counterinsurgency Manual (download the PDF from this link) advises that protecting and providing services to the host-country population are the counterinsurgent's primary concerns, and that the host government should be enabled to provide these services. It follows that counterinsurgents should do everything possible to help Afghans create an honest, effective central government—and then stand back.

Senator Kerry and others have inspired President Karzai to at least genuflect toward clean government. Following his election 'victory,' Karzai held a press conference where he vowed to clean the government of corruption:

"My government will be for all Afghans and all those who want to work with me are most welcome," Karzai said in a nationally televised victory speech.

"There will be crucial changes in our future government. Now we are determined to use all our forces, by any means, to remove this stain (of corruption) from our soil," he said.

But while Karzai said he was committed to reform, some analysts felt he did not spell out his plans in sufficient detail, indicating no major changes were planned.

The Communists won in 1940s China because they were seen as incorruptible, as well as competent administrators of the territory they occupied before 1949. The North Vietnamese copied this formula in the 1960s and won over Vietnamese peasants while the U.S. fretted over who ruled Saigon.

The Taliban national government of the 1990s was seen as incorruptible—at first—and provided security to Afghans, but few other services. Similarly, their insurgent heirs are trying to repeat this pattern by hand-picking a parallel government in areas they control, arguing that Kabul is corrupt and home to only a puppet government.

What will it take for the U.S. to stop supporting its 21st-century Diem and recognize that the first requirement for an Afghan leader is that he be honest and serve all of Afghanistan's citizens?

It almost doesn't matter at this point; the window on voting out the Karzai administration closed with a thump when Abdullah dropped out of the runoff. The next opportunity to get a competent, effective leader in office in Kabul won't be until 2013 or 2014.

Until then, I'm going to keep making the only Vietnam analogy that matters, the one that should flow off the lips of every U.S. officer and diplomat when they go to work in Afghanistan each day:

We saw what happened when we backed crooked leaders in Vietnam. What step am I going to take today, next week and next year—no matter how small—to make sure a clean, competent leader for all Afghans has a chance in 2013?


Canada life insurance said...

The analogy you pointed out is undoubtedly true. I was very disappointed with the decision to just cancel the election and go along with an undemocratic way of assigning the president - while during the latest period everybody involved was trying to look like they are searching for honest and competent leader, it felt more like a slap in a face. And what concerns the last sentence as an idea the officials might think about on their way to work? I don't think it's going to happen - there might be a few of them thinking this way but they will never become a majority. Lorne

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