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Cambodia Threats and Capabilities
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    The major impetus for the establishment of the KPRAF was the security threat faced by the government in Phnom Penh. Internally this threat consisted of the armed insurgents belonging to the three CGDK components. The total strength of the three forces was impossible to gauge with any precision; it may possibly have reached between 55,000 and 75,000 combatants, but it could have been considerably less than that figure. The insurgent forces were incapable of mounting a sustained offensive and of massing for any tactical operation beyond sporadic patrols in companies, because they could not overcome their destructive factional rivalries. Least of all were they able to bring down the Phnom Penh government. They were capable, however, of keeping Cambodia in a permanent state of insecurity; they raised the cost to Hanoi of its large military presence in the country; and, backed by China, they offered a persistent obstacle to the coalescence of an Hanoidominated Indochinese federation.

    In addition to the Khmer insurgents in Cambodia itself, the KPRAF and the Phnom Penh government felt that they faced a substantial external menace as well that consisted of the numerically superior Royal Thai Army, supplied by China, the United States, and Thailand, which played host to legions of Khmer guerrillas who crossed the border to prey on KPRAF units and on PRK assets at will. To what extent this perception was realistic was a disputable point. Bangkok did acquiesce to the presence on Thai soil of Khmer refugee camps, which the insurgents used for rest and recuperation. The Thai Army, however, was neither massed nor deployed in an especially threatening posture along the border with Cambodia; moreover, the resistance that the Thai could have offered to a hypothetical Vietnamese offensive into Thailand was the subject of legitimate speculation. Phnom Penh's denunciations of alleged Thai bellicosity were made with such regularity, however, that it was possible that the KPRAF (and the PRK) stood in some danger of being the victims of their own propaganda concerning Bangkok's aggressive intentions.

    A lesser, but nevertheless real, threat was posed by the possibility of unauthorized landings along Cambodia's irregular and unprotected coastline. Chinese vessels could exploit this vulnerability by putting in at secluded coves and inlets uncontrolled by the KPRAF, and there they could unload arms and supplies for the insurgents. In 1987 this threat was not decisive, but it had the potential to become so, if the network of obstacles and minefields emplaced on the Cambodian border proved to be an unexpectedly effective barrier in impeding the flow of Chinese supplies to the Khmer guerrillas.

    Along its northeastern and eastern borders with Laos and with Vietnam, Cambodia faced no noteworthy external security threat. As long as friendly communist governments remained in power in Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi, their interests in protecting the inviolability of their common frontiers converged. In spite of this, however, government control in the upland border areas of all three states probably was tenuous, and insurgent (or bandit) groups, if not too large, could pass back and forth unhindered. The security threat posed by such bands was vexatious but minor, and, in the case of Cambodia, it could probably be contained by the provincial units without requiring the intervention of the KPRAF or of Vietnamese main forces.

    The capability of the KPRAF to meet the threats, real or perceived, arrayed against it in 1987 was open to question. Western observers, in consensus, rated the forces of the Phnom Penh government as generally ineffectual, possessed of only a limited capability for any combat mission. In their view, the KPRAF was overstretched and understaffed and could neither cope with the sustained guerrilla activity of the CGDK insurgents, nor prevent their infiltration into Cambodia from Thailand, nor patrol the country's extended coastline. In the face of such limitations, it was necessary to acknowledge, nevertheless, that the KPRAF had been built literally from nothing in a war-torn and devastated country, the population of which had been decimated previously by a brutal dictatorship. The establishment, in the space of a few years, of a credible force under such circumstances would have been a daunting task for any government, let alone one so deprived of resources and of leadership and so dependent upon external support. The most conclusive analysis that could be made about the KPRAF was that Hanoi had laid the foundation for an indigenous Cambodian military force and, by its recurrent insistence that Vietnamese units would be withdrawn by 1990, may have imparted to its clients in the Phnom Penh government a certain degree of urgency in regard to developing an effective force.

    Data as of December 1987

    NOTE: The information regarding Cambodia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Cambodia Threats and Capabilities information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Cambodia Threats and Capabilities should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 24-Mar-05
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