History, the second time around?

Rufus Phillips ’51, author of Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned (2009), headed the counterinsurgency program at the U.S. aid mission in Saigon during the 1960s. Recently, he has served informally as a consultant to several military and civilian bodies on U.S. Afghanistan policy.

Andy Martin

Andy Martin

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In September 1963, I was called to a White House meeting to hear the views of two investigators just back from Vietnam, who had been dispatched to determine whether the mounting Buddhist protests against President Ngo Dinh Diem were fatally undermining the war effort. Their findings varied so widely that President Kennedy asked, "The two of you did visit the same country, didn't you?" After some four years of direct involvement on Vietnam, I knew the situation was bad but not hopeless. I recommended Kennedy send out the one American truly trusted by Diem, General Edward Lansdale, to persuade Diem to exile his deeply unpopular brother -- the main source of discontent in the country. Kennedy listened attentively and thanked me for recommending Lansdale.

But other voices prevailed. Instead of choosing Lansdale and the subtle art of political persuasion, Kennedy sent Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor. Their angry demands that Diem hew to U.S. policies inflamed his national and personal pride. Thus the Buddhist protests escalated, and the option that Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. had favored all along -- a coup by the Vietnamese military, covertly encouraged by the Americans -- became the only option.

Four years later, the Vietnamese held a presidential election. Ambassador Lodge now chose to insist that the United States stay out of Vietnamese internal affairs. Richard Holbrooke, then working at the White House, disagreed, pointing out that "with our present civil/military involvement in Vietnam we are involved in everything, including politics, either by omission or commission." But the United States failed to support a change to civilian rule, and our inaction guaranteed the continuation of military-led government. We made a similar mistake in the election of 1971: by failing to object to President Nguyen Van Thieu's use of illegal means to eliminate all opposition, we guaranteed that he would run for "reelection" unchallenged.

Today we face a similar political challenge in Afghanistan. The Afghans will hold presidential elections in August. Will our stand be essentially non-interference, while the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is able to use his administration to tilt the playing field illegally in his favor? Or will we insist -- because of our core beliefs and because we are paying a substantial part of the election costs, that we have the right to interfere -- on the principle that the Afghan government must observe its own election laws? Those laws promise equal treatment for all candidates and make it illegal to use government means to affect the outcome.

As with most insurgencies, the struggle in Afghanistan is for the allegiance of the Afghan people, and only the Afghans can win it. Our current limited objective of eradicating al Qaeda can only be done by helping the Afghan government win the support of its people, a lengthy process for which there is no simple or certain solution. The Taliban are fighting for the acquiescence and allegiance of the population through military force, intimidation, rough justice, and harsh but functioning governance fueled by religious fervor. To win, the Afghan government must commit itself with equal fervor to protect its people -- not just itself and the fortunes of its leaders -- and to provide just, responsive, and honest governance. Unfortunately, torpor and corruption currently sap this political cause and undercut the morale needed to empower and sustain it.

Opinion polls in Afghanistan, with a five-year reasonably accurate history, show the country to be more than a tribal and ethnic conglomeration; there are clear signs of a sense of national identity and belief in democracy. Seventy percent of Afghans identify themselves as Afghans first and as members of a particular ethnic group second. More than 60 percent share a strong preference for democracy, which they equate with peace and freedom. Favorable ratings of the Taliban remain low -- about 10 percent. If the national government could realize, not undermine, its citizens' aspirations, the Taliban cause would eventually wither and with it any sanctuary for al Qaeda.

From this perspective, Afghanistan's upcoming presidential elections loom as potentially critical. If the Afghan people view these elections as unfair and dishonest, Afghan morale and belief in democratic self-government will be severely eroded. Our stake in honest elections is also significant at home. As the U.S. perception of unfair elections in 1967 and 1971 helped undermine U.S. public support for the Vietnam War, so will it for this war if our troops are seen to be dying to prop up a corrupt government. On the other hand, if honest elections begin to restore the credibility of the Afghan government, American support for the longer haul could well endure.

Achieving a fair, free, and transparent election will not be easy. President Karzai has the levers of power at his fingertips in an administration open to cronyism and payoff, and the temptation to abuse such powers will be strong. At least two credible opponents exist, however, who have credible credentials if untested levels of public support: a former foreign minister named Abdullah and a former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. The law requires that the election go to a second round if the initial winner captures less than 50 percent of the vote -- making this contest more open than may initially appear. Even though the odds currently favor Karzai, enforcing an honest election process could oblige him to address charges of corruption, to pledge reforms, and even to begin enacting reforms during the campaign. If this were to happen, then, no matter who won, Afghanistan would be better off.

There are several strong actions the United States can take to help ensure a level campaign playing field. We can insist on equal media access for all candidates, using our own media resources if necessary. We can strengthen the existing joint (foreign and Afghan) Election Complaints Commission by arranging for additional funding and logistical support. We can give moral support to the Fair and Free Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), an independent nonprofit group founded by Afghan citizens. We can deploy Coalition security forces, combined with the Afghan army and non-corrupt police units, to provide not just protection for the polls during voting and vote counting, but also on-the-ground pre-election monitoring.

President Obama's representation in Afghanistan faces two paths -- whether to insist forcefully on fair elections, thereby risking a possible period of difficult relations with President Karzai's administration; or to go through the motions, in the interest of "getting on with the war" (the common excuse for political inaction in Vietnam). Indeed, vigorous efforts to level the playing field may very well raise the political temperature. But on the free election issue, we stand on higher moral ground. Are we willing to risk a temporary period of political tension in view of the greater long-term political benefits a fair election could bring to all?

On June 16, President Obama stated that the United States should "help the Afghans ensure a credible, secure, and inclusive election process in which all candidates have fair access to media, can freely travel and campaign, and are comfortable with the integrity of the ballots cast on election day." The question is to what extent we will use our influence in Afghanistan to meet these goals.  

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