The India-Pakistan Crisis of 1971
Just before my departure for Asia, Yahya on June 28 announced a plan to transfer political power to civilians. A new constitution drawn up by experts would be proclaimed within four months; Awami League members not associated with secession would be eligible to participate in the new government. Yahya did not explain to what category of leaders this might apply.
While I was en route, I received disturbing information that the Soviet Union had at last perceived its strategic opportunity. Abandoning its caution, it had informed India of its approval of guerrilla operations into East Pakistan and had promised India protection against Chinese reprisals. A new and ominous dimension had been added to the conflict. (This occurred well before our China initiative.)
In visiting New Delhi, I had two partially contradictory missions. One was to prepare India circumspectly for the news of my visit to China. Noting the Ping-Pong diplomacy and our two-year record of overtures in trade and travel, I stressed that we were bound to continue to improve our relations with Peking. On the other hand, we would take a grave view of an unprovoked Chinese attack on India. If this unsolicited comment did not utterly mystify my interlocutors, it may have given them a brief moment of encouragement–though that moment of euphoria surely ended with the July 15 announcement of my trip to China.
We must await the memoirs of my interlocutors to see whether the Indian ministers considered my reassurances the best we could do given our constraints, or an effort at deception. The major topic of my talks in New Delhi was the crisis in East Pakistan. I reported to the President:
There seems to be a growing sense of inevitability of war or a least widespread Hindu-Muslim violence, not necessarily because anyone wants it but because in the end they fear they will not know how to avoid it . . .
I assured [Mrs. Gandhi] the whole point of our policy has been to retain enough influence to urge creation of conditions that would permit the refugees to go back, although we would not promise results. I asked how much more time she thought there was before the situation became unmanageable, and she replied that it is unmanageable now and that they are “just holding it together by sheer willpower.”
The conversation with Indian leaders, in fact, followed the ritual of the previous weeks. As I had done on many occasions with Indian Ambassador Jha in Washington, I tried to assure them that the United States was eager to maintain good relations with India. We did not oppose Bengali autonomy, and we were confident we could encourage a favourable evolution if we dealt with Yahya as a friend instead of as another tormentor. I invited Mrs. Gandhi to visit the United States for a fundamental review of Indian-American relations with President Nixon.
But Mrs. Gandhi and her ministers were in no mood for conciliation. The invitation to Washington was evaded. They avowed their desire to improve relations with the United States but passionately accused us of deception over arms sales to Pakistan. The stridency of these complaints was in no way diminished by the facts: that almost all arms shipments to Pakistan had been stopped, including the “one-time exception”; that no new licenses were being issued; and that the only items still in transit were the trickle licensed before the ban went into effect. India could have no serious concern about this minuscule flow; it would end automatically as licenses expired; our estimate, indeed, was that nothing would be left in the pipeline after October. Mrs. Gandhi even admitted to me that the amounts were not the issue, but the symbolism. In other words, India wanted the demoralisation of Pakistan through the conspicuous disassociation of the United States. I was pressed to cut off not only arms but all economic aid as well. Indian leaders evidently did not think it strange that a country which had distanced itself from most of our foreign policy objectives in the name of nonalignment was asking us to break all ties with an ally over what was in international law a domestic conflict. The American contribution to refugee relief by July had reached nearly $100 million; this did not keep Mrs. Gandhi from broadening her criticisms to encompass the entire twenty-four-year record of our policies toward Pakistan. I left New Delhi with the conviction that India was bent on a showdown with Pakistan. It was only waiting for the right moment. The opportunity to settle scores with a rival that had isolated itself by its own short-sightedness was simply too tempting.
On my visit to Islamabad, I was preoccupied with my impending journey to Peking. But I had several conversations with President Yahya and Foreign Secretary Sultan Khan. I urged them to put forward a comprehensive proposal to encourage refugees to return home and to deny India a pretext for going to war. I urged Yahya and his associates to go a step farther in the internationalization of relief by admitting the United Nations to supervise its distribution. And I recommended the early appointment of a civilian governor for East Pakistan. Yahya promised to consider these suggestions. But fundamentally, he was oblivious to his perils and unprepared to face necessities. He and his colleagues did not believe that India might be planning war; if so, they were convinced they would win. When I asked tactfully as I could about the Indian advantage in numbers and equipment, Yahya and his colleagues answered with bravado about the historic superiority of Moslem fighters.
There simply was no blinking the fact that Pakistan’s military leaders were caught up in a process beyond their comprehension. They could not conceive of the dismemberment of their country; and those who could, saw no way of surviving such a catastrophe politically if they cooperated with it. They had no understanding of the psychological and political isolation into which they had manoeuvred their country by their brutal suppression. They agreed theoretically that they needed a comprehensive program if they were to escape their dilemmas. But their definition of “comprehensive” was too grudging, legalistic, technical and piecemeal. The result was that never throughout the crisis did Pakistan manage to put forward a position on which it could take its international stand. In fact, its piecemeal concessions, though cumulatively not inconsiderable, played into India’s hands; they proved its case that something was wrong without providing a convincing remedy. Yahya found himself at a tragic impasse. Accused by conservative colleagues of hazarding his country’s unity and by foreign opinion of brutally suppressing freedom, he vacillated, going too far for his conservatives, not far enough for the world, and especially American, public opinion.
At a dinner given for me the night before I left for Peking, I had an opportunity to chide Yahya for the mess that had been created. “Everyone calls me a dictator,” bellowed Yahya in his bluff imitation of the Sandhurst manner. “Am I a dictator?” he asked every guest, American as well as Pakistani, in turn. Everyone protested with varying degrees of sincerity that of course Yahya was not a dictator. When it came to me, I said: “I don’t know, Mr. President, except that for a dictator you run a lousy election.”
The festering crisis naturally came up in my conversations in Peking. Chou en-lai’s perspective could not have been more different from the conventional wisdom in Washington. He quite simply considered India the aggressor; he spent an hour of our scarce time recounting his version of the Sino-Indian clashes of 1962, which he claimed had been provoked by Indian encroachments. Chou insisted that China would not be indifferent if India attacked Pakistan. He even asked me to convey this expression of Chinese support to Yahya–a gesture intended for Washington, since Peking had an Ambassador in Islamabad quite capable of delivering messages. I replied that the United States had traditional ties with Pakistan, and we were grateful for its arranging the opening to China. We would continue to maintain friendly relations with India, but we would strongly oppose any Indian military action. Our disapproval could not, however, take the form of military aid or military measures on behalf of Pakistan.
I returned to Washington with a premonition for disaster. India, in my view, would almost certainly attack Pakistan shortly after the monsoon ended. Though I was confident that we could succeed in nudging Islamabad toward autonomy for East Pakistan. I doubted that India would give us the time and thus miss an opportunity, which might not soon come again, of settling accounts with a country whose very existence many of its leaders found so offensive. China might then act. The Soviet Union might use the opportunity to teach Peking a lesson. For us to gang up on Pakistan–as our media and Congress were so insistently demanding– would accelerate the danger; it would give India an even stronger justification to attack. It would jeopardize the China initiative. At that time, prior to Nixon’s visit to Peking, we had no way of knowing how firm China’s commitment to the opening to Washington really was.
Nixon called the National Security Council together on July 16, the day after he announced his trip to China. It was a sign of how seriously he took the crisis. He asked me to sum up the issues. I said India seemed bent on war. I did not think that Yahya had the imagination to solve the political problems in time to prevent the Indian assault. On the other hand, 70,000 West Pakistani soldiers (they had been augmented since March) could not hold down 75 million East Pakistanis for long. Our objective had to be an evolution that would lead to independence for East Pakistan. Unfortunately, this was not likely to happen in time to head off an Indian attack. Therefore, immediate efforts were needed to arrest and reverse the flow of refugees and thereby remove the pretext for war.
There was no disagreement with my analysis. Rogers had his judgement that India was doing everything in its power to prevent the refugees from returning. Nixon concluded that we would ask the Pakistanis to do their maximum on refugees. We would not countenance an Indian attack; if India used force, all American aid would be cut off. Every effort should be made to avoid a war.
On July 23, Pakistani Ambassador Agha Hilaly informed us that his government accepted our suggestion of UN supervision of the resettlement of refugees to guarantee them against reprisals. Yahya also went along with our recommendation to appoint a civilian administrator to oversee refugee relief and resettlement. I strongly urged Hilaly to accelerate their efforts.
Unfortunately, India would have none of it. The very reasons that made the strategy of concentrating on refugees attractive to us caused India to obstruct it. As early as July 15, Indian Ambassador Jha told us that India could not accept proposals to curb guerrilla activity from its territory. On July 16, Indian Foreign Secretary Kaul told us ha India would not accept UN personnel on its side of the border even to handle refugees. This was Catch-22 again. Everyone agreed that a condition for political progress in the East was the return of the Pakistani army to its barracks, which was one reason we were pressing for the appointment of a civilian administrator. But there was no way to induce the Pakistani army to do so as long as its neighbour conducted a guerrilla war against it–and proclaimed its determination to escalate that war. Pakistan had agreed to place the resettlement of refugees under UN supervision. But this could not be implemented if the refugees could not even learn of Pakistan’s offers because UN personnel were barred from any contact with them in India to explain their prospects if they returned. In the absence of any outside observers in these camps we could not even be sure of the actual number of refugees.
Two Senior Review Group meetings, on July 23 and July 30, discussed these dilemmas. On no issue–except perhaps Cambodia–was the split between the White House and the departments so profound as on the India-Pakistan crisis in the summer of 1971. On no other problem was there such flagrant disregard of unambiguous Presidential directives. The State Department controlled the machinery of execution. Nixon left it to me to ensure that his policy was carried out and to bring major disagreements to him. But what we faced was a constant infighting over seemingly trivial issues, any one of which seemed too lightweight or technical to raise to the President but whose accumulation would define the course of national policy. Nixon was not prepared to overrule his Secretary of State on what appeared to him minor operational matters; this freed the State Department to interpret Nixon’s directives in accordance with its own preferences, thereby vitiating the course Nixon had set.
No one could speak for five minutes with Nixon, without hearing of his profound distrust of Indian motives, his concern over Soviet meddling, and above all his desire not to risk the opening to China by ill-considered posturing.
Nixon had ordered repeatedly that we should move Pakistan toward political accommodation through understanding rather than pressure. The State Department had every right to a contrary view: that massive public pressure would make Pakistan more pliable. What strained White House–State relations was the effort by State to implement its views when the President had chosen a different course. For example, in early September we found out through the Pakistanis that the State Department had privately opened negotiations with them to cut off even the trivial amount of military equipment licensed before March 25. The White House thought that Pakistan was moving through the painful process of disintegration and wanted to take account of the anguish of an old ally, the limited horizon of its leaders, and its internal stresses; therefore, we wanted to avoid announcing a formal embargo, although our actions amounted to as much. The State Department was more conscious of our critics at home and was loath to antagonise India. My nightmare was that the effort to placate India would generate a war. As I told the Senior Review Group on July 30, “We should urge Yahya to restore an increasing degree of participation by the people of East Pakistan. But the clock of war is running in India faster than the clock on political accommodation. We are determined to avoid war.” I had told the President on July 27 that the State was beginning to throttle even our economic aid to Pakistan: “If anything will tempt the Indians to attack, it will be the complete helplessness of Pakistan.” Whatever the merits of this debate, the fact was that Nixon was President, and that departments, after having stated their case, should carry out not only the letter but also the spirit of Presidential decisions even if they disagree and even if they have to face outside or Congressional criticisms in doing so.
The problem was accentuated by the anomaly that some long-forgotten State Department reorganization had placed the subcontinent in the Near East Bureau, whose jurisdiction ended at the subcontinent’s eastern boundary; it excluded East Asia and any consideration of China. Senior officials who might have been conscious of China’s concerns had been excluded from the opening to Peking. Hence, there was no one at State who felt fully responsible for the “China account” or even fully understood its rationale–this was one of the prices paid for our unorthodox method of administration. In inter agency debates my office was not infrequently accused of an obsession with “protecting the trip to China,” as if preserving that option were somehow an unworthy enterprise. Not a single bureaucratic analysis of India-Pakistan during the period seriously addressed the impact of our conduct on China. Peking was not rejected by our bureaucracy. It was simply ignored. The gulf in perception between the White House and the rest of the government became apparent in an options paper prepared for the July 23 Senior Review Group meeting. It recommended that if China intervened in an India-Pakistan war, the United States should extend military assistance to India and coordinate its actions with the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Nothing more contrary to the President’s foreign policy could have been imagined.
Nixon stated succinctly at his August 4 press conference that we were not going to engage in public pressure on Pakistan: “That would be totally counterproductive. These are matters that we will discuss only in private channels.” Despite this, nearly all operational proposals by the bureaucracy were aimed at increasing pressure on Pakistan. I asked at the July 30 Senior Review Group meeting: “What would an enemy do to Pakistan? We are already cutting off military and economic aid to them. The President has said repeatedly that we should lean toward Pakistan, but every proposal that is made goes directly counter to these instructions.”
As I have mentioned, State had come up with the proposal that the remaining $3-to-$4 million in the military pipeline be cancelled by agreement with Pakistan. The justification was that this would make it easier for us to maintain economic assistance. I reluctantly went along, though I thought it an unworthy response to Pakistan’s assistance on China. The negotiation for drying up the pipeline took two months. It was finally accomplished in early November, woundingly for Pakistan, just in time to create a “good atmosphere” for Mrs. Gandhi’s visit. But no sooner did Pakistan agree to negotiate a total arms cut off than foot-dragging began on economic assistance. No new development loans were made throughout 1971. As I said acidly on September 8 at a Senior Review Group meeting, the State Department sold us a dried-up arms pipeline in return for a dried-up economic aid policy.
And none of these manoeuvres addressed the central issue. I was convinced that East Pakistan would become independent Bangladesh relatively soon. But Yahya could not possibly accomplish this before October or November, when the Indians were most likely to attack. Hence, I thought it imperative to make a massive effort to alleviate the refugee problem immediately and to bring our influence to bear in the direction of constitutional rule at as fast a pace as the Pakistani political structure could stand. Constitutional government, in turn, was almost certain to produce at least Bangladesh autonomy and eventually independence. So, we multiplied our aid contribution, providing some $90 million to India and over $150 million for internationally supervised famine relief in East Pakistan to reverse the tide of refugees. We appointed an able senior official o our Agency for International Development, Maurice Williams, to coordinate all US refugee relief.
But it was to no avail. Our actions were outstripped by India’s deliberate acceleration of tensions. On July 24, Kaul again rejected the idea of UN personnel on the Indian side of the border. On August 4, Ambassador Jha rejected suggestions of Under Secretary of State John Irwin that India control the guerrillas operating from its territory. Jha made a new suggestion–that the United States take up an offer of contact with the Bangladesh exiles in Calcutta. When we did so, as will be seen, it was aborted in part because of Indian obstruction.