A Little More American Raj in Afghanistan?

The recent death of Nguyen Cao Ky, one-time General, Prime Minister and Vice-President of the South Vietnamese government supported by the United States in the Vietnam War, briefly brought the memory of some past American foreign policy delusions back to the news. And a recent article by a leader of the movement against that war should remind us of the importance of remembering those delusions.

In an article in the on-line magazine, Salon, "Where have all the war protesters gone?" Todd Gitlin, one-time president of the famously anti-Vietnam War Students for a Democratic Society, runs through a crisp analysis of why "the marches stopped" shortly after the Iraq War began. He includes the intransigence of the Bush Administration and the relative "ease" with which America currently fights its wars, with no draft, no pictures of our war dead, and even drone aircraft - bombers without pilots - to do the dirty work. More importantly, perhaps, he also discusses the ambiguous feelings that enveloped "many former or potential demonstrators" when they considered the nature of enemies such as Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. Yet the most significant aspect of Gitlin's piece may be the way it displays how even one who decries the lack of an effective antiwar movement may still maintain a belief in the ability of American military occupation to create the right sort of government halfway around the world.

Like many of us, Gitlin seems to see the distant past more clearly than more recent events. So far as the Vietnam War goes, he writes that "when the antiwar movement was challenged with the question -- meant to be rhetorical -- How can we leave? our common reply was, On ships. In the case of Vietnam, that was the right and sufficient answer." Many other Americans, of course, did not see it that clearly at the time. At one point, the American government's alternative to leaving Vietnam "on ships" was General Ky.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai does not represent the first instance of the U.S. government wishing that there were someone else in charge of a foreign government it was sustaining. In 1963, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was also deemed less than ideal and his fate was worse than anything Karzai has faced, at least thus far: A military junta took over - with U.S. approval - and he was executed. After two years of subsequent coup attempts, General Ky ascended to the post of Prime Minister where he too became an embarrassment, as Buddhist demonstrations against his regime spread and he threatened mayhem against the population. Ultimately he would step down to the vice-presidential slot when the next rigged national election was held in 1967. We all know how it all came out in the long run. Ky himself piloted a helicopter to a U.S. Navy ship as Saigon fell in 1975 and would not even revisit his homeland until 2004.

In his telling of the Vietnam story, Gitlin doesn't claim that Vietnam's Communists had better press back then than the Taliban do today - whatever cachet the "Viet Cong" may have enjoyed in the U.S. antiwar movement, it was a quite a marginal phenomenon. For the most part the war's opponents shared Gitlin's assessment that a National Liberation Front victory would produce "the whole apparatus of dictatorship," but they ultimately recognized that, whatever else might be true, imposing the U.S.A.'s will on Vietnam was simply not within the realm of possibility.

There is actually a somewhat simple answer to the question Gitlin poses. Intentionally or not, he has elided two wars. The marches that stopped were protests against the Iraq War. And given the claim that U.S. forces will soon leave and the fact that American military fatalities in the country fell to 60 last year - under seven percent of their peak - it seems likely those marches would have stopped by now in any case. The question of why there are not marches against the Obama Administration's escalation of the Afghanistan War is another matter, however.

When it comes to Afghanistan, Gitlin doesn't think the answer as to how we get out is "On ships" - and it's not just because Afghanistan is landlocked. This time around, he writes, "there is sometimes a tendency to say that since we, the antiwarriors, aren't the ones who got in, it's not our responsibility to explain how to get out. Since we shouldn't have been there in the first place, our hands are clean. But there are no clean hands -- for anyone -- on the way out."

After a nearly ten-year war, no one seems to any longer argue anything but that the "burqa-enforcing Taliban" - in Gitlin's words - will be in the country's picture when the U.S. military leaves - no matter how far into the future we might project the U.S. presence. It also seems likely that the "the misogynist warlords" - as feminist former Afghan legislator Malalai Joya describes the U.S. allies - will be in the picture as well. Yet Gitlin seems to think that the U.S. can, even must "fix" the problem, going so far as to cite in support of the notion a recent claim "that if the British had stayed in India one more year, and done the right things, the subcontinent could well have been spared the horrible war of partition that cost hundreds of thousands of lives."

Not to deny the right to historical speculation or anything, but an argument that what India and Pakistan really needed was just one more year of the British Raj somehow seems a fairly shaky assumption on which to base a case for prolonged military operations in Afghanistan. Nguyen Cao Ky, on the other hand, was a real life example of what we can get when we try to "fix" another country by sending in the marines.

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