The recent Newsweek cover story «Obama’s Vietnam» was full of trite analogies. There is no more reason to think that the war in Afghanistan will be «another Vietnam» than there was to think that Iraq would be «another Vietnam,» as so many people once claimed.
But Newsweek’s editors may have performed a public service by bringing up one of the biggest mistakes the United States made in Vietnam: backing the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, in 1963. President John F. Kennedy and his aides thought Diem was a divisive, ineffective leader, and they feared that the war could never succeed with him in power. It turned out, though, that Diem’s successors were even worse and that his overthrow set off a long period of instability that handicapped U.S. war efforts.
Why is this relevant today? Because senior U.S. officials increasingly blame our woes in Afghanistan on that country’s leader, Hamid Karzai. The trend was already evident last February, when then-Sen. Joe Biden walked out of a dinner with the Afghan president in Kabul. Yesterday, the new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, condemned «Kabul’s inability to build effective, honest and loyal . . . institutions.» More and more, senior administration officials signal that they want to replace Karzai.
Such talk takes me back to January 2008, when, during a visit to Iraq, all the discussion I heard among Iraqi politicos and U.S. officials was about whether to push out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The consensus seemed to be that Maliki was a weak leader and scheming sectarian who was more interested in serving his Iranian «masters» than the people of Iraq. The only disagreement was over who should take his place. The inability of various political parties to agree on a successor was pretty much all that kept him from being ousted.
Just a few months later, Maliki acted against all expectations by rushing troops down to Basra to take on fighters led by Moqtada al-Sadr, to whom he was supposedly beholden. The success of that campaign then encouraged him to clear the Sadrists out of the eastern Baghdad district known as Sadr City. With those actions, Maliki dispelled the impression of weakness and earned newfound popularity with ordinary Iraqis, who rewarded his party with a strong showing in the recent provincial elections. Today, just a year from the low point, the concern is that Maliki may be growing too strong.
What brought on the change in Maliki’s behavior? It’s likely that he reacted to the changing conditions brought about by the U.S. troop «surge.» The strategy developed by Gen. David Petraeus was to use U.S. reinforcements to target al-Qaeda in Iraq first because he knew that this group of hardened terrorists was the primary «accelerant» of violence. The sense of menace induced by al-Qaeda provided a justification for the thuggish activities of the Mahdi Army, which claimed to be protecting the Shiites. Reduce Sunni terrorism, Petraeus reasoned, and you also reduce Shiite support for the Sadrists. And that’s exactly what happened. With al-Qaeda in Iraq all but defeated, Maliki felt free to move against the Mahdi Army.
In other words, Maliki only looked weak at a time when conditions in Iraq were so dire that any leader would have had trouble exercising authority. Improvements in security have led to improvements in governance.
There is no reason the same dynamic can’t operate in Afghanistan. It wasn’t so long ago that Karzai was seen as a model leader. Remember when many despaired of Iraq’s future because it didn’t have a leader of Karzai’s caliber? Some of the early hype may have been exaggerated, but Karzai was reasonably effective from 2003 to 2005, when the Taliban was still licking its wounds and security conditions were fairly «permissive.» It helped that Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador. A native of Afghanistan, Khalilzad was close to Karzai but also tough on him, pushing him to crack down on corruption and improve regional governance. After Khalilzad left in 2005, U.S. policy seemed to drift, and the Taliban staged a resurgence.
Karzai has many shortcomings, particularly his inability or unwillingness to battle corruption and the drug trade in which his brother is implicated. But is there any reason to think someone else would be more effective? U.S. officials eyeing elections scheduled for August are high on possible candidates such as former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah. Yes, those men have impressive credentials. But at one time, U.S. officials also saw Ayad Allawi as the savior of Iraq. Next they settled on Ibrahim al-Jafari, only to push him out and wind up with Maliki, whose reputation has yo-yoed. The American record in picking leaders for foreign countries seems spotty at best.
So instead of obsessing about Karzai’s faults, perhaps we should focus on the real problem: lack of security. Efforts to improve the security situation cannot be held hostage to efforts to improve governance. As in Iraq, the solution in Afghanistan should come from sending reinforcements to implement a classic counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on protecting the people. Only when the security situation improves will Afghanistan’s president, whoever that person is, be able to function with any degree of effectiveness.
Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.