Tag Archives: UXO

Review: A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA

Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA explains why for the CIA, Laos was never a great place to wage a war. It is yet another testimony to the hubris of American foreign policy during the Cold War’s middle decades of the 1960s and 1970s and sheds light on the US’s Secret War in Laos, a conflict that is often overshadowed by the US’s other major defeat in mainland Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War. To craft his narrative, Kurlantzick draws upon recently declassified intelligence documents. These new data differentiate his work from past books on the same subject like Shooting at the Moon and Air America.

Kurlantzick explores a thesis that the CIA cut its teeth in covert warfare in Laos – a proposition that could be argued against by reading into the CIA’s covert military operations in Guatemala and Cuba prior to US involvement in Indochina. The book’s true merit and contribution to existing literature is in the telling of the lives of its four central characters: Bill Sullivan, then US Ambassador to Laos; Bill Lair, the CIA operator in charge of the clandestine operation; Wang Pao, the Hmong general employed by Lair and Sullivan to wage war on behalf of the US against the Pathet Lao and the Northern Vietnamese with whom the Pathet Lao was allied; and finally Tony Poe, the CIA operative ensconced deep within Laos’s jungles charged with training peripheral ethnic groups. Their combined actions, in addition to a total lack disregard for the revolutionary momentum in Laos and a gross mismatch of tactical approaches, dictated the recipe for US disaster in Laos. Throughout the book, the words of these four men give personal account to the secret war.

Prior to reading the book, I was most interested in learning more about the life and character of General Wang Pao. The facts surrounding the Hmong general’s life are scattered across a variety of sources, and  Kurlantzick brings Wang Pao’s life into focus. Kurlantzick examines the questions of how Wang Pao came to be America’s number one son in Laos and how he amassed an army formed by members of an ethnic group known to eschew organization. Of course, everything fell apart for Wang Pao in the end. Kurlantzick describes the waxing and waning of conflict through the tactical battlefield analysis, and the conversations between Wang Pao and his handlers, and the utter failures of US intelligence that prolonged the conflict and ultimately resulted in a mass exodus of Hmong people from Laos to Thailand and many parts of the United States.

The coverage of Laos in current day Western media is as sparse and rare as the decade in which the US waged war there. Thus we need more books like Kurlantzick’s to expose the horrors that the US unleashed on this small landlocked country, which at the time of the war had a population of three million. Laos is the most bombed country on the planet with more than 270 million tons of bombs, many of which were anti-personnel cluster munitions, released over Laos’s verdant forests and plains between 1964 and 1973. Those that flew over the bombed country during and in the years after the conflict, recall a cratered moonscape.

The book dutifully describes the US bombing runs from Bill Lair’s base in Udorn and others further afield in Thailand and provides first-hand accounts from the US pilots leading the raids and the unfortunate villagers and soldiers on the ground who witnessed the horrific bombing. Roughly 30% of the bombs dropped during the secret war did not explode upon contact and still pose a threat to individual in Laos. Children often discover the small cluster munitions, which look like round play-things, and are killed or maimed when the fifty-year old fuses are triggered. Farmers cannot take full economic advantage of their land over risks of coming in contact with a bomb. Casualties of war continue to increase for a conflict that ended before a time when more than half of the world’s population was born. Only within the last decade has the US government significantly increased aid to Laos to clear and remove unexploded ordnance.

A Great Place to Have a War is not a book about Lao’s fight for independence because we hardly get to know the Pathet Lao and the individuals that shaped Laos’s revolutionary movement. Nor is this an examination of the global trends and the pantheon of leaders that shaped the misguided and disastrous conflict in Indochina – or the Southeast Asian heroes who prevailed. For that, we should read Fredrick Logevall’s Embers of War or the works of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and Francis Fitzgerald, all authors who produced first-hand classic accounts of the wars in Indochina. What this book is, however, is an accurate portrayal of a situation where the resources of a dominant power are spread thin by the need to manage numerous conflicts around the globe, and the over-delegation of authority to a few ill-prepared individuals, mostly ignored by the media or their government, can result in a devastating conflict affecting the lives of millions. Laos continues to heal from the scars of this devastating, secret war.

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Filed under Cold War, Laos, Reviews, SLIDER

The US-Lao relationship: Don’t you forget about me

US President Barack Obama speaking to a crowd of Lao youth in Vientiane. Photo: USAID Flickr page

US President Barack Obama speaking to a crowd of Lao youth in Vientiane. Photo: USAID Flickr page

When considering US foreign policy in Laos, we cannot help but wonder whether President-elect Donald Trump has ever thought about small Southeast Asian country. It would be a mistake for the incoming administration to ignore the significance of the new opportunities for US-Lao engagement that President Obama’s September visit helped to catalyze. While in Laos, Obama acknowledged the US “moral responsibility” to help Laos recover from the ruinous legacies of the war with the US. Recognizing this complicated shared past, the President announced several new initiatives aimed at paving the way for enhanced US engagement with Laos, including a new Comprehensive Partnership between the two countries, increased funding for UXO removal , a new USAID office in Vientiane. His visit also ushered in the opening of new General Electric and Microsoft offices in Vientiane. Sustaining the momentum for positive US engagement in Laos will require continued support for government-led programs, increased private sector engagement, a greater NGO presence, and more people-to-people exchanges.

In the last two decades, Laos has pursued a strategy of attracting foreign investment to boost economic growth and development. Currently, China contributes about 40% of all FDI, making it Laos’s largest investor, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. Most of this investment is in natural resources such as hydropower, agriculture, forestry, and mining. Investment in natural resources extraction and development has come at a high environmental cost. Officials within the Lao government often lack the resources or the political will necessary to determine the full environmental and social impacts of a new development projects before a concession agreement is signed. Many foreign developers in Laos fail to abide by environmental and social safeguards. Plus, a lack of space for civil society to criticize or protest development projects means that potentially destructive projects such as dams, mines, or plantations, often go ahead without proper consideration of the social and environmental costs. All of these factors have contributed to a situation in which critical land and aquatic ecosystems in Laos are degraded at an alarming rate.  Often, the rural citizens who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods are left worse off as a result of new development projects. Meanwhile, despite the wealth gained from the development of natural resources, poverty and inequality in Laos remain widespread.

The U.S. currently invests very little in Laos. Between 1989 and 2014, the U.S. accounted for only 1.1% of FDI in Laos, and although the US is the single largest investor in ASEAN as a whole, it is the 14th largest investor in Laos. Historically, doing business in Laos has been quite difficult for foreigners. In 2010, Laos was ranked the 171st out of 183 countries in “ease of doing business” by the World Bank Group. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index the same year, Laos was ranked 154th out of 180 countries.[1] However, the barriers to US trade and investment in Laos have been lowering. In 2013, Laos joined the World Trade Organization, and in February 2016, the U.S. and Laos signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. The Agreement set up a Joint Trade and Investment Committee that meets at least once a year to enable trade and investment between the countries by identifying and addressing barriers.

The U.S. can play a key role in helping Laos to develop the capacity for more sustainable and inclusive economic growth. Rather than competing with China and other regional powers for the rights to develop natural resources in Laos, which the US is not likely to do, the US can invest in developing human resources and improving capacity to better manage and regulate the use of its natural resources. This is the idea behind the Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong program, an inter-agency US government-led program that provides technical assistance to line agencies in Mekong countries to support sustainable infrastructure development.

One promising area for investment in Laos is in renewable energies such as solar and wind. During Obama’s visit, he announced that the U.S. would provide funding for a feasibility study for a 20 MW solar power plant in Laos, which if completed, could power up to 30,000 households. With its significant solar power potential and relative lack of energy production and distribution infrastructure, Laos has the opportunity to leapfrog dirtier energy production technologies, taking advantage of the rapidly dropping prices for renewable technologies.

Another sector with significant potential for growth in Laos is in tourism.  Laos has spectacularly beautiful natural landscapes as well as unique sights that tell the story of a rich and layered history. After opening its borders to international tourists in 1989, inbound tourism has been steadily increasing. However, as Robert Travers argues, tourism infrastructure in Laos is being developed in an uncoordinated fashion, [2] and as a result, Laos has become a short-term stop on the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia. Through a strategic and coordinated approach to tourism development that highlights its unique culture, Laos could attract more long-term visitors and generate considerable revenues from tourism. Just as the US is promoting tourism to Vietnam, it can do the same with Laos.

Effective U.S. engagement in Laos, whether at the government or grassroots level, will only be possible through continued people-to-people relationship building between Americans and Lao people in order to develop mutual understanding and greater trust between the two countries. The US government should continue to pursue a Peace Corps program with Lao PDR and should offer increased funding for educational exchanges for Lao and American students.

Through strategic engagement with Laos, the U.S. can continue to build upon the momentum for improved relations cultivated over the last few years. Now is the time for enhanced US engagement that is guided by a commitment to helping Laos take a more sustainable and equitable approach to development.

Gabriella Neusner is currently an intern at the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program.

[1] US Department of State. (March 2011) “2011 Investment Climate Statement – Laos.” http://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/othr/ics/2011/157307.htm

[2] Travers, R. (2008). Economic Corridors and Ecotourism: Whiter Tourism in Laos. Asian tourism: Growth and change, 105-116.

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Filed under FEATURES, Foreign policy, Laos, SLIDER, US Rebalance, USA

Looking ahead to Obama’s September visit to Laos


As the Obama Administration looks to add the finishing touches to its five year Rebalance to Asia, it is likely to continue to capitalizing on building ties to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly, particularly over the last four years, towards improving bilateral and multilateral ties with ASEAN.  It has sent more high-level visits to ASEAN member states than its predecessors, had a visible presence in improving security relations with most ASEAN countries, and held the first U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Sunnylands last February.  And as a final feather in Obama’s cap, he’ll be the first president to visit to Laos this coming September

The visit to the small Southeast Asian country may seem minor in the current geopolitical climate; however, it is far more important in the long run.  Laos is tiny with only 6 million people earning on average just over $1000 per year, but the premise of the U.S. Rebalance has always been to re-engage with Asian countries wholesale in an effort to bolster the region.  Through Laos, the Obama Administration can solidify its objectives and spur a more holistic relationship with ASEAN.  In other words, the President’s upcoming visit to Laos represents the essence of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia as a whole.

On the surface, improving relations with Laos seems daunting.  Laos is beset by many problems in addition to economic development challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to being a central thoroughfare for the region’s illicit trade network.  Historically, the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship has been rather rocky.  Traditionally, policymakers have worked to curb relations with Laos’s Communist government that was deigned partially responsible for the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  US Congress protested Laos’s entry to the WTO and criticized the Lao government’s lack of good policies to protect the Hmong minority, whose diaspora forms key constituencies in congressional districts in states like California and Minnesota.

Yet, it is because of these hurdles in the U.S. bilateral relationship that make Laos an ideal candidate for furthering the regional pivot.  The U.S. Rebalance is concerned with building bridges and opening channels to promote greater collusion between the U.S. and the whole region.  This entails reaching out to all of Asia and finding chains that can potentially help the U.S. and intra-Asian growth.  Properly mending relationships to promote a greater relationship promotes a sustainable future.  Furthering U.S. engagement with Laos will ensure the legacy of the Rebalance beyond the current administration.  To do so, the President should confront two significant regional issues: food security and UXO.

First, in conjunction with the President’s September visit, the Administration should establish new policies to improve Laos’ food security.  Laos experiences some of the highest nutritional deficiencies, child mortality, and maternal mortality in Southeast Asia. To assist with Laos’s food security problem, the Administration could build on successful frameworks for cooperation already in place.  Thus, USAID provides programs to supplement good nutrition and improve regional capacity building through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).  A joint effort from the Department of Defense, the Oregon Health Science University, and the Lao University of Health Sciences created the Lao American Nutrition Institute (LANI).  LANI hopes to revitalize agricultural growth knowledge and practices in Laos.  In spurring this effort, the Obama Administration can establish sustainable development policies and build capacity within the Lao government on programs that benefit the whole of Laos’ population.

Second, it is paramount for the Obama Administration to resolve the long debilitating unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in Laos.  The small munitions left over from the U.S.’ Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos (1964-1973) still saturate much of the countryside and pose a threat to the country’s agriculture and young, vulnerable population.  UXOs have been a front row issue in the prior visits by high profile Cabinet members.  Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, highlighted the UXO issue during his visit in November 2015.  As a Vietnam veteran, Secretary John Kerry expressed his sincerest wishes towards properly handling the issue and bringing closure to the UXO issue during his visit to Laos in January 2016.  Obama would benefit from boosting UXO removal efforts as prescribed by lawmakers.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has promoted responsible and effective strategies in removing UXOs as well as a deep concern that the U.S. owns up to the Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos by seeing that the country becomes completely UXO free.  Regardless of the approach, Obama should set a definite tone over UXOs in the upcoming visit.  Taking responsibility to end the UXO threat for good improves the U.S.’ standing in the region and will move the agenda of the Rebalance forward.

In his final months, President Obama will be setting the finishing touches on what has been a major foreign policy effort.  Above all, Obama would like to set the tone of being invested in improving the whole of Asia, exemplified through a serious responsibility to improving Laos’ development and correcting past US foreign policy decisions that proved detrimental to the region.  Laos will be Obama’s chance to set the record straight and cement a sturdy framework for constructive engagement with the region.  With this framework, future presidents will be encouraged to do the same: embrace Asia as a whole and continue an approach toward capacity building that ensures a brighter future.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cold War, Food, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, US Rebalance, USA

Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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Filed under Cold War, Current Events, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Uncategorized, USA