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Cambodia Déjà Vu: the Invasion of Pakistan

William Pfaff
Columnist
William Pfaff is known as a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He has been published in five countries and his column was…
William Pfaff

Last September, during the American presidential campaign, I wrote a column declaring that the United States had again invaded Cambodia, only this time “Cambodia” was Pakistan. President George W. Bush had ordered U.S. ground attacks on the Taliban inside Pakistan’s Tribal Territories, without Pakistan’s authorization.

That was also when Barack Obama’s foreign policy campaign platform was promising withdrawal from Iraq and military emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan, location of the “real” problem in the great war on terror.

A younger generation than mine, including senior military officers (not to speak of Barack Obama), may not know exactly why the United States and the South Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1970, and what the result was. The invasion was a failure, and the result a humanitarian catastrophe.

Washington, frustrated in its war against the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam, which eventually included bombing on a scale greater than the bombing of Germany in the Second World War, decided it could solve its problem by an invasion to cut the Communist supply routes inside neutral Cambodia (which it nonetheless was also bombing: dropping 540,000 tons of explosive on Cambodia over four years).

The invasion accomplished nothing except further destruction in Cambodia. It destroyed the U.S.-supported military government in Cambodia and empowered the native Cambodian Communist resistance, known as the Khmer Rouge, which eventually, in order to create a utopian society, killed some 2 million of its fellow Cambodians.

The later head of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale wrote of the bombing: “The emergent Communist party … profited greatly … (using) the widespread devastation and massacre of civilians (to justify) its brutal, radical policies.”

Three years after the invasion, the Viet Cong, with its North Vietnamese allies, forced American forces to retreat from Vietnam, and by 1975 ruled the country. In Cambodia, the genocide had begun.

The invasion was occasion for Richard Nixon to declare that the U.S. was not “a second-rate power” nor “a pitiful helpless giant” standing by while “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy … threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

How long ago it seems — 39 years! And here we are again.

The United States, despite its plan to deploy nearly 70,000 troops this year in Afghanistan, finds itself and its NATO allies in danger of defeat by the Taliban guerrillas.

U.S. bombing, with remote-controlled “drones,” of the Pakistani Tribal Territories, where the Taliban take refuge among their Pathan tribal kinsmen, has killed many people but has had no decisive effect on the fighting in Afghanistan.

American bombing inside Afghanistan is protested by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who says the airstrikes are fast turning the Afghans against the U.S., which risks “losing the moral battle” against the Taliban. Gen. James L. Jones, U.S. national security adviser, says, “We can’t fight with one hand tied behind our back.”

Karzai says, “How can you expect a people who keep losing their children to remain friendly?” Jones says of Karzai, “I think he understands that we have to have a full complement of our offensive military power when we need it.”

The former Pakistani military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf was unwilling to send the Pakistan army into the Tribal Territories to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida.

He is now ousted, and the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, put under immense pressure by Washington, and frightened by the success of the Taliban in operations outside the Tribal Region, has agreed to the ground offensive now going on, in which Pakistani commanders are accompanied by U.S liaison officers and air controllers.

U.S. command in “Af-Pak” now has been transferred, in obvious urgency, to former Joint Special Operations commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Will a Special Forces officer think that guerrillas — with refuge in an inaccessible and unconquered region, amid a tri-national ethnic population of some 40 million fellow Pathans — can be beaten by guided bombs or Special Forces raids? Or that an unenthusiastic Pakistani army will do the job? Or 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, when the Taliban can always refuse battle and pull back into the mountains?

Moreover, what is supposed to be accomplished by this war against the Taliban, which threatens to leave Afghanistan in ruins, and to tear Pakistan apart? Do the Taliban threaten the United States? Most of them could not find the United States on a map.

What have they ever done to the United States? What if the United States would just go away and leave the Pakistanis, Afghans and Pathans to settle this among themselves?

President Obama says the war will not be won by military means but by a “surge” of civilian development experts, reconstruction leaders and democracy teachers, just as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently told Congress that the U.S. is training. Will this “surge” get there in time? My own feeling is that President Obama is in over his head; and that American military command, not knowing what else to do, is reverting to Vietnam, which most of its members were too young to experience.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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