Book Review: The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy

The CIA's Secret War in Tibet
There are several books written on secret wars and espionage conducted around the World. Most of the books, I believe, represent some element of truth but could also be just among several books that provide an alternate perspective on what happened at a certain place at a certain time. I am not sure under what category this book falls into, but this book surely seems honest in its approach and the presentation of facts. The book, as the name suggests, talks about a secret campaign conducted by the CIA during the cold war to preempt a potential growth of Communist China by taking up the cause of the Tibetan nation. Tibet was occupied by Communist China when the PLA under the leadership of Chairman Mao laid claim to the vast expanse of mostly barren land for strategic, economic and possibly cultural purposes. The rest of the book tells the story of how the Tibetan’s organized themselves under the Dalai Lama, used India, Nepal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) as a base and worked with the CIA to launch secret operations of resistance against the Chinese.

Assuming that this book was allowed to be published, it is probably anyone’s guess that these operations were probably not a secret for long and they were probably exposed or identified by the Chinese way back in the 60s or 70s. But, there were still some very insightful perspectives or facts offered that I will summarize in points below for those who are interested in knowing what the book is all about. I found these to be personally educative as it helped me realize how far away we are from the happenings around the World unless we try hard to learn more on our own!

  • The title Dalai Lama was given to a monk in the 16th century by a Mongol chieftain Altan Khan. Subsequent descendants kept that title going forward. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th.
  • Earlier Dalai Lama’s had less of a great legacy and didn’t last beyond a few years. The 4th Dalai Lama was Altan Khan’s great grandson -a shrewd decision made to gain Mongol patronage. The 5th Dalai Lama self declared himself as the Bodhisatva of Compassion- the highest celestial authority.
  • Tibet was divided into at least three distinct regions with different topographies and related ethnicity. The central part of Tibet was where the Tibetan leadership existed in the past. There were class based differences between Tibetans from these different regions with people in the central region considering themselves superior to the rest.
  • Chiang Kai Shek laid claim to Tibet by considering it as part of the Chinese Republic. Following a civil war with the communist party and his subsequent retreat to Taiwan, the PRC pursued the agenda of making Tibet a part of the country.
  • American leaders like the then US ambassador to India, Loy Henderson, were worried about the advancing PLA troops far south into the Himalayan regions.
  • The CIA based in India created and executed several covert operations to check the strength of the PLA in Tibet.
  • President Eisenhower began the first of a series of secret US sponsored activities in foreign soil to push the exiled Tibetans towards causing disruption to the PLA.
  • Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not openly support exiled Tibetans from going on an all out war with China as part of his appeasement policy with that nation. India was called as the “Dregs of Humanity” by Beijing in 1949.
  • The CIA conducted several covert operations by working with the Dalai Lama’s brothers to recruit exiled Tibetans who escaped to Nepal and India. India allowed the exiled Tibetans to settle in the country with the condition that they don’t cause any disruption to Indo-China relationships.
  • Several CIA operations were conducted from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) before India officially lent support to these operations after the Chines invasion of India’s NEFA (North East Frontier Agency).
  • Most of the CIA led operations in Tibet were small teams of Tibetan’s air dropped inside Tibet to conduct covert operations. Most of the Tibetan recruits were captured and killed by the PLA before they made any useful impact to their cause.
  • Biju Patnaik, ex chief minister of Orissa, was instrumental in the liberation of Indonesia from the Dutch. He also supported the CIA in partnering at a strategic level with the support of Nehru.
  • Brigadier Uban Singh was instrumental in organizing a strong regiment of Tibetan recruits under the name “Establishment 22”. Nehru and the Dalai Lama had also inspected the operations of these forces during a secret review of the regiment.
  • President John Kennedy was a strong supporter of India and was instrumental in providing support to the country in indirectly allowing the CIA help the Tibetan cause. This support and partnership with India was lost after Kennedy’s death. Subsequent governments were leaning more towards Pakistan thereby alienating a strong partnership with India. India on the other hand, pursued a pro-USSR policy for obtaining arms and other economic support.
  • In the 1962 war with China, the Soviet Union sided with China and dumped India. Indo-US cooperation was much stronger and better at that time, although very few in India knew about it. Anti-US sentiment was politically very active right from the start and continued over the next several decades after India chose to move closer to the Soviets.
  • The US soon adopted a pro-China policy during the Nixon era. US warships arrived dangerously close to India during the Indo-Pak war for Bangladesh’s independence. It was claimed by Henry Kissinger that US would have supported China in case the Chinese attacked India to support Pakistan, following which the Soviets attacked China.
  • Nepal leaned more towards China in fear of being dominated by India. During the closing years of the Tibetan struggle led by the CIA, Nepal, in support of China, was instrumental in destroying the Tibetan operations on the Nepal-Tibet border.
  • CIA funding slowly depleted for the Tibetan cause after a $180,000 yearly stipend to the Dalai Lama charity was shut down. Following that, most of the CIA led operations were winding down.
  • RAW director R.N.Kao later blamed the Americans for the lost Tibetan cause, although Indian support was also not strong enough. He said, “The Tibetans were looking for somebody to hold their finger, and the Americans dropped them like a hot potato.”

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