America to Cut UXO Aid to Cambodia: an explosive legacy forgotten

Reports from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) suggest that the US government will cut its $2.5m a year funding to help rid the Southeast Asian country of the scourge of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

A Mines Advisory Group worker lays out his daily find in Cambodia

It is estimated that the US dropped more than 2 million bombs on Cambodia between 1963 and 1975, largely as part of efforts to flush out Vietcong insurgents and destroy both their training camps and logistical supply corridors.

The Richard Nixon administration intensified what had been a more subtle bombing campaign in 1969 when ‘Operation Menu’ was launched. This began the process of B-52 aircraft carpet bombing vast swathes of eastern Cambodia in a bid to wipe out Vietcong bases. It was followed by ‘Operation Freedom Deal’, which had an expanded remit focused on halting the advance of the Khmer Rouge communist rebels.

Simultaneously, the Americans carried out a strategic air warfare campaign in neighbouring Laos, which also faced its own communist insurgency in what became a bloody civil war. The (il)legality of this bombing rampage caused controversy at the time in America, although its scale was largely covered up until Bill Clinton released classified documents relating to it in 2000.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties were caused by America’s bombing of Indochina at the time. What is certain, is that the legacy of UXO in the region (much of it American) provides a constant menace to the civilian population.

A victim of the UXO legacy in Laos

Coupled with an horrendous land mine problem – remnants of the civil wars fought throughout the region – large tracts of land remain contaminated. That these are generally poor countries whose people require access to farmland only exacerbates the problem, and increases the risk of deaths.

As the rap rockers The Transplants succinctly put it:

Well, drop more, two million tons,
Ho Chi Minh’s trail was sprayed with bombs,
Jungles of Laos, knew all along,
That the American war would finally come,
America, land of the free,
Purveyour and leaders of democracy,
Debauchery, luxury,
Bacchanalia’s alright to be.

This is a rare reference in popular culture.

Whilst this particular stain on America’s recent history hasn’t been completely forgotten at home, it is, understandably, overshadowed by the more personal tragedy of the Vietnam War. As such, the funding and expertise offered by the US government to help mitigate the risk of UXO in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is not only a rightful penance but also helps retain a vestige of memory amongst those Americans involved in the clean-up effort.

The number of UXO-related incidents across Cambodia remains staggering

Strong support from NGOs and UN-funded organisations will continue to play a crucial role in freeing up hectares of fertile land from the explosive remnants of war. But the withdrawal of US funding in Cambodia is as much a symbolic defeat as it is an economic one.

UXO is not an issue that has been resolved; rather it is being gradually resolved in a country whose suffering extended long after the US intervention, as the dystopian vision of the Khmer Rouge resulted in genocide.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, herbicidal agents; all of these continue to blight a landscape increasingly admired by adventurous tourists of the West. Along with land mines and air-dropped bombs they have combined to create a toxic burden that will be forcibly carried by generations for decades to come.

The Agent Orange defoliant – designed to remove tree cover and reveal the Vietcong but also a vicious herbicide – is sprayed during the Vietnam War

Most worryingly, this is just one small part of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign aid cut, and the implications could be massive. It begs the question of what is next. Why should the American government turn its back on the catastrophes it helped conceive, and condemn to struggle those born into less fortuitous circumstances than its own members?

Hardly befitting of the land of the free, nor the purveyor and leaders of democracy.

The Overspill of Conflict: a comparison of American strategic bombing in Pakistan and Laos-Cambodia

Pakistan has reacted angrily to reports that Barack Obama will continue authorising American drone strikes in the tribal regions of Northwest Pakistan. Since the American invasion of Afghanistan, much of the Taliban hierarchy has fled across the Pakistani border, primarily into the Waziristan region. Here they have joined Al-Qaeda leaders supportive of their former regime, in addition to members of the Pakistani Taliban.

The American drone programme in Pakistan has accelerated enormously under the Obama administration and has achieved significant strategic success, wiping out large sections of the Al-Qaeda leadership and seriously weakening the preeminent terrorist group. Of course, such strategic victories have come at considerable “collateral” losses. Hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians have been killed, a price forcibly paid for the enhancement of global security.

Civilian, as well as militant, deaths result from US drone strikes
Civilian, as well as militant, deaths result from US drone strikes

 

This strategic bombing campaign, carried out in a country the United States is not at war with, is reminiscent of another highly controversial period in American history. During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force carpet-bombed Laos and Cambodia, both of whose official governments (the Kingdom of Laos and the Khmer Republic) were supposedly American allies. As with the War in Afghanistan, the conflict spilled over into these adjacent states. The Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge, operating in Laos and Cambodia respectively, lent support to the communist Vietcong and provided important supply routes for munitions destined to oppose American troops.

As is commonplace in Northwestern Pakistan today, the American bombing campaign beyond the official borders of conflict during the Vietnam War came at a significant human cost. Thousands of Cambodian and Laotian civilians, by no means all communists, were killed either by high explosives or herbicidal warfare. Even today, Laos and Cambodia remain plagued by Unexploded Bombs (UXB) and hundreds of farmers are maimed by the detonation of UXBs every year.

A UXO contamination map of Laos illuminates the lasting legacy of the American bombs
A UXO contamination map of Laos illuminates the lasting legacy of the American bombs

America did not win the Vietnam War and, indeed, it is hard to make a case against its defeat. This simple fact means that the human sacrifice of Laos and Cambodia was catastrophically futile and no justification can be made for the strategic bombing campaign in those countries (particularly knowing the subsequent success of the brutal Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge in seizing control of their countries).

So, what of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Of course, we are not simply considering one enemy in this case, as we were with the communist forces of Southeast Asia. The American targets in Pakistan are twofold; Taliban and Al-Qaeda. That said, when American withdraws from Afghanistan in the coming couple of years, how will the success of the drone campaign be judged? Will it be on the difficulty of the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, something many analysts think is a foregone conclusion? Or will it be on the continuing decline in the potency of Al-Qaeda? Indeed, it is likely that even after America’s forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the drone strikes will persist.

The legacy of the predator drone will take years to assess
The legacy of the predator drone will take years to assess

 

The relative decline of Al-Qaeda is not to be sniffed at. Drone strikes have taken affect by crippling the group’s leadership (in conjunction with the infamous Abbottobad raid). Who is to say that without these strikes, thousands more civilians would be lying dead in the streets of the Western world?

However, the exchange of innocent civilian lives in Pakistan for potential civilian lives in the West is an unfair one. It is this sort of arrogant and brazen behaviour that has failed America in the past. After all, the term “hearts and minds” received its first real credence during the Vietnamese War as the Americans lost the faith of the local people with campaigns such as those conducted in Laos and Cambodia.

For peace and security in the Middle East, the Americans need to engage in a constructive multilateral dialogue with regional powers that negates the endangering of innocent lives wherever possible. I do not doubt the difficulty of this endeavour, and am convinced that drone strikes are only authorised on the assumption that civilian casualties will be minimised, but the Americans can’t do it alone. They need the support of Pakistan, whose government desperately needs to start acting with the responsibility incumbent of its stature and, in particular, tribal leaders in Waziristan to avoid a repeat of Vietnam where the spillover of conflict into virgin warzones seriously damaged the credibility of the occupying American forces. How attainable, and desirable, this scenario is for the Americans remains to be seen.