Friday, April 16, 2010

Echos of the Past

Here is a bit from an exceedingly good post by Alfred W. McCoy titled "America and the Dictators: From Ngo Dinh Diem to Hamid Karzai" on the blog:
The crisis has come suddenly, almost without warning. At the far edge of American power in Asia, things are going from bad to much worse than anyone could have imagined. The insurgents are spreading fast across the countryside. Corruption is rampant. Local military forces, recipients of countless millions of dollars in U.S. aid, shirk combat and are despised by local villagers. American casualties are rising. Our soldiers seem to move in a fog through a hostile, unfamiliar terrain, with no idea of who is friend and who is foe.

After years of lavishing American aid on him, the leader of this country, our close ally, has isolated himself inside the presidential palace, becoming an inadequate partner for a failing war effort. His brother is reportedly a genuine prince of darkness, dealing in drugs, covert intrigues, and electoral manipulation. The U.S. Embassy demands reform, the ouster of his brother, the appointment of honest local officials, something, anything that will demonstrate even a scintilla of progress.

After all, nine years earlier U.S. envoys had taken a huge gamble: rescuing this president from exile and political obscurity, installing him in the palace, and ousting a legitimate monarch whose family had ruled the country for centuries. Now, he repays this political debt by taunting America. He insists on untrammeled sovereignty and threatens to ally with our enemies if we continue to demand reforms of him. Yet Washington is so deeply identified with the counterinsurgency campaign in his country that walking away no longer seems like an option.

This scenario is obviously a description of the Obama administration’s devolving relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul this April. It is also an eerie summary of relations between the Kennedy administration and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon nearly half a century earlier, in August 1963. If these parallels are troubling, they reveal the central paradox of American power over the past half-century in its dealings with embattled autocrats like Karzai and Diem across that vast, impoverished swath of the globe once known as the Third World.
I sure hope the US doesn't descend into the depths of hell that was Vietnam where Kennedy has Ngo Dihn Diem assassinated and replace by a string of incompetent generals as the situation on the ground went from bad to worse and the troop commitment went from tens of thousands to over half a million. It was an unmitigated disaster. Well, Afghanistan is on the road to a repeat of that experience.

But the following shows that the US is on the doorstep:
Desperate to capture an outright 50% majority in the first round of balloting, Karzai’s warlord coalition made use of an extraordinary array of electoral chicanery. After two months of counting and checking, the U.N.’s Electoral Complaints Commission announced in October 2009 that more than a million of his votes, 28% of his total, were fraudulent, pushing the president’s tally well below the winning margin. Calling the election a “foreseeable train wreck,” the deputy U.N. envoy Peter Galbraith said, “The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners."

Galbraith, however, was sacked and silenced as U.S. pressure extinguished the simmering flames of electoral protest. The runner-up soon withdrew from the run-off election that Washington had favored as a face-saving, post-fraud compromise, and Karzai was declared the outright winner by default. In the wake of the farcical election, Karzai not surprisingly tried to stack the five-man Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body meant to vet electoral complaints, replacing the three foreign experts with his own Afghan appointees. When the parliament rejected his proposal, Karzai lashed out with bizarre charges, accusing the U.N. of wanting a “puppet government” and blaming all the electoral fraud on “massive interference from foreigners.” In a meeting with members of parliament, he reportedly told them: “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”
Sad... very sad.

Read the McCoy post to get the details of the demise of the American political mission in Vietnam to understand just how Afghanistan is fraying apart and will fall apart just as Vietnam did.
Ironically, those who seek to avoid the past may be doomed to repeat it. By accepting Karzai’s massive electoral fraud and refusing to consider alternatives last August, Washington has, like it or not, put its stamp of approval on his spreading corruption and the political instability that accompanies it. In this way, the Obama administration in its early days invited a sad denouement to its Afghan adventure, one potentially akin to Vietnam after Diem’s death. America’s representatives in Kabul are once again hurtling down history’s highway, eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, not the precipice that lies dead ahead.

In the experiences of both Ngo Dinh Diem and Hamid Karzai lurks a self-defeating pattern common to Washington's alliances with dictators throughout the Third World, then and now.


thomas said...

We seem to make matters worse by involving our selves in other's affairs. Afghanistan has such a long history of other countries trying to control them. I often wonder what would have happened if we had approached the Soviets differently when they were so deeply involved there. Perhaps with less distrust and more cooperation in their invasion attempt, or at least less propaganda here at home. I have many times looked for an article that I read back in the eighties describing the resistance forces and how they were so heroically fighting the Soviet Union and how we were secretly helping them.

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I'm a pessimistic optimist. So I would like to think that the different approach you suggest would have led to a happier world for Afghans, the Americans, and the Soviets. But I'm cynical, so I suspect nothing the US did except aid the Taliban would have gotten the Soviets out of Afghanistan. And if they hadn't been pushed out of Afghanistan, then the Russian people might not have turned sour on Communism and Gorbachev might have been left in power.

The history of US involvement with the Taliban is ugy. Here is a sanitized and glorified version of it in the film Charlie Wilson's War. This is based on the real life Congress Charlie Wilson. Wilson started out as a normal Democrat, but in the 1970s he veered to the right an supported the right wing dictator Somoza in Nicaragua, then got involved in pushing Congress to fund the CIA's secret war in Afghanistan. Wilson was made famous for giving Stinger missles to the Taliban.

After the Taliban won, there were many nervous years when security forces around the world worried about Stinger missiles being used to take down commercial airliners by terrorists. From an Asia Times article in 2002:

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mounted a special drive to buy back from the mujahideen the unused Stingers to prevent the possibility of them being used for committing acts of terrorism and for their sale to US adversaries, such as Iran and Iraq. Despite large amounts offered by the CIA, the mujahideen were not prepared to sell them back to the US. The drive was, therefore, a flop.


Among terrorist separatist organizations, the Chechens of Russia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka have demonstrated the capability to bring down aircraft or helicopters. In the case of the Chechens, Russian authorities claimed that the terrorists had used missiles. It was not known where the missiles came from. In the case of the LTTE, there was speculation in Sri Lanka that a shoulder-fired missile had ben used. In 1995, the LTTE was reported to have helped the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) of Pakistan, which is now one of the members of bin Laden's IIF, in smuggling by sea a consignment of arms and ammunition, including anti-aircraft weapons and shoulder-fired missiles, to the Abu Sayyaf of the southern Philippines. In return, the HuM was reported to have given the LTTE some missiles and their launchers.

The fear of such missiles being used for attacking aircraft carrying important persons has been a matter of great concern to the intelligence and security agencies of many countries, including India, which have laid down evasive techniques.

In the past, terrorists having an anti-aircraft capability had used that capability mainly against military aircraft and had refrained from using it against civil aircraft. The attempted use of shoulder-fired missiles against the Israeli civil aircraft at Mombasa on November 28 shows the ruthlessness of al-Qaeda and its allies in the IIF as terrorist organizations.