• U.S.

Laos: Breaking the Rules

5 minute read

When the Geneva accords established Laotian neutrality seven years ago, hope flickered briefly that they would also bring an end to fighting between Communist and non-Communist forces and take the kingdom out of the cold war. No such thing happened, of course: the treaty-stipulated tripartite regime, composed of rightist, neutralist and leftist factions, collapsed in short order. Laos’ Communists, the Pathet Lao, walked out of the government; the fighting resumed, and has been going on in desultory if often deadly fashion ever since.

Through the years, however, both sides observed certain tacit rules. The Pa thet Lao, backed by seasoned North Vietnamese regulars, did not challenge the government’s hold on the Mekong Valley, where two-thirds of Laos’ 3,000,000 people live. The U.S.-backed government of neutralist Premier Prince Souvanna Phouma permitted American bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos, but allowed no major allied ground forays. Warfare Laotian-style also developed seasonal cycles. The Communists struck during the dry season, phasing their offensives out just be fore the rains came. The government, because of greater air mobility, usually managed to regain during the rainy sea son what it had lost in the dry months.

Communist Gains. Now, however, the game is no longer being played by the old rules. This year, the Communists have so successfully carried their annual offensive into the rainy season that Souvanna Phouma last week asked the French government to help “put a stop” to what he described as “invasion” by North Viet Nam. In Washington, the U.S. announced that it, too, was perturbed over recent Communist gains.

The trouble centers on Muong Soui, an important garrison on the northwestern edge of the strategic Plain of Jars. It straddles vital Route 7, the only good east-west highway in Laos, and controls the gateway to the Upper Mekong as well as access to Route 13, which links the royal capital of Luang Prabang with the administrative capital of Vientiane. Before this year’s Communist spring offensive, it was one of three major government outposts in Communist-controlled northeastern Laos. Then, last April, Communist forces began moving on Muong Soui. To relieve the pressure on the garrison, government troops under General Vang Pao, a seasoned guerrilla leader, mounted a daring diversion: backed by U.S. jets and Laotian T-28 fighter-bombers, they struck deep into Pathet Lao territory, capturing the Communist “capital” of Xieng Khouang, less than 50 miles from the North Vietnamese border. It was a short-lived victory. Vang Pao’s men held on for less than a month before they were ousted from the bombed-out town. But their bold sally appeared to have bought enough time for Muong Soui: with the rains about to come, the garrison seemed safe for at least another year.

This time, however, the old seasonal formula no longer worked. Despite the rains and monsoon-swept lines of communication, seven North Vietnamese battalions, backed by ten Soviet-built light tanks, fell on Muong Soui in late June, catching the garrison completely off guard. U.S. airpower was not enough to stop the Communists. For a while, the government’s defenders held onto a new position on Route 7, but were pushed out again after losing all of their big guns. Five days after the battle began, the Laotians evacuated Muong Soui. Later efforts to retake it failed.

Last week the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese were deeply dug in, and Communist trucks shuttled in daily to keep the troops well supplied.

No Hasty Return. The Muong Soui setback, combined with smaller Communist strikes at other government outposts, caused a crisis in Vientiane, 110 miles to the south. Although neither Vientiane nor Luang Prabang was endangered by the Communist thrust, some right-wing Laotian politicians called for direct U.S. intervention. Souvanna Phouma, vacationing in France, at one point considered flying home but later decided against it—perhaps because a hasty return would have made the situation look even worse. When the U.S. State Department charged that North Viet Nam had “aggressive designs” on Laos, Hanoi immediately countercharged that the U.S. was keeping 12,000 troops in the country. Not so, said Souvanna. There were only North Vietnamese “imperialists” in Laos, and they were there to “colonize and expand.” U.S. intelligence estimates that North Viet Nam had more than 40,000 troops in Laos, mostly in the eastern portion where they guard the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

There are probably two reasons behind this year’s intensified Communist drive against the Laotians. One is related to Hanoi’s overall South Viet Nam strategy: easing military activity in the South but applying fresh pressures elsewhere. A second objective may well be to strengthen the bargaining position of their Pathet Lao allies in eventual negotiations with Souvanna Phouma. Both the Pathet Lao and the Vientiane government have all along maintained that they want to return to a tripartite government. Such a reconciliation could come after the war in Viet Nam draws to a close. It is probably with that in mind that the Communists are now pressing their offensive.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com