There are echoes of the CIA’s long war in Laos in today’s war on terror

For nearly a decade, the CIA conducted a war in Southeast Asia, mostly hidden from the American public. Joshua Kurlantzick shows how the war in Laos set the stage for the CIA’s current drone wars around the world

Former US president Barack Obama, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive updates on the mission against Osama bin Laden in May 2011 AFP Photo / White House
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CIA operatives, working with the US embassy, Thai commandos, and some US military advisers, helped build an army of tens of thousands of anti-communist Laotians, mostly from the Hmong ethnic group. The agency originally trained the Hmong to defend their villages from attack, but eventually tried to turn the anti-communists into a conventional army, fighting large battles against North Vietnam and its Laotian allies.

As the CIA pushed its Laotian allies into bigger battles, which would ultimately prove disastrous, it also helped oversee a massive bombing campaign in Laos.

The bombing was supposedly designed to cripple communist forces and cut off links to South Vietnam. But too often simply dropping bombs became the goal, without obvious military targets. Ronald Rickenbach, a former USAID official in Laos during the height of the bombing, called it “an indiscriminate bombing of civilian population centres”.

The war in Laos was uniquely destructive. The US dropped more bombs on Laos, a country the size of America’s Oregon state, than it had on any other country in any other war in history. But by 1975, the CIA – and most US government officials – had pretty much vanished from Laos, and the country would be ignored by US officials for the next four decades.

Perhaps most notably, as I discuss in a new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, the operation went on for most of the 1960s with virtually no interest from the US Congress or the American public. Reporters, mostly based in other South East Asian nations, had little ability to access the remote sites where the twilight war was being led.

A handful of congresspeople travelled to Laos for brief visits, but they did not push the CIA or the embassy to tell them much about the operation. In this way, the secret conflict in Laos – managed largely by the CIA, with minimal oversight by Congress and a US public that cared little about the impacts of the war overseas – was a harbinger of today’s twilight global war on terror.

Indeed, the shift begun in Laos reached its natural end with the war on terror. Today, intelligence-gathering, though still important, is secondary in the Agency’s mission to kill enemies of the United States, often in battles that escape much notice back in America.

After 1975, when communist forces ultimately triumphed in much of Indochina, much of the United States seemed to forget Laos. At the CIA, however, the Laos war was not forgotten. The message delivered by the CIA directors, for posterity, was that Laos was the “war we won”, as former director Richard Helms wrote. The Agency had proven itself in twilight warfare; before Laos, the Agency had not managed a war of such size and scope.

Despite some CIA retrenchment in the 1970s, the CIA’s paramilitary operations continued. In Afghanistan, where the Reagan administration launched a paramilitary programme training and equipping fighters against the Soviet-installed government, the operation bore a resemblance to the CIA’s work in Laos.

CIA paramilitary officers, working with colleagues in Pakistan’s intelligence outfit, were given much of the job of helping the Afghan rebels plan attacks, just as in Laos the CIA had taken over this military advisory function from the uniformed U.S armed forces.

The idea that the CIA should be involved in these types of military matters had, by the 1990s, become ingrained in the Agency’s culture. And after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Agency’s paramilitary operations were enlarged massively, clearly becoming the centre of the CIA’s activities.

The post-September 11 war on terrorism not only has been a massive undertaking, as the Laos war was. It has also replicated the executive power, the extreme secrecy, the creation of an alternative power centre outside the US military and the reliance on bombing that characterised the CIA’s Laos battles.

According to documents released by the former contractor Edward Snowden, the CIA does still conduct spying and intelligence and analysis, but the Agency spends much of its manpower managing drone strikes and many other aspects of paramilitary operations around the globe. In so doing, it works together with US special forces, such as the elite Seal Team Six, which handled the operation that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

In Syria, for instance, the CIA and special operations forces “have launched a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing programme that is run separately from the broader US military offensive against [ISIL]”, US officials revealed to the Washington Post. Beyond the CIA-led drone strikes in Syria, the Agency took over the drone programme, in the waning days of the Obama presidency, in other parts of the world like Yemen and Pakistan, according to several senior intelligence officials.

This reliance on special forces and CIA paramilitaries is likely to only continue under the new US administration. Despite publicly feuding with some CIA analysts over their assessments of Russia’s alleged interference in the American election, the new administration’s national security officials have made clear that they want to expand the war on terror – and that these covert forces will be the front line.

The war on terror also replicates the Laos war in another critical way: CIA activities go almost totally unwatched by Congress and the US public, even as they have dramatic effects around the world.

The strategies used to keep most of the war on terror secret – prohibiting reporters from coming near CIA paramilitary operations, classifying details of paramilitary campaigns, relying on technology, contractors and local forces rather than US ground troops – would have been familiar to CIA operatives in the Laos war.

Members of Congress, who in the mid-1970s and late 1980s, after the Vietnam War, had questioned the CIA’s killing programs overseas, also have mostly again become used to the CIA amassing vast war powers. Congressional intelligence staffers, by and large, express what the New York Times called “unwavering support” for having the “CIA’s killing missions … embedded” in the Agency’s mission.

Now, under a new administration and a Congress controlled by the same party, CIA and special forces operations are likely to get even less US government scrutiny than they did during the Obama administration.

Despite occasional tensions between congressional Republicans and the new administration, over issues like Russia and health care, most GOP members feel they must support the president, who enjoys approval ratings of over 90 per cent among registered Republicans.

If the recent US strike in Yemen is indicative – it drew (anonymous) condemnation from some senior US national security officials but little criticism from elected Republicans – there will be little oversight of the war on terror anytime soon.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, from which this is adapted