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Could U.S. Air Strikes Push Pakistan into Khmer Rouge Type Genocide?

As in the 1960s in Cambodia, U.S. air strikes are having a devastating effect in Pakistan, not just on the targeted communities, but on public consciousness throughout the region.

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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.

Unraveling Pakistan

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.

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."

 
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