Diem and Karzai

Historians warn us not to overgeneralize based on different events, citing the special circumstances that surround any particular event or complex of events. That warning in mind, the latest dustup between the Obama administration and its erstwhile Afghan ally (oops, “partner” according to White House spokesman David Gibbs) brings to mind a similar disagreement between the American government and its Vietnamese protege of the early 1960s, Ngo Dinh Diem. Let’s hope the analogy is inappropriate, but if it is at all accurate, it does not bode very well for the American future in Afghanistan.

For those who were not around to witness the tumultuous and ultimately disastrous relationship between the United States and Diem, a word of context may help. Diem became the president of South Vietnam after the Geneva Conference of 1954 temporarily partitioned Vietnam into a North and South Vietnam, with the 17th parallel (the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone) as its boundary. The stated (if not necessarily underlying geopolitical) intent was that the line would be temporary, a convenient way to allow the departing French to quit the country without being shot as they boarded the troop ships going home, following which unifying elections would be held. It was apparent that Ho Chi Minh would win such elections if fairly held, and since Ho was both the leading nationalist figure and a communist, the United States opposed actually holding the elections, citing North Vietamese fraud that was matched in the south. Diem, originally a transitional figure, emerged as the leader of an independent Republic of Vietnam with American backing. He was not at the time a particularly popular leader: he was, for instance, a Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, and he was secretive, authoritarian, and corrupt. Moreover, he was repressive of anyone who opposed him, in the process effectively creating his own organized opposition in the form of the National Liberation Front, the military wing of which was the more familiar Viet Cong.

The United States, which opposed the communization of Vietnam, ended up adopting Diem as our ally in the anti-communist competition. It was an uneasy alliance, largely because Diem had an agenda quite different from that pursued by Washington. Most notably, he opposed land reform to transfer agricultural lands controlled by large land holders (of which the Catholic Church was a notable example). The United States realized this was the major issue that could lead to civil war and attempted to cajole or coerce Diem into initiating land and other reforms. This mostly took place behind closed doors in Saigon between Diem and American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and the bottom line was that Diem basically ignored the requests/demands by the Americans. In late 1963, Diem was assassinated, and the rest is history.

Dial forward to today. Major American involvement in Afghanistan came in response to 9/11 and the desire to root Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. In the process, the United States aided the victory of the Northern Alliance over the Taliban, and from this struggle, Hamid Karzai emerged as the president of the new Afghanistan. Karzai was the choice because he is a Pashtun (admittedly of the Durrani branch), and he was one of the most prominent Pashtuns in the Northern Alliance. Moreover, he was westernized, spoke excellent English and was a great public relations success in the United States (the Catholic Church helped orchestrate a campaign to establish the popularity of Diem in the United States as well).

Like Diem, Karzai brought some baggage with him. He was not a figure with whom the majority of Pashtuns identified, and his collaboration with the Northern Alliance made him suspicious as well. In the “grand” Afghan tradition, he has proven to be classically corrupt, instituting a kleptocracy in which members of his family have been notable beneficiaries. Corruption has, like land reform in Southeast Asia, been a major theme in Afghan opposition to Karzai, and the United States has publicly and privately implored him to clean up his regime’s act. Like Diem, he has issued pious rhetoric about attacking the problem but basically not done anything about it. As evidence, Americans seeking to liberate Helmand Province regularly report they fear corrupt Afghan officials as much or more than the Taliban.

Karzai has responded to pressure most recently by creating a confrontation with Washington, accusing “foreigners” (aka Americans) of causing all his problems, such as rigging the elections last year that returned him to office. You have to give the guy high marks for sheer chutzpah; could Karl Rove be acting as a consultant? Most recently, the U.S. has hinted at cancelling a state visit by Karzai to the White House in May because it is not clear there is anything to talk about; Karzai has responded that unless foreign harassment ends, he might join the Taliban himself. Yeah, right!

How will this end? In Vietnam, the U.S. government’s frustration led to a withdrawal of support for Diem, helping lead to his assassination (the U.S. quit paying Diem’s bodyguards, who left, paving the way to grabbing and killing him; American complicity remains debatable). The result was further destabilization, since there were no clear successors (Diem had killed or chased most alternatives into exile). Should the United States decide to dump Karzai (not an entirely bad idea prima facie), would the result be the same? Who knows? What is clear is that there is no obvious successor in a country that traditionally opposes central governmental control.

The analogy becomes scariest if one projects the two events into the future. Diem’s assassination was the Foreword to America’s until-then longest war (a distinction Afghanistan has already exceeded). At the time, some counselled using Diem’s fall as an excuse to wash our hands of Vietnam and come home, and they were ignored. In retrospect, that idea may have had more merit than was attributed to it at the time. The problem, of course, was that two arguments were used against withdrawal. One was that opposing the spread of communism was vital to America’s survival (replace communism with terrorism here). The second was that we already had so much investment that we could not walk away (no substitution needed).  Would the same thing happen if the U.S. jettisoned Hamid Karzai? The idea is certainly tempting.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at his blog What After Iraq? Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.