The specter of Vietnam hangs over our war in Afghanistan. First came the questions:

  • Will we lose another war?
  • Should we escalate this conflict, or get out?
  • Will this war become a quagmire?

Then came some contrasts:

  • The terrain is a lot different.
  • The Cold War is over, so a superpower confrontation isn’t in the background.
  • We haven’t lost as many soldiers in Afghanistan. Moreover, we have an all volunteer force now, and a relatively small number are deployed to the war zone.

In one respect, though, perhaps the most important one, you can see a similarity between the two conflicts that should give us pause. In both wars, our principal aim was not to conquer or occupy foreign territory. Our principal aim in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, is to quell an insurgency and maintain a strong, stable government friendly to our interests. We failed to accomplish that in Vietnam, and thus lost the war. All the political signs right now indicate that we will fail to accomplish that aim in Afghanistan as well.

We have backed Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. The people who live in the region have many reasons to regard the government in Kabul as illegitimate. One important reason is that we back it. It’s a weak government in many respects, but one move on our part would make it more stable and acceptable to Afghans: we could stop backing it.

We back Hamid Karzai because he’s our only option. Never formulate your strategy in a way that limits your options. Do the opposite: formulate a strategy that leaves you multiple paths to your goal. What is our goal in Afghanistan? We want no more attacks on our homeland to originate from that region. Do we have to back Hamid Karzai and his government to accomplish that aim? You tell me.

Hamid Karzai has done everything a human being can reasonably do to tell us he does not want our backing. You have to ask what else he could do to get our attention. What if he were to denounce us in public, saying that our presence in his country is bad for his government and for all Afghanis? He’s done that. What if he were to tell us he’d like us to leave as soon as we can, because our presence in his country just leads to more and more killing? He’s done that. What if he stole an election with vote fraud so blatant that even his own cronies couldn’t defend it, then told us to mind our own business when we asked what’s going on? We all know he’s done that, too.

What’s our explanation for this behavior? We say he’s erratic. That implies that he doesn’t know his own mind. It implies that he can’t form a plan and stick with it. Erratic suggests he’s not reliable, not serious, not credible. I don’t know, but the record of what he has said in public seems pretty consistent to me. He doesn’t want us in his country anymore. Yes, we do protect him from the Taliban, but he doesn’t seem to be so worried about that. From his actions and his words, he appears more worried about the Americans in his country than about the Taliban.

Now we learn that his government receives bags of cash every year from Iran, our arch-enemy in the region. When the New York Times calls him on it, he says, “What’s the big deal? The U. S. government knows about this. I told them myself when I was in Washington.” Wow, that looks good for everybody doesn’t it? The American government knows that Iran funds the government in Kabul to the tune of two million or more a year, and we’re all okay with that?

You can’t fault Iran for wanting to advance its interests in Afghanistan. Moreover, Kabul would be ungracious to refuse a gift like that. Money is short, Kabul has big bills to pay, and Iran isn’t asking much in return. But you gotta wonder, do we really have a clear idea of what we’re doing over there? Honestly. When we leave, Iran’s still going to be there, like a good neighbor. Do we think Karzai will keep taking money from us after we leave because he likes us better?

If our main goals are to make Karzai’s government self-sufficient and friendly to the United States, we need to think of some different goals. If our main strategy to accomplish our goals is to apply military pressure to the Taliban, train the Afghan armed forces, provide security and fund development projects in Afghanistan, we may want to look at the result to see if the strategy is working. If we were to ask Karzai in private if he thinks the strategy is working, I don’t think he’d say yes.

When our client says that he takes money from our enemy and adds that we’ve known about that for quite a while, you have to take another look at both our ends and our means. We already gave Iran a big opportunity to expand its regional might when we attacked Iraq. Now perhaps we can balance things out and give Iran some room to run on the other end of the field. But then, if you have a client who’s erratic, what can you do?