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Quietly, US aids Thai terror fight

A storied US agent supports Thailand counterterrorism efforts, but only at arm’s length.

Ties between the U.S. and Thai militaries are close, particularly for an Asian nation. U.S. jet fighters launched from bases in Thailand’s northeast during the Vietnam War. And today, the two nations hold the world’s largest war games, known as Cobra Gold, along Thailand’s mountainous coastline each year.

Not all U.S. authorities, however, are convinced American troops should stay out of the insurgency. A U.S. Naval War College report from 2007 advocates lending Special Forces soldiers to the fight.

“Bangkok has not a moment to lose,” wrote the report’s author, Marine Corps Maj. Nicholas Vavich. “The United States should do all it can to help its ally come up with a strategy to resolve the conflict.”

But despite near-daily killings, Thai authorities have insisted that the insurgency is growing weaker. In February, Thailand’s foreign minister optimistically predicted it could cease this year.

“I tell my soldiers that if they go into villages and people don’t wave, they’ve failed in their mission,” said Lt. Gen. Pichet Wisaijorn, outgoing commander of Thailand’s fourth army, which oversees counterinsurgency strategy.

“Previously, instead of waving, they’d make a gesture of shooting at the soldiers,” he said late last year. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

A native of the region, Wisaijorn has attempted a “hearts and minds” approach: modernizing farming practices to boost villager incomes and offering free medical treatment through army medics.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations have accused Thai troops of employing brutal tactics against suspected insurgents. But Wisaijorn said wayward soldiers are given no mercy.

“When I first took my position, there was a low-ranking soldier who slapped a villager. I imprisoned him ... and expelled him,” he said.

Bennett is “philosophically aligned” with this softer approach, he said.

“The world of Islam is a beautiful world,” he said. “The words in the Holy Quran, if you’ve ever read it, are absolute peace and equality and happiness.”

Bennett reserves harsher language for terrorists. He deems them “psychopathic killers” who misinterpret scripture “for personal interests of greed and power.”

“I think we’re currently in World War III,” he said. “And this is not a World War III like we picture in the movies, where there’s 2,000 nuclear missiles going this way and 3,000 missiles going that way.”