Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Book review: Laos, the war that shaped the CIA

Communist forces defeated the US-backed side in Laos but somehow left the CIA convinced it had mastered war.

North Vietnamese troops during an assault on a South Vietnamese paratroop base at Laos. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
North Vietnamese troops during an assault on a South Vietnamese paratroop base at Laos. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Published 20 Jan 2017 

It is now four decades since the war in Laos ended, and it seems both strategically and psychologically more distant in the public mind than either the American involvement in Vietnam or the tragedy in Cambodia after 1975. Yet in this well-written, and clearly critical, book centred on Laos, Joshua Kurlantzick not only tells the fascinating story of the American-backed Hmong guerrillas who fought against the North Vietnamese forces in the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. He also links the long-ago conflict to the manner in which the Central Intelligence Agency has become an essential military element in US foreign policy. In doing so, the CIA, Kurlantzick argues, moved far beyond its role as a collector of information.  

Kurlantzick tells the Laos story at several levels, weaving the account of important individuals through the events that followed France’s departure from its Indochinese colonies, starting from the American decision to back a South Vietnamese regime through to the ultimate triumph of communist forces in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in 1975. Not the least of Kurlantzick’s achievements is that he enables readers to make sense of the complex history of Laos between 1954 and 1975, when royal princes played opposing political roles and largely forgotten Lao colonels and generals, such as Khong Le and Phoumi Nosavan, were briefly the subjects of newspaper headlines.

Central to the book is the role played by two very different CIA employees: Bill Lair and Tony Poe (Anthony Poshepny). Lair was a clandestine operative and planner, Poe an on-the-ground fighter. Both were key figures in the recruitment and direction of the Hmong ethnic minority guerrillas, led by Vang Pao, who fought against the North Vietnamese in an operation codenamed 'Momentum'. Even those with a peripheral knowledge of the war in Laos will have heard of Vang Pao and his guerrillas but most, this writer included, did not know of men such as Lair and Poe. Rather, the key figures who have subsequently gained attention were men such as the US Ambassador in Vientiane, William (Bill) Sullivan, and to a lesser extent Ted Shakley, the CIA station chief in the Vientiane embassy.   

Kurlantzick takes his readers through the battles in which Hmong guerrillas fought alongside regular Royal Lao Army troops, and provides a detailed account of the disastrous Battle of Nam Bac, with its similarities to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. A poorly sited base and incompetent commanders confronted regular North Vietnamese troops and sustained heavy losses. From that point on, and despite the temporary success achieved by Vang Pao and his guerrillas during fighting in the Plain of Jars, the tide of battle steadily moved in favour of the North Vietnamese and their protégés, the Pathet Lao.

Increasingly, and especially after Nixon entered the White House in 1969, bombing through the countries that once made up French Indochina became the principal feature of the war in Laos. By the end of 1969, American bombers were making 200 sorties a day across Laos. In the end this bombing was to no avail as the US chose to disengage from Vietnam and, consequently, from Laos. By the end of 1975, control of the country was in the hands of the Lao Communist party.

The detail of the events leading up to 1975 may try the patience of some readers, despite the skill with which Kurlantzick assembles his account. But these details are essential background to the last two chapters of the book, in which the author lays out his conclusions. Laos, the author argues, was seen by Richard Helms and William Colby - successive directors of the CIA - as a success, not a failure. It was a time when the use of local paramilitary surrogates, the Hmong, held tens of thousand of North Vietnamese soldiers at bay and when the agency showed it 'could now handle warfare'. It was this background that led to the CIA's role in supporting the mujahedin in Afghanistan, a policy that bled the Soviet occupying forces dry but which Kurlantzick characterises as 'nonetheless destructive' in the way in which it led warlords to power and to the ultimate rise of the Taliban.

It was not only in Afghanistan that the CIA oversaw paramilitary operations. Kurtlanzick argues that by the 1990s the 'paramilitary branch of the agency had become as important to its mission as the division responsible for intelligence gathering'. His stark conclusion is that ‘Today intelligence gathering, though still important, is secondary in the agency’s mission to kill enemies of the United States.’ Much of this killing is carried out by drone strikes and, quoting from The New York Times, the author refers to the 'macabre ritual' in which congressional staffers drive to the agency’s headquarters at Langley to view footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries. What is not clear to this reader is the way in which the role Kurtlanzick ascribes to the CIA interlocks with the drone program mounted by the regular US armed services from their Creech base in Nevada.  

The American principals in Kurlantzick’s story - Lair, Poe, Shakley and Sullivan - are now all dead. As for the Hmong, while many resettled in the US, including Vang Pao, their experience in their adopted country has been an unhappy one. In Laos itself elements of the Hmong guerrillas who had fought with Vang Pao, or were their family members, struggled ineffectively and ultimately failed to maintain an existence separate from the Lao state.

In 2017 Laos is a favoured tourist destination, not just for backpackers but also for those willing to spend many hundreds of dollars in upmarket hotels. For those of us who have been visiting the country for decades it sometimes seems that the war never took place - that is until one visits the desperately poor villages of the many minority peoples who make up roughly half the population. For them the legacy of the war still has meaning.

You may also be interested in