Obama and Afghanistan: America's Drug-Corrupted War

by Peter Dale Scott

The presidential electoral campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, it was thought, “changed the political debate in a party and a country that desperately needed to take a new direction.” Like most preceding presidential winners dating back at least to John F. Kennedy, what moved voters of all descriptions to back Obama was the hope he offered of significant change. Yet within a year Obama has taken decisive steps, not just to continue America’s engagement in Bush’s Afghan War, but significantly to enlarge it into Pakistan. If this was change of a sort, it was a change that few voters desired.

Those of us convinced that a war machine prevails in Washington were not surprised. The situation was similar to the disappointment experienced with Jimmy Carter: Carter was elected in 1976 with a promise to cut the defense budget. Instead, he initiated both an expansion of the defense budget and also an expansion of U.S. influence into the Indian Ocean.

As I wrote in The Road to 9/11, after Carter’s election

It appeared on the surface that with the blessing of David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission, the traditional U.S. search for unilateral domination would be abandoned. But…the 1970s were a period in which a major “intellectual counterrevolution” was mustered, to mobilize conservative opinion with the aid of vast amounts of money…. By the time SALT II was signed in 1979, Carter had consented to significant new weapons programs and arms budget increases (reversing his campaign pledge).

The complex strategy for reversing Carter’s promises was revived for a successful new mobilization in the 1990s during the Clinton presidency, in which a commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld was prominent. In this way the stage was set, even under Clinton, for the neocon triumph in the George W. Bush presidency.

The Vietnam War as a Template for Afghanistan

The aim of the war machine has been consistent over the last three decades: to overcome the humiliation of a defeat in Vietnam by doing it again and getting it right. But the principal obstacle to victory in Afghanistan is the same as in Vietnam: the lack of a viable central government to defend. The relevance of the Vietnam analogy was rejected by Obama in his December 1 speech: "Unlike Vietnam,” he said, “we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency." But the importance of the Vietnam analogy has been well brought out by Thomas H. Johnson, coordinator of anthropological research studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, and his co-author Chris Mason. In their memorable phrase, “the Vietnam War is less a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan than it is a template:”

It is an oft-cited maxim that in all the conflicts of the past century, the United States has refought its last war. A number of analysts and journalists have mentioned the war in Vietnam recently in connection with Afghanistan.1 Perhaps fearful of taking this analogy too far, most have backed away from it. They should not – the Vietnam War is less a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan than it is a template. For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military reenactment of the Vietnam War, and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events 50 years ago is deeply disturbing.

In their words, quoting Jeffrey Record,

“the fundamental political obstacle to an enduring American success in Vietnam [was] a politically illegitimate, militarily feckless, and thoroughly corrupted South Vietnamese client regime.” Substitute the word “Afghanistan” for the words “South Vietnam” in these quotations and the descriptions apply precisely to today’s government in Kabul. Like Afghanistan, South Vietnam at the national level was a massively corrupt collection of self-interested warlords, many of them deeply implicated in the profitable opium trade, with almost nonexistent legitimacy outside the capital city. The purely military gains achieved at such terrible cost in our nation’s blood and treasure in Vietnam never came close to exhausting the enemy’s manpower pool or his will to fight, and simply could not be sustained politically by a venal and incompetent set of dysfunctional state institutions where self-interest was the order of the day.

If Johnson had written a little later, he might have added that a major CIA asset in Afghanistan was Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai; and that Ahmed Wali Karzai was a major drug trafficker who used his private force to help arrange a flagrantly falsified election result. This is a fairly exact description of Ngo dinh Nhu in Vietnam, President Ngo dinh Diem’s brother, an organizer of the Vietnamese drug traffic whose dreaded Can Lao secret force helped, among other things, to organize a falsified election result there.

This pattern of a corrupt near relative, often involved in drugs, is a recurring feature of regimes installed or supported by U.S. influence. There were similar allegations about Chiang Kai-shek’s brother-in-law T.V. Soong, Mexican President Echevarría’s brother-in-law Rubén Zuno Arce, and the Shah of Iran’s sister. In the case of Ngo dinh Nhu, it was the absence of a popular base for his externally installed presidential brother that led to drug involvement, “to provide the necessary funding” for political repression. This analogy to the Karzais is pertinent.

An additional similarity, not noted by Johnson, is that America initially engaged in Vietnam in support of an embattled and unpopular minority, the Roman Catholics who had thrived under the French. America has twice made the same mistake in Afghanistan. Initially, after the Russian invasion of 1980, the bulk of American aid went to Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, a leader both insignificant in and unpopular with the mujahedin resistance; the CIA is said to have supported Hekmatyar, who became a drug trafficker to compensate for his lack of a popular base, because he was the preferred client of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which distributed American and Saudi aid.

When America re-engaged in 2001, it was to support the Northern Alliance, a drug-trafficking Tajik-Uzbek minority coalition hateful to the Pashtun majority south of the Hindu Kush. Just as America’s initial commitment to the Catholic Diem family fatally alienated the Vietnamese countryside, so the American presence in Afghanistan is weakened by its initial dependence on the Tajiks of the minority Northern Alliance. (The Roman Catholic minority in Vietnam at least shared a language with the Buddhists in the countryside. The Tajiks speak Dari, a version of Persian unintelligible to the Pashtun majority.)

According to an important article by Gareth Porter,

Contrary to the official portrayal of the Afghan National Army (ANA) as ethnically balanced, the latest data from U.S. sources reveal that the Tajik minority now accounts for far more of its troops than the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group.…. Tajik domination of the ANA feeds Pashtun resentment over the control of the country’s security institutions by their ethnic rivals, while Tajiks increasingly regard the Pashtun population as aligned with the Taliban.

The leadership of the army has been primarily Tajik since the ANA was organised in 2002, and Tajiks have been overrepresented in the officer corps from the beginning. But the original troop composition of the ANA was relatively well-balanced ethnically. The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued Oct. 30, shows that Tajiks, which represent 25 percent of the population, now account for 41 percent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and that only 30 percent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns. A key reason for the predominance of Tajik troops is that the ANA began to have serious problems recruiting troops in the rural areas of Kandahar and Helmand provinces by mid-2007.

This problem derives from a major strategic error committed by the U.S. first in Vietnam and now repeated: the effort to impose central state authority on a country that had always been socially and culturally diverse. Johnson and Mason illustrate Diem’s lack of legitimacy with a quote from Eric Bergerud:

The Government of Vietnam (GVN) lacked legitimacy with the rural peasantry, the largest segment of the population…The peasantry perceived the GVN to be aloof, corrupt, and inefficient…South Vietnam’s urban elite possessed the outward manifestations of a foreign culture…more importantly, this small group held most of the wealth and power in a poor nation, and the attitude of the ruling elite toward the rural population was, at best, paternalistic and, at worst, predatory.

Thomas Johnson rightly deplores the U.S. effort to impose Kabul’s will on an even more diverse Afghanistan. As he has written elsewhere,

The characterization of Afghanistan by the 19th Century British diplomat Sir Henry Rawlinson as `consist[ing] of a mere collection of tribes, of unequal power and divergent habits, which are held together more or less closely, according to the personal character of the chief who rules them. The feeling of patriotism, as it is known in Europe, cannot exist among Afghans, for there is no common country’ is still true today and suggests critical nuances for any realistic Afghanistan reconstruction and future political agenda.”

According to Thomas Johnson, the first eight years of the U.S. in Afghanistan have also seen the Army repeating the strategy of targeting the enemy that failed in Vietnam:

Since 2002, the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan – at all levels – has been based on an implied strategy of attrition via clearing operations virtually identical to those pursued in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they were dubbed “search and destroy missions;” in Afghanistan they are called “clearing operations” and “compound searches,” but the purpose is the same – to find easily replaced weapons or clear a tiny, arbitrarily chosen patch of worthless ground for a short period, and then turn it over to indigenous security forces who can’t hold it, and then go do it again somewhere else…. General McChrystal is the first American commander since the war began to understand that protecting the people, not chasing illiterate teenage boys with guns around the countryside, is the basic principle of counterinsurgency. Yet four months into his command, little seems to have changed, except for an eight-year overdue order to stop answering the enemy’s prayers by blowing up compounds with air strikes to martyr more of the teenage boys.

The astute observer Rory Stewart is equally pessimistic about the new counter-insurgency strategy, which according to its proponents needs one “trained counterinsurgent” for every fifty members of the population, or a troop level of from 300,000 (for the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan) to 600,000 (for the whole country):

The ingredients of successful counter-insurgency campaigns in places like Malaya – control of the borders, large numbers of troops in relation to the population, strong support from the majority ethnic groups, a long-term commitment and a credible local government – are lacking in Afghanistan.

Johnson and Mason’s depiction of the Vietnam template underlying Afghanistan is important. But there is a glaring omission in their description of power in the Afghan countryside:

When it is in equilibrium, rural Afghan society is a triangle of power formed by the tribal elders, the mullahs, and the government…. In times of peace and stability, the longest side of the triangle is that of the tribal elders, constituted through the jirga system. The next longest, but much shorter side is that of the mullahs. Traditionally and historically, the government side is a microscopic short segment. However, after 30 years of blowback from the Islamization of the Pashtun begun by General Zia in Pakistan and accelerated by the Soviet-Afghan War, the religious side of the triangle has become the longest side of jihad has grown stronger and more virulent.

This remains true, but is dated by its omission of drug-trafficking, and the militias supported by drug-trafficking, which since 1980 have become a more and more important element in the power-balance. Sometimes the drug-traffic adds to the power of tribal elders like Jalaluddin Haqqani or Haji Bashir Noorzai, with tribal drug networks often passed from father to son. But today one of the most important power-holders is the drug-trafficker Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Ghilzai Pashtun from the north without a significant tribal base. Hekmatyar is much like General Dan Van Quang during the Vietnam War, in that his power continues to depend in part on his sophisticated heroin trafficking network in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

The more we recognize that today drugs are a major factor in both the economy and the power structure of Afghanistan, the more we must recognize that an even better template for the Afghan war is not the Vietnam war, where drugs were important but not central, but the CIA’s drug-funded undeclared war in Laos, 1959–75.

Afghanistan and the Laos Template

I have quoted at great length from Johnson’s pessimistic essay in Military Review, partly because I believe it deserves to be read by a non-military audience, but also because I believe that his excellent analogies to Vietnam are even more pertinent if we recall the CIA’s hopeless fiasco in Laos.

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