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Source: CHICAGO TRIBUNE by Paul Salopek

The first Americans Nawang Gayltsen ever saw had small, silver eagles pinned on their caps.

Nawang will never forget those eagles. They seemed auspicious, like totems of victory or success. Today, his face wrinkles into a sad smile remembering this.

The Americans came, he said, in a big turboprop plane, a gleaming machine that he and other awed Tibetans called a “sky ship.” They wore sunglasses and baggy flight suits. They packed shiny automatic weapons on their hips. And speaking through an interpreter, they asked Nawang if he wanted to kill Chinese.

“I told them I would be very happy to kill many Chinese,” recalled the 63-year-old rug merchant, one of thousands of exiled Tibetans living in this picturesque Himalayan capital.

“I was very young and strong then. Very patriotic. I told them I would even be a suicide bomber.”

The strangers, Air Force pilots working with the CIA, must have liked what they heard because on that hot day back in 1963, at a secret air base in India, they took Nawang and 40 other Tibetan recruits on the first airplane ride of their lives. It was a journey that would stretch halfway around the world and into one of the murkiest chapters of the CIA’s long history of covert activity in Asia: a secret war in Tibet.

Between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s, say Tibetan veterans such as Nawang and U.S. intelligence experts who corroborate their stories, the American government flew hundreds of eager Tibetan exiles to far-flung bases in Okinawa, Guam and even Colorado. There they were trained as guerrillas against the Chinese troops that had invaded the remote Buddhist kingdom in 1950.

The Tibetans, many recruited from the warrior Khamba tribe, were parachuted back into their homeland at night with submachine guns and neck lockets with photos of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader. Some CIA trainees ended up commanding a Kiplingesque army of 2,000 resistance fighters dubbed the Chusi Gangdruk, or “Four Rivers, Six Gorges.”

Their specialty was ambushing the People’s Liberation Army from bases high in the cloud-colored mountains of Nepal.

Others floated down through the moonlit skies of central Asia never to be heard from again: At least 40 were presumed captured by the Chinese and executed by a pistol-shot in the back of the head.

Today, this obscure Cold War skirmish in a high, lonely place many Americans associate with Shangri-La is a tale that both the CIA and the Dalai Lama’s pacifist government-in-exile would prefer to forget. After all, China’s grip on Tibet remains stronger than ever.

Yet at a time when the Dalai Lama’s non-violent campaign for independence has captured the attention of Hollywood–where Walt Disney and Tri-Star are producing elegiac hymns to “lost Tibet” and Richard Gere and fellow actors champion the mountain land’s cause–the Tibetan foot soldiers of that quixotic war are beginning to break their decades-old vow of silence to the CIA.

Most of the ex-guerrillas are grandfathers now. They run carpet factories in Katmandu or tend dusty farms in the foothills of western Nepal.

They admit that going public about their American connections is as much a sign of growing frustration with Tibet’s languishing drive for freedom as it is a reckoning with mortality. For many, speaking out seemed a final act of resistance.

“We are old, and we will be gone soon,” explained Nawang, who says he was taught to blow up bridges by CIA instructors at Camp Hale, a now-abandoned Army base near Vail, Colo. “People should know that men died for this. These things are no longer secrets. They stopped being secrets when we lost.”

Truth be told, little about the CIA’s skullduggery in the Himalayas is a real secret anymore–except maybe to the U.S. taxpayers who bankrolled it.

Within the close-knit Tibetan exile communities in Nepal and India, the exploits of the Khambas and their CIA patrons have become a folk legend, albeit one retold grudgingly, with an awkward mixture of pride and bitterness. In the U.S. meanwhile, the insurgency has received at least fleeting treatment in books about the Cold War.

“The real mystery is why the conflict isn’t more famous given all the romance and fascination surrounding Tibet these days,” said Warren Smith, an author and scholar in Washington, who has written extensively on the politics and history of Tibet. “In that sense at least, the CIA has good reason to call Tibet a qualified success. It was a complete disaster militarily, but few Americans have a clue.”

This much, though, can be pieced together from a little-known war in the once-forbidden heart of Asia, a war waged by tough Buddhist monks turned warriors and disillusioned CIA agents turned Buddhists.

The U.S. government, Tibetan sources say, only began poking into their independence struggle following years of inaction and indifference, long after the Dalai Lama called for United Nations help when Mao Tse-tung annexed the country, claiming that it had once been part of the ancient Han empire.

The turning point in American policy came in 1959, when Tibetan anger at China’s communal farming drives and the destruction of Buddhist monasteries boiled over into a popular revolt.

That bloody uprising failed, forcing the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers to flee across icy Himalayan passes to India, where they remain to this day. Another 15,000 fled to Nepal.

But the CIA, eager to stoke even a doomed anti-communist rebellion, saw its chance. Using American pilots who would later carry out “black operations” in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the agency began flying unmarked C-130 aircraft across the highest mountains in the world to airdrop guns and ammunition to bands of pony-riding Tibetan guerrillas who wanted to fight on.

Nawang Gayltsen was one of them.

“We had five guns and fifty bullets to share among 80 men,” Nawang said of his part in the fruitless defense of Lhasa, Tibet’s medieval capital. “The Chinese had machine guns and artillery, and many, many of us died. We knew it was hopeless, and we rode our horses south to India to escape and regroup.”

And to retrain, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Tibetans working for the CIA quietly began recruiting fighters in refugee camps in northern India, veterans say, by handing out bus fare and directions to the Indian city of Darjeeling, a sleepy colonial tea-growing center that the exile resistance had chosen as its headquarters.

At first, only a few dozen trainees were shipped in trucks and freight trains across the border into what was then East Pakistan where they were bundled onto American planes bound for Guam and Okinawa.

But by late 1962, India was brought into the shell game, and an airfield near New Delhi was made available to fly out Tibetans in batches of 40 or 50–this time all the way to Camp Hale, the Army base in the Rocky Mountains and the former home of World War II’s famed 10th Mountain Division.

“They gave us sleeping pills when we got into the plane,” said Nawang, a reserved, courtly man who was born on a rustic farm in eastern Tibet and who had never seen an aircraft up close.

“They put curtains on the windows because they didn’t want us to know where we were going. But we all knew we were flying to America. We were all laughing, all very happy.”

According to Tibetan sources, between 200 and 400 fighters were cycled through a six-month-long boot camp in a secluded part of the sprawling, craggy base from 1959 to 1966.

The Tibetan training program lurched ahead even as the CIA endured the worst military humiliation in its history: the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba.

“None of us knew how to fight the Chinese the modern way,” recalled Nawang. “But the Americans taught us. We learned camouflage, spy photography, guns and radio operation. We played Ping-Pong on Sundays.”

His guerrilla education complete, Nawang says he was flown back to India “clean,” without a single scrap of identification in his pockets.

For the next year, he helped monitor struggling guerrilla cells in Tibet from a joint CIA-Indian command center in New Delhi. He was given the all-American code name “Bernie.”

Today, the CIA neither confirms nor denies such detailed allegations about an operation that proceeded through the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.

“Regardless of how much time has passed, we can’t comment publicly on any of this,” said Mark Mansfield, an agency spokesman.

But a retired CIA agent identified by several Tibetan sources as a major figure in the secret war corroborated much of Nawang’s story.

“The idea was to make Tibet very expensive for China,” said the former agent, who now lives in the eastern U.S. “The Chinese had these long, vulnerable supply lines. The guerrillas were supposed to harass them, tie up troops, generally make life miserable. And for a while, they actually succeeded.”

Yet from the very beginning, the agent said, planners at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., had few illusions about pushing well-equipped Chinese divisions out of the kingdom.

“Did we tell the Tibetans that? Of course not,” he said. “But if we used the Tibetans for our own ends, then they also used the Cold War to get support for sovereignty. I feel no guilt whatsoever over the operation, especially given what the Chinese have done in Tibet since.”

Few issues are as sensitive for China as the international crusade against Beijing’s control of the vast, windswept peaks and deserts of Tibet.

Human rights groups long have condemned China for jailing thousands of political prisoners there, many of them Buddhist nuns and monks. More than two decades ago, during the fanatical height of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards blasted 90 percent of the nation’s exquisite monasteries into rubble.

Beijing asserts that Tibet is an indivisible part of China.

Today the dwindling survivors of Tibet’s secret war complain that their country’s martyrdom has effectively erased their own sacrifices.

“For years, the only way Tibetans could get a hearing in the world’s capitals was to emphasize our spirituality and helplessness,” said Jamyang Norbu, a leading Tibetan intellectual who joined the guerrillas briefly as a teenager. “Tibetans who pick up rifles don’t fit that romantic image we’ve built up in Westerners’ heads. So these old guys are ignored, have no pension, no medals, and are just fading away.”

Rinchen Dharlo, the Dalai Lama’s official representative in the U.S., disagrees, saying that the aging guerrillas are still honored “as heroes even though the use of force has long since been abandoned.”

Maybe so. But the old CIA links are still controversial enough that the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, traditionally has declined to talk about American meddling in the Himalayas even though his elder brother, a businessman named Gyalo Thondup, is widely known to have coordinated most of the clandestine aid flowing through Darjeeling.

“We were desperate, and the Americans stepped in to help,” said Lobsang Tsultrim, 55, a former security chief for the Dalai Lama’s government in Dharamsala, India, who says he was recruited by the CIA in 1964. “I am not ashamed about that. I’m just disappointed that it was too little too late.”

Lobsang, a melancholy, crewcut-topped man who retired from his government post in 1989 to start a carpet export business in Katmandu–the lucrative carpet trade is virtually a Tibetan monopoly in Nepal–says he was instructed by the CIA to launch the most delicate guerrilla operation of all: demobilization.

By mid-1960s, the CIA had switched its strategy from parachuting commandos into Tibet to setting up the Chusi Gangdruk, a grizzled army of 2,000 ethnic Khamba fighters, at secret bases across the border in pro-U.S. Nepal. From there, the thinking went, the gung-ho Tibetans could strike across the international boundary at will. Many of them were ex-monks who had taken up arms to defend their faith against communism.

“Aside from a few intelligence coups the Khambas didn’t accomplish much,” Tibet expert Smith said. “Their job was to cut the east-west highway running along the Tibetan border, but the Chinese just moved the road farther north.”

In 1968, U.S. sources say, the Johnson administration did some cutting of its own: It stopped funding the pointless war.

Victor Marchetti, a top CIA aide who has written several books on the agency’s activities in the 1970s, described the outrage many U.S. field agents felt when Washington pulled the plug, noting that several “(turned) for solace to the Tibetan prayers which they had learned during their years with the Dalai Lama.”

The Khambas–outfitted with World War II-era guns, tribal amulets and jackets stitched from scraps of parachute silk–were less philosophical.

Despite growing protests from both Nepal and China, hundreds of warriors held out with Indian and Taiwanese support until 1974, two years after President Richard Nixon normalized U.S. relations with China.

The death knell, when it finally came, arrived via audiotape.

“His Holiness urged them to put down their weapons,” Lobsang said of a recording of the Dalai Lama that was hand-carried from camp to camp in the dusty, lunar mountains of northwestern Nepal. “Most of them gave up and were relocated to small farms. A few committed suicide. Some tried to escape to India and were ambushed by the Chinese and the Nepalis, who were embarrassed by the operation.”

The final shots of the secret war, fired by Nepalese Ghurka soldiers, killed the last U.S.-trained guerrilla leader at a remote 18,000-foot pass near the Indian border.

The CIA quietly paid to resettle the survivors. The Tibetans have eschewed organized violence ever since.

“Now all we do is wait, and the Chinese will beat us at this too,” said Lobsang, who noted that his grown daughter, raised in Nepal, visited Tibet for the first time last year and felt “like an alien.”

Other aging veterans voice similar laments–less that their past struggle, however brave, has sunk into oblivion, but that their future is heading for the same fate.

Nawang refuses to revisit his homeland despite repeated Chinese offers of fence-mending. The capital he defended on horseback 37 years ago now boasts more than 300 Chinese discos.

“They require us to register as `overseas Chinese,’ to get in,” said Nawang. He said he is a Tibetan and will never be a Chinese. He said that he will probably die in Katmandu.