This is the second post of a four-part series on India-Pakistan 1971 War. First part can be read here
Six days after Pakistan Army began massacring its own people, a meeting on the East Pakistan Crisis was held in the White House Situation Room. It was chaired by Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Adviser and President Richard Nixon’s right-hand man when it came to the American foreign policy. Kissinger, a former Harvard academic, was brilliant, ruthless and extremely powerful. Perhaps the most controversial figure in the American foreign policy of the time, he was an ardent worshipper of realpolitik in foreign policy, which often translated to celebrating cold-blooded calculations.
On this day, the calculation was about East Pakistan and Yahya Khan. A week into the crisis, Kissinger and his boss, Nixon, had already made up their mind to stay out. Despite the mounting reports of a bloodbath coming in from their own consulate in Dacca, the mood in White House was to let Yahya do what he wanted. In the meeting, Kissinger’s main concern was whether Pakistan Army could actually succeed or not. As the meeting progressed, Kissinger asked about the people killed in Dacca University. “Did they kill Professor Razak? He was one of my students.” He was informed by a CIA official that Razak probably had been killed. Kissinger, apparently referring to the previous rulers of South Asia, replied, “They didn’t dominate 400 million Indians all those years by being gentle.”
This detached statement perfectly represented the American attitude towards the East Pakistan genocide. And it was about to get worse. Within a month, US will shed its disinterested neutrality and will actively begin aiding Pakistan in the massacre. Why? Because Nixon and Kissinger were secretly working on a project to change the world.
By 1970, the Cold War was already quarter of a century old. The US-Soviet hostility, the fulcrum on which the entire world politics turned, had remained immovable since the end of Second World War. Stockpiling nuclear arsenals, engineering coups and regime changes, building bigger submarines and faster planes, throwing up satellites into the space, all of it seemed to have done little to change the basic dynamics between Washington and Moscow. In the name of Cold War, the US had gone as far as to put a man on the moon, the single greatest achievement in the entire human existence. But it hadn’t budged lines between the two countries even an inch.
Nixon planned to change all that. The key, according to him, was China. China was technologically and economically backward country, but with potential to unleash great power. It was a sleeping, sometimes psychotic Asian giant, which didn’t move very often, but when it did, the world had to take notice. And now, Nixon hoped to move it.
For the last twenty years, China had been a bitter American foe. The two nations had even gone to war with each other over Korea. In the 1950s, China and its communist patron Soviet Union, had teamed up many times to humiliate the United States. However, lately Beijing had been moving away from its good friend Moscow as well. The relationship between the two had consistently deteriorated and eventually the growing rift had turned into an enmity. The two neighbours had ended up with a short border war in 1969, in which the superior Soviet forces had pummelled the Chinese People’s Army. Suddenly Soviet Union had become the greatest threat for China. And unlike the US this enemy was right next door, capable of attacking any time it pleases. Given communist Chinese penchant for extremes, enmity with the Soviets had become a blood feud, propelled by a mixture of hatred and fear.
While Beijing was delving into this paranoid frenzy, Nixon and Kissinger were rubbing their hands in glee. Here stood an elegant solution to their Cold War problem. Enemy of enemy is my friend. If only Nixon could somehow build a relationship with China, he could change the entire dynamics of his relationship with the Soviet Union and catch Moscow on its back foot for once. But how to do it? China’s old dictator Mao Zedong wasn’t exactly a person you could pick up the phone and call. China was infamous for regularly cutting off communication with the world. And Nixon, obsessed with secrecy, wasn’t about to trust some European diplomat with his message. What he needed was a trustworthy emissary. This was a job for an “honorable” man like Yahya Khan.
Yahya was perfectly placed for this task. Used to intrigues and deception, he was close to both Washington and Beijing, the only one in such position except the leadership of Romania, which was also close to Moscow, and hence unacceptable to Nixon. Yahya was approached with this request by Nixon in August 1969. The Pakistani general had happily jumped at the opportunity to score a few points with the (then recently elected) American President. There was to be certain payment for his services, of course. Pakistan and India had been under arms embargo by the United States since their 1965 war. If the president could suspend that embargo for a one-time supply of military material…. Nixon had happily complied, over the anguished cries of New Delhi.
And so Yahya had become a go-between for Washington and Beijing. All through 1970, he had been passing messages between the two powers and gaining influence in both capitals. When the East Pakistan Crisis broke out in March 1971, the US and China were deep in their secret negotiations. In fact, there was a plan afoot for Kissinger to visit Pakistan in July and then secretly fly off to China to hammer out a deal, the first high-ranking US official to set foot in China since the communists came to power.
In the middle of this, Indian calls for pressuring Yahya to stop his atrocities in East Pakistan were inconvenient for Washington. Immediately after the beginning of the crackdown, Kissinger had advised his president to not put pressure on Yahya. He was simply too valuable an asset to antagonize over a little violence in some far-off corner of the world. Nixon had wholeheartedly agreed, issuing a directive to his people – “Don’t squeeze Yahya,” with “Don’t” underlined three times.
Things for Yahya were about to get a lot better. In July 1971, Kissinger visited New Delhi, where concerned Indian officials talked his ear off about the crisis. Kissinger reiterated American neutrality, to the irritation of the Indians. His next stop was Rawalpindi. After a brief discussion with the Pakistanis, he faked a stomach ache and was ferried to Yahya’s hill resort for a day’s rest. From there, he was secretly flown to Beijing in a Pakistani International Airlines aircraft. In Beijing, the Chinese leadership was waiting for him. Kissinger’s secret trip to China was a success and announced as so by Nixon to the world on 15 July 1971. To the surprise of absolutely everyone, the American president declared that Washington was now going to normalize relations with Beijing. The secret was out in the open and Nixon no longer needed Yahya Khan and his channel.
But instead of driving them apart, the situation only brought them even closer. Instead of benign neutrality, Washington’s policy now became an active “tilt” towards Pakistan. From now on, the United States was going to energetically help Pakistan, while scuttling Indian efforts to pressurize it. The logic of this shift was even more convoluted. Now that Nixon had opened up to China, he needed to show China that he was capable of hard decisions just like the Chinese. What kind of message would it send Beijing if he abandoned their mutual friend – Yahya – in his hour of need. Nixon needed to show the Chinese that he was a loyal friend. Only then could they rely on him to stand up on their behalf to the Soviets. Hence, in Nixonian world, helping Pakistan made perfect sense. Only ten days ago, when Kissinger was in New Delhi, he had assured Indians that the US will support them should China choose to get involved in a India-Pakistan conflict. Now they were told that if China came to help Pakistan, “we would be unable to help you”.
Nevertheless, while Nixon played the big boy’s game with Mao and Yahya, Indians needed to be pacified lest they make too much noise over their own problems. United States promised India aid of US$ 60 million (450 million rupees) to help with the refugees, hoping it would keep New Delhi from doing something rash. From Indian perspective though, this was pittance. By the time Nixon was announcing his brilliant geostrategic manoeuvre to the world, India had already been swamped with 7 million refugees. The 600 million rupees it had allocated to refugee management had already run out and had to be supplemented with an additional 2,000 million rupees. Meanwhile, not just American, but the entire international aid that had reached India added up to just 150 million rupees.
Over and above this, American opening to China had further perturbed Indian officials. New Delhi now stood alone, while Washington grew closer to its enemies – Beijing and Islamabad. Until now, India had tried to remain above the polarization of the Cold War. Non-aligned, it had tried to develop relations with both Washington and Moscow alike. But now, this had to change.
For two years the Soviets had been offering India a treaty of friendship, a signal to the world of their tentative closeness. So far, Mrs. Gandhi had played it cool, reluctant to antagonize the United States or right-wingers within India. But Nixon’s opening to China changed this. Barely a month after the American announcement, India and Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship. India had finally gained at least one country in its corner.
Moscow saw the treaty as small step towards building friendship with New Delhi, not an alliance. But paranoid White House interpreted it as an open declaration for war – “for all practical purposes [it] gave India a Soviet guarantee against Chinese intervention if India went to war with Pakistan,” Kissinger said. The treaty, of course, was nothing of that sort. In fact, Moscow was already having pangs of buyer’s remorse, worried that Indians should not interpret the treaty as a security guarantee. Only a month after the treaty was signed, the Soviet embassy in New Delhi ran an ad in an Indian newspaper explaining that the treaty was not about security but only about “peace and stability”, translation – “we are not going to go war for you”. Moscow had no interest in getting embroiled in some war in South Asia.
Nevertheless, for Kissinger, the Soviets had “deliberately opened the door to war on the subcontinent”. This interpretation played perfectly in Nixon-Kissinger world view and only served to strengthen their resolve to stay loyal to Yahya Khan. In October, Kissinger flew out to Beijing again, to finalize details of Nixon’s own planned visit to China next year. In between, he managed to squeeze in a word about the East Pakistan crisis as well. India “doesn’t believe in the existence of Pakistan,” he told the Chinese. “We believe she will try to destroy East Pakistan.” He was expecting the war to break out within a month. Before the Chinese could ask, he reassured them that the United States was completely opposed to strikes against Pakistan.
In Kissinger’s mind, the future was clear – if India dared to move against Pakistan, Chinese will attack India to help their ally. United States, honour-bound to show its loyalty, will support them as and when needed.
He was about to be proven completely right and completely wrong.
1971 India-Pakistan War Series
Sources: This post is primarily based upon two recent books – Srinath Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013) and Gary J Bass’s, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013). These books tap into the treasure trove of declassified material on this topic now available on both Indian and American sides. Other sources used are: Afzal, M. Rafique. Pakistan, History & Politics, 1947-1971. Oxford University Press, 2001; Bundy, William P. A tangled web: the making of foreign policy in the Nixon presidency. Macmillan, 1998; Nihal Singh, S. The yogi and the bear: story of Indo-Soviet relations. Mansell Pub.(London and New York), 1986. I have also used a couple of declassified files from the National Archives of India to get my statistics straight.