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Comment: Cambodia caught in arms conundrum

Comment: Cambodia caught in arms conundrum

John C. Brown examines the difficulties facing the Kingdom in securing the

military aid it is seeking.

Astrange thing has happened on the way to a

more secure and prosperous Cambodia.

The criteria for extending economic

aid to Cambodia and the criteria by which military assistance is being offered

have converged for foreign governments.

The major question in both cases

is: "How can the best return on money provided be achieved?"


the fact that this has happened will help to explain the difficulties Cambodia

is facing in getting the military aid the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF)

believes it needs.

But understanding the fact may point to a solution to

the conundrum that has been created: while donor nations are hesitating over the

provision of military aid to Cambodia, Cambodia's insecurity is


Life used to be less difficult if you were a small nation

with security problems. During the cold war the problem of providing aid

efficiently was apparently subordinated to the dictates of the US-Soviet


Then, the technical details of how military aid money was

spent, or whose pockets it ended up in, turned out to be less important than the

over-all political task of "halting Soviet expansionism" - the corruption that

accompanied the extension of US military aid to both South Vietnam and

Cambodia's Lon Nol regime springs to mind. Perhaps because the provision of aid

had symbolic dimensions, programmatic aspects could be subordinated.


may have appeared at times that 'allies' were being bought by military and

economic aid, and the acceptable side cost was lining the pockets of rulers and

their clients.

If that was once true, it is no longer.


competition is now a much less important defining feature of the international

system. Military assistance now most likely to be extended is that which is

sensible in light of the question: "What kinds of military aid can be best put

to use by the recipient?" This fact has important consequences for the

achievement of security in Cambodia.

A favorite phrase of those who talk

about economic aid is "absorption capacity." Economic and reconstruction aid is

offered in quantities consistent with the target nation's ability to put it to

good use. Aid is offered at a pace that does not overwhelm the organizational

and human capacities of the nation to which it is targeted.

Like military

aid, economic aid most likely to be extended is that which is sensible in light

of the question: "What kinds of economic aid can be best put to use?"


absence of compelling strategic motivations for the extension of military and

economic aid means that nations prosperous enough to give it, are less likely to

be profligate, and more likely to demand accountability for the uses to which

the money is put.

In addition, because many of the nations offering aid

are democracies, the criteria of "good return on investment" itself will have to

be publicly articulated and defended back home. That places constraints on what

can be done in Cambodia.

Military aid, when it is offered and

appropriately used, will buy security for the Cambodians. But because Cambodia's

security problem is largely an internal one, it is difficult to find

international donors willing to make a big commitment.

In the cold war

days, even the provision of badly managed and implemented or largely inefficient

aid could enhance the security of a country. The act of provision carried at

least symbolic weight with a potential external enemy, a weight that would give

pause to an attacker, or even deter the attacker because behind that first

commitment lay the promise of deeper involvement.

In Cambodia's current

case, badly or corruptly managed aid could reduce Cambodia's security rather

than increase it. Aid extended carte blanche to a military ill-prepared to use

it in the nation's interest could de-stabilize rather than stabilize


More troubling, in Cambodia's current situation, the first

small offerings of military aid that have been received are not necessarily

promises of more aid down the road, but should be seen as trial investments that

leave donor countries the latitude to get out if things turn sour.

And in

the absence of over-riding strategic considerations, nations giving military aid

to Cambodia will return again and again to the question: "Has there been good

return on money invested?" before deepening or lengthening


But Cambodia and the countries likely to extend military aid

to the Kingdom both face a common conundrum: how to create conditions conducive

to the extension of military aid in Cambodia and how to help Cambodia maintain

internal security until those conditions have been met.

No one

under-estimates the difficulty of creating a professional military force in

Cambodia, but there is a great deal of good will among foreign embassies for the


But among those nations most likely to help Cambodia there is a

great deal of hesitation over whether and how to make a significant start. While

this decision is being pondered, measures taken by foreign countries that might

increase internal security in Cambodia are on hold.

As one diplomatic

observer put it: "You are damned if you do [provide military aid] and damned if

you don't."

The difficulties with the sort of piece-meal,

nibbling-at-the-edges kind of military assistance that the Royal Government has

so far received are probably obvious, and they also point to a solution to

Cambodia's conundrum.

The best piecemeal investment is one whose value is

not overcome by shifts in overall organizational strategy. If one knew in

advance the overall kind of military force required, cooperation and organizing

bilateral military assistance would be much simpler.

What might serve

Cambodia's interests best, one observer has suggested, is an overall

organization plan the military donor community finds acceptable, and which

reflects a strong commitment by the Royal Government to reformation,

professionalism, and subordination to civilian control.

The list of

problems in the RCAF is long and well known: corruption and incompetence; lack

of discipline, professionalism, and training; a top-heavy rank structure;

bloated (or paper) personnel rolls; lack of equipment and spare parts, and

inadequate logistics and operational capacity.

But the deepest lack so

far is of a conception of what kind of military Cambodia needs - and it ain't

the one that it now has. Since whatever military Cambodia gets will be paid for

out of the pockets of donor countries, it is unlikely that the Cambodians will

be able to decide unilaterally, at least not entirely, what it will look


The Royal government certainly cannot as they did recently simply

send out a wish list of military equipment they would like to foreign embassies

and think their nation's security problems will be solved.

The interests

of both Cambodia and its RCAF are best served if an overall organization plan is

agreed upon. Once this happens it will become easier for donor nations to make

commitments, and it will be more likely that such commitments will achieve the

aim that everyone agrees on - enhancing Cambodia's security.

As one

observer has noted, such a plan will allow priorities to be established. It will

allow nations to divide support tasks, and make concrete and sensible - in light

of the intended organizational entity - the tasks that individual nations might

take on. It will also help avoid problems of overlap.

A tour of many of

the embassies in Phnom Penh has indicated a large reservoir of good will for

Cambodia but a great deal of hesitation about if and where to spend significant

cash on military aid.

This is good news for the Cambodian government and

the Cambodian people, but it does place the ball squarely back into the Royal

government's court. The likelihood of military aid being given will be increased

to the degree that there is consensus about the overall end to which it will be


Like nations providing economic aid, countries capable of offering

military aid to Cambodia are interested in some assurances the aid offered will

not be wasted, make the situation worse, or produce a situation where more will

be demanded.

A plan for Cambodia's military of tomorrow is the best next



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