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Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Dispatch

Cambodia: Lessons from the Past

In dealing with Pakistan, U.S. candidates can learn much from Cambodia's dark history

BY David MonteroOctober 10, 2008

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David Montero is a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. His most recent report is
Pakistan: State of Emergency He lives in Cambodia.

As Barack Obama and John McCain gear up for the November election, Cambodia is not a country that either is likely to consider. Once infamous for the "killing fields" of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s, Cambodia is no longer a scene of war and destruction, like Iraq. It's a quiet place now, home to 14 million people, most of whom are very poor. These days if Americans pay any attention to Cambodia, it's as a tourist destination famous for its ancient temples and unspoiled beaches.

But many political observers here, and elsewhere in the world, are warning Obama and McCain to think more about Cambodia -- at least its dark past. What happened here 30 years ago, they say, is a cautionary lesson, highly relevant to one of the most pressing issues that will face the next administration: what to do about Pakistan.

That may seem an odd claim. On the face of it, Cambodia and Pakistan could not be more different: the former a small, predominantly Buddhist nation now viewed as a regional model of stability and economic growth; the latter a large, nuclear-armed Muslim state that many in the West consider to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

The Nixon-Kissinger-era bombing of Cambodia was on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, and it eventually spread throughout the country.

But dial back history and the scenario in Cambodia bears a striking resemblance to America's woes in Pakistan today.

In the 1970s, Communist guerrilla forces based in Cambodia increasingly attacked American troops in Vietnam, retreating back to safe havens along the Cambodian border -- just as today, Taliban guerrillas increasingly attack American and NATO troops in Afghanistan and flee safely back to Pakistan. In frustration, the United States escalated a bombing campaign -- secretly at first, and then openly -- inside Cambodia to flush the Communists out, just as the U.S. military is beginning to openly bomb militants inside Pakistan.

The scale is vastly different. The Nixon-Kissinger-era bombing of Cambodia was on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, and it eventually spread throughout the country. At the moment, U.S. bombing attacks inside Pakistan are furtive and limited -- mostly incursions from unmanned drones on remote Al Qaeda havens.

But now, as U.S. elections loom, both Obama and McCain are pushing to take the fight deeper into Pakistan's backyard, much as former president Richard Nixon did in Cambodia. As Obama recently said on the campaign trail, "We must also recognize that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan or secure America as long as there is a terrorist safe-haven in northwest Pakistan. A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot or will not act." Like McCain, Obama added that he endorses sending 10,000 more U.S. troops to augment the 30,000 currently stationed in Afghanistan.

street scene

U.S. bombing of Cambodia did not succeed in winning the war in Vietnam, nor in suppressing the local insurgency in Cambodia.

Many in the U.S. would favor a more aggressive effort against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan -- who once advised Nixon and now advises McCain -- criticized Obama for not proposing an even larger escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Pakistan has become for the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda the same sanctuary that North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia provided for the Viet Cong and NVA ...Why does Barack Obama think a surge of 10,000 troops will succeed in winning a war in which we have failed to prevail after seven years of fighting?"

But the parallels with what happened in Cambodia trouble others.

"The U.S. should be careful. It's similar to what happened in Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s. [The U.S.] risks falling into the trap of the terrorists, to make the U.S. confused and to spread the war," Dr. Meas Nee, a Cambodian political analyst, told me recently, referring to Pakistan.

His worries were echoed half a world away in Pakistan by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, who told a press conference, "I hope [Obama] realizes that Pakistan could become another Cambodia. It could face a similar situation if they push the Pakistani army into the Tribal Areas..."

The U.S. bombing of Cambodia did not succeed in winning the war in Vietnam, nor in suppressing the local insurgency in Cambodia. In fact, journalists like William Shawcross in his famous book, Sideshow, argue that the bombing left the once neutral, peaceful country shell-shocked, and radicalized its victims (as appears to be happening in Pakistan).

Street scene.

Cambodia's economic revival has only come 30 years after the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated. It has required decades of intervention from the United Nations and hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid.

When the bombing failed, and the U.S. military pulled out of Cambodia under Congressional pressure, "The impact was the collapse of the country, its complete destruction -- not just in infrastructure, but the soul of the nation," says Chea Vannath, a political analyst in Phnom Penh, referring to the Khmer Rouge, the murderous, Maoist-inspired rebels that seized power in 1975. Likewise, many fear that the Taliban will continue to spread in Pakistan if the U.S. war against them fails, and the U.S. and NATO pull out of the region.

It is true that prosperity and stability have come to Cambodia, as anyone strolling in the elegant capital, Phnom Pehn, can see in the proliferation of luxury hotels and restaurants. But this economic revival has only come a full 30 years after the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated, not by the U.S. but by the Vietnamese. And it has required decades of intervention from the United Nations and hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid.

Perhaps if the Senate and the House pass legislation -- endorsed by Obama -- to triple non-military U.S. aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years, it will help limit the Taliban and Al Qaeda's ability to exploit the poor and unemployed in Pakistan's tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Cambodians, like Pakistanis, hope November's elections will help avert another Cambodian-style bombing campaign. But some are not sure which candidate is likely to do that. "To be short, McCain -- it seems nothing will change. Obama is a question mark..." says Ms. Vannath.

For others, the question mark might be preferable. "We would like to see a new direction. The first black president of the U.S. would be a great place to start," says Sopeak Ok Serei, an independent analyst in Phnom Penh.

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