Théâtres Sans Frontières

U.S. soldier in Cambodia catches up on all the good news
1970: U.S. soldier in Cambodia catches up on all the good news

In late January, 1984, Soviet-backed Afghan MiGs crossed the border into Pakistan and bombed targets in the village of Angoor Adda, killing 42 people. After another series of cross-border raids in 1987, which reportedly killed 85, State Department spokesman Charles Redman made the following statement:

These deliberate attacks are brutal attempts to force a change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. They will not work. We are confident that Pakistan will continue its courageous and principled search for peace and, at the same time, to continue to offer a haven to almost three million Afghan refugees.

Twenty years later, in early September, 2008, U.S. special forces in Afghanistan crossed the border into Pakistan and raided the village of Angoor Adda, killing 20 people. Since August 20, U.S. drones have launched more than ten missile attacks on Pakistani soil.

Let it never be said that U.S. foreign policy is uninformed by history.

The parallels, however, go further back than 1984. After Cambodia’s General Lon Nol overthrew longtime ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March 1970 – jettisoning almost immediately Sihanouk’s careful balancing act between West and East by attempting not only to defeat the Khmer Rouge but also to eject the more powerful North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong from his country – the U.S. administration decided to shore up the anti-communist government while taking the opportunity to clear out NVA sanctuaries on the Cambodian side of the border. The Strategic Air Command had in fact been secretly bombing Cambodia since March of 1969 – though as Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan reported in The Walrus a couple of years ago, systematic but less intense U.S. bombardments had begun under Lyndon Johnson in 1965 — and despite dropping 540,000 tons of bombs and killing between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians, the sanctuaries remained.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon made a televised address on all three networks to announce that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had invaded Cambodia with the objective of capturing “the headquarters of the entire communist military operation in South Vietnam.” The invasion initially involved 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops – numbers that would rise to 90,000 within a month – and due to the intense secrecy demanded by the Nixon administration, it was launched without the cooperation or even the knowledge of General Nol himself.

To many U.S. Army officers in South Vietnam, who naturally knew nothing about the secret bombing campaign, the invasion was a welcome opportunity to engage with an enemy that had been using the shelter of Cambodian neutrality – and an international border at some points barely thirty-five miles from Saigon – to keep its forces safe from counter-attack. As TIME magazine noted at the time:

Frustrated American military men, peering across valleys at one or another of the inviolable areas, often wished aloud: “If only they’d let us lose the map.” Last week their Commander in Chief, Richard Nixon, ordered them to do exactly that.

The campaign (for U.S. troops, at least) was a short one, lasting until June 29 – though Cambodian operations involving the army of South Vietnam would go on significantly longer – and it had mixed results. On the positive side, U.S. forces overran several North Vietnamese Army supply complexes, resulting in the capture of tons of ammunition and weaponry, and a number of small to medium-sized engagements were fought with the NVA itself. But many base complexes went undiscovered in the jungle – certainly COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam), the near-mythical headquarters directing communist efforts in South Vietnam, and Nixon’s holy grail, was never located or captured – and the bulk of NVA forces executed a discliplined retreat to the west. In response to the loss of its bases in eastern Cambodia, the NVA soon re-routed its supplies through an expanded corridor in Laos. Though the campaign did do some damage to the NVA and its supply chain at the cost of relatively few U.S. casualties, its strategic costs have made it controversial to this day.

Many of these costs were domestic. To a public already looking forward to the end of a futile war, and becoming increasingly used to troop withdrawal announcements from the Nixon administration, the news of a widening of the war came as a shock. Protests broke out nation-wide, and on the fourth of May four students were killed and nine wounded by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, while ten days later local and state police killed two students and wounded twelve during a protest at Jackson State University. Former Nixon aide Bob Haldeman reflected on the impact of this in The Ends of Power (1978): “Kent State, in May 1970, marked a turning point for Nixon, a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate. None of us realized it then, we were all too busy trying to calm the national furor over the Cambodian invasion.”

But as with all things that relate to the actions of great powers, the larger costs were born by foreigners. Seeing Lon Nol as an American puppet, Prince Sihanouk began backing the Khmer Rouge from exile, boosting the movement’s popularity and legitimacy. Meanwhile, continued American bombing of the country – which would last until August 15, 1973 – served as an ever-present recruiting tool for the insurgents. “The areas around the Mekong River were so full of bomb craters from B-52 strikes that, by 1973, they looked like the valleys of the moon,” noted a former U.S. officer in Phnom Penh. In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge overran the capital, and the long genocidal night of Democratic Kampuchea began.

What President Nixon did with a nervous televised flourish and at a grand stroke, President Bush seems now to be doing with a quiet word. According to the New York Times, Bush decided sometime in July to allow special operations incursions into Pakistan without the authorization of the Pakistani government. “The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable,” said an anonymous American official quoted by the Times. “We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued.”

Swoop, a website which offers superb one-paragraph analyses of each week’s foreign policy issues and trends, summarized the situation well:

As we have emphasized, there is now deep concern in the Pentagon that, unless Taliban forces now using Pakistan as a safe haven can be effectively countered, the international coalition faces defeat in Afghanistan. As a result, senior Administration officials have told us that: “for practical purposes we are treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater.”

In a deceptively low-key way, this policy change has effectively widened the war, while powerfully reinforcing the message that the United States will pursue its War on Terror unconstrained by national borders. American policymakers might argue that the Hague Convention of 1907 gives belligerents the right to attack enemy forces operating on the territory of a neutral state if that state has not fulfilled its Article Five responsibilities to prevent such operations, but this would ignore the fact that Pakistan is not a neutral state at all, but an American-allied belligerent. Whatever American frustration with the effectiveness and motivations of the Pakistani security forces, when the Taliban run from Afghanistan across the Durand Line, they are not running to the safety of neutral territory, legally speaking. They are running instead from the jurisdiction of one enemy into the jurisdiction of another. And this means that the American incursion into Pakistan is perhaps unprecedented, in that it represents an attack on an ally by an ally. As far as I’m aware, there is no convention that covers this particular eventuality.

So it is a series of practical issues, not legal ones, that need to be addressed.

First, there are the military risks. Attacking the Taliban on Pakistani soil is bound to add new members to the list of groups working towards a Western defeat: some people will be angry at the inevitable civilian casualties, while others will quite naturally see the Americans as invaders of their country – many a young man may well find that the line in his mind that prevents him from taking up arms in Afghanistan does not prevent him from taking up arms on his own country’s behalf.

Additional problems arise from the fact that the insurgency is mobile, not static. Angoor Adda is less than a mile from the Afghanistan border; but what happens if the insurgents – as did the NVA in Cambodia – simply pull back a little deeper into Pakistan? Pushing the frontline of the war into a neighbouring country may protect Kabul marginally better, but it also increases the amount of mountainous territory that already over-worked Western troops have to monitor. And the further the insurgents are pushed out of sparsely inhabited tribal areas into the larger towns and cities of Pakistan, the greater the negative public impact from attacking them there. Do Western militaries, who are having such trouble containing an insurgency in a country of 32 million, really want to risk provoking an additional insurgency in a country of 173 million?

The political risks are even greater. The Pakistani state is a fragile one, with power shifting back and forth between military and civilian leaderships, and with a well-educated and politically active middle class able to influence events at key moments. Compounding this is a military and intelligence apparatus still closely connected to insurgents in Afghanistan and the Kashmir, relationships that undermine the unity of the state and lead to questions among allies about Pakistan’s commitment to the War on Terror. All of this implies that foreign powers must be very careful indeed about meddling in Pakistan’s affairs.

U.S. policymakers have recognized this in the past. In another backgrounder on the September 3 raid, the Times noted that:

Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had weighed plans to kill or capture top leaders of Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, but Mr. Rumsfeld, for all his public bravado, wanted to tread cautiously in Pakistan for fear of undermining Mr. Musharraf. With Mr. Musharraf’s resignation, that issue is no longer a concern.

This is a worrisome conclusion, for it implies that the United States no longer believes that Pakistan as a state is worth shoring up. One could be forgiven for wondering whether the collapse of civilian government and the return of military rule might be welcome in certain corridors of power as a refreshing simplification of the client relationship – after all, it must look temptingly easy to co-opt a single general when compared with navigating the choppy waters of local democratic politics.

Yet such sentiments do not constitute official policy in Washington, and in fact the U.S. attacks on Pakistan-based militants may push in the opposite direction entirely. Too far, perhaps: if the Taliban is indeed being supported by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and elements of the Pakistani military, the United States risks becoming one more belligerent in a long-standing and complex power struggle.

Almost two weeks after the American raid, Pakistan did what to most countries would seem a natural thing: it threatened to defend itself. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that field units had been given orders to fire on U.S. forces crossing the border; “no incursion is to be tolerated,” he said.
It is depressing evidence of the mentality of the American right that the Wall Street Journal Online headlined its story “Pakistan Escalates Border Standoff”, as if the mere announcement that a country intends to defend itself against U.S. incursions marks a reckless ratcheting up of tensions.

This threat may have worked. According to a U.S. embassy spokesman, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, visited his Pakistani counterpart last week and “reiterated the US commitment to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty”; President Zardari followed this up by stating that he didn’t believe the U.S. would carry out more raids. Missile strikes by drones, of course, remain on the table, and there is no sign so far that Pakistan will object very strenuously to such attacks – provided that the Pakistani military is notified just before a strike, and provided that nothing embarrassing happens. Yet it is impossible to tell at this point whether American ground incursions will continue to be a realistic option for frustrated U.S. commanders, or whether Pakistani resistance has put paid to the idea for good.

Pakistan’s own war – or rather, wars – goes on. Saturday’s massive bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad made the headlines, but on the same day, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed by a suicide car bomber in North Waziristan, while four more soldiers were killed by an IED in South Waziristan.

Cambodia’s own path into insurgency and ultimately collapse was, if not caused by, then certainly exacerbated by heavy-handed and destructive U.S. interventions. A policy born of frustration with one war made a neighbouring war worse, and while American troops were able to walk back out of that country with few casualties and a collection of tactical victories, Cambodian citizens paid an immense price. Pakistani civilians too, will suffer the consequences of any intensification of violence sparked by American incursions, and given the declared stakes of the War on Terror, it is not at all certain that American troops, once in Pakistan in force, will find it easy to walk back out again.

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