Back in ’71: US policy revisited

Newly declassified US records show a more full and gruesome picture of what took place behind the scenes of the 1911 Southasian Crisis in Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington, DC. They also show a softer side of the involved leadership. But who takes responsibility for the violence that was perpetrated during that period?

Some 22 years back, this writer published a paper titled "The Superpowers Strategy in the Third World: The 1971 South Asian Crisis". Three key arguments were central to that paper. First, that there was a sharp difference between the US administration, on the one hand, and the country's Congress, press and people on the other, over the issue of Bangladesh, particularly regarding the genocidal killing of the Bengalis by the Pakistani military. Second, the 'China policy' of President Richard Nixon and then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger became a factor in the US policy towards Southasia. Finally, the US-USSR rivalry —or what is referred to as the First Cold War — informed and influenced the US policy towards Southasia, including the liberation war of Bangladesh.

These arguments were laid down on the basis of secondary sources and some personal interactions with the policymakers of the 'interim government' of Bangladesh. In recent years, however, available information on the 1971 Southasian Crisis has suddenly proliferated, especially with the declassification of secret and confidential documents relating to the US government's policy towards the region during that period. Particularly significant in shedding new light on the era are the US State Department's 2005 South Asia Crisis, 1971, as well as Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XI, and Roedad Khan's 1999 The American Papers: Secret and Confidential India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Documents, 1965-1973. Also important are some of the memoirs and reflections on the crisis published in the late 1980s and 1990s by the policymakers of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the US, including those by Muyeedul Hasan, K M Safiullah, A A K Niazi, Hamoodur Rahman, Archer Blood and Subrata Banerjee.

In light of the richness of material now available, there is a pressing need to revisit the US policy towards Southasia in 1971. One may also, in the process, return to the three arguments presented above. For the sake of economy, this review will base itself almost exclusively on the declassified documents published in 2005 as a US Department of State Publication (DOSP).

Unilateral administration

The 'sharp difference' between the US administration and the US Congress, press and people during the Crisis can now be looked into more objectively and interpreted with some measure of confidence, particularly with reference to four issues. First, that of genocide. There are only two references to 'genocide' in the DOSP documents, one by East Pakistan Consul General Archer Blood and the other by US Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating. The terms otherwise used within the Nixon administration to refer to the indiscriminate-yet-calculated killing of unarmed Bengalis were 'bloodshed', 'bloodletting', 'blood-bath', 'atrocities' and the like.

In terms of proximity, both Blood and Keating were closer to the event — that is, in Dhaka and New Delhi, respectively — and therefore probably had a better sense of what had actually taken place. While one could play with the scholarly relationship between distance and diplomacy, it now seems quite clear that key policymakers were using more toned-down concepts, even wilfully blocking reports of genocide from reaching the president in the White House. Apart from having the immediate impact of not jeopardising the 'special relationship' between Richard Nixon and Pakistan President Yahya Khan, this type of rhetoric had a far-reaching consequence insofar as the violent acts were concerned. In fact, it allowed a substantial number of murderers and war criminals to escape the crisis free from obligation, harm or penalty — with implications having national and global relevance even today.

The second issue entails the break-up of Pakistan. There seems to have been less disagreement between the US administration and the Congress, press and people on the issue of Pakistan's dismemberment. Even as early as 6 March 1971, before the military crackdown, the Senior Review Group (a National Security Council committee chaired by Henry Kissinger) came to the conclusion: "The judgement of all of us is that with the number of troops available to Yahya (a total of 20,000, with 12,000 combat troops) and a hostile East Pakistan population of 75 million, the result would be a blood-bath with no hope of West Pakistan re-establishing control over East Pakistan." More interestingly, Ambassador Keating, in a 12 April 1971 telegram, noted: "Pakistan is probably finished as a unified state; India is clearly the predominant actual and potential power in this area of the world; Bangla Desh with limited power and massive problems is emerging."

The view did not change in the following months. On 3 June, more than two months after the military crackdown, the Memorandum of Conversation (MoC) between Kissinger and Keating noted: "Kissinger continued that we have a difficult gradual process ahead of us while the situation ends up 'where you [Keating] want it.' We want to buy time for this to happen. We have no illusions that West Pakistan can hold East Pakistan and we have no interest in their doing so." The difference, as is now apparent, is on the 'timing' of dismemberment. Kissinger is often found pleading with American, and even Indian, officials for a 'three-' to 'six-month' delay — that is, until the delicate American negotiations with Beijing on the issue of Sino-American rapprochement (incidentally, with little help from Yahya Khan) were over.

The third issue deals with the 'special relationship' between Richard Nixon and Yahya Khan. This sounded mysterious in the beginning, and remained so for some time during the Crisis. On 28 April 1971, in a handwritten note to Kissinger, Nixon wrote: "To all hands. Don't squeeze Yahya at this time", underlining 'Don't' three times. Moreover, the MoC between Kissinger, Keating and National Security Council adviser Harold Saunders on 3 June noted: "In all honesty, Dr Kissinger pointed out, the President has a special feeling for President Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis, but it is a fact of life."

Two bits of information now help demystify the 'relationship'. One is Nixon's late response to Yahya Khan's letter of 31 March, sent through Pakistani Ambassador Agha Hilaly and US Secretary of State William Rogers. In fact, Yahya Khan had to write a second letter to President Nixon on 17 April, the response to which came only on 7 May. Second, following Kissinger's debriefing of his discussion with Keating on 15 June, Nixon concluded by saying of Yahya Khan, "it just may be that the poor son of a bitch can't survive." Nixon's 'special feeling' for the Pakistani president appears to have remained in place only while the latter was helping him link up with the Chinese, and therefore could be dispensed with once that aim had been achieved.

The final issue is the nature of diplomacy. Nixon administration officials (including the president) repeatedly made reference to 'quiet diplomacy' —impressing upon not only the Indians but also the larger world that the administration was doing its best to bring Yahya Khan to his senses and was looking for a political resolution to the civil conflict in Pakistan. Two critical features, however, informed this diplomacy. First was the sliding of 'quiet diplomacy' into something that can be referred to as 'secret diplomacy'. The rationale for this, of course, was the rapprochement with Beijing via Islamabad. The second feature was the empowering of a small coterie in the name of 'quiet diplomacy', which at times included short-circuiting even the State Department.

The combined implications of these two features can hardly be minimised. Indeed, it seemed to have included rewarding officials, like that found in a conversation recorded on 7 May 1971 between Kissinger and US Ambassador to Pakistan Joseph Farland: "Ambassador Farland voiced some mild complaints about living in Pakistan and expressed the hope that if the China meeting came off successfully, a new post could be offered. Mr Kissinger replied noncommittally that if this gets done, 'we will owe you a great debt of gratitude'." Meanwhile, the activities of 'quiet diplomacy' could include supplying Pakistan arms already in the 'pipeline' or "authorized before March 25", as well as considering "a request for CIA provision of unmarked small arms [redacted] to provide to the 'freedom fighters' in East Pakistan". (The redacted section of this quote was censored by US authorities before this material was released under the Freedom of Information Act.)

Foreign policing of such nature and magnitude could result in its own dynamics, often violating the regulations of a democratic state. But more importantly, the Nixon administration had taken the reason of the state, in its quest to connect with China, to the point of instrumentalising rationality —something that the German political economist Max Weber warned against in the beginning of the last century, for its tendency to reproduce alienation. Indeed, when it comes to the issue of genocide committed by the Pakistani military, the upper echelons of the Nixon government believed that it could be dispensed with or given a low profile, because stressing the issue could jeopardise the US goal vis-a-vis communist China. So bizarre is the outcome of such policy-making that, in the end, the democratic aspirations of an impoverished population could be sacrificed for the sake of opening up with a non-democratic but economically promising state. In the end, the government of Richard Nixon could not live up to the expectations of the democratically-minded people at home or abroad.

The Chinese orbit

There is now a better understanding of the Nixon-Kissinger China policy, particularly with regard to how it affected the US government's actions in Pakistan. In fact, the administration seemed to be at times obsessed, at times overly impatient with its attempts to hook up with China. The MoC between Kissinger and Amb Farland on 7 May 1971 noted:

…Mr Kissinger explained to Ambassador Farland that for some time, we have been passing messages to the Chinese through the Pakistanis … Mr Kissinger stated that he would talk to [World Bank chief Robert] McNamara on Monday, 10 May, and tell him that Yahya must be kept afloat for six more months; one problem will be that McNamara is emotionally against Yahya — as is the entire liberal community … Mr Kissinger stated that he would tell McNamara that this is the only channel we have, and he must give Yahya at least three months. Ambassador Farland stated that six months should be the goal.

The transcript of an interesting telephone conversation between President Nixon ('P') and Kissinger on 23 May 1971 also highlights the overlap in the China and Pakistan policies, particularly when suggestions were made that India might resort to military action:

P: … if they go in there with military action, by God we will cut off economic aid.

K: And that is the last thing we can afford now to have the Pakistan government overthrown, given the other things we are doing [emphasis added].

When it comes to the making of policy, an obsession or even lack of patience can hardly be considered a virtue. It now seems that the US administration was using Yahya Khan as much as the latter was using the 'goodwill' of the US president, although the objectives of both differed substantially. For Yahya Khan, the 'special relationship' with Nixon proved useful for crushing the political movement in East Pakistan. In fact, Pakistani policy-makers knew very well that they were the only channel (bypassing even Amb Farland) for the US into China; they therefore rightly concluded that whatever they did in East Pakistan, the Nixon administration would be hard put to oppose it, either in open or in private. In the process, 26,000 (Pakistan's estimate) to 3 million (Bangladesh and India's estimate) people died, thousands of women were raped, and some 10 million ended up refugees in India, all within a period of nine months.

While frantically pursuing the goal of opening up with China, the Nixon administration had little illusions about that country vis-à-vis Southasia. There were two sides to this mindset. First was the fear of pro-Chinese radicals, or even China itself, gaining control of the movement in East Pakistan. As Farland noted in a telegram dispatch to the State Department on 8 April 1971: "If AL [Awami League] movement crumbles before it [is] able [to] consolidate position on ground, resistance movement likely to pass to more radical and left extremist groups such as Naxalites." Similarly, Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Robert Cushman pointed out to the Senior Review Group meeting on 9 April: "We think this is a very dangerous period. There is a possibility of Chinese Communist influence. Or that an extremist group, like the Naxalites in West Bengal, might take over."

Interestingly, in discussions with the US, the Indians also voiced fears of Chinese influence in East Pakistan. In a letter to President Nixon on 13 May 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi frankly stated: "Since the expressed will of the people is being stifled, extremist political elements will inevitably gain ground. With our own difficulties in West Bengal the dangers of a link-up between the extremists in the two Bengals are real." The Indian ambassador to the United States, L K Jha, was more candid. He told Kissinger on 21 May: "There is the question of Chinese involvement eventually in East Pakistan which is 'ripe for this'."

Second, even while secretly trying to open up with China with support from Pakistan, Nixon was also fearful of Pakistan going over to China. In a back-channel message to Kissinger on 21 April 1971, Amb Farland noted: "To eliminate what leverage we have with GOP [Government of Pakistan] today is tantamount to moving it directly into the Chinese orbit. The implications, military and political, which would then apply for this whole region of the world, are monumental." But this was two weeks before Farland came to know about Nixon's secret policy of connecting with China through Islamabad. The fear of Pakistan falling into China's orbit surfaced again on 28 June, barely ten days before Kissinger's secret trip to China on 9-11 July. A memorandum from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Armistead Selden to Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird warned that a potential embargo could damage relations with Islamabad so badly that, "As a concomitant Pakistan might fall entirely within China's orbit." While the US may have worked out the global implications of a Sino-American rapprochement, it seems to have done less work regarding the regional implications.

Indeed, if Henry Kissinger, in his private meeting with Indira Gandhi on 7 July 1971, wanted to impress her on the need for drawing China into "the international community of nations" for "a more normal world order", the prime minister could not help fearing Nixon's opening up with China —especially, as came to be known a week later, with Pakistan's help. Moreover, the timing of the briefing on the new US policy towards China could not have been worse, for Indira Gandhi had just finished informing Kissinger how "afraid" she was "of mounting Chinese influence in East Pakistan". Not knowing the outcome of a Pakistan-facilitated Sino-American rapprochement, the prime minister hastily resolved to conclude an Indo-Soviet agreement on 9 August 1971 — although letting the Americans know, as Ambassador Jha informed Kissinger on the same day, that this was done as "a counter-weight to Pakistan's repeated claims to the effect that in a new war China would be on its side". Kissinger seems to have accepted the argument. In his memorandum to President Nixon on 24 August, he mentions:

… the Indians seem to feel that the treaty puts both the Pakistanis and Chinese on notice that India does not stand alone. If Indo-Pak hostilities do break out, the Indians are probably hoping that the treaty will at least serve to limit Chinese intervention and perhaps even bring the Soviets in directly on their side … However, the Indians do not seem at all prepared to write off the US. They have been at pains to make clear that the treaty is not directed at the US. Without going into the merit of Kissinger's position on the Indo-Soviet treaty at the height of the Crisis, it can be safely concluded that India shifted from its erstwhile non-aligned position to a much closer relationship with the Soviet Union. The fear of Cold War politics was being replayed once again.

Cold War III

In light of the declassified documents, the argument relating to a US-USSR rivalry (the 'First Cold War') contributing to the events in Southasia seems to be the least tenable, particularly in the early and middle parts of the Crisis. The memorandum from National Security Council staffers Samuel Hoskinson and Richard Kennedy to Henry Kissinger on 25 May 1971 makes this all the more clear:

In the short run at least we share a strong interest with the Soviets in avoiding another Indo-Pak war. The Soviets have very little clout in Islamabad but they do have a so-called 'special relationship' with New Delhi. Is it possible and desirable to encourage the Soviets to play a peacemaking role? Or would some sort of consultation and joint, or at least parallel, action with the Soviets be more in our interests? [Emphasis in the original.]

In fact, even after the signing of the Indo-Soviet Agreement on 9 August 1971, Kissinger continued to share this view and informed Nixon accordingly: "… the Soviets seem to have gambled that, by simultaneously strengthening India's position and making New Delhi more beholden to Soviet counsel, they can best restrain India and also deter Pakistan from taking steps likely to lead to war." Kissinger was also led to believe this by Amb Jha, as the latter informed him on the same day that "India was not going to be anybody's diplomatic satellite". Again, on 25 August, Jha made it known to Kissinger that "Madame Gandhi was not at all pro-Soviet", and that Kissinger "could be certain that she did not have her heart in it".

But then, following the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan in the first week of December 1971, the spectre of Cold War emerged to haunt the Nixon administration. On 6 December, in a telephone conversation with President Nixon, Kissinger suggested flat-out, "All this talk about Russian restraint that we heard all summer was complete poppycock." Ten days later, in another conversation between the two, Nixon made a dramatic outburst against the Soviets by laying out a possible US counter-strategy: "Cut off the Middle East talks, pour arms into Israel, discontinue our talks on SALT, and the [UN] Economic Security Council can go [to] the public and tell them what the danger is … And be very cold in our public statements toward them."

An hour later, however, Kissinger informed the president about India's unilateral ceasefire on the western front by simply saying, "We have made it." He then "credited the Soviet Union with exerting sufficient pressure on India to produce the desired result". Nixon had regained his composure by then, and responded, "If Soviets have cooperated on this I think we have got to play on an arm's-length deal." At the same time, however, he "reiterated that there was to be no economic assistance for India in the budget that was prepared". Nixon's less-flexible position towards India now leads to the fact that the Cold War, while being replayed towards the end of the Crisis, had complex layers, two of which bear further reflection.

First, rudiments of what later came to be known as the New or Second Cold War could be found as early as 1971 (see Noam Chomsky's 1982 Towards a New Cold War and Fred Halliday's 1984 The Making of the Second Cold War). The Soviet Union tried to balance the position of the United States in the region by way of supporting India, while the US attempted to beef up Pakistan against India and the Soviet Union through the benevolence of Iran, Jordan and, if possible, China. Not only did Nixon encourage Iran and Jordan to deliver military equipment and aircrafts to Pakistan, but he enjoyed hearing about the Sino-Soviet conflict at the United Nations during the last days of the Crisis. In fact, throughout the Crisis, Nixon had hoped that the Chinese would stand by the Pakistanis against the military intervention of India, and more so if it were done with the support of the Soviet Union. On 16 December 1971, when the victory of Indian troops against Pakistan became a reality, Nixon confided with Kissinger in an almost tragic tone over the Chinese role in the Crisis: "And also let it be known they have done nothing".

India too falls into the same Cold War logic, for having itself 'aligned' with the Soviet Union. In the same 16 December conversation, the president told Kissinger: "I know the bigger game is the Russian game, but the Indians also have played us for squares here. They have done this once and when this is over they will come to us to forgive and forget. This we must not do." Indira Gandhi's letter to Nixon of a day earlier had a tone more of 'reaching out' to the president than anything close to 'forgive and forget': "… it is my earnest and sincere hope that with all the knowledge and deep understanding of human affairs you … will at least let me know where precisely we have gone wrong." Nixon responded immediately the following day with a tone of compromise ­without, however, forgetting his misgivings:

We recognize that India is a major Asian power and that we share the common values of genuinely democratic government. No act has been taken with a desire to damage the relationship between our two great countries. We would hope that the day may come when we can work together for the stability of Asia, and we deeply regret that the developments of the past few months in South Asia have thrust the day of stability farther into the future.

The tone of 'reaching out' inherent to Indira Gandhi's letter, however, raises the second complex layer of Cold War politics, which can be referred to as 'Cold War III'. This involves both India and Pakistan using the Cold War syndrome for their own interests. While New Delhi used the Soviet Union without Prime Minister Gandhi having "her heart in it", Islamabad also thought of using the US for its civil conflicts and, later, against India – although it knew full well that comprehensive support from the US would be less forthcoming given its violent acts in East Pakistan. In the process, however, both India and Pakistan have come to internalise the Cold War syndrome – the implications of which have been no less devastating, indeed, as both countries geared up to become nuclear powers.

Today's lessons

What, then, are the lessons from all this? First, the issue of genocide will not go away until there is a national or international trial of the perpetrators, some of whom who are still alive. The trial is needed not only to bring solace to the victims in Bangladesh but for Pakistan's own sake; after all, no society can re-energise itself morally, not to mention spiritually, if murderers are allowed to go free. There is enough evidence to pursue this in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report of 1974, the secret report commissioned by the president of Pakistan in 1971 that found significant evidence of atrocities and other abuses of power by the Pakistani brass. The responsibility of the international community is clear, given that it continues to take matters of extreme violence, including genocide, very seriously. This applies specifically to the United States, given its participation in the Southasia Crisis of 1971.

Second, the sliding of 'quiet diplomacy' into 'secret diplomacy', particularly in the hands of a 'small coterie', has become more of a norm with successive US administrations, often with results contrary to that country's democratic ideals. Two relevant examples would be the Iran-Contra affair and – most recently ­the fiasco over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is imperative that structures be evolved in Washington, DC to overcome this tendency, lest the diplomatic manoeuvrings slide into something more totalitarian in nature. In some ways, the Watergate scandal and the fall of Richard Nixon were vindications of what secret diplomacy and a small coterie could result in if extended beyond the boundaries of democratic norms.

Third, the 'special relationship' between Nixon and Yahya, which caused much of America's embarrassment and policy limitations, was directly related to the US policy necessity of having to open up with Beijing through just one channel, Islamabad. Nixon and Kissinger may have profited from the age-old wisdom of Kautilya, the third century BC Indian political thinker, of having to approach both friends and enemies alike through multilayered networks. For both Richard Nixon and the US, the cost of this 'special relationship' was immense. On 27 December 1971, a week after Yahya's 'resignation' and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's assumption as president and 'chief martial law administrator' of Pakistan, Nixon passed a handwritten note to Kissinger with the remark that Bhutto "must be strongly informed – RN [Richard Nixon] will be very opposed to trial of Yahya" (emphasis in the original). Nixon probably feared that any trial at that stage would expose the nitty-gritty of Yahya's help in the secret negotiations with China. In the process, however, Nixon spared a person who, from all accounts at the time, was responsible for the heinous crimes against the people of East Pakistan. America lost a significant portion of its global moral standing as a result, which it has yet to recover.

Finally, the declassified documents provide a complex picture of the US role in 1971 – and they actually provide some hope for both US-Bangladesh and US-India relations. It is now clear that the Nixon administration had a 'softer side' to the civil conflict in East Pakistan, and in large measure he was also supportive of an independent Bangladesh, although within a 'long-term' framework. Even Kissinger, although known for his dispassionateness, could not hide his 'softer' side when he queried on 31 March 1971, less than a week after the military crackdown: "Did they kill Professor Razak? He was one of my students."

In 1971, this writer was only a Class IX student but saw the mass killing and destruction and looting by the Pakistani soldiers, and later on also the readiness of the people to join the struggle and the stream of refugees into Agartala in India. Had we all known of this American 'softer side', we probably would have been more emboldened, and perhaps could have brought about the fall of the Pakistani military without the direct military intervention of India. But that is now a matter of history. Let the final lesson from the Southasia Crisis be a recognition by the powerful rulers in states near and far to develop a sensitivity for humanitarian values, and not to engage in traumatising millions in the name of grand strategies and policy-making.

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