Pakistan: a New Cambodia?

Twenty-two people – 8 to 10 alleged Al-Qaeda and Taliban members, the rest civilians, including children – were killed on January 23, 2009, when Predator drones operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency fired missiles at houses in Pakistan’s ‘Federally Administered Tribal Areas.’ About 30 such missile attacks are on record since the summer of 2008, invariably directed at homes and schools in populated centers, rather than hide outs and bases in the wild. As a result, the total verifiable ratio of civilian to alleged combatant deaths to civilian deaths is approximately 1 in 4. As for the identities of the alleged combatants killed, both Pakistani and US media outlets have reported that, according to official US sources, ‘there were no immediate signs that the strikes had killed any senior Qaeda leaders.’

Only two differences between the latest attack and those conducted earlier can be noted: 1) this was the first incident under the presidency of Barack Obama, rather than George W. Bush; and, 2) this was the first occasion on which the US government publicly acknowledged the policy of missile strikes on the territory of its ‘ally,’ Pakistan. As Bush’s former and Obama’s current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, recently reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee, ‘both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after Al Qaeda wherever Al Qaeda is and we will continue to pursue them,’ adding that the Government of Pakistan had been duly apprised.

The illegality of such missile strikes is beyond doubt, if civilian life is still considered inviolable according to international law, but its efficacy as part of the US’ and NATO’s military strategy in the ‘War on Terror’ remains a matter of debate. From the perspective of the Obama administration, not surprisingly like that of its predecessor given Gates’ reappointment, the growing Afghan insurgency and the Pakistan military’s inability or unwillingness to curb the flow of ‘terrorists’ from Pakistan into Afghanistan, requires the US to take matters into its own hands. In other words, the US contends that Pakistan is ‘not doing enough.’ Of course, the Government of Pakistan’s perspective differs. Following the latest round of missile attacks, Pakistani officials argued, much as they have since the summer of 2008, that these actions were violations of Pakistani sovereignty and catalysts for growing resentment towards the Pakistan government and the US among the Pakistani population. And what is the Government of Pakistan going to do about the missiles strikes? In the words of Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, Islamabad “hopes President Obama will be more patient [than Bush] while dealing with Pakistan.”

In the face of mounting violations of Pakistani sovereignty and civilian casualties, the response of the Government of Pakistan is tantamount to an invitation for more missile strikes and, perhaps, even ground incursions, as occurred in the summer of 2008. At no point has an objection been raised at the United Nations, nor have independent human rights organizations been invited to take up the cause. No public call has been heard for the cancellation of US and NATO forces’ ‘lease’ of at least 3 Pakistani military bases since hostilities in Afghanistan began. No threat to halt the use of Pakistani airspace and land routes for the supply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan has been issued. No limit on the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence agencies or their role in the extra-judicial detainment and extraordinary rendition or extradition of Pakistani and non-Pakistani citizens suspected of ties to Al-Qaeda has come to light. And finally, no end to the deployment of tens of thousands of Pakistani troops in the border regions with Afghanistan since hostilities over the border began has been signaled, despite the loss of more than 1,000 Pakistani soldiers, the destruction of numerous villages, displacement of more than 300,000 residents and the deaths of uncounted numbers of civilians. In short, no aspect of the considerable ‘aid’ that successive governments in Pakistan have provided US and NATO forces has been employed to curb US and NATO accusations of ‘not doing enough,’ let alone ending missile strikes. It is, therefore, quite clear that the remittance of $6 billion in mostly military assistance during the Bush era and the promise of more in non-military assistance under Obama, has purchased the Government of Pakistan’s ‘patience’ with regard to US and NATO unilateralism.

Of course, this is not the first occasion on which US administrations have bombed the territory of an ‘ally,’ resulting in mostly civilian deaths and suffering, with the government of the latter remaining virtually silent, if not complicit. The most pertinent example is the campaign against Cambodia during the Vietnam War. That war, having consumed the Democratic Party presidency of Lyndon Johnson, brought to power the Republican Party under Richard Nixon on the promise of change in war policy. Within months of assuming office in 1969, Nixon approved the ‘secret’ bombing of North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) ‘sanctuaries’ on Cambodian soil. A year later, ground assaults against the same targets were publicly announced. Meanwhile, the fact that the Government of Cambodia, ruled by Prime Minister (and future President) Lon Nol, was officially neutral when bombing began and pro-US/anti-communist once Nol declared himself President after a coup in 1972, does not appear to have entered into the equation. Nor was it apparently considered to give time to Cambodian government efforts to combat the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong and the local Khmer Rouge presence within Cambodia with the direct military assistance the Nixon administration began funding in 1970. Yet, no pertinent objections to the bombings and ground incursions issued from the Government of Cambodia. The efficacy of the campaign is still debated, but there is little doubt that it resulted in the displacement of approximately two million and the deaths of uncounted numbers of Cambodian civilians.

The uncanny similarities between the circumstances of the bombing of Cambodia and that of Pakistan (excepting such apparently inconsequential details as the switch from Republican to Democratic leadership in the more recent case), should raise alarms among any current policy-makers and observers aware of the aftermath of the Cambodian debacle. Most Cambodia specialists agree that Nixon’s Cambodia policy drove large numbers of peasants into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, just as Pakistan observers and officials argue the US air assaults and threats of ground incursions, coupled with the Pakistan military’s use of force in the border regions with Afghanistan, is whipping up anti-government and anti-US/NATO sentiment among common Pakistanis.

Furthermore, as David P. Chandler – a former US Foreign Service officer in Phnom Penh and one of the foremost historians of Cambodia – suggests, Nixon’s policy provided all the psychological and social scars necessary to fuel a violent and vengeful revolution, culminating in Pol Pot’s infamous ‘killing fields.’ That the Taliban movement in general already represents much the same, needs little reaffirmation after the example of the Afghani Taliban’s rule, but one example from Pakistan is worth bringing to light. In the still picturesque, but no longer peaceful mountain valley of Swat (North West Frontier Province), the local chapter of the Pakistani Taliban has fought the military to a stand still and begun pushing its ‘revolutionary’ agenda in the areas it controls. Hundred of girls’ schools have been destroyed and families ordered not to send their daughters to those that remain. As many police officers and government supporters have been beheaded or shot. Shops selling movies and music, cable TV subscribers and anyone shaving their beards, singing or dancing have been ordered to desist under threat of death, although all such decrees are affronts to the Islamic tradition in whose name this group is acting. Thus, it is exceedingly significant that this group’s ultimate goal is to violently impose such measures on all Pakistan, and that all sources confirm that in the last year their insurgency has grown from strength to strength, reaching beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province into the country’s major urban centers, bringing bombings and assassinations that have cost the lives of hundreds more Pakistani civilians.

For a president brought to power on the promise of change, it is disconcerting, to say the least, that Obama has not only signaled the continuation of Bush’s policies toward Pakistan with the latest missile strikes, but is pursuing a broader military strategy that dates back at least as far as Nixon’s bombardment of his ‘ally,’ Cambodia. The irony is that as successive Pakistani governments have abdicated their responsibility to protect the lives and property of their citizens, the only hope for change lies with the US. Most indications suggest that this is a hope against hope, but the fact remains that unless Obama reformulates his policies in the light of the lessons of history, ‘staying the course’ will most likely not meet US/NATO objectives to stabilize Afghanistan, let alone convince Pakistani Muslims that ‘America is not their enemy.’ The current course is particularly shortsighted, given that alternatives to actions that sacrifice the lives of Pakistani civilians are available for consideration.

The promise of increased non-military aid is encouraging, but remains fraught with the very real possibility that Pakistan’s ruling military and civilian classes will divert funds into their own coffers before they can reach the Pakistani people for whom they are intended. Thus, financial aid must be accompanied by the strengthening of institutions that more directly and immediately empower the Pakistani people. One possibility is the attachment of funds to guarantees that President Asif Ali Zardari do away with constitutional amendments instituted by his predecessor, General Musharraf, that make a mockery of the democratic process in Pakistan by endowing the President with the authority to dissolve the National Assembly. Another option is the reappointment of Supreme Court justices summarily dismissed by Musharraf when they showed signs of pursuing judicial autonomy. Pressing Zardari to make such changes would not only show US support for extremely popular causes in Pakistan, they would hold Zardari to promises that he himself made when his political party was running for office. As civil society would be reinforced in process, Pakistan’s endemically corrupt political culture would also be dealt a resounding blow, allowing more financial aid to reach the people. Zardari may not survive such policies, but a more democratic Pakistani state would be the reward.

There are also international issues of concern to the Pakistani people that would greatly enhance the US’ standing if the Obama administration plays an impartial role. The announcement of ‘Gitmo’s’ closure, a timetable of sorts for withdrawal from Iraq and the appointment of special envoys for South Asia and the Middle East are encouraging steps, only if the US roundly condemns and acts against human rights violations committed by all sides, including itself. Also, the governments of India, Afghanistan and Israel must be persuaded to make concessions that none have been willing (or allowed) to make thus far; i.e., peace processes that involve and work to accommodate all parties in the Indo-Pakistani, Afghan and Arab-Israeli conflicts. That means the inclusion of Kashmiri separatists in the first case, the Taliban in the second, and Hamas, Hezbullah and Syria in the last. Regarding South Asia in particular, another contentious issue that US diplomacy can work to quiet, is the refusal by all governments in Afghanistan since 1949, to publicly accept the current boundary between it and Pakistan (i.e., the ‘Durand Line’) as a permanent border. An open and sincere attempt to address such issues, let alone their resolution, would provide incentives for the Pakistani people to cooperate with the US, while also pulling the rug of righteous indignation from under such groups as Al-Qaida and Taliban, far more effectively than killing Pakistani civilians with Predator drones.

Of course, this article is not the first to make such suggestions, and there is some evidence that similar initiatives are on the table in Washington. Droves of opponents, however, are by no means exiled from town since Obama’s inauguration and, judging by his administration’s absolute silence on Israeli actions termed ‘war crimes’ by Amnesty International, as well as the early resort to missile strikes on Pakistani villages, opposition to change is still not without influence in the White House. By beginning his term in office by first ignoring Israeli violations of human rights, then endorsing deadly missile strikes on Pakistan, rather than reaching out with a more conciliatory hand in actions, not merely words, not only lessens the impact of closing Gitmo and moving to withdraw from Iraq, but shoots down the support and trust of the Pakistani people necessary for more far-reaching and efficacious US policy in South Asia before it gets off the ground. Thus, the only possible outcome of continuing the bombardment of Pakistani territory in an environment that already condones the killing of Muslim civilians in other areas, is the rise of anti-Americanism to dangerously new heights, and the further positioning of the already suffering people of Pakistan to endure a future as horrific as that which the people of Cambodia faced some thirty years ago.

M. REZA PIRBHAI is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at:


This incident has been widely reported by the media outlets of the world, but for an example of Pakistani reporting that draws from the New York Times and Washington Post, and includes the quote provided, see Anwar Iqbal, “Obama Endorses Missile Strikes,” Dawn (January 25, 2009), available online at:

Anwar Iqbal, “Drone Attacks to Continue,” Dawn (January 28, 2009), available online at:

Iqbal, “Obama Endorses Missile Strikes,” online at:

For example, see David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia  (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

Such details are reported daily in the Pakistani press, but have recently also been summarized by some US media outlets. For example, see Richard A. Oppel, Jr & Pir Zubair Shah, “In Pakistan, Radio Amplifies Taliban Terror,” New York Times (January 24, 2009), available online at:

M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).