VIENTIANE, LAOS (DNSI)-When asked about the bombing a Pathet Lao defector, a former lieutenant, said: "We would move through the forest, in small groups. We had our own methods to hide. But the people had to stay near the villages. For every soldier who was killed, 50 villagers died from the bombing. I never had a man in my company killed or even injured from the bombing."
The comment underscores the essential dilemma of American air power in Laos: though it does extensive damage to the Pathet Lao civilian infrastructure, it is relatively ineffective against military targets.
Despite the massive bombing of the last two years, the United States now finds itself in a weaker position in Laos than at any time since the air war began. During the past two years, communist forces in northern Laos took the major bases of Na Khang and Moung Soui, rendered Sam Thong inactive as a center for refugee operations, and installed themselves in force southwest of the Plain of Jars for the first time. In southern Laos they captured the provincial capitals of Saravane and Attopeu, and extended their control over most of Laos' six southern provinces.
The CIA-directed Armee Clandestine has taken high losses, and according to informed sources is no longer capable of carrying out a sustained offensive. The Royal Lao Army, assigned to static defense of major towns and bases, has found its area of control shrinking steadily.
At this writing the Royal Lao Government controls little more than from ten to twenty per cent of Laos' territory. This consists primarily of small islands of territory around the 12 (of 16) provincial capitals still in RLG hands. Most of the area is supplied by air, and no more than a few hundred miles of roads are considered safe for travel by American or Lao civilian officials. The Pathet Lao control about 60 per cent of Laos. The remainder is a no man's land where small roving bands of communist guerrillas forestall permanent RLG presence.
The military ineffectiveness of air power was illustrated by the well-publicized battle of the Plain of Jars in February 1970. Despite some of the heaviest bombing to date, including the first use of B52s in northern Laos, communist forces retook the Plain in five days. In May 1964, before the beginning of the air war, the Pathet Lao took the Plain in three days.
Refugees and defector sources indicate that the bombing increased moral and combat efficiency of Pathet Lao troops, and led to a replacement of losses with men and materiel from North Vietnam.
A young refugee who fought with the Pathet Lao for five years recently explained: "Before the bombing started. we really didn't know what they meant by 'American imperialism.' Most of us had never ever seen an American. But the bombing made us hate the Americans-very much. We fought much harder than we ever had before, for our villages and families, homes and belongings."
A key to Pathet Lao successes in recent years had been help from North Vietnam. As the bombing of North Vietnam failed in its primary objective partially because of aid received from the Soviet Union and China, so has North Vietnames aid sustained the Pathet Lao during the escalated bombing campaign that began in November 1968.
Increased North Vietnamese military units took on major military objectives held by RLG forces. Though Pather Lao troops far outnumbered North Vietnamese involved in the fighting in Laos, the greater experience and skill of the Vietnamese gave them a role significant beyond their numbers. Arms, ammunition and rations flowed in steadily to Pathet Lao forces from North Vietnam, making up losses incurred by the bombing.
BUT ALTHOUGH the bombing could not halt the progress of communist ground forces, it did, in the words of official explanation, "make them pay a price." The air war has taken a heavy toll of the civilian infrastructure.
According to both American and British Embassy estimates, over a million people presently inhabit Pathet Lao zones. Those who have received the heaviest bombing are the 200,000 to 500,000 people inhabiting Sam Neua and Xieng Khoung provinces in northern Laos, and the quarter of a million people residing in the four southern provinces through which runs the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Refugees explain that their principal reason for wishing to come on the government side has been to escape the bombing. Though some 50,000 to 100,000 people have come out of heavily bombed areas over the last few years, it is not clear that the Pathet Lao population base has been significantly weakened.
Exact figures are unobtainable but it appears that the Pathet Lao have gained back an equal number of people through new territory taken in recent years. Most of the refugees who have come to the government side, moreover, are the older people and the very young.
There are many Lao officials in Vientiane who argue that on the whole the Pathet Lao have gained from the refugee movement by being freed of a sizeable number of non-productive citizens. There is also fear that the refugees retain loyalty to the Pathet Lao, and pose a potential threat to the Mekong River towns near which they have been placed.