Hamid Karzai is all set to continue to rule Afghanistan, which is fast turning into another Vietnam for the United States. Afghanistan, like South Vietnam supported by the United States, is ungovernable. Just take a look at its recent history. Every one of the Afghan rulers for the past 107 years, whether kings or presidents, was overthrown violently. Of the ten men who have served as Afghanistan's president in the last three decades, four were murdered and one strung up from a lamppost and disemboweled. None of them could survive civil wars or regional insurgencies.
Even with the strongest of U.S. support, Karzai is unable to create the stable, prospering democracy President Barack Obama wants. For one thing, Afghanistan is a multiethnic country, which has been fought over for millennia, with conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. Devoid of natural resources and torn by ethnic and religious rivalries, Afghanistan emerged in the nineteenth century as a buffer between Tsarist Russia and British India. The largest ethnic group is Pushtuns who account for almost half of the population. Tajiks form a 25 percent minority, followed by Uzbeks and Hazaras each at about 10 percent. They speak Pashta , Dari Persian and Uzbek which is Turkic. Eight out of every ten Afghans are Sunni Muslims. A 20 percent minority is Shiite.
The Taliban the United States defeated and ousted from power in 2001 draw support from the majority Pushtuns, of whom Karzai is one. Karzai, installed as president in 2004, is considered nothing more than a U.S. puppet — like Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam — and his government is regarded merely as a tool for President George W. Bush's war on terror, which almost all the Muslim Arab countries equate with a new U.S.-led Christian crusade against Islam.
Even after the re-election, Karzai has to seize opportunities to demonstrate his independence. This means picking occasional rows with Uncle Sam. Behind this political maneuver lies a profound division between him and his U.S. allies. He needs strong Afghan supporters, who are drug-smuggling tribal warlords, corrupt businessmen or even Taliban-style Muslim extremists. The United States objects to Karzai having anything to do with these leaders. Among them are Hazara strongman Mohammad Muhaqeq and Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. Tensions will mount between the new Karzai administration and its U.S. supporters.
Karzai's re-election, among other things, has further polarized the country. The loser, Abdulah Abdulah, and his Tajik supporters cannot be reconciled. They are in cahoots with the Russians who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought for ten years to prop up in vain the Soviet government in Kabul. That regime was ousted by the Taliban, who harbored Osama bin Laden whose al-Qaida suicide terrorists destroyed the World Trade Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Russia, Iran and India all have their own designs on Afghanistan. Even the People's Republic of China has a new economic interest in the landlocked country that Genghis Khan's grandson Tamerlaine had once ruled. On the other hand, the Taliban, down but not out, are still in control of southern Afghanistan, supported by the Pushtuns who are largely excluded from power.
Most of U.S. financial and economic aid lined the pockets of tribal warlords and corrupt business leaders in Kabul. The only tangible thing the United States can do to help Karzai is to provide more troops to preclude a Taliban comeback to power. That is why U.S. generals are asking for more troop support, and President Obama is complying with their request just as President Lyndon B. Johnson did after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. The generals, however, claim the war of defense in Afghanistan, if the U.S. garrison force isn't greatly increased, may spread into neighboring Pakistan, which is the only U.S. ally in the region.
Aided by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh's communist army fought the French and pro-French Vietnamese forces to a standstill and captured Dienbienphu in May 1954. The Geneva agreement divided Vietnam in half and re-organized Laos and Cambodia as independent. The United States sided with the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam in the south. King Bao Dai was overthrown and Ngo Dinh Diem was made president of South Vietnam. Diem was killed in a coup d'etat in 1963 and President Johnson started an undeclared war in Vietnam a year later to prevent the communist takeover of the south. The U.S. forces in South Vietnam peaked at 543,400 in April 1969. Laotian and Cambodian neutrality was threatened by communist insurgencies with North Vietnamese aid and U.S. intrigues. The United States was finally defeated in the Vietnam War in 1975. Vietnam was officially reunited in 1976. Altogether 47,252 U.S. soldiers were killed in the ten-year conflict in Indochina. President Obama wants to extricate the United States from the war in Iraq, started by his Republican predecessor to topple Saddam Hussein in a sequence to the anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan. Obama withdrew troops from Iraq to reinforce the peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan and will continue to send in more U.S. soldiers to keep Karzai in power after his re-election.
The fact, however, is that Afghanistan is a much tougher nut to crack than Iraq. After all, Baghdad governments had been able to control regional insurgencies and religious rivalries, by force of arms, until the Kurdish revolt of 1991. And Iraq is blessed with oil wealth. Given these structural advantages, the United States finds it relatively easier to get out of the Iraq quagmire than to successfully bring modern democracy to Afghanistan.
As a matter of fact, the United States had tainted its image as the world's policeman and began to lose power to enforce the Pax Americana as well after the Vietnam War. The downward spiral, temporarily halted by the fall of the Soviet Union as another world power, resumed with the ill-designed invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq under the Bush administration and the financial meltdown that triggered the current global economic crisis.
While Obama continues to increase troop support for Afghanistan, all its neighboring countries — India, Iran, Russia and even China — can sit back to watch and see the U.S. power decline and fall in South Asia. They will take action when the United States is forced in the end to dump Karzai and get out of Afghanistan, just as it was to walk out on Thieu and end the war in Vietnam in 1975. All indications now are that Obama may end up like Lyndon Johnson, if he insists on spreading the gospel of democracy to a pre-modern Afghanistan.