The India-Pakistan Crisis of 1971
What prompted Yahya to his reckless step on March 25 is not fully known. No doubt the Bengali population taunted the Pakistani soldiers drawn almost exclusively from the West. Mujib’s version of autonomy seemed indistinguishable from independence. Almost all nations will fight for their unity, even if sentiment in the disaffected area is overwhelmingly for secession. So, it was during our Civil War, with Nigeria toward Biafra, and with the Congo toward Katanga. Pakistan was unique, however, in that the seceding province was separated from West Pakistan by a thousand miles of Indian territory. There was no likelihood that a small military force owing to loyalty to one wing of the country could indefinitely hold down a population of 75 million of the other. Once indigenous Bengali support for a united Pakistan evaporated, the integrity of Pakistan was finished. An independent Bengali state was certain to emerge, even without Indian intervention. The only question was how the change would come about.
We wanted to stay aloof from this if we could, as did Britain. We even received reports of West Pakistani suspicions that we might favour an independent East Pakistan, but neither the British nor we wished to be made scapegoats for the country’s breakup. We had few means to affect the situation. We had, moreover, every incentive to maintain Pakistan’s goodwill. It was our crucial link to Peking; and Pakistan was one of China’s closest allies. We had sent a message in December through Pakistan accepting the principle of an American emissary in Peking. In March and April, the signs were multiplying that a Chinese response was imminent. April was a month of Ping-Pong diplomacy.
In this first stage of the crisis the consensus of the US government was to avoid precipitate action even among those who knew nothing of our China initiative. At a WSAG meeting on March 26, I repeated my own view that the prognosis was for a civil war, leading to independence fairly quickly. A State Department representative noted that Britain was unwilling to engage itself in pressing Pakistan. I told my colleagues:
“I talked to the President briefly before lunch. His inclination is the same as everybody else’s. He doesn’t want to do anything. He doesn’t want to be in the position where he can be accused of having encouraged the split-up of Pakistan. He does not favour a very active policy.”
Yet pressures for an active policy began to mount. There was general and justified outrage as during April, reports began to come in of Pakistani atrocities in Bengal. Our Consul General in Dacca was sending cables to Washington urging a public American stand against Pakistani repression; other members of the consulate staff signed a similar message in early April. Secretary Rogers told me he found it ” outrageous” that his diplomats were writing petitions rather than reports. But in a favourite device of subordinates seeking to foreclose their superiors’ options, the cables were deliberately given a low classification and hence wide circulation. Leaks to the Congress and press were inevitable. A Pakistani editor who visited East Pakistan wrote a firsthand account of army killings for the London Sunday Times. Our Ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Keating, reported to Washington that he was “deeply shocked at the massacre” and was ” greatly concerned at the United States’ vulnerability to damaging association with a reign of military terror.” He urged that the United States promptly, publicly, and prominently deplore ” this brutality,” privately intervene with Yahya Khan, abrogate our “one-time exception,” and immediately suspend all military deliveries to Pakistan.
We faced a dilemma. The United States could not condone a brutal military repression in which thousands of civilians were killed and from which millions fled to India for safety. There was no doubt about the strong-arm tactics of the Pakistani military. But Pakistan was our sole channel to China; once it was closed off it would take months to make alternative arrangements. The issue hit Washington, moreover, in the midst of another of the cyclic upheavals over Vietnam. A massive campaign of disobedience was planned for May 1. To some of our critics our silence over Pakistan–the reason for which we could not explain–became another symptom of the general moral insensitivity of their government. They could not accept that that it might be torn between conflicting imperatives; some had a vested interest in undermining their government’s standing on whatever issue came to hand in the belief that this would collapse our effort in Vietnam. The Administration reacted in the same ungenerous spirit; there was some merit to the charge of moral insensitivity. Nixon ordered our Consul General transferred from Dacca; he ridiculed Keating for having been “taken over by the Indians.” a tragic victim of the war in Vietnam was the possibility of rational debate on foreign policy.
The State Department moved on its own to pre-empt the decisions. Ignorant of the China initiative, heavily influenced by its traditional Indian bias, in early April– without a clearance with the White House– the Department moved toward a new arms embargo on Pakistan. It suspended issuance of new licenses for the sale of munitions and renewal of expired licenses; it put a hold on the delivery of items from Defense Department stocks and held in abeyance the “one-time exception” package of 1970. Some $35 million in arms to Pakistan was cut off, leaving some $5 million trickling through the pipeline. (This $5 million became a contentious issue with the Congress in early July). The State Department also began to throttle economic aid to Pakistan, again without White House clearance, by the ingenious device of claiming that our existing programs could no longer be made effective throughout the entire country because of the civil war. My NSC staff expert Hal Saunders wrote me that State Department was moving from a posture of detachment to one of disassociation from the Pakistani government, but “they are not acknowledging to themselves that is what the are doing. The are justifying their move on technical grounds.”
Anyone familiar with Nixon’s attitudes could not doubt that this was contrary to his wishes; those unfamiliar should have checked with the White House. The pre-emption of Presidential prerogatives goes far to explain Nixon’s (and my) attitude later that year, throughout April, my major task was to get control of the government process with two objectives: to preserve the channel to Peking and to preserve the possibility of a political solution in Pakistan. By then, Islamabad was not only a point of contact but also my likely place of departure for China. And signs began to appear that India’s proposed solution to the undoubted burden of millions of Bengali refugees was not so much to enable them to return as to accelerate the disintegration of Pakistan (or at any rate to identify one objective with the other). On March 31, the Indian Parliament unanimously expressed its wholehearted “sympathy and support” for the Bengalis. As early as April 1, I reported to the President that “the Indians seem to be embarking on a course of public diplomatic and covert actions that will increase the already high level of tension in the subcontinent and run the risk of touching off a broader and more serious international crisis.” On April 14, a Bangladesh government in exile was established in Calcutta. By the middle of April we received reports that India was training Bengali refugees to become guerrilla fighters in East Pakistan (the so-called Mukti Bahini). By the end of April, we learned that India was about to infiltrate the first 2,000 of these guerrillas into East Pakistan.
I considered a policy of restraint correct on the merits, above and beyond the China connection. For better or worse, the strategy of the Nixon Administration on humanitarian questions was not to lay down a challenge to sovereignty that would surely be rejected, but to exert our influence without public confrontation. In retrospect, I believe that we sometimes carried this basically correct approach to pedantic lengths which antagonised potential supporters. In the case of Pakistan, it seemed appropriate because its government was an ally that, we were convinced, was bound soon to learn the futility of its course. We undertook to persuade Yahya Khan to move toward autonomy, advising him as a friend to take steps that he would surely have rejected had we demanded them publicly. As I wrote the President on April 29, the central government “may recognise the need to move toward greater East Pakistani autonomy in order to draw the necessary Bengali cooperation. What we seem to face, therefore, is a period of transition to greater East Pakistan autonomy and, perhaps, eventual independence.” Yet, I noted, India’s policy was bound to work against such a settlement: By training and equipping a relatively small Bengali resistance force, India can help keep active resistance alive and increase the chances of a prolonged guerrilla war. From all indications, the Indians intend to follow such a course.”
Following the customary procedure, I asked the State Department in April to suggest opinions in preparation for a decision by the President as to what our policy should be in light of the unfolding crisis. A broad policy decision would provide the framework for handling the specific economic and military aid issues with Pakistan; it was especially needed in view of the fact that State had already begun moving in its own desired direction. As usual, the Department placed its preferred option between alternatives so absurd that they could not possibly serve as a basis of policy. (One proposal, for example, was all- out support for Yahya. This was neither the White House conviction nor a feasible course of action.) I distilled a recommendation from the range of options that State proposed. To respond to Congressional and public desires I proposed that the President ratify the State Department’s unauthorised action of early April shutting down the military supply pipeline, allowing only some spare parts and no lethal equipment to move. I also urged that economic aid be used as a carrot to induce political concessions, ” to make a serious effort to help Yahya end the war and establish an arrangement that could be transitional to East Pakistan autonomy.”
Nixon approved my recommendations on May 2, and added a handwritten note:” To all hands. Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time. RN.”
But we ran up against three obstacles: the policy of India, our own public debate, and the indiscipline of our bureaucracy.
On May 18– when we were already in the advanced stage of preparing the secret trip to Peking with Islamabad–Mrs. Gandhi warned Pakistan in a public speech that India was “fully prepared to fight if the situation is forced on us.” Indian ambassadors alerted Britain and France that India ” may be forced to act in its national interest” in view of the flood of refugees. By then an estimated 2.8 million. The burden of refugees was indeed monumental; the danger of communal riots could not be dismissed. But as the weeks passed, we began increasingly to suspect that Mrs. Gandhi perceived a larger opportunity. As Pakistan grew more and more isolated internationally, she appeared to seek above all Pakistan’s humiliation, perhaps trying to spread the centrifugal tendencies from East to West Pakistan. When the United States agreed to assume the major cost of refugee relief, India switched to insisting that the refugee problem was insoluble without a political settlement. But India’s terms for a settlement escalated by the week. When the United States offered to alleviate famine in East Pakistan, India– together with many in the United States–demanded that the relief program be run by an international agency. The reason was ostensibly to ensure its fair distribution, but it would also prevent the Pakistan government from gaining credit with its own population.
In May 1971, we learned from sources heretofore reliable that Mrs. Gandhi had ordered plans for a lightning “Israeli-type” attack to take over East Pakistan. And we had hard evidence that India was dispersing aircraft and moving combat troops and armour to the border. Nixon took the reports seriously enough to order on May 23 that if India launched such an attack, US economic aid to India was to be cut off. I assembled the WSAG on May 26 to review our policy in the event of a war.
Around this time we learned that Indian military leaders thought Mrs. Gandhi’s proposal of an attack on East Pakistan was too risky. They feared Chinese intervention, the possibility of other countries’ military aid to Pakistan (especially Iran’s), the uncertainty of resupply of Soviet weapons, and the likelihood that all of Pakistan might have to be occupied to bring the war to a conclusion. The Indian commanders insisted, at a minimum, on waiting until November when weather in the Himalayas would make Chinese intervention more difficult. While Mrs. Gandhi set about systematically to remove these objections and waited for the snows to fall in the mountains, we had a breathing space. (I must stress that most in the United States government did not credit these reports as I did; most senior officials considered an Indian attack improbable.) We used the interval first of all to step up our assistance to the refugees; the original authorisation of $2.5 million in the spring was eventually multiplied a hundredfold to $250 million. At the same time we pressed Pakistan to take steps of political accommodation, urging Yahya first to internationalize the relief effort in East Pakistan, and then come up with a political proposal. And we recommended the replacement of the military governor in the East by a civilian; we succeeded in securing a general amnesty covering all persons not already charged with specific criminal acts.
On May 28 Nixon sent letters t both Mrs. Gandhi and Yahya Khan outlining our policy. The letter to Yahya was not exactly strong; it reflected our need for Yahya as a channel to Peking. But it left no doubt that we favoured a political and not a military solution to the problem of East Pakistan. Nixon acknowledged Yahya’s readiness to accept the internationalization of relief. He encouraged Yahya to continue on the course of “political accommodation“:” I have also noticed with satisfaction your public declaration of amnesty for the refugees and commitment to transfer power to elected representatives. I am confident that you will turn these statements into reality.” Nixon urged restraint in Pakistan’s relations with India; he deemed it “absolutely vital” to restore conditions in East Pakistan ‘conducive to the return of refugees from Indian territory as quickly as possible.”
The President’s parallel letter to Mrs. Gandhi on May 28 stressed our desire to reduce the refugee flow into India and to help ease the burden on India by financial and technical aid. Nixon informed her of our efforts to move Yahya:
We have chosen to work primarily through quiet diplomacy, as we have informed your Ambassador and Foreign Minister. We have been discussing with the Government of Pakistan the importance of achieving a peaceful political accommodation and of restoring conditions under which the refugee flow would stop and the refugees would be able to return to their homes. I feel that these approaches were at least in part behind President Yahya’s press conference on May 24 and especially his public acceptance of international assistance, offer of amnesty to the refugees and commitment to transfer power to elected representatives.
Nixon complimented India on the vitality of its democracy and its economic and social progress, and added a veiled warning against a military solution: “India’s friends would be dismayed were this progress to be interrupted by war.” on June 3 I explained our strategy to Kenneth Keating. I was convinced that East Pakistan would eventually become independent. Our policy was to “give the facts time to assert themselves.”
During June Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh arrived in Washington to urge termination of both military and economic aid to Pakistan. India was increasingly presenting us with a Catch-22 dilemma. It claimed that the enormous flow of refugees would sooner or later force India into drastic measures. But at the same time India would do nothing to curb– indeed, it trained, equipped, and encouraged– the guerrillas whose infiltration from Indian territory guaranteed unsettled conditions that would generate more refugees. Despite Yahya’s proclamation of an amnesty, India made the return of refugees to East Pakistan depend upon a political settlement there. But India reserved the right to define what constituted an acceptable political settlement on the sovereign territory of its neighbour. In mid-June Mrs. Gandhi declared that India would not agree to any solution that meant ” the death of Bangladesh”; in other words, India’s condition for staying its hand was the breakup of Pakistan. With evolution to autonomy rejected, refugees encouraged, and their return precluded, India had made a mounting crisis inevitable.
Many in our country saw it differently. Unfortunately, the debate began to take on some of the bitterness and impugning of motives characteristic of the Vietnam debate. And the Administration, which had a case, did not help matters by enveloping itself in silence. Congressman Cornelius Gallagher of New Jersey, Chairman of the House subcommittee concerned with the problem, declared on the floor of the House on June 10 after a visit to Indian refugee camps, that India had shown “almost unbelievable” restraint in the face of the refugee burden. (This was three weeks after Mrs. Gandhi’s public threat to go to war.) on June 17, the New York Times took the Administration to task, calling our public statement urging restraint on both sides “belated”, our appeal would be fruitless, said the Times, unless we matched word with deed, that is, cut off all American aid to Pakistan until there was a genuine political accommodation in East Pakistan. The Times, too praised Mrs. Gandhi for having shown “remarkable restraint” in the face of the staggering refugee problem.
Then there occurred one of those media events by which small facts become surrogates for larger debates, focussing and in the process distorting the issues. On June 22, the New York Times carried a story that a Pakistani freighter was preparing to sail from New York with a cargo of military equipment for Pakistan, seemingly in violation of the Administration’s officially proclaimed ban. Soon a second ship carrying military items was reported on its way to Pakistan. There was outrage from the press and Congress, and from India. The next day the New York Times charged that the shipments were a “breach of faith” with the American people and Congress and with India and “further” undermined American credibility. Senator Stuart Symington said that it was either ignorance or deliberate deception. State’s announcement of June 24 that Washington was providing an additional $70 million to India for refugees was drowned out by reports that a third Pakistani freighter had sailed from New York to Karachi with military equipment. It did not still the charges of government duplicity that all the equipment in question had been purchased under licenses issued before the ban and was thus legally out of control; and that the third freighter had sailed four days before the State Department suspension of licenses went into effect. Here was another of the credibility gaps so cherished during the Vietnam period. We could convince no one that we simply had no mechanism to track down licenses already issued, nor that the amount of “seepage” was minuscule and could affect the military balance neither on the subcontinent nor in Bengal. The Washington Post on July 5 could barely contain its outrage: it was
An astonishing and shameful record. . .[which] must be read in the context of the current controversy over the Pentagon Papers, which turns on the public right to know and the government’s right to conceal. Here we have a classic example of how the System really works; hidden from public scrutiny, administration officials have been supplying arms to Pakistan while plainly and persistently telling the public that such supplies were cut off.
The irony was that the “credibility gap” was caused by the State Department, whose precipitate action in the embargo had so angered the White House. The department most in accord with the media and Congressional criticism became, unintentionally, its focus.