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The Rediff Special/Lt Gen (retd) Ashok Joshi
January 13, 2003
It so happened during 1971 that South Asia got pulled into the centre of a vortex created by forces released by major realignments in the Cold War line-up.
The US was aware China was dissatisfied with the Soviet Union because China felt the Soviets wanted its dependency. The US wanted to take advantage of the situation not only to improve its stance in the ongoing Cold War, but also to fulfil its more enduring aspirations in the geopolitical context. So it set about prising China from the Soviets with fixity of purpose. What tied South Asia to the emerging courtship is a mix both of design and intent on one hand, and coincidences on the other.
It is well known the US showed remarkable consistency in backing Pakistan throughout 1971, in face of mounting domestic and international criticism and prevailing public opinion in the US itself. This came to be known as the 'US tilt' because it was difficult to explain it without giving up the secrecy associated with the cherished project of establishing workable contacts with China at the highest level.
A lot more has surfaced recently that helps to understand the US tilt towards Pakistan in the days following March 25, 1971. On that day, the then President of Pakistan, General A M Yahya Khan, on his way back from Dacca, asked Lieutenant General Tikka Khan to 'sort out' the Bengalis in East Pakistan.
Tikka Khan and his successor Lt Gen A A K Niazi went about their task in a manner that was widely condemned all over the world. Pak atrocities and genocide have been well recorded.
The US consulate in Dacca started sending earnest reports about the killing in East Pakistan. The first report of March 28 speaks of a 'reign of terror' unleashed by the Pakistan army; the report of March 31 estimates the dead between four and 6,000.
US Ambassador Kenneth Keating in New Delhi showed his concern as early as March 29 that the US military equipment was being used by Pakistan. The happenings in what is now Bangladesh were so horrendous the Pakistan envoy in Washington was required to plead special circumstances -- civil war-like situation -- in mitigation of what was on.
All this left the US administration unmoved. What were the inputs that went into US policy and what were the consequences of that policy need to be reviewed in the light of the latest revelations.
Besides the all-encompassing Cold War compulsion of containing the Soviet Union and diminishing its support base, what really inspired President Richard M Nixon, and his National Security Adviser Dr Henry A Kissinger in their China initiative has been summed up later by Kissinger:
'Geo-politically, America is an island, off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia, whose resources and population far exceeds those of the United States. The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia's two principle powers -- Europe or Asia -- remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War, or no Cold War...
'Of all the great and potentially great powers, China is the most ascendant...
'As the nation with the longest history of independent foreign policy and tradition of basing its foreign policy on national interest, China welcomes American involvement in Asia as a counterweight to its feared neighbors, Japan and Russia -- to a lesser degree -- India.'
Establishing contact with China was such an important strand of US policymaking that during their meeting with chairman Mao, Kissinger emphasized, 'It was the President who set the direction and worked out the plan.'
This was in February 1972. Before that, in July 1971, Kissinger had made his initial trip to China in great secrecy with Pakistani assistance. He also held several secret meetings with Chinese representatives in Paris before that. Since secrecy was one of the fundamental preconditions till the deal was struck, the US seems to have been particularly beholden to Pakistan.
As early as April 6, 1971, the US consulate at Dacca addressed a cable to the Secretary of State, inter alia mentioning the following:
'We as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our position as a moral leader of the World .'
This obviously produced no dent, and a decision was taken by Nixon on April 28 not to pressurize Yahya Khan. If the US interest in South Asia was Pak-centric, the Chinese interest had strong anti-India dimensions: the first was derived from the residue of the 1962 conflict, or unsettled border dispute; and the second was on account of Indian sanctuary to the Dalai Lama.
In the context of the Cold War, China looked upon India as pro-Soviet, and by implication, anti-China. The US policy formulation that backed Pakistan, in opposition to India, was music to Chinese ears, particularly as it represented a turn around after 1963.
'Gratitude is not the outstanding quality of India, as Moscow will learn,' said Kissinger, during the October 22, 1971 meeting with Chou-En-Lai. Even shorn of the bantering tone, the meaning is clear. Earlier Chou had pointed out India does not believe in the existence of Pakistan, and, 'We understand the traditions of India.' The US and China had expected India to go to war, so it seems.
The possibility of war between India and Pakistan was foreseen by the US as early as end May 1971, but the thrust of the US policy was never directed towards avoiding it. It was to partially compensate India for expenditure on account of refugees, and justify the US position by saying if the US were to bear heavily on Pak it would lose such influence as it had.
Kissinger also assured India, just before going to China, the US would 'not encourage' China against India. Later this also changed, and by December 9, 1971, he was virtually coaxing China into some small actions in the mountains. The Chinese connection seems to have become an obsession with the Nixon-Kissinger team to the exclusion of many other considerations.
The predilections of Nixon and Kissinger both seemed to have influenced US policy to a great extent, initially to hold back action, and subsequently to intervene. Yahya Khan was 'indulged,' so it seems, because he was 'a good friend; Kissinger is more than aware of Nixon's special feeling for Yahya; Kissinger emphasized 'it was a fact of life.'
Perhaps, 'sometimes stupid' Pakistanis were to be preferred to the 'devious' Indians. Without such an assumption, it is difficult to share the US policymakers' perception it was Yahya who needed sympathy because he was anguished over decisions which he had to take, namely the orders he had issued to Tikka Khan to sort out the Bengalis. Rarely does one come across such a transformation in which the perpetrator is viewed as the victim. This attitude of the principle policymakers explains quite a lot that is otherwise difficult to understand.
The US decided to reward the perpetrators, namely, Pakistan's ruling army oligarchy. The scale of wanton killing and barbarities by the Pakistan army was staggering.
Since the US faced no grave danger at the time, and such a threat could not be pleaded in defence of the total lack of compassion it displayed, it must be presumed it was walking in the footsteps of Cardinal Richelieu, believing universal values are inconsistent with raison d'etat. This conviction of Nixon and Kissinger seems to have been the guiding light of the US administration.
China certainly was a beneficiary of US policy. Subsequent developments have vindicated Chinese wisdom in accepting the olive branch proffered by the US. But it spelt disaster even for Pakistan, the beneficiary of US sympathy and consideration. It ended up by losing its eastern wing.
By equating the interest of the Pak military junta with that of Pakistan, the US supported Yahya Khan itiated the natural checks and balances that operated within the two wings of Pakistan, and also between India and Pakistan. Yahya drew all the wrong conclusions, possibly because he basked in the sunshine of US support. He declared, 'If that woman wants war...' etc. Had he not been given to understand he could continue to draw upon US support, no matter what he did, for so long as he served as a catalyst, he might have been more prudent and less cavalier in challenging 'that woman.'
US policymakers in 1971 opted for the hardnosed raison d'etat as conceived and practiced by Cardinal Richelieu and Father Joseph the Grey Eminence, and set aside all humanitarian considerations.
Understandably, Indian protests might have been devalued by the US because of the well-acknowledged animosity between Pakistan and India, but what about the public opinion all over the world and in the US? What about US laws? The Nixon administration had defence equipment delivered to Pakistan through subterfuge. There was clearly an assumption by the US that it knew best what was good for the US.
This assumption of infallibility in judgement and action by the US is frightening; and it was not even the only superpower then. It is well known Nixon at the time toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. These indeed are disturbing reminders, particularly in the charged atmosphere of today. Being the only surviving superpower no international body or the UN are in a position to restrain the US from wilfulness. The world community would rather rely on the internal checks and balances in the US constitution for this purpose.
To a certain extent, public opinion in the US matters, but not directly and immediately. How the administration functioned during the tumultuous days of 1971 is interesting and instructive also from this point of view.
The famous checks and balances, a significant part of the US constitutional fabric, did not seem to work in 1971; nor was the value-based policy much in evidence. In so far as the interests and aspirations of Bangladesh and India were concerned, the US administration might as well have signed off 1971 with, 'Without compassion or remorse, yours.'
Montage: Rahil Shaikh