Richard Reeves

Obama in the Quagmire

WASHINGTON -- Is Hamid Karzai really nuts? Or are we?

We have done this before, if you remember. The historical similarities to the rise and fall of President Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam are downright eerie. An American-backed leader, barely legitimate at best, an ineffectual leader with his own autocratic agenda and a strange, corrupt, mysterious brother, probably a drug addict.

That story ended (and another even worse one began) when the Americans deliberately stepped aside for a day, the day the brothers were assassinated by the country's American-trained army. That was in November of 1963. We broke South Vietnam and we owned it. We backed a series of inept generals until we were forced to run for our lives in 1974. Back to that later.

Karzai is probably not crazy, even if he seems to be, thanking (sort of) the United States and allies one day and accusing them of invading his country the next. In between, he has invited Iranians to Kabul to verbally attack us and then says if we don't shape up he may have to join the Taliban. He was, by the way, an important fundraiser for the Taliban as they came to power back in 1996.

Says a correspondent who has known the Afghan leader for decades, Christina Lamb of The Times of London:

"Karzai has seen himself described as 'mad' and 'paranoid' in the U.S. media, which have also carried reports that America wants to put his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, an alleged drug dealer, on a death list. ... I have known Karzai for 23 years and while he is erratic, with mood swings, he is not mad. He is an extremely proud Afghan, answering to a nation that has defeated all its occupiers and which does not trust the Americans, having been abandoned by them before.

"Appeasing both the international community and his own Pashtun tribe, which bears the brunt of fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan, is a balancing act for which he may not be sufficiently skilled. Since he is isolated behind high walls and seven layers of security in a palace where many of his predecessors were murdered, it is hardly surprising if he is paranoid."

Diem was paranoid and his drug-addicted brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, even more so. National Intelligence Estimates and Central Intelligence Agency briefings read by President Kennedy in the summer of 1963 said that newspapers controlled by the Ngo brothers had begun attacking the presence of Americans in South Vietnam and continued:

"The GVN (Government of Vietnam) has always shown concern over the implications of American involvement in South Vietnamese affairs. ... It springs from the Diem government's suspicions of U.S. intentions toward it, and from its belief that extensive U.S. presence is setting in motion political forces that could eventually threaten Diem's political primacy. ... This attitude will almost certainly persist and further pressure to reduce the U.S. presence in the country is likely."

Kennedy was almost desperate to have it both ways in Vietnam, at least until after the 1964 elections, to maintain the American position in Southeast Asia without a total military commitment. In private, though, he told his friend, newspaper columnist Charles Bartlett: "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the American people to re-elect me."

So, at the urging of Averell Harriman in the State Department and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the American ambassador in Saigon, Kennedy agreed to plots to remove Diem and Nhu, including stopping the paychecks of Diem's palace bodyguards. The coup began on Nov. 1, 1963. Diem and his brother were shot dead that day. Kennedy himself was assassinated 21 days after that, leaving Lyndon Johnson to deal with the aftermath in Vietnam.

When it was over, the communists had won and hundreds of thousands of people were dead, including more than 55,000 Americans.

For what? Historians may differ on the answer to that question. President Obama must be thinking about that.

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