By DeWayne Wickham
Just when it looked as if Hamid Karzai was behaving like South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and daring Barack Obama to respond like John F. Kennedy did in the early 1960s, the Afghan president blinked — twice.
The first batting of his eyes came after President Obama made a surprise visit March 28 to the war-torn country and reportedly pressed Karzai to crack down on corruption, which is widely thought to have been employed to steal last year’s presidential election. Four days later, Karzai accused “foreigners” of spoiling that election and said the U.S.-led coalition that has kept him and his government alive was on the verge of being seen as invaders because of its meddling in his country’s affairs.
The following day, Karzai emerged from his rabbit hole long enough to try to put a good spin on that speech, which the White House called “troubling.” In a telephone call to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he “reaffirmed his commitment to the partnership” between Afghanistan and the United States.
But less than 24 hours later, Karzai was at it again. During a meeting with Afghan legislators, he said he might be forced to join the Tali-ban if parliament didn’t vote to give him total control over the country’s election commission, several legislators said. Three of the five election commission members were appointed by the United Nations until Karzai unilaterally declared in February that he’d fill all of those positions. When the White House responded by saying a visit by Karzai to the U.S. might be canceled, Karzai blinked again by having his spokesman deny that he had made such a threat.
Karzai’s actions are eerily reminiscent to that of Diem, the South Vietnamese president the U.S. supported with troops and taxpayers’ dollars until he was toppled by a coup and assassinated by his own generals in 1963. Like Karzai, Diem was a nepotistic leader who is believed to have rigged an election that put him in the presidency. Diem won that 1955 contest with, he shamelessly claimed, the backing of 98% of voters. Last year, Karzai’s victory margin was far more modest but no less tainted.
Despite massive American aid, Diem objected to U.S. calls for him to end corruption in his government, just as Karzai views the Obama administration’s push for him to clean up his government as foreign interference — rather than a sensible strategy for winning widespread support among the Afghan people.
Eventually, President Kennedy decided that Diem was not a good ally in the fight to block a communist takeover of South Vietnam and let Diem’s opponents know the U.S. would not stand in the way of a coup.
For now, the Obama administration wants to heal its rift with Karzai. The president called him a “critical partner” in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Tali-ban, during a recent appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America. That’s understandable. A stable government in Kabul — one that can win strong backing from the Afghan people — will help bring an early end to the fighting there.
But if Karzai thinks he can continue to vacillate between being a loyal ally and contemptuous patron while the cost America pays to keep the Taliban from overrunning his government grows, he is badly mistaken. If he thinks the U.S. will back him at any cost, he is not a good student of history.
While he might be a critical partner, Hamid Karzai is not irreplaceable, as Ngo Dinh Diem discovered much too late.