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Making Vietnam's Mistakes in Afghanistan

Jeremy Kuzmarov: For more than a decade the CIA has provided wads of dollars to the office of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president largely as a means of buying political influence.

In a front-page article on April 29, the New York Timesreportedthat for more than a decade the CIA has provided wads of dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags to the office of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president largely as a means of buying political influence.

afghan heroin trade

The money helped to fuel corruption and empowered Northern Alliance warlords who have contributed to a boom in the opium trade. An unnamed official stated that “the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

The Times' revelations comes as no surprise and fits a long-standing pattern of American-fueled corruption that has gone ignored in too many standard historical accounts of U.S. foreign policy. A direct precedent occurred during the Indochina Wars, where the influx of foreign aid resulted in corruption in the awarding of government contracts, and a boom in the black market economy and opium trade, as is detailed in Alfred W. McCoy’s book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.

The United States empowered reactionary elements from within the country’s Catholic minority, who wrestled control of the opium trade from Binh Xuyencriminal gangs, and used its proceeds to fund a large-scale surveillance and counter-insurgency apparatus that targeted remnants of the pro-communist Viet Minh. CIA monies were used to pay off informants and fueled the bonanza of corruption.

State security forces and government officials routinely sold construction materials and refugee relief supplies on the black market, undercutting nation building projects. In Quang Tri, as USAID declassified records reveal, police chiefs made detainees perform manual labor in their homes without sleep as a precondition for release, forcing them to build mansions for their concubines using stolen government construction material and lumber. CIA Director William Colby wrote to the director of the agency responsible for pacification that commodities and money destined for correctional centers were “held in Saigon until local authorities were presented with gifts or proper wining and dining.”

Nguyen Van Thuc, deputy chief jailer of the Kien Phong correctional center, reported that he had had to take “the right people” out to a twenty thousand–piaster ($250) meal and provide them with whiskey and cash gifts to secure access to a generator. Other wardens had to pay two thousand piasters for the use of a forklift and three thousand for a dump truck.

Ramparts magazine in its May 1971 issue identified Vice Premier Nguyen Cao Ky as the “biggest heroin pusher” in the world, writing that “unimpeded by boundaries, scruples or customs agents, the U.S. has -- as a reflex of its warfare in Indochina -- built up a support system for the trade in narcotics that is unparalleled in modern history.”

In Laos, the United States helped to prop up corrupt army officers and warlords, including Gen. Vang Pao, head of the CIA’s Hmong army, who developed a heroin pipeline with his international connections. USAID reported that Lao police under the control of CIA asset Phoumi Nosavan “organized vice and the considerable traffic in smuggling into Thailand” to raise money for a wave of repression against political opponents.”

Major Vattah Phankham, head of the police Special Branch, built a mansion that cost over 2 million kip ($488,400 U.S. dollars). General Soukan Vilayrsarn, who had studied law in France and was valued for his strong anticommunism, used his position to pay off political candidates and to purchase three Mercedes-Benzes and five Renault Dauphines.

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An American congressional inquiry found mismanagement in customs, banking, and foreign trade in Laos, as well as bribery in the awarding of contracts to American construction firms, including the Virginia-based Vinnell Corporation and Universal Construction Company, a CIA front. Its head, Willis Bird, had helped to subvert democratic development in Thailand as head of Sea Supply, which imported high-tech police and military equipment to General Phao Sinyanon, who tortured and killed political opponents, including four Cabinet Ministers.

Even some of the “good” American occupations have generated considerable corruption. In Japan, military occupation forces allied with gangsters such as Hisayuki (“the Violent Bull”) Machii to fight communists and break labor strikes. Despite indictments for manslaughter (with his bare hands), extortion, and assault, the Korean-born Machii and other criminal bosses such as Ozu Kinosuke, “Tokyo’s Al Capone,” never served any prison time because of their political connections and support for right-wing causes.

The Tokyo chief prosecutor commented: “Every time we tried to get him [Machii, who helped U.S. diplomats normalize Japanese relations with the Republic of Korea] we were always pulled back. We’d bring him in, but each time there were pressures from above and he’d wind up being released.”

American government officials have often blamed local cultural standards and backwardness for the growth of corruption in its neocolonial enclaves. History shows however that Western intervention and American style capitalism and its celebration of consumerist and materialist values, is a major source of global corruption.

Jeremy Kuzmarov

The American political system is skewed towards the interests of the wealthy, with stories of mayors and governors laundering money and colluding with big business interests, a frequent occurrence. The situation in Afghanistan today is a product of the effort to export that system and of the corrupting effects of war. It fits a much larger pattern that should be better conveyed by professional historians.

Jeremy Kuzmarov

Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of "The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs" (UMass, 2009) and "Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century" (UMass, 2009).

Republished with permission from History News Network

Monday, 6 May 2013