There's been a breakthrough in ending a war that should have ended long, long ago. No, not Afghanistan or Iraq. It's a tiny, little-known conflict that grew out of the Vietnam War. Yeah, that one - the war that was supposed to have ended all the way back in 1975.
The country involved is Vietnam's next-door neighbor, landlocked, mountainous Laos, now officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The people involved are from the Hmong ethnic minority, which under C.I.A. direction fought the communists during the Vietnam war years. Many Hmong kept fighting once the Americans went home and the communists took over Laos' government. It's a fossilized insurgency, lost in a time warp. Even today, when the rice paddies of nearby countries are morphing into shopping centers, the mountains of Laos hold a few ragged resistance bands, whose leaders got their original training from the C.I.A. forty years ago. The "jungle" Hmong, as they are called, get much of their support and direction from Hmong who live in America.
The man at the center of the surprise breakthrough is General Vang Pao, the Hmong commander in the C.I.A. years and now in American exile. Until a few months ago, Vang Pao was the marquee defendant in a U.S. federal terrorism case - accused of conspiring to overthrow the same Laotian regime with which he's now trying to reconcile. Now, with the help of representatives of the king of Thailand - another one of Laos's next-door neighbors - and an unnamed member of the Lao Poliburo, this 80-year old tribesman has put together a tentative deal. The plan may or may not come to fruition, but it has a certain Nixon-goes-to-China audacity. And it has exposed an embarrassing reluctance to act by the U.S. State Department - even though the State Department helped create the Hmong problem in the first place.
The deal, announced December 22nd, will have Vang Pao and his retinue traveling to Thailand in January, where they will be the guests of a Thai royal foundation with connections to the Thai national security establishment. On January 10th, if their safety can be guaranteed, Vang Pao will shake hands with representatives of his old enemies halfway across a bridge over the Mekong river, which separates Thailand from Laos. He will then make a brief visit to Laos's capital, Vientiane. That's the ceremonial part.
The economic part is that Vang Pao and his Laotian and Thai partners would set up a 25,000-acre farm cooperative in the highlands of southern Laos on land leased for 99 years from the Laotian government. The hope is that many of the 4,000-plus Hmong refugees in Thailand - currently facing forced repatriation to Laos - now would return voluntarily to farm and become reintegrated into Laotian society. The old general would also try to persuade the remaining tribal resistance fighters to come down out of the jungle in peace, and would work with the Laotian regime to ensure their safety. Realistically, Vang Pao's return by itself cannot end the refugee crisis or the insurgency. But it might mark the beginning of the end, by changing the mindset of the Hmong involved and by giving the local governments a new way to resolve the impasse without losing face.
Though the U.S. embassies in Thailand and Laos were briefed on the negotiations, they played no role in planning this possible breakthrough. Why? In part because of financial concerns. Who would profit from the farm in Laos? Vang Pao's lead negotiator, a Californian named Charlie Waters, says Hmong-Americans are not seeking financial gain from the farm co-op and that he will set it up in whatever way works best once the startup capital can be found. Other Hmong-Americans not connected to this initiative say the U.S. embassy in Laos has a reputation for being anti-Hmong, and for giving a chilly reception to outside ideas. That was certainly my impression when I met with the embassy staff in 2008. I was told that the Hmong insurgency was a fifty-year problem in its thirty-third year.
The tribe and the State Department have had a long, roller-coaster relationship. During the Vietnam war era, the U.S. ambassador to Laos actually ran the covert military effort. The C.I.A. and the U.S. Air Force reported to the ambassador and, because there were no U.S. ground troops, Vang Pao and the Hmong were the favorite proxy soldiers. After the communists took over Laos in 1975 and began their revenge, slaughtering more than 10,000 Hmong, the State Department withdrew most of its embassy staff and turned its attention elsewhere. It has done no serious post-conflict resolution work in Laos up to today.
Eventually, one third of all Laotian Hmong came to the U.S. as refugees - an act of great American generosity. But the State Department seldom bothered to track the Hmong factions that continued to fight the Laotian regime, or chart the relationships between the jungle Hmong and their cousins in America. This bureaucratic underperformance - together with the misrule in Laos, one of the last five communist regimes in the world - allowed a curious kind of anarchy to take root in the Hmong populations of both countries. The symptoms included widespread illegal fundraising in America to support the resistance, young Hmong-Americans traveling to Laos to fight, and a persistent myth of Vang Pao's inevitable return at the head of great invading army. "A lot of this could have been prevented," says Bill Lair, Vang Pao's former CIA advisor, "If there had been a liaison" between the State and Justice Departments, on the one hand, and the Hmong-American community on the other. But there wasn't. Nor did the State and Justice Departments appear to be sharing solid intelligence information with each other - if they had any.
In 2007, the Justice Department indicted Vang Pao and ten others on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Laotian regime with a massive, spectacular armed coup. It soon became clear that the old general learned about the coup idea from his fellow defendants, but hadn't endorsed it, because he knew it wouldn't work. The plan was a kind of exaggerated military fantasy, heavily promoted by a U.S. undercover agent, as part of a widespread pattern of federal sting operations in the post-9/11 era.
The reality was that the tiny, vestigial, Hmong resistance was little threat to the Laotian regime and no threat to the U.S. government. The resistance at that time - maybe one or two thousand people in an Asian country the size of California - consisted of small bands of hungry men, women, and children who stayed on the run and ate roots and bugs to stave off starvation. Via satellite phones, resistance leaders in the mountains of Laos spoke regularly with Hmong in the U.S. Their underlying message: They wanted to come out of the mountains and lead normal lives, if only there was a way for them to surrender in safety.
Even before the charges against him were dropped in September, the old general had decided to return home, to make peace with his enemies and do the best he can for his people. He is doing so now without the support of many of his Hmong-Americans followers. It is as though he were the most prominent Cuban-American exile in Florida, and he had decided to go to Havana for a chat about normalizing relations with Fidel and Raul Castro. To many unreconciled Hmong-American exiles, this is simply unthinkable. He is puncturing their reality bubbles.
Vang Pao's gambit could easily fail - disrupted by angry Hmong-Americans, or by hard-line elements within the Laotian regime. But it is in the U.S. interest for him to succeed. To maximize his chances, the State Department should pop its own reality bubble. It should get involved, for a change, supplying technical expertise and behind-the-scenes diplomatic muscle. And it should do so for reasons that are much bigger than America's relationship with Laos - which is, when all is said and done, just an obscure, impoverished, strategically marginal country. It should get engaged because there's a bigger game afoot.
The game is being played in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and in smaller conflicts that seldom make the news in northern Africa. The success or failure of many of today's U.S. conflicts revolves around relationships with local indigenous people and their power brokers. In an interconnected world, it doesn't help a U.S. Army captain recruit a tribal chief if the chief knows the U.S. has a history of abandoning tribal allies, as it notoriously did in Laos. And it doesn't help U.S. Treasury agents stop the flow of money for jihad, if Egyptians and Syrians know that American citizens of Hmong descent send money to Southeast Asia, to support an insurgency there. On an international scale, leaving the Hmong mess unresolved makes the U.S. look foolish and hypocritical.
So it's time for Secretary of State Clinton to send in skilled practitioners of statecraft to end this little conflict that should have ended a generation ago. And then apply the lessons of Laos to cleaning up the aftermaths of wars elsewhere. Unless her State Department gets much more aggressive and creative, and sends talented people out into the field for years at a time to work with local people and seek constructive opportunities, insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan will last for many decades after the Americans leave. The drama unfolding now in Laos should be seen as a warning sign - and a training mission - for the much tougher jobs of peacemongering that lay ahead.
[A note after this post was written: Well, it didn't work. Negotiations collapsed. Vang Pao never returned to Laos. Precisely why is a mystery, but it looks as though the U.S. State Department did not support Vang Pao's private peace initiative, and without U.S. help the government of Laos backed out of what could have been a very interesting and historic deal. In the collapse of negotiations, credible charges of incompetence have also been leveled at certain members of Vang Pao's negotiating team. Ah well. I think it's a shame. If you read my earlier post on American diplomats in the region you'l find that for the most part I'm not a fan.
Note: Roger Warner is writing a book and shooting a documentary film about Vang Pao, C.I.A. operative Bill Lair, and how they brought the Hmong tribe to America. Warner's previous book, Shooting At the Moon, won the book-of-the-year award from the Overseas Press Club; and excerpts from his current film project can be found on the web.