A CIA Operation to Train Tibetan Guerrillas Looms Over India-China Himalayan Clash

June 22, 2020Nolan Peterson
Tibetan refugees live throughout India’s Ladakh region, where the latest clash with China took place. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Tibetan refugees live throughout India’s Ladakh region, where the latest clash with China took place. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

There are a lot of ways to die in the Himalayas. Frostbite. Altitude sickness. Avalanches. Rockfalls. Gravity.

Now, you can add Chinese soldiers wielding spiked clubs to that list.

India said 20 of its soldiers died in a confrontation with Chinese troops on June 15 — the first deaths since 1975 between the two sides on their contested Himalayan frontier.

The clash did not involve an exchange of gunfire, Indian officials said. Rather, according to unverified Indian reports, it was a hand-to-hand brawl. Sometimes, stones were thrown.

Ajai Shukla, an Indian journalist and former colonel in the Indian army, tweeted a photo on June 18 purporting to show one of the weapons used by Chinese soldiers in the confrontation — it appears to be a club made from bundled rebar with nails protruding from one end like a medieval mace.

“Such barbarism must be condemned. This is thuggery, not soldiering,” Shukla tweeted.

The Indian army later reported that 17 of its fatalities comprised of soldiers who were wounded in the brawl and subsequently “succumbed to their injuries” after being “exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain.” India also claimed the Chinese side suffered 43 casualties, including dead and wounded. Beijing, for its part, admitted casualties but did not give a number.

The confrontation touched off anti-Chinese protests in northern India, and officials in both New Delhi and Beijing have since tried to walk back the rising tensions to avoid a larger military clash.

India’s Himalayas in the Ladakh region are a harsh and dangerous place to wage a war. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

History Rhymes

China and India share a 2,000-mile-long border in the Himalayas, which includes some of the harshest terrain and environmental conditions on earth. Much of the region is above 14,000 feet in altitude. It is arid and cold, with severe exposure in places. The unfiltered sunlight at high altitude can cause blindness if not wearing the right sunglasses. And the lack of oxygen can cause lethal afflictions like pulmonary and cerebral edemas to strike without warning.

Deployed troops have to spend weeks acclimating to the reduced oxygen levels at such heights before they’re able to perform their duties. For the Indian army, this takes place at an outpost on the Chang La pass — which, at 17,586 feet in altitude, is roughly the same height as Mount Everest base camp.

In short, the Himalayas are a tough place to survive, much less fight a war.

Following independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, India inherited a decidedly murky Himalayan frontier. Things became even more complicated after China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet (a country that sits opposite much of India’s northern Himalayan border), sparking frequent border squabbles between Asia’s two most populous countries that culminated in a full-blown mountain war in 1962. Those unresolved, persistent border tensions, decades in the making, led to last week’s deadly clash.

The Chang La pass, where Indian soldiers acclimate to the altitude. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

However, China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet did more than simply put Chinese and Indian border forces eyeball-to-eyeball in the Himalayas. It also marked the beginning of several decades of clandestine American operations against China inside occupied Tibet.

Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. CIA led a covert program to arm, train, and parachute drop Tibetan guerrilla fighters into occupied Tibet to wage an insurgency against Chinese forces. The CIA was also instrumental in recruiting Tibetan refugees to stand up an elite mountain warfare unit for India, known as Establishment 22, which was meant to fight China in the Himalayas.

In 2016, India announced it was rebuilding the outfit — now known as the Special Frontier Force — to address what New Delhi said were frequent incursions by Chinese troops along the Himalayan border. The move drew rebukes from Chinese military experts, according to Indian news reports.

Clandestine U.S. operations against China in the Himalayas have, officially, been over for decades. Yet, the legacy of those operations still casts a shadow over the current crisis between India and China. So much so, in fact, that some experts say the recent military bonhomie between the U.S. and India may be part of the reason why China has dialed up tensions in the Himalayas.

The Tibetan flag flies on the shore of Pangong Lake, near India’s Himalayan border with China. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

“At a geostrategic level, the moves in the Himalayas are an attempt by China to pressure India to stay at an arm’s distance from the U.S.,” James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, wrote in a June 17 editorial for Bloomberg.

An editorial last week by China’s government-run Global Times news agency warned New Delhi not to expect any help from the U.S. in resolving the current crisis, should it escalate.

“New Delhi must be clear that the resources that the U.S. would invest in China-India relations are limited,” the Global Times wrote.

Freedom Fighters

China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 sparked a grassroots resistance movement across the Himalayan kingdom. By 1956, tens of thousands of Tibetans were fighting an insurgency against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These bands of guerrilla warriors, mainly comprising Tibetans from the eastern Kham region (known for its fierce warriors and bandits), coalesced into a resistance army called the Chushi Gangdruk. The names translates to “Four Rivers, Six Ranges,” signifying unity among all the regions of Tibet.

Chushi Gangdruk guerrillas played a key role in the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959. The resistance army also provided armed escorts for the tens of thousands of refugees who followed in the exiled leader’s footsteps to seek sanctuary in India and Nepal.

A Buddhist monastery in India’s Ladakh region, where many Tibetan refugees now live. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

The Chushi Gangdruk fought the modern, mechanized Chinese army on horseback, wielding swords and World War I-era weapons such as British .303 Lee-Enfield rifles. Their fighting spirit and tactical successes eventually spurred the CIA to begin an operation in 1957 to airdrop supplies and train hand-picked fighters as paratroopers at secret bases in Saipan; Camp Hale, Colorado; and Camp Peary, Virginia, at a CIA training facility also called “the farm.”

The Tibetans’ training was eclectic, including espionage tradecraft, paramilitary and small unit combat tactics, and Morse code and radio communication. The CIA operation to train and assist Tibetan fighters was code named St. Circus, and the over flights and airdrop missions were named St. Barnum.

Over the span of the CIA’s secret war in Tibet, which lasted until 1972, Tibetan agents were dropped into Tibet from aircraft ranging from World War II B-17s, which were painted all black, to C-130s. The aircraft launched from secret bases in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. To create plausible deniability should an aircraft go down, the CIA initially used East European pilots recruited for covert missions over Soviet Ukraine.

Later flights, however, used Air America aircrews and U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers the CIA had recruited as jumpmasters and loadmasters. Special U-2 spy plane flights were also ordered to provide more intelligence about the geography of inner Tibet, much of which was still uncharted in the 1960s.

During the Cold War, the CIA trained Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale in Colorado. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
During the Cold War, the CIA trained Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale, Colorado. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Establishment 22

In 1962, the CIA’s Tibet operation was in limbo. The Kennedy administration questioned the utility of the mission due to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a budding rapprochement with a skittish India, already navigating tricky times with China.

The Dalai Lama’s presence in India in exile and the CIA’s recruitment of Tibetan fighters from India-based refugee communities made the CIA’s mission in Tibet a political liability for New Delhi’s fragile relations with Beijing. Thus, backing a secret CIA war in Chinese-occupied Tibet was decidedly not in India’s interest at the time.

The Tibetan resistance also created an awkward situation for the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan leader owed his life to the Chushi Gangdruk warriors, but he was also trying to court the favor of the Indian government to secure a home for his exiled nation. For his part, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reluctant to support Tibet in a way that might further antagonize China.

But the political calculus for both the U.S. and India changed on Oct. 22, 1962, when China attacked India along the Himalayan frontier. India scrambled to mount a military response as 25,000 PLA troops invaded over the Thang La Ridge. Nehru’s longstanding efforts to downplay the Tibetan situation to appease Beijing were exposed as misleading, and he faced scathing criticism at home.

Tsering Tunduk, an Establishment 22 veteran, at his home on Pangong Lake. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Humiliated, Nehru asked U.S. President John F. Kennedy for help in standing up an all-Tibetan mountain warfare unit.

Named Establishment 22, this crack outfit tapped into the CIA’s existing recruiting and training networks for the Chushi Gangdruk. The original purpose of Establishment 22 was to use the Tibetans’ fighting prowess, which they’d proved against Chinese occupiers in Tibet, as well as their genetic ability to physically perform at high altitude to wage a guerrilla war against China in the Himalayas.

Initially, the CIA provided much of Establishment 22’s weapons and training. But the 1962 Sino-Indian War cooled before the secret unit could be trained and fielded. India, however, recognized the combat potential of Establishment 22 and kept it active.

The unit deployed to combat for the first time in East Pakistan — in hot and humid lowland conditions — in 1971 as part of Operation Mountain Eagle, and later fought Pakistani troops in the Himalayas, including the 1986 battle on Siachen Glacier, in which 17 Tibetans died. Establishment 22, however, never officially faced Chinese soldiers in combat.

Many Tibetan refugees escaped from China across the Himalayas. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

The U.S. opposed Establishment 22’s operations against Pakistan. But in 1975, the CIA rekindled its support for the all-Tibetan unit, sending two airborne advisers to train the Tibetans in high-altitude parachute jumps, using drop zones in Ladakh.

The use of Tibetans in operations against Pakistan was also controversial among the Tibetan exile community living in India. But the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala, India — home of the Dalai Lama — ultimately supported the move out of deference to their Indian hosts. India later tagged Establishment 22 for counterterrorism operations.

Based in Chakrata, Uttarakhand, the unit continues to serve along India’s Himalayan border and draws recruits from Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

India’s Ladakh region, the scene of a recent clash between Indian and Chinese border forces. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Bad Blood

The CIA continued training Tibetan freedom fighters in Colorado until 1964 — and support for Tibetan guerrillas based in the Mustang region of Nepal continued until President Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with China in 1972. Yet even after CIA support dried up for the Chushi Gangdruk, approximately 10,000 Tibetan soldiers continued serving in India’s Establishment 22, now known as the Special Frontier Force.

In 1974, after bowing to Chinese pressure, the Nepalese military rooted the Chushi Gangdruk out of their mountain hideouts in Mustang, killing many fighters who had been trained by the CIA at Camp Hale. The Dalai Lama sent a taped message imploring the Mustang resistance to lay down their arms, spurring several fighters to commit suicide.

Despite the overwhelming odds against them, Tibet’s guerrilla fighters fought fiercely, suffering heavy casualties as they faced China’s modern military. The CIA’s Tibetan operation ultimately failed to make a large-scale impact on the Chinese occupation, and many of the CIA-trained Tibetan fighters were killed in combat or captured.

Buddhist monks in McLeod Ganj, India — the Dalai Lama’s home in exile. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

But the intelligence the Tibetan fighters gathered was sometimes of great value to the United States. A raid on a Chinese convoy in 1961, for example, killed a Chinese regimental commander and provided the CIA with what it later referred to as the “bible” on Chinese military intelligence.

After years of relative calm, tensions between China and India over their Himalayan frontier began to mount again in 2013, spiking near their shared Himalayan border with Bhutan in 2017. Those persistent hostilities inflamed again in May after reports of fistfights between Chinese and Indian border patrols at two different sites along the so-called Line of Actual Control, or LAC, which marks the two countries’ Himalayan frontier in a remote Indian region called Ladakh. Both sides have since massed military forces in the region, including artillery and troops, according to news reports.

Chinese news reports have said that India has been building up its infrastructure in the disputed Himalayan region, sparking Beijing’s legitimate reprisal. According to New Delhi, on the other hand, Beijing has been building up its troops in the Galwan River area in the Ladakh region in a bid to redraw the border map — thereby upheaving a de facto military stalemate that has held, more or less, since the two countries fought their brief Himalayan war in 1962.

Chinese units have also claimed territory near Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake that marks part of the Himalayan frontier between India and China. Both sides have overlapping claims on the lake. According to Indian government figures, Pangong Lake saw more Chinese transgressions between 2015 and 2019 than any other point along the border.

Indian and Chinese forces have competing claims over Pangong Lake. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

“The good news is, the current crisis in Ladakh bears some resemblance to these prior standoffs, all of which were peacefully resolved. The bad news is, they also differ in some important and concerning ways, with mounting evidence to suggest the [line of actual control] is entering a new, more volatile chapter,” said Jeff Smith, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

However, Smith added that Chinese incursions into India’s Himalayan Ladakh region have become more frequent and now comprise areas that weren’t previously contested.

“In aggregate, these trends suggest LAC standoffs are growing more hostile, more frequent, longer in duration, and are receiving more media coverage and international attention, potentially restricting both sides’ room for maneuver,” Smith said.

According to some, last week’s deadly clash between Indian and Chinese forces underscored that, once again, the U.S. has the chance to act as a peripheral power broker on India’s behalf.

“The first deadly border clash since the mid-1970s shows just how fraught relations between the world’s two most populous countries are becoming,” Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, wrote in last week’s editorial for Bloomberg. “And while the geopolitical dangers are obvious and severe, the crisis also presents the U.S. with an opportunity to forge the strong relationship with India it has desired for more than two decades.”

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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