What do President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi have in common, besides being handpicked by Americans to be figurehead rulers of American-occupied lands?
They are both from, but not necessarily representative of, their nation's majority communities, which Washington is trying to marginalize without saying so aloud.
In Afghanistan, America is at war with the Pushtuns. In Iraq, it's at war with one faction of the Shiites, represented by the radical Moqtada al-Sadr, while not being at peace with the moderates represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The defining feature of the Pashtuns (so called because they speak Pashtu) is their ethnicity. For Shiites, it's religion. But America, avowedly out to establish democracy, is trying to avoid both.
This is a classic colonial tactic.
The British were adept at it. Often they picked a minority as a loyal instrument of rule, yet always appointed a few lackeys from the majority community in top jobs.
Allawi and Karzai fit that mould, even if the Afghan is a more credible figure.
Allawi is Shiite but a secular one, while most Iraqi Shiites are religious. Karzai hails from a prominent Pushtun tribe but was an unknown until picked by his American mentors.
Allawi once worked for Saddam Hussein. Karzai once welcomed the Taliban rule, because they restored order in post-Soviet chaos.
Allawi and Karzai were in exile and returned to their homelands with the invading American forces.
Allawi long worked for the CIA. Karzai briefly served with the U.S. Special Forces in the early stages of the 2001 invasion.
Both are ensconced in heavily fortified compounds. They are escorted out under heavy security, provided by the Texas-based DynCorp on contract with the Pentagon. The tableau of each leader venturing out among his own people under American escort tells the tale better than Osama bin Laden or any insurgent could.
But while Allawi has a reputation of being a bully, Karzai is seen as a decent man who is said to be a democrat at heart. And once he is confirmed as the winner of the presidential election, he will have the legitimacy that Allawi will continue to lack.
In Iraq, America is afraid of majority Shiite rule, ostensibly for two reasons: They may establish a theocracy (even though they have said repeatedly they don't want to), and they may form an axis with Shiite Iran (they are more likely to do so if denied their historic due).
In Afghanistan, America is battling the Pushtuns because that's who the Taliban were. They are the allies of Al Qaeda. It is in their midst in southern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border that bin Laden and Mullah Omar are said to be hiding. It is there that the Taliban militancy has resurfaced.
There are several other broad parallels between the two American duchies where the Bush administration managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Indiscriminate use of air and firepower, which invariably led to the massacre of innocents.
Aggressive, boorish and often racist behaviour of American troops.
Arbitrary arrests and abuse of local detainees.
The failure to provide security which hampered economic development.
The absence of both spawned mass unemployment which, in turn, strengthened militants and terrorists, sustained in the case of Afghanistan with an opium economy.
Not all Sunnis were radicals, nor were all Pushtuns pro-Taliban, let alone pro-Al Qaeda.
The refusal to shake off shady factions that helped with the invasions — the exiles in the case of Iraq, like the discredited Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi, and in Afghanistan, the Tajik, Uzbek and other minority warlords who were part of the Northern Alliance that helped capture Kabul.
Bad political judgment that led to the least attention and assistance to those who had lost the most from the American invasions: the ruling Iraqi Sunnis and the Pushtuns.
A misreading, or a deliberate misrepresentation, of domestic politics.
Pronouncements of an inevitable civil war in Iraq or internecine tribal warfare in Afghanistan have been premature, if not totally misleading.
Far from being at each other's throats, the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis are co-operating in their war against the Americans.
Regardless of their long and murderous power struggles, the Afghan tribes — unlike the warring tribes of the former Yugoslavia — have always retained a sense of nationalism, which is why no foreign power has ever been able to occupy their land for long.
The assigning of contracts to American corporations, rather than indigenous companies and labour. Besides muliplying costs, it bred anger because of the great disparity between the wages paid Americans amid the grinding poverty of the local populations.
In sum, while Iraq and Afghanistan are obviously different and Iraq is clearly worse off, the larger lessons to be drawn are about the same.
If America is sincere about democracy, and few believe it is, it has to let the majority prevail.
It has to abandon the idea of doing the occupation on the cheap.
It has a duty to fix what it has broken, even while announcing a timetable for a military withdrawal and renouncing any colonial and military designs.
© 2004 Toronto Star