Afghanistan—The New Vietnam

As Afghans head to the polls for parliamentary elections, Washington should heed some lessons from Vietnam, whose unreliable leader caused the collapse of U.S. strategy.

09.16.10 10:42 PM ET

How much bad luck can we Americans have? We face a spot of trouble in a faraway country, so we install a fine-looking, English-speaking fellow as president. He turns out to be corrupt and repressive. We can live with that. But it gets worse: He won't even fight our war correctly! He steals our money. His soldiers can't, or won't, shoot straight. And when we tell him to crush the enemy, he says he'd rather negotiate.

This is the situation Washington faces with our so-called partner in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, as Afghans head to the polls to elect a new parliament tomorrow.

And to many who covered the Vietnam War, Karzai brings back vivid memories of another leader who we placed in power: President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.

“The parallels are really striking, and not just because each guy had a really corrupt bagman for a brother,” said Fox Butterfield, who covered Vietnam for The New York Times. “These relationships are very ambiguous and troubled. Whoever it is that makes American decisions in Kabul faces the same dilemmas that our ambassadors and station chiefs constantly had with Diem.”

Both Diem and Karzai were selected by the U.S. and easily maneuvered into power. Both seemed reliably pro-American. Their regimes, however, were built on corruption, nepotism, and vote-stealing, and never became broadly popular. Then, as the U.S. poured weapons and soldiers into their countries, they resisted war and urged compromise with insurgents. American commentators called Diem names that would fit Karzai today: A puppet who pulls his own strings, a reluctant protégé, a client who refuses to behave like a client.

“We keep thinking we should be producing a democratic president who rules for all the people, but that's not Afghanistan.”

U.S. leaders saw Vietnam as the frontline in a global war against a relentless mortal enemy. Today, they see Afghanistan in much the same way. Neither Diem nor Karzai wished to play the role as loyal spear-carrier for a foreign power, instead seeing the U.S. as awash in money, weaponry, and self-confidence—but short on patience, cultural understanding, and long-term reliability.

The Kennedy administration finally lost patience with Diem, who was overthrown and killed on Nov. 2, 1963, by a group of officers Washington had encouraged to act. No resolute leader emerged to succeed him, however. Instead, Vietnam was ruled by a succession of generals. All were more or less corrupt and incompetent, and none proved willing to wage the unrestrained war against communism that Washington wanted to fight.

H.D.S. Greenway, who covered Vietnam for Time magazine and The Washington Post—and who now writes about Afghanistan in columns for the Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune—said he sees “disturbing parallels” between Diem and Karzai.

“Both were originally viewed by Washington as the indispensable men to carry forward American policy,” Greenway said. “But both came to be considered remote, out of touch with their people, corrupt, and difficult to control. Both seemed to be unreliable partners for the United States, and, as victory became ever more elusive, they were criticized for their conduct of the war. Both seemed to favor overtures to the enemy that the United States was not yet ready to make. Both had brothers whom Washington deeply distrusted.”

After the coup against Diem, there was a revolving door of corrupt and inefficient South Vietnamese leaders, and, as Greenway said, “Things went from bad to worse.”

“People like the president's representative, Richard Holbrooke, remember that lesson very well, and have resisted pressure to dump Karzai. The Obama administration has backed off undermining him and chastising him in public. Washington doesn't learn many lessons of history, but it remembers how the Diem affair worked out, and has decided, for now, that Karzai is the best they can hope for.”

The Americans who placed Diem and Karzai in power deluded themselves into believing they had found submissive clients who would rule prudently and honestly, thereby winning the love of their people. When their clients did not turn out that way, a key element of U.S. strategy collapsed.

“In both countries we were unable to produce a force or leader who would do what we think should be done,” Butterfield said. “Afghan society has no model for anything close to what we're talking about. We keep thinking we should be producing a democratic president, who rules for all the people, but that's not Afghanistan.”

Frances Fitzgerald, author of one of the most acclaimed books to emerge from the Vietnam trauma, Fire in the Lake, said Karzai's prickliness reminds her of a line spoken decades ago by Foreign Minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam. He was asked why he denounced Diem's regime as a puppet when it was actually resisting American pressures. “It's a puppet,” Pham Van Dong replied. “It's just a bad puppet.”

“Why be a bad puppet?” Fitzgerald mused. “Because doing what the Americans want hardly insures you will stay in power now, or after they leave. In fact, it may kill you sooner or later, because the facts on the ground are not what Americans want them to be.”

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.