24 March 2009

Karzai -- a 21st century Diem?

The United States and its European allies are ­about to demote Afghan president Hamid Karzai. They intend to appoint a new chief executive who will "partner" Karzai and assume whatever decision-making the allies feel appropriate. They also intend to devolve spending power from Kabul to the provinces. They are, apparently, fed up with the corruption around Karzai and intend to bypass him. The diminished role for the president will be unveiled at a special conference on Afghanistan at The Hague on March 31. Top candidate for the new job is Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, an American favourite.

It seems only yesterday NATO was crowing about the democracy they had brought to Afghanistan, wonderfully illustrated by the election of Karzai as president in 2004. Now he has become a liability, and apparently the allies won't be taking chances on elections this time.

This is yet another echo of the Vietnam war. In 1963 the Americans, led by a charming, young and progressive president, watched as the incompetent leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, steadily lost ground to the Viet Cong insurgency. The Americans acquiesced, therefore, when the South Vietnamese army decided to depose Diem. The U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, was apparently horrified when the military not only deposed him, they executed him. This time the Americans and their allies will do the job themselves.

Karzai will probably fare better than Diem, although there is the problem of what to do if he rejects the allies' plans, an anti-colonial stand many Afghans would support. He recently declared he would resist any dilution of his power. "Afghanistan will never be a puppet state," he is reported as saying, perhaps under the illusion that because he was elected it's his country to run. No doubt Diem felt the same way. Like Diem, he will soon be disabused of that notion. The quagmire deepens.

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