The Pentagon is expanding counterterrorism assistance to unlikely corners of the globe as part of a strategy to deploy elite Special Operations forces as advisers to countries far from al-Qaeda’s strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa.
Much of the new assistance is being directed toward countries in Asia and has been fueled by the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to the region. In Cambodia, for example, the Defense Department is training a counterterrorism battalion even though the nation has not faced a serious militant threat in nearly a decade.
The training has persisted despite concerns about the human rights record of Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler, former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, who in the past has relied on his military to execute and intimidate political opponents.
President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are scheduled to make rare visits to Cambodia this week and next to attend a regional summit.
Panetta arrived Friday for meetings in the city of Siem Reap and met one-on-one with Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister.
Afterward, Panetta told reporters that he emphasized the Obama administration’s support “for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for the rule of law, for the right of full and fair participation in the political process, here in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.”
His comments on human rights and democracy were apparently a late addition; they were not included in his prepared remarks.
The decision to embrace Cambodia has prompted criticism from human rights groups and several U.S. lawmakers, who accuse the Obama administration of pursuing closer military and diplomatic ties with countries in China’s back yard at the expense of democratic reforms.
“We’ve been yelling at the White House for a month and a half that [Obama] shouldn’t go because the human rights situation in Cambodia is so bad,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. This week, the group issued a report documenting a long list of unsolved political killings in Cambodia.
The White House is also hearing complaints about Obama’s decision to become the first U.S. president to visit Burma, an isolated country controlled for decades by a repressive military. In recent months, Burmese rulers have allowed limited free elections and released political prisoners, but their commitment to democratic reform remains uncertain.
U.S. military leaders said they are eager to bolster relationships with countries across Asia, even those with checkered human rights records, but are careful to do so in a way that encourages reforms and does not ignore abuses.
Last month, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, the commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, became the first American military officer in a quarter-century to visit Burma. He later said in an interview that the Pentagon would like to gradually build a relationship with the Burmese military, but only if it meets strict human rights criteria established by Congress, the White House and the State Department.
“They set the tone for what we can do and when we can do it,” Wiercinski said. “I follow the law.”
The assistance to Cambodia comes as the Pentagon, with little public notice, has deployed
teams of Special Operations forces to train counterterrorism and special-warfare forces in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia, despite concerns about human rights abuses in those countries. The U.S. military resumed relations in 2010 with Indonesia’s special forces, a group accused of atrocities during the country’s years of authoritarianism.
Invested in relationship
Cambodia is a special case because of its brutal history. It is scarred by the 1970s genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, a communist movement that killed one-fifth of the population.
In recent years, the U.S. government has kept a careful diplomatic distance from Hun Sen, the prime minister who consolidated political control after a bloody 1997 coup and has forced opponents into exile.
The Pentagon and the State Department, however, have embraced his three sons, all of whom hold influential posts in the Cambodian government and military.
U.S. officials have invested in their relationship with Hun Manet, the eldest son, in particular, giving him a free ride to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1999. He earned a master’s degree in economics from New York University.
Today, the 35-year-old, widely seen as the heir apparent to his father, is a major general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, in which he serves as deputy commander of the army.