War in Afghanistan Evokes War Memories in Indochina
by Satya Sivaraman

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND - It is impossible for the United States to go to war anywhere, anymore, without bringing back memories and parallels of the country's disastrous engagement in the Vietnam War several decades ago.

And so it is that in the current U.S. war on Afghanistan, many commentators have compared the ruling Taliban regime there to the genocidal Khmer Rouge extremists who ruled Cambodia in the mid-seventies. Others have warned that any U.S. ground troop action could lead to a 'Vietnam-like' situation.

But for many people in the Indochinese countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the comparison goes much further -- between their own fate in the past and that of the Afghan people now -- as common victims of the policies pursued by the United States during the Cold War.

''As the United States goes to war in Afghanistan, for many of us there is more than a sense of deja vu about the entire event,'' says Lam Van Thuu, a senior journalist with Radio Vietnam, who remembers the days of the Vietnam War from his youth.

It is difficult to forget what the United States did in Vietnam, he says, when there are B-52s flying once again in the sky, dropping cluster bombs on a poor and devastated country. The U.S. War on Vietnam three decades ago killed more than 3 million Vietnamese.

Though all three governments in Indochina have condemned the terrorist attacks and declared support for rooting out global terrorism, they have also cautioned the United States against using blind military force in its nearly one-month campaign to get the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden, its main suspect in the Sep. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

''I support any operation against real terrorism, but I would like to make an appeal that such an operation not inflict harm on civilians,'' Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters in Phnom Penh in the wake of the Sep. 11 attacks.

The Vietnamese and Lao governments have been less public with their statements, but share similar concerns.

Some have pointed to the fact that although they have different ideologies and settings, the Taliban and the Khmer Rouge operated in backward, largely agrarian societies and employed blindly loyal and fanatical cadre to implement a harsh, puritanical order.

But something more fundamentally common to the two extremist forces, some historians say, is they were both able to capture power in their societies largely due to the sheer devastation wrought by Cold War politics.

While the Khmer Rouge rode to power due to Cambodia getting sucked into the Vietnam War in the late sixties and early seventies, the Taliban took advantage of the chaos and infighting among various U.S.-backed 'mujahideen' groups that fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89.

''There is no doubt that the devastating bombing of Cambodia by the United States changed the nature of the opposition movement in the country and pushed the most extreme elements into a position of leadership,'' says Michael Vickery, a well-known historian of Cambodia.

According to him, while other factors were also involved, the Khmer Rouge's extremist policies were certainly a response to the harshness of the U.S.-led war in Cambodia that preceded their coming to power.

In the case of the Taliban the U.S. hand in its coming to power was even more direct. Washington gave political and military support to the entire spectrum of radical Islamists who were fighting the forces of its then foe, the Soviet Union.

The Taliban, which originally grew out of religious schools set up for children of Afghan refugees, was then cultivated and supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two key U.S. allies during the Cold War.

''The only difference is that while the United States was involved with the Taliban before they came to power, they dealt with the Khmer Rouge after they lost power in 1979,'' says Vickery referring to covert Western support to the extremist guerillas fighting the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh during the eighties.

In Vietnam and Laos, there is apprehension that the U.S. War on Afghanistan could take the same course of constant 'escalation' as one disaster leads to another -- except that this time the war could spread to a wider area than during the Vietnam War, given a volatile region like South Asia.

''The United States has a long tradition of using bombs to try and solve what are essentially political problems,'' observes Lam Van Thuu, pointing out that the United States seems to be perpetually at war in one part of the globe or other under various pretexts.

After all, he says, there were no 'terrorists' from Indochina in the United States and yet the region's people were victims of some of heaviest U.S. bombings since World War II.

In fact, all the three Indochina countries today have grievances against the United States for harboring groups seeking to overthrow their governments using violent means.

The groups, set up by expatriate Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodians living in the United States, have regularly carried out acts of terrorism, including bombing their embassies and sending armed assailants to disrupt normal life in their homeland.

All through last year, Laos was rocked by a spate of mysterious bomb blasts in the capital Vientiane. In November last year, a shadowy group called the Cambodian Freedom Fighters launched pre-dawn raids on government buildings in Phnom Penh, including the defense ministry, in a botched offensive that left eight dead and 14 wounded.

In the latest such attack by Indochinese terrorist groups based in the United States, a bomb exploded at the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok in August this year.

''Before the United States expects the world to support its so called war on terrorism, they should stop covertly supporting these terrorists who are threatening the societies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,'' says an Asian diplomat in Bangkok.

Otherwise, he says, in the post-Cold War world the Orwellian phrase ''some people are more equal than others'' may seem to apply best only to the United States.

Copyright 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service