Sitting in air-conditioned comfort, cans of Coke and 7-Up within reach as they watched their screens, the ground controllers gave the order to strike under the cover of darkness. There had been no declaration of war. No advance warning, nothing, in fact, that would have alerted the "enemy" to the sudden, unprecedented bombing raids. The secret computer-guided strikes were authorized by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just weeks after a new American president entered the Oval Office. They represented an effort to wipe out the enemy's central headquarters whose location intelligence experts claimed to have pinpointed just across the border from the war-torn land where tens of thousands of American troops were fighting daily.
In remote villages where no reporters dared to go, far from the battlefields where Americans were dying, who knew whether the bombs that rained from the night sky had killed high-level insurgents or innocent civilians? For 14 months the raids continued and, after each one was completed, the commander of the bombing crews was instructed to relay a one-sentence message: "The ball game is over."
The campaign was called "Operation Breakfast," and, while it may sound like the CIA's present air campaign over Pakistan, it wasn't. You need to turn the clock back to another American war, four decades earlier, to March 18, 1969, to be exact. The target was an area of Cambodia known as the Fish Hook that jutted into South Vietnam, and Operation Breakfast would be but the first of dozens of top secret bombing raids. Later ones were named "Lunch," "Snack," and "Supper," and they went under the collective label "Menu." They were authorized by President Richard Nixon and were meant to destroy a (non-existent) "Bamboo Pentagon," a central headquarters in the Cambodian borderlands where North Vietnamese communists were supposedly orchestrating raids deep into South Vietnam.
Like President Obama today, Nixon had come to power promising stability in an age of unrest and with a vague plan to bringing peace to a nation at war. On the day he was sworn in, he read from the Biblical book of Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." He also spoke of transforming Washington's bitter partisan politics into a new age of unity: "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."
Return to the Killing Fields
In recent years, many commentators and pundits have resorted to "the Vietnam analogy," comparing first the American war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War. Despite a number of similarities, the analogy disintegrates quickly enough if you consider that U.S. military campaigns in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq against small forces of lightly-armed insurgents bear little resemblance to the large-scale war that Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon waged against both southern revolutionary guerrillas and the military of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who commanded a real army, with the backing of, and supplies from, the Soviet Union and China.
A more provocative -- and perhaps more ominous -- analogy today might be between the CIA's escalating drone war in the contemporary Pakistani tribal borderlands and Richard Nixon's secret bombing campaign against the Cambodian equivalent. To briefly recapitulate that ancient history: In the late 1960s, Cambodia was ruled by a "neutralist" king, Norodom Sihanouk, leading a weak government that had little relevance to its poor and barely educated citizens. In its borderlands, largely beyond its control, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong found "sanctuaries."
Sihanouk, helpless to do anything, looked the other way. In the meantime, sheltered by local villagers in distant areas of rural Cambodia was a small insurgent group, little-known communist fundamentalists who called themselves the Khmer Rouge. (Think of them as the 1970s equivalent of the Pakistani Taliban who have settled into the wild borderlands of that country largely beyond the control of the Pakistani government.) They were then weak and incapable of challenging Sihanouk -- until, that is, those secret bombing raids by American B-52s began. As these intensified in the summer of 1969, areas of the country began to destabilize (helped on in 1970 by a U.S.-encouraged military coup in the capital Phnom Penh), and the Khmer Rouge began to gain strength.
You know the grim end of that old story.
Forty years, almost to the day, after Operation Breakfast began, I traveled to the town of Snuol, close to where the American bombs once fell. It is a quiet town, no longer remote, as modern roads and Chinese-led timber companies have systematically cut down the jungle that once sheltered anti-government rebels. I went in search of anyone who remembered the bombing raids, only to discover that few there were old enough to have been alive at the time, largely because the Khmer Rouge executed as much as a quarter of the total Cambodian population after they took power in 1975.
Eventually, a 15-minute ride out of town, I found an old soldier living by himself in a simple one-room house adorned with pictures of the old king, Sihanouk. His name was Kong Kan and he had first moved to the nearby town of Memot in 1960. A little further away, I ran into three more old men, Choenung Klou, Keo Long, and Hoe Huy, who had gathered at a newly built temple to chat.
All of them remembered the massive 1969 B-52 raids vividly and the arrival of U.S. troops the following year. "We thought the Americans had come to help us," said Choenung Klou. "But then they left and the [South] Vietnamese soldiers who came with them destroyed the villages and raped the women."
He had no love for the North Vietnamese communists either. "They would stay at people's houses, take our hammocks and food. We didn't like them and we were afraid of them."
Caught between two Vietnamese armies and with American planes carpet-bombing the countryside, increasing numbers of Cambodians soon came to believe that the Khmer Rouge, who were their countrymen, might help them. Like the Taliban of today, many of the Khmer Rouge were, in fact, teenaged villagers who had responded, under the pressure of war and disruption, to the distant call of an inspirational ideology and joined the resistance in the jungles.
"If you ask me why I joined the Khmer Rouge, the main reason is because of the American invasion," Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, has said. "If there was no invasion, by now, I would be a pilot or a professor."
Six years after the bombings of Cambodia began, shortly after the last helicopter lifted off the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the flow of military aid to the crumbling government of Cambodia stopped, a reign of terror took hold in the capital, Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge left the jungles and entered the capital where they began a systemic genocide against city dwellers and anyone who was educated. They vowed to restart history at Year Zero, a new era in which much of the past became irrelevant. Some two million people are believed to have died from executions, starvation, and forced labor in the camps established by the Angkar leadership of the Khmer Rouge commanded by Pol Pot.
Could the same thing happen in Pakistan today? A new American president was ordering escalating drone attacks, in a country where no war has been declared, at the moment when I flew from Cambodia across South Asia to Afghanistan, so this question loomed large in my mind. Both there and just across the border, Operation Breakfast seems to be repeating itself.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, I met earnest aid workers who drank late into the night in places like L'Atmosphere, a foreigner-only bar that could easily have doubled as a movie set for Saigon in the 1960s. Like modern-day equivalents of Graham Greene's "quiet American," these "consultants" describe a Third Way that is neither Western nor fundamentalist Islam.
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At the very same time, CIA analysts in distant Virginia are using pilot-less drones and satellite technology to order strikes against supposed terrorist headquarters across the border in Pakistan. They are not so unlike the military men who watched radar screens in South Vietnam in the 1960s as the Cambodian air raids went on.
In 2009, on the orders of President Obama, the U.S. unloaded more missiles and bombs on Pakistan than President Bush did in the years of his secret drone war, and the strikes have been accelerating in number and intensity. By this January, there was a drone attack almost every other day. Even if, this time around, no one is using the code phrase, "the ball game is over," Washington continually hails success after success, terrorist leader after terrorist leader killed, implying that something approaching victory could be somewhere just over the horizon.
As in the 1960s in Cambodia, these strikes are, in actuality, having a devastating, destabilizing effect in Pakistan, not just on the targeted communities, but on public consciousness throughout the region. An article in the January 23rd New York Times indicated that the fury over these attacks has even spread into Pakistan's military establishment which, in a manner similar to Sihanouk in the 1960s, knows its limits in its tribal borderlands and is publicly uneasy about U.S. air strikes which undermine the country's sovereignty. "Are you with us or against us?" the newspaper quoted a senior Pakistani military officer demanding of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he spoke last month at Pakistan's National Defense University.
Even pro-American Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has spoken out publicly against drone strikes. Of one such attack, he recently told reporters, "We strongly condemn this attack and the government will raise this issue at [the] diplomatic level."
Despite the public displays of outrage, however, the American strikes have undoubtedly been tacitly approved at the highest levels of the Pakistani government because of that country's inability to control militants in its tribal borderlands. Similarly, Sihanouk finally looked the other way after the U.S. provided secret papers, code-named Vesuvius, as proof that the Vietnamese were operating from his country.
While most Democratic and Republican hawks have praised the growing drone war in the skies over Pakistan, some experts in the U.S. are starting to express worries about them (even if they don't have the Cambodian analogy in mind). For example, John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School who frequently advises the military, says that an expansion of the drone strikes "might even spark a social revolution in Pakistan."
Indeed, even General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, wrote in a secret assessment on May 27, 2009: "Anti-U.S. sentiment has already been increasing in Pakistan... especially in regard to cross-border and reported drone strikes, which Pakistanis perceive to cause unacceptable civilian casualties." Quoting local polls, he wrote: "35 percent [of Pakistanis] say they do not support U.S. strikes into Pakistan, even if they are coordinated with the GOP [government of Pakistan] and the Pakistan Military ahead of time."
The Pakistani Army has, in fact, launched several significant operations against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat and in South Waziristan, just as Sihanouk initially ordered the Cambodian military to attack the Khmer Rouge and suppress peasant rebellions in Battambang Province. Again like Sihanouk in the late 1960s, however, the Pakistanis have balked at more comprehensive assaults on the Taliban, and especially on the Afghan Taliban using the border areas as "sanctuaries."
The New Jihadists
What happens next is the $64 million question. Most Pakistani experts dismiss any suggestion that the Taliban has widespread support in their country, but it must be remembered that the Khmer Rouge was a fringe group with no more than 4,000 fighters at the time that Operation Breakfast began.
And if Cambodia's history is any guide to the future, the drone strikes do not have to create a groundswell for revolution. They only have to begin to destabilize Pakistan as would, for instance, the threatened spread of such strikes into the already unsettled province of Baluchistan, or any future American ground incursions into the country. A few charismatic intellectuals like Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot always have the possibility of taking it from there, rallying angry and unemployed youth to create an infrastructure for disruptive change.
Despite often repeated claims by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the drone raids are smashing al-Qaeda's intellectual leadership, more and more educated and disenchanted young men from around the world seem to be rallying to the fundamentalist cause.
Some have struck directly at American targets like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009, and Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the 32-year-old Jordanian double agent and suicide bomber who killed seven CIA operatives at a military base in Khost, southern Afghanistan, five days later.
Some have even been U.S.-born, like Anwar al-Awlaki, the 38-year-old Islamic preacher from New Mexico who has moved to Yemen; Adam Pearlman, a 32-year-old Southern Californian and al-Qaeda spokesman now known as "Azzam the American," who reportedly lives somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions; and Omar Hammami, the 25-year-old Syrian-American from Alabama believed to be an al-Shabaab leader in Somalia.
Like the Khmer Rouge before them, these new jihadists display no remorse for killing innocent civilians. "One of the sad truths I have come to see is that for this kind of mass violence, you don't need monsters," says Craig Etcheson, author of After the Killing Fields and founder of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. "Ordinary people will do just fine. This thing lives in all of us."
Even King Sihanouk, who had once ordered raids against the Khmer Rouge, eventually agreed to support them after he had been overthrown in a coup and was living in exile in China. Could the same thing happen to Pakistani politicians if they fall from grace and U.S. backing?
What threw Sihanouk's fragile government into serious disarray -- other than his own eccentricity and self-absorption -- was the devastating spillover of Nixon's war in Vietnam into Cambodia's border regions. It finally brought the Khmer Rouge to power.
Pakistan 2010, with its enormous modern military and industrialized base, is hardly impoverished Cambodia 1969. Nonetheless, in that now ancient history lies both a potential analogy and a cautionary tale. Beware secret air wars that promise success and yet wreak havoc in lands that are not even enemy nations.
When his war plans were questioned, Nixon pressed ahead, despite a growing public distaste for his war. A similar dynamic seems to be underway today. In 1970, after Operation Breakfast was revealed by the New York Times, Nixon told his top military and national security aides: "We cannot sit here and let the enemy believe that Cambodia is our last gasp."
Had he refrained first from launching Operation Breakfast and then from supping on the whole "menu," some historians like Etcheson believe a genocide would have been averted. It would be a sad day if the drone strikes, along with the endless war that the Obama administration has inherited and that is now spilling over ever more devastatingly into Pakistan, were to create a new class of fundamentalists who actually had the capacity to seize power.