Page 1 of 2 Operation Breakfast redux
By Pratap Chatterjee
Sitting in air-conditioned comfort, cans of Coke and 7-Up within reach as they
watched their screens, the ground controllers gave the order to strike under
the cover of darkness. There had been no declaration of war. No advance
warning, nothing, in fact, that would have alerted the "enemy" to the sudden,
unprecedented bombing raids.
The computer-guided strikes were authorized by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, just weeks after a new American president entered the Oval Office.
They represented an effort to wipe out the enemy's central headquarters, whose
location intelligence experts claimed to have pinpointed just across the border
from the war-torn land where tens of thousands of American troops were
Far from the battlefields where Americans were dying, and no
reporters dared to go, who knew whether the bombs that rained from the night
sky over remote villages had killed high-level insurgents or innocent
civilians? For 14 months the raids continued and, after each one was completed,
the commander of the bombing crews was instructed to relay a one-sentence
message: "The ball game is over."
The campaign was called "Operation Breakfast", and while it may sound like the
Central Intelligence Agency's present air campaign over Pakistan, it wasn't.
You need to turn the clock back to another American war, four decades earlier,
to March 18, 1969, to be exact. The target was an area of Cambodia known as the
Fish Hook that jutted into South Vietnam, and Operation Breakfast would be but
the first of dozens of top secret bombing raids. Later ones were named "Lunch",
"Snack" and "Supper" and they went under the collective label "Menu". They were
authorized by president Richard Nixon and were meant to destroy a
(non-existent) "Bamboo Pentagon", a central headquarters in the Cambodian
borderlands where North Vietnamese communists were supposedly orchestrating
raids deep into South Vietnam.
Like President Barack Obama today, Nixon had come to power promising stability
in an age of unrest and with a vague plan to bringing peace to a nation at war.
On the day he was sworn in, he read from the Biblical book of Isaiah: "They
shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks."
He also spoke of transforming Washington's bitter partisan politics into a new
age of unity. "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one
another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well
as our voices," Nixon said.
Return to the Killing Fields
In recent years, many commentators and pundits have resorted to "the Vietnam
analogy", comparing first the American war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan to
the Vietnam War. Despite a number of similarities, the analogy disintegrates
quickly enough if you consider that US military campaigns in post-invasion
Afghanistan and Iraq against small forces of lightly-armed insurgents bear
little resemblance to the large-scale war that Lyndon B Johnson and Nixon waged
against both southern revolutionary guerrillas and the military of North
Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who commanded a real army, with the backing of,
and supplies from, the Soviet Union and China.
A more provocative - and perhaps more ominous - analogy today might be between
the CIA's escalating drone war in the contemporary Pakistani tribal borderlands
and Nixon's secret bombing campaign against the Cambodian equivalent. To
briefly recapitulate that ancient history: In the late 1960s, Cambodia was
ruled by a "neutralist" king, Norodom Sihanouk, leading a weak government that
had little relevance to its poor and barely educated citizens. In its
borderlands, largely beyond its control, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong
Sihanouk, helpless to do anything, looked the other way. In the meantime,
sheltered by local villagers in distant areas of rural Cambodia was a small
insurgent group of communist fundamentalists who called themselves the Khmer
Rouge. (Think of them as the 1970s equivalent of the Pakistani Taliban who
settled into the wild borderlands of that country largely beyond the control of
the Pakistani government.) They were then weak and incapable of challenging
Sihanouk - until, that is, those secret bombing raids by American B-52s began.
As the raids intensified in the summer of 1969, areas of the country began to
destabilize (helped on in 1970 by a US-encouraged military coup in the capital
Phnom Penh), and the Khmer Rouge began to gain strength.
The grim end of that old story is well known.
Forty years, almost to the day, after Operation Breakfast began, I traveled to
the town of Snoul, close to where the American bombs once fell. It is a quiet
town, no longer remote, as modern roads and Chinese-led timber companies have
systematically cut down the jungle that once sheltered anti-government rebels.
I went in search of anyone who remembered the bombing raids, only to discover
that few there were old enough to have been alive at the time, largely because
the Khmer Rouge executed as much as a quarter of the total Cambodian population
after seizing power in 1975.
Eventually, a 15-minute ride out of town, I found an old soldier living alone
in a simple one-room house adorned with pictures of the old king, Sihanouk. His
name was Kong Kan and he had first moved to the nearby town of Memot in 1960. A
little further away, I ran into three more old men, Choenung Klou, Keo Long,
and Hoe Huy, who had gathered at a newly built temple to chat.
All of them remembered the massive 1969 B-52 raids vividly and the arrival of
US troops the following year. "We thought the Americans had come to help us,"
said Choenung Klou. "But then they left and the [South] Vietnamese soldiers who
came with them destroyed the villages and raped the women."
He had no love for the North Vietnamese communists either. "They would stay at
people's houses, take our hammocks and food," he said. "We didn't like them and
we were afraid of them."
Caught between two Vietnamese armies and with American planes carpet-bombing
the countryside, increasing numbers of Cambodians soon came to believe that the
Khmer Rouge, who were their countrymen, might help them. Like the Taliban of
today, many of the Khmer Rouge were, in fact, teenaged villagers who had
responded, under the pressure of war and disruption, to the distant call of an
inspirational ideology and joined the resistance in the jungles.
"If you ask me why I joined the Khmer Rouge, the main reason is because of the
American invasion," Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, has said.
"If there was no invasion, by now, I would be a pilot or a professor."
Six years after the bombings of Cambodia began, shortly after the last
helicopter lifted off the US Embassy in Saigon and the flow of military aid to
the crumbling government of Cambodia stopped, a reign of terror took hold in
the capital, Phnom Penh.
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.
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. 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" described a Third Way that
is neither Western nor fundamentalist Islam.
At the very same time, CIA analysts in distant Virginia are using pilotless
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 Obama, the US unloaded more missiles and bombs on
Pakistan than president George W Bush did in the years of his secret drone war,
and the strikes have been accelerating in 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 just over the horizon.