No Comment — April 5, 2010, 10:30 am

The Ghost of Diem

With the war in Afghanistan and on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border now clearly taking center stage in Obama’s foreign policy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is suddenly a major embarrassment. In a series of recent remarks, Karzai has taken aim at his allies and has suggested he’s losing patience with them. Here’s how the New York Times reported a speech he delivered on Thursday:

“There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread,” Mr. Karzai said, “but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners.” As for American, British and other NATO troops now fighting the anti-government Taliban insurgents, Mr. Karzai said “there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance.”

On Friday, Karzai appears to have backed off his comments in a conciliatory phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Then the tensions flared again over the weekend, as Alissa Rubin at the Times reports:

On Saturday, Mr. Karzai met with about 60 members of Parliament, mostly his supporters… At the meeting, Mr. Karzai stepped up his anti-Western statements, according to a Parliament member who attended but spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban,” Mr. Karzai said, according to the Parliament member.

The Washington Post added further detail:

“Afghanistan will be fixed when its people trust that their president is independent and not a puppet,” he said. “We have to demonstrate our sovereignty. We have to demonstrate that we are standing up for our values.”

One important point went missing in the major U.S. media coverage of the remarks to the parliamentarians in Kabul: Karzai was stressing that the Taliban is under the control of Pakistan, and they need to become truly independent from Pakistani influence if some reconciliation is to take place. That apparently is the context in which Karzai said he might join the Taliban.

Karzai’s troubles with his allies all boil down to his sense that he and his government are not sovereign in Afghanistan. They appear to exercise little control or influence over tactical military operations. Complaints about the heavy use of firepower against civilians—usually voiced after a bombing raid has struck a funeral or wedding party with great loss of innocent life—seem to go unacknowledged. Military mistakes are often covered up with an aggressive official disinformation campaign. The United States is operating a prison system in Afghanistan with no obvious connection to Afghanistan’s law or courts, including the CIA’s infamous Salt Pit and at least one black site at Bagram run by the Joint Special Operations Command. Even the American Justice Department has run amok in Afghanistan, operating an anti-corruption program which has repeatedly swept up innocent persons and has used harsh and heavy-handed techniques, including renditions. Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali, appears to be a major target of these operations. These facts appear to proclaim to the Afghan people that the United States and not the Karzai government exercises sovereignty.

But notwithstanding all these grievances, it’s clear that Karzai’s focal worry is simply that he will be overthrown by his supposed allies. As Levin notes, there are a number of figures behind the scenes who have advocated just that, including Peter W. Galbraith, who apparently lost his U.N. post for doing so a bit too publicly.

Some analysts say that Karzai’s engaged in Machiavellian manipulations, designed to push back against the pressure that has been brought to bear on elections and on the corruption that is obviously rampant in his country. Others say he’s becoming somewhat unhinged, launching his attacks without deliberation or forethought. Whatever the causes, Hamid Karzai is emerging as a problem for the Obama team, and there will be great temptations to find a way to silence him.

The entire situation looks painfully like the one that confronted John F. Kennedy in the last weeks of his administration in dealing with Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. President Diem was instinctively authoritarian and corrupt, relying heavily on his extended family and allowing them to enrich themselves on the basis of his authority. Government contracts, including contracts that funneled U.S. assistance, were a substantial part of the graft problem. Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration appears to have concluded that Diem was too corrupt and incompetent to be an effective ally, and the Americans turned on him. Learning that the South Vietnamese army was plotting a coup, the Americans apparently gave the effort a green light. Diem was toppled, and he and his brother were shot and buried in a grave next to the ambassadorial residence of Henry Cabot Lodge in the first days of November 1963. Kennedy was himself assassinated only three weeks later, but the toppling of Diem was one of the events that triggered a change in policy ultimately leading to a heavy escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. The American effort in Vietnam was consistently crippled by the impression that the Saigon government was a weak American proxy, lacking legitimacy to rule.

The legitimacy of the government in Kabul is essential to the success of the allies’ military operations there. Karzai thus presents a particularly thorny problem. He is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, but to some extent the United States has contributed to that problem and that perception. And removing and replacing Karzai through extraordinary measures would likely only make the situation still worse. Karzai is Afghanistan’s elected president, and American policymakers need to accept that fact.

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