Hamid Karzai has been acting even more obnoxiously and erratically than usual of late. He has tried to kick U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area south of Kabul, and he has tried to renege on an agreement over the transfer of an American-run detention facility to Afghan custody. Even worse, Karzai’s claims that the Taliban and the United States are colluding against his country have forced Gen. Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military commander, to issue an alert to his troops warning them that they face an elevated risk of attack.
All of this highlights the importance of Afghanistan picking a better leader in the next presidential election, scheduled for April 2014. It is vitally important that this balloting, unlike previous elections, not be marred by fraud. U.S. forces need to start planning now to ensure a free and fair election.
But securing the vote is only the beginning of the problem. For it is perfectly possible that even a free election can bring to power a weak leader who, like Karzai, will tolerate massive corruption. If that were to happen it would be a disaster, because the ineffectiveness of the existing government is a prime recruiting tool for the Taliban. Unless Afghans elect a better president there is little chance that the massive American investment in Afghanistan, designed to safeguard the country from a return to power by the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies, will pay off.
Given the stakes, the United States can’t afford a holier-than-thou attitude of committing ourselves to free and fair elections while remaining agnostic about the outcome. Our tremendous power (we still have 66,000 troops in Afghanistan and provide more than 90 percent of the country’s budget) gives us the opportunity to influence the outcome, overtly or covertly. We should use that clout to help secure the election of a candidate who could unite Afghans and defeat or at least marginalize the Taliban—and we should not be paralyzed by fears that our machinations will blow up in our faces.
This is a difficult task to pull off, but Edward Lansdale showed how it could be done. This legendary CIA and Air Force officer arrived in the Philippines in 1945 at the beginning of an uprising by the Communist Huks (short for Hukbalahap). To counter the Huks, the Philippine Army was attacking barrios with artillery and bombs and indiscriminately locking up and torturing suspects. This campaign was not only brutal but ineffective, because it was overseen by a government that Lansdale described as “rotten with corruption.” The Huks, who numbered 10,000 to 15,000 active fighters, only grew stronger under this ham-handed assault.
To counter the Huks’ influence, Lansdale set out to talk to Filipinos from all walks of life. He quickly made friends with his soft-spoken manner, which was a welcome contrast to the hectoring tone adopted by so many Americans in Southeast Asia in those days—or in Afghanistan today. A Filipino friend recalled, “He would always say things in such a nice, disarming, and charming way. He never ordered but only asked, ‘What do you think about doing it this way ?’ or ‘Don’t you think this is how we should treat the problem ?’ ”
The most important friend Lansdale made was Ramón Magsaysay, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter who was just a congressman when the two met in 1950. Lansdale became Magsaysay’s closest confidant, for a time even his roommate. The two men saw eye to eye on how to combat the Huks—and it wasn’t the way that the Philippine security forces were going about it.
Magsaysay believed that the government had to win the trust of the people. So did Lansdale. He lobbied Washington to use its clout to get Magsaysay appointed secretary of national defense in 1950 to carry out this program. The new cabinet minister’s motto was “All-Out Friendship or All-Out Force.” With Lansdale’s advice, Magsaysay “practically had to reinvent the Armed Forces,” noted a Filipino writer. Troops “entering an inhabited area” were now told “to conduct themselves as though they were coming among friends.” They were warned that “a soldier who steals a chicken from a farmer cannot claim to be the farmer’s protector.” To make sure that soldiers were doing as they were told, Lansdale and Magsaysay would travel together to stage snap inspections in the field.
Magsaysay and Lansdale knew that the Huks had benefited from public disgust over vote stealing in the 1949 presidential election. To prevent a recurrence, they employed the Philippine Army to safeguard the 1951 congressional elections and the 1953 presidential election. The winner of the latter contest was Magsaysay. After his friend defeated the corrupt incumbent, Lansdale earned a new nickname : Colonel Landslide.
The American had used his advertising expertise and the CIA’s covert funds to build up Magsaysay’s public reputation. He even contributed a campaign slogan : “Magsaysay is my guy.” But fundamentally the honest, modest, and hardworking defense minister won not because of public-relations tricks but because he had become, as two veterans of the anti-Huk campaign noted, “the personification” of “dedicated, aggressive leadership.” The “peaceful, clean” elections delivered the coup de grâce to the Huks, who conceded that people no longer saw “the immediate need of armed struggle.”
“The Huks became,” in Lansdale’s words, “fish out of water.” By the mid-1950s the Huk Rebellion was over.
Afghanistan today could desperately use its own Magsaysay, and we can’t trust the political process to produce him on its own because warlords, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and other malign actors will influence the outcome. If we refuse to play the same game, we will be able to congratulate ourselves on our moral purity—but we will also be in serious danger of losing the war we have been fighting since the fall of 2001.
If he hasn’t already, President Obama should tell the U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief in Kabul that it is time to emulate Lansdale by selecting and grooming the best possible candidate to succeed Karzai. Of course such a decision could backfire in numerous ways. Karzai, after all, was originally selected by the U.S.-run Bonn Process in late 2001. But we have learned a lot about Afghanistan since then, and, one hopes, we can make a better choice this time around. If we don’t, Afghanistan—and American security interests—will pay a heavy price.