The debacle over General Stanley McChrystal dramatizes how military thinking
dominates United States policy - look at how much of the budget the Pentagon
commands - as well as the utter hopelessness of achieving anything but draining
defeat from the US occupation of Afghanistan. This lesson should have been
learned after Vietnam. As Yogi Berra said, it's "deja vu all over again”.
Washington handpicked Hamid Karzai to become president of Afghanistan. After
serving one term, beloved by few of his fellow citizens, Karzai publicly
proclaimed a lack of confidence in the ability of his US benefactors to prevail
against the enigmatic Taliban. He told the media he no longer trusted the US
commitment - its ability to win the war and its staying power. Indeed, he has
begun to talk - perhaps even negotiate - with the very entity against which the
US military has engaged for a decade, suffering more than 1,000 dead and many
more wounded, both physically and mentally.
Simultaneously, to cover his bets, Karzai pretends he is grateful for
Washington's generous assistance. Shocking? Never happened to us before? Hit
Google and you'll find our Vietnamese Karzai.
The Vietnam parallel
In the 1950s, the Geneva Accords called for a vote for president in Vietnam.
Even US president Dwight Eisenhower, in his memoirs, conceded that communist
leader Ho Chi Minh would have won that election with more than 80% of the vote.
To avoid this result, the United States and some allies created the Republic of
South Vietnam and chose Ngo Din Diem as president. Among Diem's promoters were
defense intellectuals, the neoconservatives of their day, as well as Cardinal
Spellman and the Kennedy family.
Diem, a Catholic president of a newly created Buddhist country, knew that he
must watch his generals - mainly non-Catholics - very carefully. As US military
advisers pushed the Vietnamese military to fight aggressively against the
Vietcong, the communist guerrillas in the South, Diem urged the generals to
keep casualties limited - meaning no aggressive campaigns.
In early November 1963, just before John F Kennedy's assassination, some
Vietnamese generals staged a coup against Diem - with tacit US approval, if not
downright encouragement - and assassinated him. Diem's killers became heads of
state, backed immediately by Washington. His widow, Madame Nhu, blamed the US
government for the assassination: "Whoever has the Americans as allies does not
Karzai's Diem moment
Did Karzai read Madame Nhu's statement? After serving a first term that gave
corruption a bad name, Karzai won a second term in 2009. Like Diem, whose
family received key power posts, Karzai protects his own. His brother, Ahmed
Wali Karzai, has been alleged to be connected to one of the biggest
narco-trafficking operations in the country. In addition, according to The New
York Times, Ahmed Karzai receives "regular payments from the Central
Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to
current and former American officials".
The Times also reported, "The agency pays Mr Karzai for a variety of services,
including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the
CIA's direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr Karzai's home."
Karzai alternatively criticizes and praises the US government (which spends
US$6.3 billion monthly to keep the war going). He also provokes Washington by
embracing the supreme object of Washington's current hate campaign, Iranian
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
During the Vietnam War, some US corporations made out like proverbial bandits
by supplying the armed forces. In Afghanistan, the BP and Halliburton empires
have made billions providing for the needs of NATO forces. Some Taliban groups
also understand the profitable byproducts of war and collect bribes for not
assaulting convoys carrying materiel to the military from Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the best-laid plans of President Barack Obama's generals have fallen
short of their goals. McChrystal's much-trumpeted surge did not win the battles
for Marjah. Nor does the re-conquest of Kandahar seem in the cards. The NATO
allies have grown weary. The Dutch have deserted, and even the toady right-wing
Canadian government will depart in 14 months. Indeed, US forces are also due to
withdraw in 2011.
In 1975, congress cut off funds for US support for the Vietnam War. Those who
voted for the cut asked the obvious question. What had the United States
achieved after a decade of fighting and killing that left 58,000 US dead,
hundreds of thousands wounded, four million Vietnamese casualties, and a land
destroyed? Many now ask that same question about Afghanistan and come up with
the same answer: Not much.
The US public shows signs of war-weariness, even though most haven't been
touched directly by the conflict. They have become tired of hearing and reading
about it. Millions of Americans sing "God Bless America" at sporting events,
honoring those who serve in the military. Most of those people don't volunteer
or even write letters to the troops.
And still the war drags on. The elusive Taliban - accused of being in bed with
Pakistani intelligence and apparently also on the couch with Karzai - have
learned, like the Vietcong of old, to vanish as American troops approach. They
elude the heralded "decisive battle". The old Afghan saying rings loud:
"Foreign invaders may have the clock but we have time." The Vietnamese had
The United States was born in an anti-imperial war. We have had little success
exporting our order to developing nations (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). But we
do suffer long-term negative effects from those bloody adventures. Some
Americans remain permanently scarred and crippled; others never forgive or
forget. The Vietnamese won and now love doing business with us. But here the
analogy with Vietnam breaks down. The Iraqis and Afghanis (and many in Pakistan
as well) will not claim victory. Rather, they - the families of those killed by
US troops, bombs, and drones - will likely cultivate hatred for the United
States for decades to come.
Award-winning filmmaker and activist Saul Landau is an associate fellow
at the Institute for Policy Studies.