WASHINGTON — In the fall of 1963, a young American president, afraid that the U.S. was losing an Asian civil war and alarmed by reports of widespread government corruption in the strife-torn country, authorized a coup d'etat.
Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was quickly deposed, but the coup proved to be a blunder by John F. Kennedy. Diem was murdered; his successors were as corrupt, and more inept. The U.S. force of 12,000 military advisers would five years later swell to 500,000 troops, but America still suffered a haunting defeat.
So there was a startled pause in a recent Senate hearing when Lt. Col. (ret.) David Kilcullen evoked Diem's name in describing how the U.S. government's current disenchantment with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and its intention to dispatch thousands of more soldiers to Afghanistan, bore echoes of Vietnam.
"What this situation looks like to me is Vietnam under Diem," said Kilcullen, a former Australian special forces commando and counter-terrorism expert who served as an adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In Karzai, "we have a leader tainted" by the same corrupt practices that doomed Diem. "But if you think about what we did in Vietnam … we couldn't fix it," Kilcullen warned the senators. "We need to be extremely careful about signing ourselves up to escalate."
Kilcullen's warning came toward the end of an extraordinary session for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Instead of staying perched on their dais, Chairman John Kerry had the committee's members sitting as a roundtable, rubbing shoulders and interspersed with the experts they had summoned.
An eclectic witness list included Kilcullen; Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister of Afghanistan, who is now the chancellor of Kabul University; Ambassador James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, and Sarah Chayes, a former journalist who manages a development cooperative in Kandahar.
The times seem apt for new ways of exchanging ideas, for the witnesses were united in their grim appraisal.
"We have a crisis … government legitimacy is collapsing … the insurgency is spreading," said Kilcullen. "If we don't stabilize the country this year…it doesn't matter what our long-term strategy is."
Government corruption is rife, they said. Support for the Taliban is surging in the south. The multi-national peacekeeping force lacks clean lines of command and a coherent strategy. Al Qaeda is regrouping in the border area with Pakistan. Heroin trafficking is unmolested, and drug money supports an aggressive insurgency.
"The situation is so bad in Kandahar that the women in my cooperative are beginning to say they would rather live under the Taliban," said Chayes. Armed thugs demand payoffs. The government is "not only shaking down its citizens but actually humiliating them… . To pay your electricity bill you have to go to eight different offices in two different buildings and pay bribes … . We are reaching, at least in the south, a situation of rage … blamed on us … because we engineered this."
It's a given here that a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to more civil strife, fuel the Taliban revival and recreate an environment in which Al Qaeda could build bases and training facilities, plan and launch attacks.
In the long term, the U.S. has three options, Kilcullen said.
Option A may have the best chance of succeeding, but bears the highest cost: it is a classic counter-insurgency strategy, to add tens of thousands more troops, secure the population, spend $20 billion a month and hopefully claim success in "another 10 years."
"The challenge of Afghanistan is not the strength of the adversary, but the weakness of the governance," Ghani argued. With a sustained counter-insurgency effort, the future of his country "is by no means impossible to turn around."
Option B, said Kilcullen, is to ignore the deteriorating social order in Afghanistan and continue to concentrate on a military solution, fielding elite detachments of counter-terrorist forces, who would focus on destroying Al Qaeda.
A third choice is "Option A Lite," he said — to make a less-costly attempt at rebuilding Afghan institutions, while fielding a moderately-sized force of allied troops.
"The problem with Option A is we won't be able to afford it. The problem with Option B is it just won't work," said Kilcullen. And Option A Lite presents "the worst of both worlds."
The Afghan crisis is exacerbated by the flaws of Karzai's government. "We have to ask ourselves what we can realistically expect" from an administration which is "fundamentally failing and corrupt," Kerry said.
"The government is being perceived as predatory" by the Afghan people, Ghani acknowledged. "You can't fight an insurgency unless the government stands for order and integrity."
There is wishful talk here of duplicating the "Sunni awakening" that helped bring order to Iraq, by working around Karzai and dealing with local warlords. It is euphemistically called the "bottom-up strategy." And there are suggestions that, as Dobbins put it, the U.S. abandon Karzai by supporting "the presidential election process but not any particular candidate" in the Afghan elections set for later this year.
There was no talk of taking overt steps to install a replacement. The Soviets tried that in 1978, by toppling Afghan president Mohammed Daoud in a coup. Twelve years later, bloodied and broken by their own Vietnam, the U.S.S.R. fled Afghanistan.
It was, all in all, a sobering session. Option A might work. But it will take a lot of money, and many lives, and consume U.S. military resources and distract strategic planners for years. Even if the US is confident we can win, having "escaped the bog" in Iraq, Kilcullen asked, "do we really want to re-bog ourselves in Afghanistan?"