Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Afghanistan is Not Vietnam

George McGovern had a piece in the Sunday Washington Post recalling how, during his run for the presidency in 1972, he told audiences across the country “that the only upside of the tragedy in Vietnam was that its enormous cost in lives and dollars would keep any future administration from going down that road again.”

He was wrong, he declares: Obama is going down the same path that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did.

McGovern should know better.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Here are the reasons why:

1. Vietnam was in the midst of an entirely legitimate nationalist, anti-colonial struggle that had the massive support of the Vietnamese people.

The fighting in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, a terrorist group that sustains itself by trafficking drugs. Based on their experience of Taliban rule, Afghans are massively opposed to the group.

2. The United States slipped into the Vietnam war by slow degrees, first supporting the French, then the corrupt regimes in South Vietnam, and finally subjecting the country to massive military intervention. Its motivation was fear that if the Viet Cong won, then the balance of power in Southeast Asia would tip towards the Chinese communists. That fear, as it turned out, was entirely misplaced; the Vietnamese have a historical hatred of Chinese domination.

The United States is in Afghanistan because it was attacked on 9/11 by terrorists who were based there and enjoyed the support of the Taliban regime. The need to fight them is not abstract or ideological; democracies around the world have suffered gratuitous attack because terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been driven by a medieval Islamic vision of world conquest.

3. The Viet Cong fighters American troops faced in Vietnam were financed and supplied by North Vietnam, a State recognized by the overwhelming majority of the international community.

In Afghanistan American troops confront combatants who are financed with drug money and are universally considered to be criminal and illegitimate.

4. The withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam led to the end of the war there, and eventually, the emergence of a stable and unified Vietnam. The country is now a member of the strongly free-market Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

If American troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan the result will be the renewed spread of terrorism throughout the region and the world. Afghanistan itself will sink into civil war, and that will destabilize Central and South Asia. This is not a new “Domino Theory;” the forecast is actually a look back at what happened when the Taliban were in power.

Quite obviously, McGovern’s attempt to draw an analogy between American interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan is not credible. He seems to acknowledge that in a final argument for withdrawal: ”Even if we had a good case for a war in Afghanistan, we simply cannot afford to wage it. With a $12 trillion debt and a serious economic recession, this is not a time for unnecessary wars abroad.”

That too is not a credible argument. The post-Cold War spread of democracy is not a settled and irreversible fact. To withdraw from Afghanistan prematurely would endanger vulnerable democracies not only in its immediate region but throughout the Islamic world. Authoritarian States like China and Iran would feel much less pressure to democratize. India, already seriously affected by terrorism exported from Pakistan, would be in much greater danger. Not to confront the sworn enemies of democracy in Afghanistan is to ensure that the fight, when it becomes unavoidable later, will be much more difficult.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Picking the Next UN Secretary-General

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has two years left of his first term, and the jockeying has begun to get him a second term -- or find a successor.

At the moment it seems likely Ban will not get a second term, for his sleep-walking performance in office has been unredeemed by any initiative that can claim to be even marginally successful or imaginative. Assessments of his performance in mainstream Western media have been consistently dismal.

Governments have not been too thrilled with him either. Earlier this year, a leaked memorandum to her capital from the Norwegian Ambassador at the UN portrayed him as virtually useless. In Afghanistan Ban has been caught between British ambitions to play a larger role and determined opposition to that from Prime Minister Karzai (read Washington), a no-win situation the Secretary-General has handled with his usual ham-fisted skill.

The latest indication of how little he is valued has come in the leaked “Danish Document” at the Copenhagen talks on climate change; it contains a plan by the industrialized countries to sideline the United Nations in dealing with an issue Ban has trumpeted as his highest concern.

None of this is definitive. A good performance record and the support of world media have never been necessary to get and hold the UN’s top job. Ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim almost got a third term despite his well known corruption and incompetence. To be appointed Secretary-General only one thing has been essential, the support of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Britain, France, Russian Federation, United States).

In the past the Five have not been hard to please; but unfortunately for Ban, that might no longer be the case, now that Washington has signalled its intention to make serious use of the UN. The growing expectation at the UN is that he and his little mafia of operatives from the South Korean Foreign Office will have to take their congee in 1911.

Ban’s most visible competitor for the post of Secretary-General is Helen Clark, the new Administrator of the UN Development Programme. A former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark has a bluff political persona and would probably make a good “first woman Secretary-General.” But who exactly is backing her is murky. It is unlikely to be Washington, for Clark was decidedly anti-American as Prime Minister, opposing the entry into New Zealand waters of American ships carrying nuclear weapons, and pulling out of ANZUS, the defence agreement with Australia and the United States. It is probably Britain, and if so Ban might as well give up the game, for it was a deal with London that put him on the 38th floor.

The guessing game got more complex last week with the announcement that Ban had picked Rebeca Grynspan, former Vice-President of Costa Rica (1994-1998), to be Associate Administrator of UNDP. In doing that he ignored representations from the African Group that it had a claim on the post, having been promised it when Clark was appointed Administrator.

Why would Ban offend a group of 51 member States to give a high-level post to a Costa Rican? It is certainly not merit, for the Secretary-General has made it very clear during his three years in office that he is not swayed by that consideration. Representations from the Latin American Group could not have been the reason, for most of its members are middle-income States with tiny UNDP aid allotments; none is an influential donor.

It is fair to speculate that the push for Grynspan came from Washington, and that she is now positioned to join Helen Clark as a viable woman candidate to replace Ban Ki-moon.