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The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations

by Kenneth Conboy, University Press of Kansas, 2013

With the recent passing of Cambodia’s long-time monarch Norodom Sihanouk and the excruciatingly slow international war crimes tribunal—where genocidal henchmen, including Ieng Sary, are dying of old age in the docket before meeting justice— the Southeast Asian country of 15 million occasionally catches our attention these days. But for most people, Cambodia seems to fade in and out of their consciousness, as does its last half-century of history shaped by the forces of colonialism and foreign intervention, and fueled by intrigue, betrayal and unspeakable violence. Enter Kenneth Conboy, former policy analyst and deputy director at the Asian Studies Center in Washington. Conboy has authored or coauthored 17 books, including Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1995); Feet to the Fire: CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia, 1957- 1958 (1999); Spies and Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam (2000); and The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet (2002). He readily admits that in the three decades of research on these and other titles dealing with covert operations in Asia, Cambodia remained in the periphery of his view. But recurring accounts given to him by CIA agents of their activities inside Cambodia enticed Conboy to tackle the subject in his latest work, The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations. Drawing from dozens of interviews with participants, Vietnamese-language histories from the archives of the People’s Army of Vietnam, information from U.S. diplomatic sources in Phnom Penh and from his research for his 2011 study, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces 1970-1975, Conboy has uncovered a wealth of new details. Among the revelations is the extent of Vietnam’s involvement in the roiling wars inside Cambodia, the important roles played by foreign intelligence services and insights into the development of the Khmer Rouge and its military structure.

While the author goes beyond the CIA activity to present a solid history of Cambodia’s past 50 years of conflicts, his focus, he writes, is “to pull back the veil on the CIA’s involvement in Cambodia, first during the Khmer Republic and then after the Vietnamese invasion, when it was largely channeled through the noncommunist Cambodian resistance.”Conboy dives as deep as anyone has into those two critical periods when the CIA was operating in Cambodia to support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam from 1970-75, and when it challenged Soviet expansionism via Vietnamese control during the 1980s. He then takes the reader through the long process, still full of intrigue and sparring between the CIA and KGB, toward peace in the 1990s.

For those seeking to understand the complex Cambodian drama that played out in the second half of the 20th century and the many characters who were in the limelight or who pulled the strings from behind the curtain, The Cambodian Wars will fill the bill. It will also go a long way toward explaining the Cambodia of today.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.