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!