Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has been a correspondent in Southeast Asia for The Economist, a columnist for Time, the foreign editor of The New Republic, a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, and a contributing writer for Mother Jones. He has written about Asia for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine. He is the winner of the Luce Scholarship and was selected as a finalist for the Osborn Elliot prize, both for journalism in Asia.
Kurlantzick's new book is A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.
From the transcript of his interview with Fresh Air's Dave Davies:
DAVIES: So around in 1960, when the United States began to consider a more active role in the conflict in Laos, the U.S. had a guy on the ground there for years already, a CIA operative named Bill Lair. Tell us about him.--Marshal Zeringue
KURLANTZICK: In '60 and early '61, he had already been involved in doing some work in Laos. And he saw that the Laos war was going to get larger. And he believed that the United States had a role to play, but that that role had to be that the CIA and the United States in general should be arming and training local fighters, mostly of the Hmong ethnic group, because they had proven to be the most effective fighters, but that this operation he had kind of sketched out in the back of his mind had to be one in which the U.S. was not at the forefront.
The U.S. was the provider of arms. The U.S. was the trainer, I should say the CIA, mostly. But it was going to be the Hmong Laotians' war. It was going to be their war to protect their land, their war to protect their pretty nascent sense of democracy. But it was going to be the United States behind them, and these sort of local leaders pushing it. And the reason for that is because the more that you identified the U.S. with the war, the more you ran the risk - which had happened before in Vietnam with the French, and has happened many, many times - that the war would be perceived to be an American war. And Bill Lair did not want that. He wanted it to be a Hmong, a Laotian nation war where the U.S. helped.
DAVIES: So Bill Lair had this deep relationship with the Hmong people, these people that lived in these - this rugged territory in central Laos and were prepared to fight. They had a charismatic leader, a guy named Vang Pao. Tell us about him.
KURLANTZICK: He had basically spent his entire life, since his childhood, doing nothing but war. He worked with other older Hmong people when he was just a teenager to help fight off the Japanese who had taken over part of Laos. He had then started fighting with...[read on]