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Archive for February 2nd, 2009

Pakistan: Another Cambodia?

I watched an interesting news segment on CNN today. Anchor Rick Sanchez spoke to the news agency’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr about the shift of U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan due to the increasingly deteriorating security situation. According to Starr, the U.S. will add an additional 15,000 U.S. troops [to the current 30,000 already on the ground] within the next several months. The conversation soon became a discussion on whether Afghanistan will become President Barack Obama’s Vietnam, [also see Newsweek’s related article this week]. Starr promptly asserted something we’ve all been hearing for some time now – that the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. However, she added, the catchword that has been going around Washington is Cambodia, i.e., if Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam, will Pakistan act as Cambodia in the scenario? [Image from Newsweek article]

Let’s provide some background – Vietnam in a simplified nutshell, if you will. The Vietnam War was fought from 1959 to 1975 in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The conflict involved the communist North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) versus the United States forces and the South Vietnamese army. The Viet Cong was the South Vietnamese guerilla force that [with the support of the North Vietnamese] fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. According to PBS,

Because of Cambodia’s proximity to Vietnam, the Vietcong army set up bases there. Although Cambodia remained neutral during the war, the presence of these bases caused American military forces to bomb the country heavily, launching secret bombing campaigns beginning in 1969. MSN Encarta estimates that the amount of bombs dropped on Cambodia during the war exceeded the amount dropped on Europe during World War II.

It is by no means a perfect analogy – for one, the U.S. is using a more “pin-prick” approach in targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban militants [versus the continuous bombing of Cambodia], not to mention the fact that Pakistan has a vested stake in this war. However, there is a haunting parallel that is telling of the current situation. As the United States continued its air strikes on Cambodia in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge [the Communist party that eventually took control of the country in 1975] grew in popular support and recruits. In fact, according to PBS, their army grew to some 50,000 soldiers in 1972, “many of whom joined to retaliate for the U.S. bombings.”  Ben Kiernan [a Yale University historian] and Taylor Owen used a combination of satellite mapping, Cambodian peasant testimony, and recently unclassified data to argue for this correlation, asserting, “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began.”

Using Cambodia and Pakistan in the same sentence is not only disconcerting, it’s downright frightening. AQ and Taliban militants may be hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal areas – but bombing these targets without any matched counterinsurgency efforts could illicit the same response we saw for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s – and that is something that none of us want to see happen.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Oscar-nominated film Frost/Nixon [which I highly recommend], about the famous series of interviews between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon. When quizzed about the bombings in Cambodia, Nixon exclaimed,

Whenever I have had my doubts I remembered the construction worker in Philadelphia because he came up to me and he said ‘Sir I got only one criticism of that Cambodia thing; if you’d gone in earlier you might have captured the gun that killed my boy three months ago’. So you’re asking me do I regret going into Cambodia?… No, I don’t. You know what, I wish I’d gone in sooner. And harder!

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Western media outlets are reporting that gunmen kidnapped a United Nations worker and killed his driver today. According to the Associated Press, “Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the abduction a “dastardly terrorist act,” but it was not clear who seized John Solecki, the head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta, as he traveled to work.” The AFP reported, “Quetta, which has an estimated population of just under one million, is considered a possible refuge for Taliban leaders who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in late 2001 that toppled the hardline regime,” [although CNN’s Reza Sayah asserted in his coverage that the city is not a Taliban stronghold]. The region is also home to a low-level insurgency, [see CHUP’s backgrounder on Balochistan], but, as the AP noted, “the Baluch groups are not known to target foreigners.” Moreover, although the kidnapping of foreign officials is not uncommon, [see related post on the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar], “police said they could not recall another foreigner being kidnapped in Quetta.”

News agencies on Monday framed the incident in light of the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon‘s upcoming visit to the country. The Washington Post reported, “Poor security, endemic poverty and mounting concerns about hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by recent violence in the country’s North-West Frontier province and troubled tribal areas probably will be at the top of Ban’s agenda when he meets with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on Thursday.”

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