|Tibet, the 'great game' and the CIA
By Richard M Bennett
Given the historical context of the unrest in Tibet, there is reason to believe
Beijing was caught on the hop with the recent demonstrations for the simple
reason that their planning took place outside of Tibet and that the direction
of the protesters is similarly in the hands of anti-Chinese organizers safely
out of reach in Nepal and northern India.
Similarly, the funding and overall control of the unrest has also been linked
to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and by inference to the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) because of his close cooperation with US intelligence
for over 50 years.
Indeed, with the CIA's deep involvement with the Free Tibet Movement and its
funding of the suspiciously well-informed Radio Free Asia, it would seem
somewhat unlikely that any revolt could
have been planned or occurred without the prior knowledge, and even perhaps the
agreement, of the National Clandestine Service (formerly known as the
Directorate of Operations) at CIA headquarters in Langley.
Respected columnist and former senior Indian Intelligence officer, B Raman,
commented on March 21 that "on the basis of available evidence, it was possible
to assess with a reasonable measure of conviction" that the initial uprising in
Lhasa on March 14 "had been pre-planned and well orchestrated".
Could there be a factual basis to the suggestion that the main beneficiaries to
the death and destruction sweeping Tibet are in Washington? History would
suggest that this is a distinct possibility.
The CIA conducted a large scale covert action campaign against the communist
Chinese in Tibet starting in 1956. This led to a disastrous bloody uprising in
1959, leaving tens of thousands of Tibetans dead, while the Dalai Lama and
about 100,000 followers were forced to flee across the treacherous Himalayan
passes to India and Nepal.
The CIA established a secret military training camp for the Dalai Lama's
resistance fighters at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado, in the US. The
Tibetan guerrillas were trained and equipped by the CIA for guerrilla warfare
and sabotage operations against the communist Chinese.
The US-trained guerrillas regularly carried out raids into Tibet, on occasions
led by CIA-contract mercenaries and supported by CIA planes. The initial
training program ended in December 1961, though the camp in Colorado appears to
have remained open until at least 1966.
The CIA Tibetan Task Force created by Roger E McCarthy, alongside the Tibetan
guerrilla army, continued the operation codenamed ST CIRCUS to harass the
Chinese occupation forces for another 15 years until 1974, when officially
sanctioned involvement ceased.
McCarthy, who also served as head of the Tibet Task Force at the height of its
activities from 1959 until 1961, later went on to run similar operations in
Vietnam and Laos.
By the mid-1960s, the CIA had switched its strategy from parachuting guerrilla
fighters and intelligence agents into Tibet to establishing the Chusi Gangdruk,
a guerrilla army of some 2,000 ethnic Khamba fighters at bases such as Mustang
This base was only closed down in 1974 by the Nepalese government after being
put under tremendous pressure by Beijing.
After the Indo-China War of 1962, the CIA developed a close relationship with
the Indian intelligence services in both training and supplying agents in
Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison in their book The CIA's Secret War in Tibet
disclose that the CIA and the Indian intelligence services cooperated in the
training and equipping of Tibetan agents and special forces troops and in
forming joint aerial and intelligence units such as the Aviation Research
Center and Special Center.
This collaboration continued well into the 1970s and some of the programs that
it sponsored, especially the special forces unit of Tibetan refugees which
would become an important part of the Indian Special Frontier Force, continue
into the present.
Only the deterioration in relations with India which coincided with
improvements in those with Beijing brought most of the joint CIA-Indian
operations to an end.
Though Washington had been scaling back support for the Tibetan guerrillas
since 1968, it is thought that the end of official US backing for the
resistance only came during meetings between president Richard Nixon and the
Chinese communist leadership in Beijing in February 1972.
Victor Marchetti, a former CIA officer has described the outrage many field
agents felt when Washington finally pulled the plug, adding that a number even
"[turned] for solace to the Tibetan prayers which they had learned during their
years with the Dalai Lama".
The former CIA Tibetan Task Force chief from 1958 to 1965, John Kenneth Knaus,
has been quoted as saying, "This was not some CIA black-bag operation." He
added, "The initiative was coming from ... the entire US government."
In his book Orphans of the Cold War, Knaus writes of the obligation
Americans feel toward the cause of Tibetan independence from China.
Significantly, he adds that its realization "would validate the more worthy
motives of we who tried to help them achieve this goal over 40 years ago. It
would also alleviate the guilt some of us feel over our participation in these
efforts, which cost others their lives, but which were the prime adventure of
Despite the lack of official support it is still widely rumored that the CIA
were involved, if only by proxy, in another failed revolt in October 1987, the
unrest that followed and the consequent Chinese repression continuing till May
The timing for another serious attempt to destabilize Chinese rule in Tibet
would appear to be right for the CIA and Langley will undoubtedly keep all its
China is faced with significant problems, with the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang
province; the activities of the Falun Gong among many other dissident groups
and of course growing concern over the security of the Summer Olympic Games in
China is viewed by Washington as a major threat, both economic and military,
not just in Asia, but in Africa and Latin America as well.
The CIA also views China as being "unhelpful" in the "war on terror", with
little or no cooperation being offered and nothing positive being done to stop
the flow of arms and men from Muslim areas of western China to support Islamic
extremist movements in Afghanistan and Central Asian states.
To many in Washington, this may seem the ideal opportunity to knock the Beijing
government off balance as Tibet is still seen as China's potential weak spot.
The CIA will undoubtedly ensure that its fingerprints are not discovered all
over this growing revolt. Cut-outs and proxies will be used among the Tibetan
exiles in Nepal and India's northern border areas.
Indeed, the CIA can expect a significant level of support from a number of
security organizations in both India and Nepal and will have no trouble in
providing the resistance movement with advice, money and above all, publicity.
However, not until the unrest shows any genuine signs of becoming an open
revolt by the great mass of ethnic Tibetans against the Han Chinese and Hui
Muslims will any weapons be allowed to appear.
Large quantities of former Eastern bloc small arms and explosives have been
reportedly smuggled into Tibet over the past 30 years, but these are likely to
remain safely hidden until the right opportunity presents itself.
The weapons have been acquired on the world markets or from stocks captured by
US or Israeli forces. They have been sanitized and are deniable, untraceable
back to the CIA.
Weapons of this nature also have the advantage of being interchangeable with
those used by the Chinese armed forces and of course use the same ammunition,
easing the problem of resupply during any future conflict.
Though official support for the Tibetan resistance ended 30 years ago, the CIA
has kept open its lines of communications and still funds much of the Tibetan
So is the CIA once again playing the "great game" in Tibet?
It certainly has the capability, with a significant intelligence and
paramilitary presence in the region. Major bases exist in Afghanistan, Iraq,
Pakistan and several Central Asian states.
It cannot be doubted that it has an interest in undermining China, as well as
the more obvious target of Iran.
So the probable answer is yes, and indeed it would be rather surprising if the
CIA was not taking more than just a passing interest in Tibet. That is after
all what it is paid to do.
Since September 11, 2001, there has been a sea-change in US Intelligence
attitudes, requirements and capabilities. Old operational plans have been
dusted off and updated. Previous assets re-activated. Tibet and the perceived
weakness of China's position there will probably have been fully reassessed.
For Washington and the CIA, this may seem a heaven-sent opportunity to create a
significant lever against Beijing, with little risk to American interests;
simply a win-win situation.
The Chinese government would be on the receiving end of worldwide condemnation
for its continuing repression and violation of human rights and it will be
young Tibetans dying on the streets of Lhasa rather than yet more uniformed
The consequences of any open revolt against Beijing, however, are that once
again the fear of arrest, torture and even execution will pervade every corner
of both Tibet and those neighboring provinces where large Tibetan populations
exist, such as Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan.
And the Tibetan Freedom movement still has little likelihood of achieving any
significant improvement in central Chinese policy in the long run and no chance
whatever of removing its control of Lhasa and their homeland.
Once again it would appear that the Tibetan people will find themselves trapped
between an oppressive Beijing and a manipulative Washington.
Beijing sends in the heavies
The fear that the United States, Britain and other Western states may
try to portray Tibet as another Kosovo may be part of the reason why the
Chinese authorities reacted as if faced with a genuine mass revolt rather than
their official portrayal of a short-lived outbreak of unrest by malcontents
supporting the Dalai Lama.
Indeed, so seriously did Beijing view the situation that a special security
coordination unit, the 110 Command Center, has been established in Lhasa with
the primary objective of suppressing the disturbances and restoring full
central government control.
The center appears to be under the direct control of Zhang Qingli, first
secretary of the Tibet Party and a President Hu Jintao loyalist. Zhang is also
the former Xinjiang deputy party secretary with considerable experience in
counter-terrorism operations in that region.
Others holding important positions in Lhasa are Zhang Xinfeng, vice minister of
the Central Public Security Ministry and Zhen Yi, deputy commander of the
People's Armed Police Headquarters in Beijing.
The seriousness with which Beijing is treating the present unrest is further
illustrated by the deployment of a large number of important army units from
the Chengdu Military Region, including brigades from the 149th Mechanized
Infantry Division, which acts as the region's rapid reaction force.
According to a United Press International report, elite ground force units of
the People's Liberation Army were involved in Lhasa, and the new T-90 armored
personnel carrier and T-92 wheeled armored vehicles were deployed. According to
the report, China has denied the participation of the army in the crackdown,
saying it was carried out by units of the armed police. "Such equipment as
mentioned above has never been deployed by China's armed police, however."
Air support is provided by the 2nd Army Aviation Regiment, based at
Fenghuangshan, Chengdu, in Sichuan province. It operates a mix of helicopters
and STOL transports from a frontline base near Lhasa. Combat air support could
be quickly made available from fighter ground attack squadrons based within the
The Xizang Military District forms the Tibet garrison, which has two mountain
infantry units; the 52nd Brigade based at Linzhi and the 53rd Brigade at
Yaoxian Shannxi. These are supported by the 8th Motorized Infantry Division and
an artillery brigade at Shawan, Xinjiang.
Tibet is also no longer quite as remote or difficult to resupply for the
Chinese army. The construction of the first railway between 2001 and 2007 has
significantly eased the problems of the movement of large numbers of troops and
equipment from Qinghai onto the rugged Tibetan plateau.
Other precautions against a resumption of the long-term Tibetan revolts of
previous years has led to a considerable degree of self-sufficiency in
logistics and vehicle repair by the Tibetan garrison and an increasing number
of small airfields have been built to allow rapid-reaction units to gain access
to even the most remote areas.
The Chinese Security Ministry and intelligence services had been thought to
have a suffocating presence in the province and indeed the ability to detect
any serious protest movement and suppress resistance.
Richard M Bennett, intelligence and security
(Copyright 2008 Richard M Bennett.)
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