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Karl Eikenberry and the lessons of Vinegar Joe

President Obama is flying to Asia this week with much on his mind: Should the US commit another 40,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan as stories of official incompetence and political corruption leak daily from the capital of Kabul?

If Britain’s curse was her imperial ambitions, the United States has its hegemonic aspirations.  We are once again supporting a regime in a country turned hostile against both the United States.  Our support is critical to the success of the current Afghan government, but it is that very (and very public) support which may well ultimately doom the administration of Hamid Karzai as it did to Fulgencia Batista or the government of South Vietnam following the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Three simple rules:

  1. In wars of attrition, the longer it lasts the greater the advantage for the home team.
  2. No matter how noble a politician may be, the more he depends on an outside force to maintain his position and power, the less legitimate his administration will seem in the eyes of his fellow countrymen.
  3. If you have your own people on the ground, listen to them.  They’re seeing things you’re not.

All of these rules apply to the case of Afghanistan and it is the third one that is perhaps the most difficult for presidents to grasp.  What is perhaps most striking about the recent memos by former general and current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, excerpts of which were published this week in The Washington Post, is how much they recall the reports which flowed out of China’s wartime capital of Chongqing in the waning years of World War II.

Corruption. Ineptitude. Mismanagement. A crippling loss of confidence on the part of the people. It’s all there.  Even the notion that U.S. support for Karzai was based on his being the democratically-elected leader of the country is now cast in doubt as questions linger over voting fraud and other irregularities during the recent election.

While the Obama administration is sure to be embarrassed by the memos leaked to the Post, the ghosts of the old “China Hands,” men like John Service, John Carter Vincent, and John Davies, not to mention more well known figures such as Joe Stillwell and Patrick Hurley, must be shaking their heads.   Stillwell knew that while Chiang (whom “Vinegar Joe” referred to dismissively as “peanut”) may not have been on the take, the generalissimo was surrounded by a rogues gallery of hangers on and wannabes so crooked they had put their pants on with a corkscrew.

First Roosevelt and then Truman failed to listen to the people on the ground in Chongqing and were late to realize not only the fragility of Chiang’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese people, but also how U.S. support for Chiang was working against the KMT as they vied for the hearts and minds of a nation. Hopefully, President Obama won’t make the same mistake.