The parallels between our stinging defeat in Vietnam and our coming defeat in Afghanistan get eerier by the moment. Just as Matthew Hoh, a top-ranking US official and Marine officer in Zabul province resigns in protest over the war – writing that it "reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace" – it looks like Karzai is getting the Diem treatment from his American patrons. Or, rather, Diem-lite – since they (probably) have no intention of offing him, but just want to get rid of him as quickly and painlessly as possible. And the way to do that is to "out" him as a CIA asset – which they have done, courtesy of the New York Times.
Citing "current and former American officials," the article claims that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, received "regular payments from the CIA" for the past 8 years in exchange for "a variety of services." Among those services: assisting a "strike force" headquartered in Kandahar, acting as the CIA’s "landlord" in letting them use Mullah Omar’s former compound, and –most importantly – acting as a liaison between the Americans and disaffected (or buy-able) elements of the Taliban insurgency, who might decide to switch sides for the right price.
The Times also accuses Karzai the Younger of being heavily involved in the drug trade. Is there anyone who finds this shocking? As one CIA officer cited in the piece put it: "If you’re looking for Mother Teresa, she doesn’t live in Afghanistan." The drug-dealing allegation might be leveled at practically anyone in Afghanistan outside of the ultra-Islamist Taliban – which, contrary to American propaganda, virtually eliminated the drug trade during its tenure in power.
The article goes on to detail the younger Karzai’s alleged sins, but the really interesting question this article raises is: who leaked the CIA connection to the Times – and why?
Certainly no one in this country is at all surprised by the news that the Afghan president’s brother is on the CIA payroll – I’d be astonished if he wasn’t. In Afghanistan, however, where the Karzai clan is facing a challenge from followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the CIA link may prove fatal to the president’s political future – and that is precisely the point.
Whoever leaked this was trying to hurt Karzai. Why would certain US officials and military officers be eager to do that? Well, because Karzai’s corrupt administration is an obstacle to their war plans: with the Fashion Plate in the Afghan equivalent of the White House, and his brother collecting tolls from drug traffickers, selling the war in Washington is becoming increasingly difficult. The only way to win support for Obama’s planned escalation, and tamp down dissent in Congress and the general public, is to clean up the Afghan government’s act – and that means dumping Karzai & Co.
As the internal debate within the Obama administration heats up — with hawks centered in the military and the neo-neocon thinktanks (CNAS, the Center for American Progress, etc.) agitating for a full-scale "counterinsurgency" strategy, and "doves" (i.e. realists) opting for a focus on "counter-terrorism" aimed at al-Qaeda – the gung-ho escalators clearly want to ditch Karzai, while the realists posit he’s the best we can hope for in that environment.
The hawks are committed to a counterinsurgency theory which demands the US get down and dirty with the insurgents, with US troops mingling with "the people" and taking risks in order to "protect" them from the Taliban. But what if the people don’t want to be protected – or, instead, seek protection from the Americans? Such a question is never asked by these pompous "theorists," who, like their neoconservative predecessors, are in thrall to a theory that cannot work and should never even be attempted.
The "COIN" theory [.pdf], as the CNAS crowd terms it, rightly recognizes the primacy of politics and ideological commitment in fighting an insurgency – and wrongly avers they could possibly get a substantial portion of the Afghan people to side with a foreign army of occupation. Like the neocons, who confidently predicted the Iraqis would greet us with cries of joy rather than volleys of bullets, the COIN ideologues see military occupation as an opportunity to build an entire nation from scratch.
Of course, so did the Germans in Vichy France, and in Norway with the Quisling regime. At this point, however, we run into Godwin’s law, and so just think of the Vietnam war. In Vietnam, our chosen sock puppet, Ngo Dinh Diem, received the full backing of the United States — until he started acting independently, and alienating the powerful Buddhist religious leaders, who took to the streets against his regime. President John F. Kennedy then pulled the rug out from under his fellow Catholic and erstwhile ally, and the CIA paid Vietnamese generals $40,000 to knock off Diem. Successive US-backed regimes were installed, and then given the boot by their American paymasters, while the military situation deteriorated (in spite of the increased US troop presence) and the Viet-Cong closed in on Saigon.
That the US has it in for Karzai, who is seen as a leftover from the Bush years, is unmistakable: elements in the administration clearly leaked the information to the Times, and are now preparing to go into the November 7 run-off elections with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah as their preferred candidate. The Times piece, which singles out Karzai’s brother as the primary architect of the shenanigans surrounding the last election, ruthlessly undercuts Karzai’s attempts to distance himself from Washington, framing him as the candidate of corruption and the hated CIA.
President Karzai had the temerity to protest the "collateral damage" exacted by US air strikes, which took out wedding parties with alarming regularity, and his image in the US Congress is not good: time for him to go. Whether the US can succeed in fixing – or, rather counter-fixing — the election to favor Mr. Abdullah, however, remains to be seen.
What the Americans seek, above all, is a "legitimate" puppet government, one they can sell to Congress and the American people over the next decade or so as they engage in a gigantic "nation-building" counterinsurgency sure to spill over the border into Pakistan. This project will dwarf the invasion of Iraq in terms of its sheer scale and utter impossibility: the cost in lives, and taxpayer dollars, is going to be enormous. With an ineffectual and unreliable puppet and his drug-dealing brother at the helm of the Afghan "government," Washington despairs of ever making its case to the American people – and so, one way or another, Karzai’s career is on the wane. Perhaps, like Diem, he’ll experience an "accident" from which he may not recover, or maybe he’ll flee to the US, where his friends in the fashion industry might deign to help him start a second career as the Afghan Versace.
In any case, let this serve as a lesson to aspiring would-be American sock puppets everywhere, who see a lucrative future in fronting for Washington: when you stumble, they’ll just kick you away and find another ambitious quisling to take your place faster than you can say "Ngo Dinh Diem."
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
The current issue of The American Conservative, which is devoted to books, features a section in which various writers – myself among them – are asked to name their favorite unknown authors or literary works. I don’t see it online anywhere, so you’ll just have to go out and get yourself a copy – or, better yet, subscribe.