First published in Global Times, October, 1996.  (Please click here to download original article in pdf)

Proxy wars between the superpowers have left Third World societies and economies in ruins and ordinary people in danger from unexploded ordnance. As the U.S. pads its defense budget the question remains whether its foreign policy is guided by democratic ”humanism” or only venal self-interest.

Dr. Susmit Kumar

In February this year Afghanistan's foreign minister Najibullah Lafraie said, ”We fought against the country that Ronald Reagan called the evil empire, and it was as a result of our sacrifices that the evil empire collapsed. But afterward we were forgotten.” Lafraie's statement shows the complete apathy of the U.S. toward countries it once used to win wars against the then U.S.S.R. dismantling the Berlin Wall in 1989 ended the Cold War between U.S.-led western countries and the Soviet empire. Now, both camps have been trying to reconstruct their lives in a new environment of cooperation and friendship. During more than four decades of Cold War, they did not directly face each other on the battlefield due to fear of the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Instead they limited war to proxy engagements in the Third World.

These wars have left thousands of victims all over the world. Anti-personnel mines (APM) laid during the Cold War have been taking their toll in human lives and crippling scores of human beings each year in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Laos and Vietnam. Apart from this, U.S. Intervention – including in Afghanistan, Laos and Vietnam – has left these countries in complete ruins financially, politically and socially. This year the hawkish U.S. Congress passed a defense budget of $256.6 billion – $11.2 billion more than the Pentagon demand – but they have completely ignored the plights of peoples in countries like Angola, Afghanistan, Laos and Vietnam who bore the brunt of the United States' fierce battles to contain the former U.S.S.R.

Escalation in Vietnam

During the initial stages of the Vietnam War, when France was involved, the U.S. administration under Eisenhower gave about $200 million (about $1 billion in present value) annually in the form of military assistance to France (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were French colonies) and then later to South Vietnam after partition. American military involvement was minimal. By the end of 1960 there were only about 1,500 American personnel in South Vietnam. This figure started growing by July 1965 and reached about 550,000 by 1969. Until the middle of 1964 the war was limited to South Vietnam only. But after a presumed North Vietnamese attack on an American cruiser on August 1964, the U.S. Senate gave unanimous approval for an American strike against North Vietnam.

People later questioned the credibility of the Johnson administration and suggested Johnson contrived the attack in order to get Senate approval to attack North Vietnam. From mid-1964 North Vietnam had to bear U.S. carpet bombings which flattened a majority of the buildings in Hanoi and elsewhere and completely ruined the North Vietnamese economy.

According to the 1954 Geneva Accords Vietnam was partitioned along the 17th Parallel and North Vietnam came under communist rule. Although it was a victory for the communists, who fought several decades with the French colonial rulers to achieve this, they felt cheated by the partition. South Vietnam consequently saw a steep rise in guerrilla warfare in 1959.

It was difficult for North Vietnam to supply the guerrilla forces through its border (of about 40 miles with South Vietnam, i.e. through the 17th Parallel, as it was a demilitarized zone. Hence, North Vietnam chose neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia, which had about 650 miles of common hilly terrain bordering South Vietnam, as conduits to fight the war in the south. Guerrillas used to strike inside South Vietnam and then return safely to their bases in Laos and Cambodia. Hanoi's supply route through Laos was called the Ho Chi Minch Trail.

Bomblets ready to explode

The U.S. heavily bombed the Ho Chin Minh Trail and guerrilla bases. In fact, Laos is the most heavily bombed place on earth. From 1964 to 1973, U.S. covert aerial missions dumped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes (Washington Post, June 28, 1996). Most of the bombs were 500-pound cluster bombs filled with about 300 bomblets each the size of a tennis ball. Each bomblet was meant to explode on impact after 30 to 60 seconds, but an estimated 10 to 30 percent of the bomblets were defective and did not explode.

These defective and dangerous bomblets still lie a few inches underground, in gardens and under newly built houses. At one place about 700 bomblets were found under a school. Most of the victims of these bomblets do not survive and even if someone is fortunate to survive, amputation is required.

The majority of victims are children. According to one estimate, more than 10,000 perso ns have been killed or injured by these bombs since the end of the Vietnam War. They have made half of the land in Laos unusable – one of the major sources for acute Laotian poverty.

Last year, with $2.5 million in U.S. assistance, a U.N. program called the Lao Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) Program was started to remove some of these bombs. Considering the enormity of the problem this amount is very small. Apart from using cluster bombs, U.S. airplanes sprayed pesticides along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to prevent grass and trees from growing, allowing bomber pilots to clearly see and bomb supply routes.

Laos and Vietnam still fell the after-effects of these pesticides in terms of genetic defects in several thousand children born after the war. The U.S. government, while still spending millions of dollars on finding MIAs (soldiers missing in action), completely disregards the plight of these victims.

The killing fields

Of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Cambodia suffered most from U.S. bombing and the subsequent apathy of U.S. administrations toward the bombings' aftermath. In this regard the American film The Killing Fields won international acclaim for depicting Cambodian suffe rings. The U.S. dropped more than a half million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam war; more than 600,000 people were killed.

In 1970, a U.S.-backed coup by Lon Nol dethroned Prince Norodon Sihanouk. This allowed pro-U.S. forces to attack the communists who had been using Cambodian soil to launch guerrilla raids in South Vietnam. The large scale bombing of Cambodia and the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975 saw the rise of the Pol Pot-let Khmer Rouge at the same time.

In his experiments with agrarian communism, Pol Pot Khmer Rouge “Brother Number One”, brought Cambodia back to the era of barbarianism. After taking control of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, all residents were forcibly evicted to the countryside to work on projects that were mostly unfeasible. The intelligentsia were killed immediately. During the four-year rule (1975-79) of Pol Pot, an estimated two million people, about 25 percent of the population, died due to disease, starvation, torture or execution.

Pol Pot was finally dethroned by Vietnam in a 14-day limited war (Dec. 25, 1978-Jan. 7, 1979) started by Vietnam to stop Khmer Rouge border attacks. After driving Pol Pot to the countryside, Vietnam installed the Heng Samrin-led government consisting mainly of Khmer Rouge defectors.

During Pol Pot's rule the U.S. kept silent about is barbarism. But after Vietnamese intervention the U.S. openly sided with Pol Pot by giving his nominee the official U.N. seat. Until the end of the Cold War the U.S. also provided monetary support to the Khmer Rouge in their fight against the Vietnam-backed government in Cambodia.

In August, 1995, after his visit to a jail in of Phnom Penh where, out of tens of thousands of prisoners, only seven survived the torture and killing by Khmer Rouge, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher conceded that “the U.S. could have done things better in Cambodia.” After the 1991 peace agreement, a democratic election under U.N. supervision was held in 1993 at a cost of about $3 billion to the U.N. To some extent, Cambodia comes under the category of successful work done by the U.N. But there are still more than five million uncleared APMs in Cambodia from the conflict between the U.S. and China-financed Pol Pot-let Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh.

Afghanistan left in agony

Having learned a bitter lesson from its anti-communist crusade in Vietnam, by 1979 the U.S.S.R. sent troops to prop up the fragile communist government in Kabul, the U.S., instead of sending its own troops to Afghanistan, gave several billion dollars worth of the latest arms and ammunition to Afghan mujahedeens (“holy warriors”) to fight the Soviet military. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like Stringer worked wonders and Afghanistan became the Soviet Waterloo. The Soviet army had to withdraw in 1989.

After the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime in 1992 the mujahedeen groups, armed to their teeth, fought among themselves. Kabul became a fierce battleground. People in Kabul were found saying that life during the Soviet-backed regime was better. Recently, the Pakistan-backed Taliban, consisting of young Pashtun students from south Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan, has gained control of about half of the country's area, including recently Kabul. Taliban claims to follow strict Islamic rules in the captured area have attracted some Afghans. But their recent use of cluster bombs on some cities has marginalized their gains.

Except for warfare, life in Afghanistan has been at a standstill for more than a decade. Schools and colleges in most places are closed. Children growing up know only the Kalashnikov culture. It is normal to see them carrying AK-47s even in the countryside. Although Taliban claims to be fighting to make the country truly Islamic – ruled by Sharia, the Islamic code – most rank and file have little knowledge of Sharia rules.

There are more than 10 million uncleared APMs in Afghanistan as a result of Soviet intervention and fighting among mujahedeen groups. Out of a population of 15 million in 1979, about one million have been killed, two million displaced within Afghanistan, and more than three million refugees in camps in Pakistand and Iran. According to one estimate, about two million have been disabled. The civilian death toll in Kabul since 1992 is said to be about 30 to 40 thousand, which is at least twice the number of those killed in Sarajevo.

Virtually no country has an embassy in Kabul, and Afghanistan has been the battleground for proxy wars between several countries. Pakistan has been actively supporting Taliban, and Iran, Russia and India have been supporting the other camps in their fights against Taliban. Afghanistan is also a training ground for mujahedeens fighting in several countriesm including Bosnia, India (Kashmir), Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has become completely indifferent to Afghan agony. During Soviet intervention the U.S. and Saudi Arabia each gave more than 35 billion in military assistance, but the U.S. has pledged only about $308,000 to Afghanistan for the year 1995-96 – out of a total of $35.6 million in humanitarian aid to the Afghans offered by the rest of the international community.

Pakistan deteriorates

Pakistan, which acted as a conduit for billions of dollars worth of U.S. arms to the mujahedeens, has now become a victim of its complicity. Although the Soviet-backed Najibullah government collapsed in 1992, modern and sophisticated U.S. arms and ammunition have made large cities like Karachi and Lahore battlegrounds for gang wars. Poor Afghans sold U.S.-supplied rapid-fire rifles as well as AK-47s to political leaders and the wealthy in Pakistan. Also, non-Afghan mujahedeens who fought the Najibullah government came home with these sophisticated arms after its fall.

This has all resulted in a rapid deterioration of law and order in Pakistan, especially in Karachi, which has a population of 10 million. Over the last several years more than 10 people have been killed in Karachi every day. Most of the wealthy have private armies. In the latter part of September Murtaza Bhutto, brother of Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a gun battle in Karachi.

Apart from the gun culture, Pakistan has become a major conduit for Afghan-produced heroin and opium exports to the West.

APMs by the millions

Tlrhough the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire, it has left several million undetected APMs in Third World countries. An APM costs between $ to $300 to buy, but $300 to $1000 to clear. There are more than 110 million APMs laid in 64 countries. It would take an estimated $33 billion and 1,100 years to clear all of them (Washington Post, May 25, 1996). According to Wall Street Journal estimates (May 17, 1996) the following countries have the most undetected APMs (in millions): Afghanistan – 10, Angola – 9, Iraq – 5 to 10, Kuwait – 5 to 7, Cambodia- 4 to 7, Mozambique – 2, Bosnia – 1 to 1.7, Somalia – 1 to 1.5, Croatia – 1, Sudan – 0.5 to 2, Serbia – 0.5 to 1, Ethiopia/Eritrea – 0.3 to 1.

APMs were laid in most of these countries because they were battlegrounds for the struggle for domination between the two superpowers. Every year APMs kill or maim about 25,000 people (one in every 22 minutes). Most victims are civilians. Even now about two million APMs are laid each year in various disputes.

The death of a U.S. soldier by APM in Bosnia early in the NATO peace mission has cause the U.S. administration to start talking about banning APMs. About three dozen countries have agreed to the ban, but major countries like the U.S., Russia, Britain, China and India have yet to follow the lead.


The end of the Cold War has found the Russian economy in ruins; it is in no position to alleviate the sufferings of Third World countries brought about by superpower proxy wars. Hence, it is up to the U.S. to contribute a significant amount for economic improvement and alleviation of suffering in these countries. As mentioned earlier this year the U.S. budget contains $256.6 billion for defense expenditures; this was $11.2 billion more than the Pentagon demanded. The U.S. does not hesitate to use several million dollars worth of Cruise missiles against Saddam Hussein. But it has completely forgotten victims of the Cold War and raises the question whether the U.S. was trying to protect peoples against communism or was protecting its own venal interests. It is up to the world community to prevail upon the U.S. government to rectify what it has done and clear the APMs laid during the Cold War. It would be good for the U.S. too if it helps bring peace to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a Waterloo for the U.S.S.R. but it might become a Frankenstein for the U.S. (please see Christian Vs. Islamic Civilization: Another Cold War?).

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