By William Pfaff
The United States has just invaded Cambodia. The name of Cambodia this time is Pakistan, but otherwise it’s the same story as in Indochina in 1970.
An American army, deeply frustrated by its inability to defeat an anti-American insurgent movement despite years of struggle, decides that the key to victory lies in a neighboring country. In 1970, the problem was the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia. Today it is Taliban and al-Qaida bases inside Pakistan, which the United States has been attacking from the air for some time, with controversial “collateral damage.”
George W. Bush has now authorized independent ground assaults on Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Pakistan’s Tribal Territories, without consultation with Pakistan authorities. These already have begun.
This follows a period of tension, with some armed clashes, between American and Pakistani military units, the latter defending “Pakistan’s national sovereignty.” Pakistan public opinion seems largely against “America’s war” being fought inside Pakistan.
Washington’s decision was made known just in time for the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that opened the first phase of the “war on terror,” after which “nothing could ever be the same.” We no doubt have now begun phase two.
The eventual outcome of the American intervention in Cambodia in 1970 was Communist overthrow of the American-sponsored military government in that country, followed by genocide. The future consequences in (nuclear-armed) Pakistan await.
There is every reason to think they may include civil protest and disorder in the country, political crisis, a major rise in the strength of Pakistan’s own Islamic fundamentalist movement and, conceivably, a small war between the United States and the Pakistan army, which is the central institution in the country, has a mind of its own and is not a negligible military force.
In Afghanistan, American and NATO forces have been complaining for many months that victory over the Taliban was impossible so long as there were secure Taliban bases in Pakistan’s largely inaccessible Tribal Territories.
Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, was told by his American allies to clean the Taliban out of the Territories or the U.S. Army and NATO would do it for him. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama made the same threat. John McCain concurred. Musharraf had been looking for a negotiated arrangement with the tribesmen.
Pakistan’s military intelligence services created the Taliban while they were collaborating with the CIA to form the mujahadeen that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Many in the service still support the Taliban as a useful instrument against India, and to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of more dangerous enemies.
Musharraf was forced out of office. The U.S. brought in exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, expected to be cooperative. She was assassinated, presumably by Islamic extremists. Her widower has been elected to take her place and declares himself an enemy of terrorism. However, the United States has already taken the matter into its own hands.
In the Vietnamese case, the American military command held that it could win the war by invading Cambodia to cut the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, along which supplies and arms for the Viet Cong Communist insurrection were being transported. The argument made was that cutting this route would starve the Viet Cong of supplies.
Initially, the unhappy Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, desperately trying to keep his country out of the Vietnam War, was persuaded to turn a blind eye to U.S. bombing of the trail. A military coup followed in 1970, installing an American puppet general. B-52 saturation bombing ensued, without the desired military effect, but killing many Cambodians.
The joint U.S. and South Vietnamese “incursion” to cut the trail came in April 1970; it simply pushed the supply operations deeper into Cambodia. Richard Nixon said he acted to prove that the United States was not “a second-rate power.” “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
The native Cambodian Khmer Rouge subsequently defeated the American-backed military regime in Phnom Penh. Genocide followed, the “killing fields,” on which the United States turned its back, condemning the triumphant Vietnamese Communist government when it later invaded Cambodia to stop the killing.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.