International incidents must not be allowed to shape foreign policy; foreign
policy must shape the incidents

– Napoleon Bonaparte

The South Asian Crisis was the confluence of a series of issues at different levels that occupied the same space and time and were intimately interlinked, reaching their critical mass in the winter of 1971. As a level internal to Pakistan, first, it involved the East Pakistani (Bangladeshi) agitation for autonomy that had been going on almost immediately since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 but had become more forceful since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Second, at a regional level, it involved the refugee crisis when East Pakistani citizens crossed the international border into India to escape from what has been termed a genocide conducted by the Pakistani Army, the culmination of which was the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. And thirdly, at the global level, the crisis threatened to disrupt attempts by the United States to improve relations with China. It threatened the survival of America’s closest ally in the region, and the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of August 1971 bore ominous bodings of increasing Soviet influence in South Asia. Each level served to add yet another layer of complexity to the problem, and the varying interests of the involved states almost assured an outcome that could be arrived at only by the excessive bloodletting evidenced in December 1971.[1]

Scholars of diplomacy, particularly those of the Nixon-Kissinger years, have seen the South Asian Crisis as an American diplomatic disaster brought on by Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s short-sightedness, ego, and irrational commitment to Great Power politics.[2] Recent works such as William Bundy’s A Tangled Web and Jussi Hanhimäki’s The Flawed Architect as well as older works such as Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power have all concluded that Kissinger’s conduct as National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, to put it mildly, left much to be desired. Hanhimäki paraphrases Walter Isaacson’s critique of the Nixon-Kissinger years, explaining that

Isaacson found fault with the fundamental ideas behind Kissinger’s policies. Kissinger’s advocacy of realpolitik—of basing foreign policy on national interests and geopolitical imperatives—simply did not fit the American way of thinking. Although most of Kissinger’s Cold War predecessors , from Dean Acheson to Dean Rusk, had hardly been crusading liberals but had instead been believers in the need to preserve the American national interest, the balance of power thinking Kissinger advocated was, Isaacson concluded, oriented far too much towards power rather than towards ideas.[3]

This seems an oversimplification of the issue: although Acheson and Rusk may have been more motivated by ideology, this nonetheless did not stop them from concluding alliances with some of the most unsavoury characters in international politics from Ngo Din Diem and Syngman Rhee to the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Kissinger does not seem to have deviated much from this tradition. Hanhimäki himself states that the Sino-American rapprochement was not as significant as has been made out to be by “Kissingerologists.” He argues that the China trip did not

unlock any major problems in the way of the general agreement on SALT. The so-called conceptual agreement in May 1971—the trade-off between limits on offensive and defensive weapons—had already been reached and announced by the time Kissinger feigned a stomach ache and disappeared in Pakistan. Perhaps more significantly, the opening to China did not yield any positive results on Vietnam: Soviet (and Chinese) aid actually increased in the second half of 1971.[4]

This analysis is also problematic—on one hand, this line of reasoning is not fruitful in understanding Foggy Bottom’s rationale in its policies towards the South Asian Crisis because it is made with the benefit of hindsight. It might help us evaluate the White House’s performance in 1971 but it cannot hope to explain the logic behind American foreign policy towards India and Pakistan during that year. On the other hand, the author himself admits that “the roots of the overextension of Soviet power that contributed to the decline and fall of the Communist bloc can…‘be traced to the reconciliation between Beijing and Washingtonin 1969-1972.’”[5] Hanhimäki’s assertion, however, is not that Kissinger’s policies had no effect—rather, Hanhimäki argues that the outcomes over the longue durée were unforeseeable by Kissinger and the short-term gains were negligible or non-existent.

What this marked variance within one article indicates is the complex and charged nature of the historiography on Kissinger. The more vitriolic The Trials of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens emphasises this point further. Indeed, as the title of Hanhimäki’s article asks in an obvious allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “‘Dr.Kissinger’ or ‘Mr.Henry?’” The general historiography on the Indo-Pakistan War is not particularly helpful in shedding light on US foreign policy either. The history of post-independence South Asia is very contentious, political, and emotional for the people of South Asia, and a veritable minefield for scholars studying the region after 1947. Indeed, many of the actors are still alive, and some are in prominent positions. Multiple memoirs have been written by principal actors in India-Pakistan relations, and all serve to demonstrate the deeply personal nature of events since the receding of the British Raj. Usually, memoirs are in alignment with the political stance of their authors and are intended to, rather than make matters clear, put their writers in the clear. The cool attitude of the governments in the region towards the declassification of archival materials means that no conclusion can be arrived at on the events of 1971 in the near future.

In this article, I explore issues in American diplomacy during the Crisis and explore what options were available to the Nixon White House regarding South Asia in 1971. It seems to me that the historiography in this field has been quite harsh in its analysis of American diplomatic manoeuvres, and the horrors of genocide have clouded evaluations of Kissinger’s conduct and policies. As Hanhimäki argues, “the real tragedy of the tilt lay in the failure of the United States to prevent the war and the bloodshed.”[6]
Given American interests vis-à-vis the Cold War with the Soviet Union and Nixon’s desire to woo China, Nixon and Kissinger accomplished no more than can be expected in the situation, particularly considering the bitter hatred in South Asia and the entrenched positions in East and West Pakistan. The United States did as much as they could to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the least amount of bloodshed, but had little or no influence over South Asian leaders. In fact, while the United States was concerned about the international aspect of the crisis more than any other, the motive force behind the crisis was, for India and Pakistan, the local and regional problems that had precipitated the crisis and went back decades. Thus, while both South Asian nations also worked at an international level, regional necessities trumped all others for Indian and Pakistani leaders.
The United States would do well to remember this lesson in its present engagements.  Although neither the United States nor India were overly concerned with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, except as, perhaps, rhetoric, nevertheless, they did not wish to see the unnecessary massacre of East Pakistani citizens. Observers must be clear as to which yardstick they wish to use when measuring the success (or lack thereof) of foreign policy, and it is certainly difficult to see success in a policy that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to perish in the Indian subcontinent. However, issues closer to home such as the quick termination of the Vietnam War and conduct of the Cold War must take precedence for American politicians, and measured by these standards, US involvement does not come off too shabby.

Historical Background

One of the foundational myths of Pakistan was that of Islamic unity. The Muslim League, formed in 1906, purported to speak for all Muslims in the British Raj. However, the first signs of fissure between Muslims in western India (what would become West Pakistan) and eastern India (modern Bangladesh) surfaced as early as 1936 when the Muslim League Parliamentary Board was being out together to choose candidates for elections to be held soon as per the Government of India Act of 1935. The Board was to serve as the umbrella organisation, bringing together all Muslim parties in India. However, Bengali Muslims clashed with Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the constitution of the Board, objecting to the disproportionate ethnic representation of Bengalis and non-Bengali Muslims.[7] During the Lahore Convention of 1940, the Two-Nation Theory which had originally asked for India to be partitioned into India and Pakistan, was modified to now ask that Muslim areas be demarcated and separate Muslim homelands be formed.[8] This idea was later discarded as it was thought to be easier to demand just one homeland, and thus East Pakistan was created nearly two thousand kilometres away from West Pakistan. Soon after independence and partition, trouble started again. As early as 1948, there was a growing sentiment in East Pakistan that it was being “treated merely as a colony of western Pakistan”[9] and in 1952, there were large demonstrations in East Pakistan, protesting Urdu as the national language. As a result, the federal government, which was based in West Pakistan, designated Bengali as an official language. Although this quietened the immediate situation, the overall conditions in Pakistan were kept at a constant simmer due to problems of unequal development between the two parts.[10] The events of 1971, therefore, did not come as a total surprise to South Asian observers as it did to Western analysts—Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had attacked the idea of Islamic unity between the two wings of Pakistan as pure fabrication even before partition. Pakistan was thus formed on the basis of religion rather than nationalism. In the early sixties, a sense of Pakistani nationalism had not yet developed. Percival Spear wrote in 1963, “Pakistani nationalism as a ruling passion is at present a hope rather than a motivating force.”[11] More directly, Rupert Emerson stated, “By the accepted criteria of nationhood, there was in fact no such thing as a Pakistani nation.”[12] This history cannot be said to have presaged the 1971 war, but it does indicate the deep-rooted nature of the East-West divide in Pakistan.[13]

The Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 gave fresh impetus to the East Pakistani autonomy movement. Feeling that their defence and security during the war had been ignored by Muhammad Ayub Khan’s government in Islamabad, the Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman began agitating for full autonomy which he interpreted in terms of the Six Points for East Pakistan. These points were nothing new—they had been first demanded as far back as 1950 in the convention of political workers sponsored by the Awami League. The subsequent arrest of the party’s leadership under the pretext of the Agartala Conspiracy and strict censorship of the press worsened the situation.[14] East Pakistanis began to view India as the bogey West Pakistanis used to distract East Pakistan from important issues such as development and autonomy.


Spending on West Pakistan(in crore Rupees)[15]

Spending onEast Pakistan(in crore Rupees)

Net Spending in terms of % of total expenditure





















Source: Reports of the Advisory Panels for the Fourth Five Year Plan 1970-75, Vol. I, published by the Planning Commission of Pakistan

In return, West Pakistanis suspected East Pakistani patriotism because they did not share the West’s threat perception of India, nor did they seem to want to remain within the federal structure.[16] Things had deteriorated so badly that in 1967, an assassination attempt was made on Ayub Khan by a group of East Bengali military officers known as the Chittagong Club that wished to establish an independent state in East Pakistan.[17] The “complete mental schism” that existed between East and West Pakistan is recounted by government officials travelling from one wing of Pakistan to another. Siddiq Salik, then a Public Relations Officer in the Pakistani Army, recounts in his memoirs the loss of faith he perceived between Bengali and West Pakistani military officers.[18] Finally, as a result of growing unrest, strikes, and riots in both wings of Pakistan, Ayub Khan was forced by the Army to name Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan as the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and step down from office in February 1969. M.I. Karim, then a Brigadier, later stated in an interview that the Army was ready to remove Ayub from office forcibly if he did not transfer power to the Army and resign.[19] During the rest of 1969 and 1970, frantic efforts were made by Yahya Khan to resolve the East-West divide that now threatened Pakistan.

In March 1970, the Province of West Pakistan (Dissolution) Order and the Legal Framework Order were promulgated under which a National Assembly was created with three hundred and thirteen seats, divided on the basis of the 1961 census. Provinces were granted autonomy as long as they didn’t threaten the federation, and the National Assembly that would be elected was put in charge of writing a new constitution. Many Pakistani scholars have seen Yahya Khan’s initiative of population-based representation as the undoing of a united Pakistan as it created a legal impetus for East Pakistani autonomy. The elections, which were finally held on December 7, 1970provided a shock result: in East Pakistan, Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had secured 160 of the 162 seats and none in the West; in West Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had won 81 seats out of the 138 contested seats.[20] Indian and American officials were, in hindsight, puzzled at the Yahya’s decision to hold the elections given the outcome. Indeed, as Hasan Zaheer, a Pakistani bureaucrat at the time, confirms, Yahya had completely miscalculated. He had hoped to play Bhutto against East Pakistan, hoping that the divisions in West Pakistani politics would mean that he would remain in control. “Yahya gave a tongue-lashing to the Director Intelligence Bureau, Rizvi, who had all along been reporting that no single party would gain an absolute majority.”[21] Pakistani intelligence maintained that they “knew [the Awami League] would win large number of seats but never thought they would win by such a number as they did.”[22]

The overwhelming support received by the Awami League made it difficult for its leaders to compromise on their election manifesto. On January 3, 1971, Mujib declared, “None would be able to stop us framing a constitution on the basis of the Six-Point programme.” National Awami Party leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bashani declared prophetically, “Ayub Khan’s ten years of absolute rule, the mass upsurge against it, and the cyclone disaster had transformed the entire mental make-up of the people of East Pakistan. The new forces which have been suddenly let loose cannot be contained or even restrained within the existing framework nor even perhaps within the scope of Mujib’s six-point programme.”[23] This hardening of Mujib’s position had a similar effect on Bhutto. Although the PPP had originally not objected to the Legal Framework Order (LFO) in March 1970, Bhutto later claimed that he had always had reservations about it. It seems, however, that no West Pakistani leader could have come out against the LFO because no one had the sort of support Mujib did.[24]

The Beginning of the End

Most of the first quarter of 1971 was marked by repeated discussions and negotiations between Yahya and Mujib. Bhuttowas not prepared to meet with the East Pakistani majority leader at all. In fact, Bhutto famously claimed his policy regarding the differences between the two wings was idhar hum, udhar tum (me here, you there). On February 13, Yahya announced the first meeting of the National Assembly would be held on March 3 in Dhaka. Bhutto immediately declared that the PPP would not attend unless it could be given some guarantees by the Awami League before the meeting. Mujib’s hardening on the Six Points made matters difficult for Yahya.[25] Once the shock results of the election had set in, Yahya showed optimism that things could be resolved. However, with increasing intransigence by Mujib and more and more vocal declarations of autonomy, Yahya began to worry about the safety of the unity of the Pakistani federation. Mujib’s repeated refusal to meet in Rawalpindi strengthened West Pakistani criticism of the Awami League’s intentions. The postponement of the Assembly meeting on March 1 resulted in violence in East Pakistan. Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, Commander of the Eastern forces, claims that the Awami League in the first two weeks of March killed well over 15,000 people in Bogra and Chittagong alone.[26] This seems unlikely, for no newspaper report or diplomatic document seems to have mentioned any violence of this magnitude. Indeed, there were riots and demonstrations all throughout East Pakistan and some people were killed, but the figures which Niazi claims appear fantastic. Nevertheless, the civil unrest disturbed Yahya enough that he appointed Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan as the Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan on March 3. Thus, with increasing stakes, both sides seemed to be locked into their respective positions. By March 24, the night before the infamous atrocities in East Pakistan, the situation had deteriorated so much that Zaheer reports that the Awami League draft constitution read, “After the Constitutions of the State of Bangladesh and the States of West Pakistan have been framed…”[27]

On March 25, what had until then remained an internal crisis turned at once regional and international. The Pakistani Army moved against its citizens in East Pakistan with utmost ruthlessness.[28] As Niazi describes it, the “peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying, and burning…the military action was a display of stark cruelty, more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Gengis [sic] Khan…or at Jallianwalla Bagh…by General Dyer.”[29] Twenty four hours after the Army had made its move, Yahya Khan announced to the nation that political negotiations had failed. He put the blame squarely on Mujib, calling him obstinate, obdurate, and a traitor who threatened the integrity, solidarity, and security of Pakistan.

The atrocities committed in East Pakistan combined with the massive influx of refugees into India at once brought India and the world into the situation. The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had often stated that the crisis in Pakistan was an internal one, but with the refugee problem growing every day, the situation could no longer be seen as merely internal. The Indian government launched a programme to rally international opinion behind it and put pressure on Pakistan to rectify the crisis. For India, there were obvious security implications in the event. The separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan would forever put an end to the fear of a two-front war with Pakistan. Furthermore, India had always been worried of Chinese activity on its eastern borders. If an independent Bangladesh could be formed with Indian help, perhaps it would serve as a buffer against Chinese designs on the subcontinent. The Indian public and the press came out strongly in support of the Bengalis. Given the strength of the public opinion, it would have been difficult for the Indian government to take steps other than it did eventually. For example, in October 1971, the Minister of External Affairs, Swaran Singh, stated during a meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) that a political solution of the Bangladesh issue could be resolved either through the creation of two independent states or greater autonomy for East Pakistan within the Pakistani system. The next day, a Times of India editorial criticised his statement, accusing him of “betraying the cause of Bangladesh” and stated that he had perhaps made the statement only for diplomatic reasons.[30]
Indian think tanks also produced position papers that strongly advocated taking advantage of Pakistan’s plight. The most frequently cited is Mr. K. Subramanyam, Director of the Indian Institute of Defence Studies, who stated, “the so-called international norms of conduct have never deterred any major power from taking action to protect its interests…a bold initiative on our part to help the struggle in Bangladesh to end quickly and victoriously is therefore called for.”[31] “What India must realise,” he stated on another occasion, “is the fact that the break-up of Pakistan is in our interest, an opportunity the like of which will never come again.” For him, it was “the chance of the century.”[32]

The United States, on the other hand, was interested in keeping Pakistan together. The Nixon administration had come into office with the intention of keeping South Asia quiet and “quite simply, to avoid adding another complication to [their] agenda.”[33] Nixon was focussed on China from the very beginning.[34] In the autumn of 1969, no means of communications existed between Washington and Beijing. In his world tour, Nixon asked Pakistani and Romanian leaders to convey to the Chinese that “Asia could not move forward if a nation as large as China remained isolated.”[35] The Chinese replied that any communication should be done through the official channel through Warsaw, but as Sino-American rapprochement increased, the Warsaw channel was considered “too open and too formalistic” and other channels were explored.[36]
In October 1970, China contacted the United States through Romanian and Pakistani channels, indicating its interest to continue talks and perhaps, a Presidential visit. Kissinger, however, preferred the Pakistani channel over the Romanian channel, probably because of the psychological comfort in controlling the channel thoroughly. This is indicated in his memoirs, his “slight preference for the Pakistani channel.” Kissinger reveals, “…we reasoned that Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union was less complicated than Romania’s. (It would be difficult for Bucharest to avoid briefing Moscow.) [parentheses in original]” Furthermore, a message received from Zhou Enlai indicated Chinese preference of the Pakistani channel as well.[37] Nixon asked Yahya to pass on his sentiment to the Chinese that “It is essential that we open negotiations with China. Whatever our relations with the USSR or what announcements are made I want you to know the following: (1) we will make no condominium against China and we want them to know it whatever may be put out; (2) we will be glad to send Murphy or Dewey to Peking and to establish links secretly.”[38] By early May, Yahya Khan was the only channel being used between Beijing and Washington. Nixon replied to Zhou’s message, proposing that the “precise details of Dr. Kissinger’s trip including location, duration of stay, communication and similar matters be discussed through the good offices of President Yahya Khan. For secrecy, it is essential that no other channel be used. [emphasis in original]”[39]

Thus by the early stages of the regional/international phase of the South Asian Crisis, the White house was in locked step with Yahya over China. Many scholars seem to underestimate the importance of the China card, but through Kissinger’s memoirs and newly released Department of State documents, we see that China was a critical consideration in Nixon’s and Kissinger’s minds. Hanhimäki’s observation that “while Pakistan was a major channel to China and the steppingstone of Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, it had never been the sole channel of communication” is therefore accurate but irrelevant.[40] As Bundy declares, “it is hard to think of any other national government that could have done the job.”[41] Hanhimäki does, however, grasp the importance of the South Asian Crisis for Nixon and Kissinger though, stating that the tilt towards Pakistan was essentially a “tilt toward China.”[42]

Under different circumstances, the outcome of the crisis might have been different. The United States was not averse to Mujib or his party in East Pakistan. Communications from the American consul in Dhaka indicate that Mujib was pro-American and desired to pursue a policy of friendship towards all major powers. He wished to improve relations with India and increase economic cooperation, and although Mujib viewed “SEATO and CENTO as dead,” he wished to maintain good relations with the United States.[43] From the American perspective, little could be better. Bengali rapprochement with India would hopefully reduce the Chinese sphere of influence in South Asia, and it would help Pakistan stabilise as a nation. Furthermore, it would reduce Indian paranoia about Pakistan and would therefore help the region to focus on development instead of constant conflict. And perhaps, if West Pakistan were freed from the excess baggage of its vestigial organ in the east, perhaps it could be brought properly into the fold with CENTO. Therefore, both nations would seek to maintain friendly ties with the US, particularly to offset undue interference from other regional powers such as India, China, and the Soviet Union.[44]
Thus, there was no reason for the United States to oppose Mujib. However, that is exactly what they did.[45] As early as March 26, it was decided to delay recognition of Bangladesh if such a request came.[46] Furthermore, the Awami League was told not to look towards the United States for help. This underscores the importance in Nixon’s mind of a rapprochement with China. Therefore, this is an important criterion in evaluating the Nixon administrations foreign policy during the South Asian Crisis.

The Debate in Academia

There seem to be three primary criticisms of the Nixon-Kissinger policy towards South Asia in 1971. One is that Nixon and Kissinger were so intent upon impressing upon South Asia a geopolitical superpower relations mould that they did not realise the inadequacy of their framework. Secondly, Kissinger has been accused of simply misinterpreting the data available to suit the requirements of his boss or to fit his own world view. The third has been the humanitarian tragedy that occurred in East Pakistan in the nine-month period from March 1971 to December 1971. Critics would have it that Kissinger simply did not care about the loss of human lives in East Pakistan, and the US failure to put pressure on Pakistan led to a much larger number of casualties than would have occurred. Admittedly, all of these accusations contain a grain of truth, but to accept them wholly would also be misleading.

By 1971, the Cold War had settled into a stalemate. Soviet nuclear stockpiles had finally caught up with American and NATO levels, low-intensity conflicts were fought in secondary or tertiary theatres of the Cold War, and the ideological zealousness that marked the fifties and the early sixties had faded away. The United States and the Soviet Union were both looking to gain an advantage over the other. The Sino-Soviet split had hurt the Soviets, while the Vietnam War was daily bleeding the Americans. At this juncture, China, freshly emerging from its disastrous Cultural Revolution, seemed amenable to friendly overtures from the United States. This would be a great coup for any administration, as the domestic reaction to the opening of China would prove. The Indo-Pakistan War occurred at a critical juncture when the United States was still juggling with a new policy towards China. Had it occurred at any other time, or had
Pakistan not been so critical a conduit to Beijing, the Nixon White House would have perhaps reacted differently to the crisis. But it so happened that the crisis in South Asia had inadvertently involved a major player in American overtures to China.

The involvement of Pakistan in its geopolitical considerations forced Kissinger’s hand into evaluating the South Asian Crisis in terms of an international order. But to suppose that South Asia found its way on the Nixon White House radar merely because of Pakistan’s credentials as a conduit to China would be erroneous. Even before 1971, India remained one of the largest recipients of American aid. The United States had even concluded the sale of a fast breeder uranium reactor to India in the mid-sixties. As for Pakistan, despite the decline of US-Pakistani relations since the India-Pakistan War of 1965, Pakistan remained a member of CENTO and SEATO, and one of America’s chief allies in the region. As Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “the Indo-Pakistan war involved stakes much higher than the future of Pakistan—and that was high enough. It involved the principle of whether big nations supported by the Soviet Union would be permitted to dismember their smaller neighbors. Once that principle was allowed, the world would have become more unstable and unsafe.”[47] Kissinger held the same view. It is probable that this refers to not only the belief Kissinger held that India would try to also dismember West Pakistan but also to the separation of East Pakistan from the West. Even though Kissinger and Nixon had accepted that East Pakistani secession was inevitable, they desired that it not be because of Indo-Soviet machinations against the allies of the United States and China.[48] By allowing India, and therefore the Soviet Union, to take credit for the “liberation” of the Bengalis, the United States would be put in a bad light across the globe, particularly in the eyes of unsure client states in the Third World. The United States would also look bad before China because it would seem that the United States was not willing to back an ally when it was most needed. In the South Asian case particularly, if the United States spoke out against Pakistan, it would seem as if the United States was taking sides with the enemy of the Chinese, the Soviet Union, against an ally of the Chinese, Pakistan. As Kissinger stated, “at this stage in our stance toward China, a US effort to split off part of Pakistan in the name of self-determination would have implications for Taiwan and Tibet in Peking’s eyes.”[49] This would undermine the entire China project, Nixon and Kissinger felt, particularly after Huang Hua, the Chinese representative to the United Nations, had explicitly “expressed fear that Indian-Soviet collusion to dismember Pakistan would set an example elsewhere.”[50] More importantly, as Bundy argues, the United States and China “had seen the Soviet hand at work in the Middle East, Chile, and Cuba. Zhou and Kissinger now agreed that the Indian threat to East Pakistan, which had emerged that spring, was part and parcel of the same offensive thrust.”[51] Undoubtedly, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship signed in August 1971 reinforced this belief. It has been argued that after Kissinger’s meetings with Zhou Enlai in July 1971, a stable relationship was established after which Pakistan ceased to be as important to the United States. The issue, however, was how the United States would appear to China if it abandoned its ally in the face of a Soviet threat. Pakistan, for its part, tried to remain useful to the United States—in November 1971, Bhutto told Farland that he “intend[ed] to use his influence while in Peking to promote USG-PRC détente.”[52]

American adventures in Cambodia and Laos also possibly weighed heavily on their minds. Nixon’s authorisation of the bombing of Cambodia in May 1970 and the Lam Son 719 operations into Laosin 1971 caused the Chinese to cancel meetings with American diplomats and delayed to opening to China.[53] Understandably, the Vietnam War was according a far higher priority in Nixon’s mind than the South Asian Crisis, and negotiations with the Soviets had not brought any results in the disentangling of American troops from Indochina. The sooner the United States was able to leave Vietnam, the more American lives would be saved. Nixon therefore saw great potential in the Chinese route. The added benefit of a Sino-American rapprochement would be that it would increase pressure on the Soviet Union. This was another logical conclusion, particularly after the skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet troops along the Ussuri river in 1968, and the Soviet feeler to the United States regarding a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.[54] Arkady Shevchenko, advisor to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, confirms Soviet unease regarding their relations with China. He states, “given the increasing tension with China, the Soviet Union wanted and needed a maximum of calm and good relations with Europe. The value of the security negotiations with the Europeans rested heavily on the insecurity which marked dealings between Moscow and Peking.”[55] Thus, claims that the Sino-American rapprochement did not yield any tangible benefits must be reconsidered.

India and Pakistan were thus actors, acted upon, and puppets in the Cold War and the amalgamation of these roles made South Asia a fairly important region in the Cold War. Whether they wished it or not, India and Pakistan were important variables in the calculus of superpower rivalry and the geopolitical balance of power. Undoubtedly, the South Asian Crisis was at its root a structural problem in the foundation of Pakistan, but its reverberations were felt in Washington, Moscow, New Delhi, and Beijing.

The second accusation against Kissinger’s handling of the East Pakistani situation is that Kissinger frequently misinterpreted data and would twist details to fit his agenda. A lot of the details for this accusation stem from a 1980 article by Christopher Van Hollen in Asian Survey.[56] In this article, Van Hollen explained that the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Alexis Johnson, had recommended that the United States “discourage President Yahya from using force in East Pakistan against Mujib and his Awami League followers.”[57] However, Van Hollen fails to mention that in the same meeting, Johnson also stated that the United States had “no control over developments and very little influence” over Pakistan.[58] The turmoil in East Pakistan was not so simple a matter. Kissinger’s back-channel with Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad reported that it was better to treat Yahya “with love rather than with brutality.”[59] Kissinger asked Farland to confirm this, to which Farland replied, “That is the only way.”[60] This was not something new. During the India-Pakistan War of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had tried to exert pressure on Pakistan (and India) by cutting off development aid. This had only resulted in Pakistan moving closer to China and making friendly gestures towards the Soviets. Pakistan had in the past in fact proved to be the tail that wagged the dog. Many scholars have accepted this fact, that there was nothing the United States could do to influence Pakistan.[61]

Van Hollen also argues that Kissinger had misread the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. Kissinger saw the treaty as unrelated to immediate South Asian Crisis while Van Hollen believed that it was indeed in reaction to US policy in South Asia.[62] The fact of the matter was that the treaty had been negotiated since late 1968 and had just to be signed. The signing took place at a conveniently strategic point in time for India and served as a warning to Pakistan lest it try to involve China. A third major misinterpretation was, according to Van Hollen, Kissinger’s analysis of a CIA report dated December 6, 1971 that suggested that India might be trying to dismember West Pakistan as well as separate East Pakistan. The report stated that “before heeding a UN call for cease-fire, [Mrs. Gandhi] intends to straighten out the southern border of Azad Kashmir. It is reported that prior to terminating present hostilities, Mrs. Gandhi intends to attempt to eliminate Pakistan’s armor and air force capabilities.”[63] Van Hollen contends that this report might have only contained India’s general war aims in a war against Pakistan, not a particular plan for the 1971 war. However, the date of this report suggests that any hope of resolving the dispute would have faded and its ability to influence the course of action in the East Pakistani case would have passed. Perhaps one of the reasons for Nixon’s paranoia on this matter is that Indira Gandhi had told British Prime Minister Edward Heath of the pressures she had in her cabinet for taking Pakistani territory and not returning it. Heath related this to Nixon at their Bermuda summit in December 1971.[64] The summit transcripts also show that India was indeed worried about geopolitical affairs, in particular, a US-Pakistan-China nexus. Furthermore, Indira Gandhi had been under a lot of pressure for not taking a tough stance against Pakistan domestically, the result of which had made Indira Gandhi’s position in the Congress Party and as Prime Minister precarious, especially after the 1969 Congress Party split. However, Kissinger’s emphasis on the CIA report does not mean that he had always been gripped by a paranoid vision of Indian aggression towards Pakistan. In fact, until the summer of 1971, Kissinger was convinced that India did not want a divided Pakistan.[65]

Ashok Raina, an Indian journalist, has revealed that “Indian operatives had been in contact with the pro-Mujib faction” since 1962-63, and that a serious plan for arming and training the Mukti Bahini had been put in motion a year before Operation Searchlight, Pakistan’s repression of the Bengalis, when a document came to the attention of an agent in London about “teaching those stupid Bengalis a lesson they will never forget.”[66] Unfortunately, studies like Raina’s are merely guesstimates, and accurate information cannot be and until the opening of archives in India and Pakistan. The revelation does put into perspective Kissinger’s fears of Indian involvement in East Pakistan and India’s war aims. It seems that Nixon and Kissinger had orientalised India to the extent that it was inconceivable to them that India was capable of operating in a Machiavellian fashion. Kissinger frequently mentioned that Indians were emotional, and hysterical.[67] Therefore, it seems that Kissinger was actually not convinced of India’s “duplicity” until increasing reports confirmed India’s intent. India had been active in East Pakistan long before Kissinger thought they were hell-bent on war.

Van Hollen’s accusation does, however, raise another important point: Nixon, by his own admission, had always been partial to Pakistan over India ever since his days as Vice President in the Eisenhower administration.[68] This sentiment biased his efforts during the crisis. Kissinger’s comment that the President had been giving him hell for not being tough enough on India and to tilt towards Pakistan proves this.[69] However, as seems to be commonly believed, Nixon and Kissinger were not the only ones who supported this policy. Recently declassified documents reveal that Secretary of State William Rogers was also in favour of a tilt towards Pakistan.[70] Thus, putting the burden for the consequences of the South Asian Crisis squarely on Kissinger appears harsh.

Perhaps the issue that has caused the most vehement criticism of Kissinger’s policies is the humanitarian crisis that occurred during the nine-month civil insurgency in East Pakistan. The low-priority Blood telegram from the consulate in Dhaka revealed the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan and raised a public outcry against American policy. West Pakistan’s hostile attitude towards the foreign press did not help matters either. Sydney Schanberg reported that one officer had told him, “If I can kill my own people, I can kill you.”[71] Foreign journalists reported other atrocities. Peter Hazelhurst of the London Times wrote, “One of my colleagues was sent to Jessore to write a story about the normal conditions there. Every member of his family had been butchered, but they still wanted to write a story claiming that the situation was normal.”[72] International newspapers carried stories of rape, torture, and mass killings, making it very difficult for Nixon and Kissinger to maintain their tilt towards Pakistan. After the war, Mujib repeatedly claimed that the crisis had claimed over three million lives, and that approximately ten million refugees had been created in India.[73] This has hardened opinions about Kissinger’s handling of the crisis in scholarly discourse. The fact that actual casualties were far less than reported, or that many of the atrocities were committed by the “good guys” has been completely ignored as have the Nixon administration’s efforts to control the crisis. There is no doubt that Washington tried to persuade Pakistan away from its course of action. However, geopolitical constraints and nationalist sentiments hindered any hope of a peaceful resolution. Yet the record indicates that Kissinger and his boss did try to wean Yahya away from his destructive trajectory.

Civil War

As news broke of Pakistani troops moving into the cities of East Pakistan to “contain” the rebellion, Kissinger advised Nixon that the United States follow a passive policy so as not to be accused of unwarranted interference while encouraging other historically concerned countries such as Great Britain to try and diffuse the situation. In another memo for President Nixon, Kissinger recommended that

“– On economic assistance, we would state our willingness to help in the context of a West Pakistani effort to negotiate a viable settlement. We would have to point out that it will be beyond US-or World Bank or IMF-financial capacity to help Pakistan if the situation drags on and Pakistan faces a financial crisis. We would also have to point out that US assistance legislation requires that economic aid be reduced to the extent that there is a possibility of its diversion to military purposes. We would back World Bank and IMF efforts to provide short-term emergency assistance while helping West Pakistan to reshape the rationale for the development lending program-but with the intent of providing a framework to move ahead, not of seeking a facade for cutting aid. To justify this approach, Yahya would have to produce an administration in East Pakistan that would have enough Bengali acceptance to win popular cooperation in restoring essential services and preventing a further constitutional crisis soon. In the meantime, we would continue to process any loans whose development purposes have not been disrupted by the war.

– On food assistance, we would allow shipments to resume as soon as food could be unloaded and move into the distribution system. We would not stipulate destination, except perhaps for that amount committed to the cyclone disaster area. It would be implicit in our overall approach, however, that our objective would be the broad distribution that would come with restoring essential services.”[74]

Nixon agreed to this, but underscoring that he does not intend to “squeeze Yahya at this time.”[75] In fact, the United States actively worked to put together a consortium of nations that would provide relief aid to East Pakistan and to India to help take care of the streaming refugees.[76] Van Hollen cynically dismisses the American aid provided for relief operations as “‘conscience money’ to atone for the White House’s failure to speak out against the human suffering in East Pakistan.”[77] However, it can also be argued that this was the pursuit of national interest at the least possible human cost. The idea that the United States encouraged Yahya to go to war by remaining quiet about his repression in East Pakistan is deeply flawed, especially if it is believed that the United States kept quiet only to please China. Nixon and Kissinger believed that if the situation deteriorated into war and the war did become international, everything they had done with China would “go down the drain.”[78] Kissinger’s recommendation to the President was therefore to “urge Yahya to come up with a generous settlement on the refugee issue.”[79] Kissinger did want to prevent war. In a Senior Review Group meeting, Kissinger stated, “I’m in favor of representative government and we should urge Yahya to restore an increasing degree of participation by the people of East Pakistan…we are determined to avoid war. If it is necessary to squeeze India, we will. There will be no war if we have any pressure available.”[80] When asked by Jha how the United States benefited from a united Pakistan, Kissinger replied, “We had no interest in keeping East Bengal a part of Pakistan. We did have an interest in preventing the outbreak of a war and preventing that issue from turning into an international conflict.”[81]

India, however, refused to accept half-measures. Indira Gandhi was firm in her position that all refugees must return to Pakistan. This was possible only if a political settlement was reached. In a letter to Nixon in August 1971, Indira Gandhi asked in her characteristically blunt tone, “Would the League of Nations Observers have succeeded in persuading the refugees who fled from Hitler’s tyranny to return even whilst the pogroms against the Jews and political opponents of Nazism continued unabated?”[82] In this is revealed the regional component of the crisis. Indira Gandhi refused to see the international component of the crisis, something she was undoubtedly aware of, for the sake of the local component. Of course, this was not entirely altruistic. India had much to gain from a weakened Pakistan, and by highlighted the human tragedy, India would gain international political capital for its cause. However, Indian leaders felt strongly that they should exhaust all diplomatic means before resorting to force. As one author has observed, “if India intervened before the necessity for doing so was clearly established in the eyes of the world, Bangladesh would be regarded as an Indian invention and refused recognition.”[83] Therefore, Indian officials visited important countries to gain support for their cause. Indian ministers and the Prime Minister herself visited Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Moscow, Bonn, Ottawa, and other world capitals to state India’s demands. The Indian Foreign Minister, Swaran Singh, stated in the Lok Sabha, “India has left no country in doubt about its idea for a political solution of the Bangladesh problem.”[84]

The impact of India’s political canvassing was enormous. The United States, much to Kissinger’s and Nixon’s chagrin, found itself isolated internationally in its position. Even Great Britain and France, America’s NATO allies abstained from key votes in the United Nations Security Council. The impact has also been felt in academic circles. Michael Walzer, a scholar at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, also considered India’s intervention in East Pakistan as humanitarian.[85] It is perhaps this Indian success that has resulted in the severe criticism of Kissinger’s foreign policy. However, throughout the conflict, the Nixon White House was aware of humanitarian issues in East Pakistan and did its best to ameliorate the suffering. An internal memo reported that US action had temporarily “averted widespread famine in East Pakistan” because of the shipment of over one million tonnes of rice by the United States.[86]

The United States also attempted to bring about a political settlement to the crisis. The records indicate that there were at least three initiatives by the United Statesto bring reconciliation between Mujib and Yahya: the first was in Calcutta in July 1971 when the US Consulate held talks with Qazi Zahirul Quayum of the Awami League—over thirteen meetings were held over three months. When the talks failed, Kissinger remarked that they could have worked had the Indians and the Bengalis wished.[87] However, Kissinger was aware that asking Yahya to talk to the Awami League was “like asking Abraham Lincoln to deal with Jefferson Davis.”[88] He therefore also worked through a second channel in Islamabad with Awami league members Yahya was prepared to deal with.[89] Yahya was asked to discuss avenues for a political settlement with Nurul Islam and SB Zaman of the Awami League. Unfortunately, these talks were also a dead end. In late July, another proposal was floated to get West Pakistani representatives to meet with East Pakistani leaders in Tehran. This proposal did not receive much interest from either the West Pakistanis or the East Pakistanis. As a Pakistani officer wrote, “there had, indeed, been some positive overtures to Islamabad from Calcutta via Washington, for the resumption of a political process-on two conditions only. First, an immediate halt to military operations and, second, the unconditional release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Yahya’s curt and snappy response, in each case, was ‘Nothing doing.’”[90]

It is therefore problematic to see Kissinger as a power-hungry, sinister figure in the White House. Attempts were made on various fronts to resolve the crisis: efforts were made to bring the East and West Pakistanis into dialogue, pressure was put on India not to escalate the situation, and other concerned powers, primarily the Soviet Union and Great Britain were consulted. In the meantime, the United States provided aid in terms of food and other supplies to help relieve the financial burden on India for the millions of refugees streaming across the border at the rate of at least 40,000 a day. Given the little influence the United States or other Great Powers had over Pakistan, there was not much more that could have been expected. Even China, who openly encouraged Pakistan to stand up to Indian “imperialism,” asked Pakistan to find political accommodation with East Pakistan.


Pakistan claims that the war began on November 22, 1971, when large numbers of the Mukti Bahini crossed the border from India to East Pakistan supported by Indian machine gunners and artillery on seven fronts. DK Palit, a senior officer in the Indian Army at the time, challenges this, reporting that “Pakistani troops supported by tanks and artillery launched an offensive” against Mukti Bahini training camps on the Indian side of the border. The Indian Army counterattacked at Kamalpur, Boyra, and Hilli.[91] Worried that China would seem to be the only country supporting Pakistan, Kissinger was alarmed at the prospect of the entire China initiative “going down the drain”.[92] Nixon instructed Kissinger “that all aid to both sides stops.”[93] Although neither India nor Pakistan was receiving substantial aid from the United States at this point, the aid cut-off was symbolic. As Kissinger told the Washington Special Actions Group, “We have to consider the aid program not only in terms of stopping an Indian attack. The Indians have been told that an attack would have serious consequences. They are facing us down, and we have to consider whether we can let them do it.”[94]

As the United States in concert with other major powers urged restraint, the fighting escalated even further. Yahya and Indira
Gandhi were locked in their position, and domestically, it was easier for both to go to war than attempt reconciliation at so late a date. So although the Foreign Ministry in both countries was inundated with appeals for restraint, the slow march to war gathered momentum. As more and more towns fell to the Mukti Bahini (supported by Indian artillery) in East Pakistan, Yahya Khan declared war on India in the west on December 3, 1971.

The period after December 3 saw Nixon and Kissinger lean heavily towards Pakistan. From their perspective, months of diplomatic labour had been for nought, and an Indian victory in the face of American opposition would have adverse effects on America’s image around the world, particularly in Iran, Indonesia, and the Middle East.[95] The White House decided to try and reinitiate arms supplies to Pakistan for the outstanding licenses Pakistan held and investigated selling Pakistan weapons through Iran, Jordan, and Turkey.[96] The White House also enquired about the provisions of CENTO and SEATO that may obligate the United States to help Pakistan.[97] The legal team reported that there was no legal obligation upon the United States against India. On December 8, Nixon instructed Kissinger to approach the Chinese to ask them if they could create some diversion on their border with India. Simultaneously, he authorised the deployment of the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal.[98] Nixon’s worry that the Chinese would lose interest in rapprochement with the United States is apparent. A conversation between Nixon, Kissinger, and Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs Alexander Haig illustrates the centrality of the China issue even so late into the South Asian Crisis:

Kissinger: The trip as such is a symbol of a policy. If the Chinese feel we are nice people, well-meaning, but totally irrelevant to their part of the world, they lose whatever slight, whatever incentives they have for that opening to us. The opening to us got the Soviets under control…we have to do a public statement to impress the Russians, to scare the Indians, to take a position with the Chinese.

Nixon: Chinese. That’s the main thing.

Kissinger: I mean we’re again at the Cambodian situation. We’ve got to go through the goddamn thing on our own. With whatever, with keeping the logistics to a minimum. And take care of the basic situation.

Nixon: All right. Fine. I agree.[99]

Nixon made sure the Chinese knew of American attempts to get weapons to Pakistan from Jordan and Turkey.[100] In terms of dealing with India, the United States sought assurances from the Indian ambassador thatIndia did not wish to annex any territory from West Pakistan.

American actions did not faze India. Indira Gandhi was prepared for the outcome of the crisis to be in blood, and she had also been fully aware of what the United States might do in such a case. Therefore India had deliberately signed the Indo-Soviet friendship accord as insurance.[101] On December 13, the Soviet Union’s ambassador to India, Nikolai M. Pegov, promised that the Soviets “‘would open a diversionary action’ against the Chinese and will not allow the Seventh Fleet to intervene.”[102] The Chinese note to the Indian government regarding “disturbances” on the Sikkim border therefore did not worry Indira
Gandhi. Once war was upon the subcontinent, the United States rapidly lost control over a situation they controlled only marginally at best. Nixon’s tilt towards Pakistan became most pronounced as Indira Gandhi frustrated the American president’s desire to help his friend, Yahya. On December 16, the India–Pakistan War came to an end. Dhaka had fallen, and India had declared a unilateral cease-fire in the West effective the next day which Yahya accepted. India had done exceedingly well in the conflict: they had taken over 93,000 prisoners of war and had captured strategic locations in Jammu & Kashmir and about 5,000 square miles of Pakistani territory in Punjab and Sindh. All was returned to Pakistan after the peace talks.


Nixon’s actions, or rather, reactions during the last three weeks of the crisis have cast a shadow over his handling of the South Asian Crisis the rest of the nine months. As has been argued above, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned with geopolitical realities during the crisis for justifiable reasons. In a world in which the hegemonic discourse was that of a Cold War balance of power, it was unreasonable to expect a strategically important region to be exempt from superpower machinations. India had experienced difficulty with its non-alignment two and half decades earlier, and no doubt understood this. Diplomatic historians, however, have questioned the value of Kissinger’s geopolitical calculus. Ultimately though, Zhou Enlai “was pleased with American behaviour. China itself had hedged its bets…but the United States stepped into the breach and, as Zhou was apparently persuaded, ‘saved’ West Pakistan—or so Bhutto told Kissinger.”[103] In a telegram dated February 18, 1972, Bhutto informed Nixon that “during [his] visit to Peking earlier [that] month, the Chinese leaders shared [Pakistan’s] appreciation of [Nixon’s] constructive role in the tragedy which struck Pakistan.”[104] So Kissinger’s efforts had borne fruit after all.

On the humanitarian question, it is undeniable that the casualties were unacceptably high and the acts committed horrendous, even given the lower projections of 300,000 dead. It is important to consider, however, what Nixon or Kissinger could have done. Western scholars have laid the blame squarely upon the American president and his National Security Advisor without once, to my knowledge, evaluating the more direct role of Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or the Pakistani generals in 1971. Some Pakistani scholars have done this, but unfortunately, much of their work has been a polemical rather than a scholarly exercise. Another factor to consider before marking South Asia as Kissinger’s debacle is what the world community did to stop the repression in East Pakistan. Despite loud noises condemning the events, the world body, by and large, stood quietly and watched the crisis unfold despite defections from within the Pakistan government to the Bengali side. As Dennis Kux writes, once the war had started, “the United States and other supporters of Pakistan then shifted to the General Assembly where the call for a cease-fire won overwhelming support by a vote of 104-11 with 10 abstentions. Sending troops across an international border, even for a popular cause, was not an action nation-states condoned.”[105] Jyotindra Nath Dixit writes bluntly,

Western democracies led by the US were concerned about the violation of human rights and the military repression in East Pakistan but would not support the liberation struggle…it is interesting that only India and four other countries in the entire UN advocated a political settlement of the East Pakistan crisis in consultation with the people of East Pakistan. The reaction of all the other countries was both ambiguous and pusillanimous.[106]

Given that the United States had little influence over Pakistan, a situation that plagues the US to this day, there was not much Nixon or Kissinger could have done. The special relationship the United States shared with Pakistan until the late 1960s had ended and with it the sort of leverage the United States might have once had in influencing political developments in Pakistan. In February 1971, Farland had written from Pakistan, “past experience provides little basis for optimism that external pressure will prove successful in resolving Indo-Pak disputes.”[107] In fact, Kissinger worked with the Indian and Pakistani delegations even in the last days of the war to ensure that minorities were not being persecuted.[108]

Kissinger’s other error, scholars and former administration officials have claimed, was his distorting evidence and misinterpreting data to suit his ends. However, as has been shown, there was little that Kissinger misinterpreted that could have been known without the benefit of hindsight. In light of Nixon’s admitted bias in favour of Pakistan, Kissinger’s and Nixon’s interpretations may be (and have been) questioned. However, many of his assumptions, that India preferred a unified Pakistan, that the Indo-Soviet Treaty was a challenge to the United States, that, after June, India sought the dismemberment of Pakistan, are not as obvious as observers have made it seem. In some cases, they are contestable even to this day. Some of Kissinger’s interpretations came from other sources. For example, Jha told Kissinger many times over that India preferred a united Pakistan because an independent Bangladesh would cause worry about Chinese infiltration into the region, as well as the problems an independent Bangladesh would cause with Bengali separatism in India.[109] Kissinger’s post-June suspicions of Indian designs on Pakistan have in fact been confirmed by later revelations. Field Marshall Manekshaw disclosed in 1977 that about nine months before the actual attack on East Pakistan, he was summoned by the Indian Cabinet and ordered to take action to put an end to the repression of Yahya Khan. When he explained that any feasible action would mean war, he was told, “then go to war.”[110] After the events of March 25, there was very little room to manoeuvre for any side to escape the violent outcome set by the logic of their respective positions. However, it has never been clear to me why Kissinger and Nixon have received an undue share of attention. Previous occupants of Kissinger’s posts have also committed, in a moral sense, some rather heinous deeds. The involvement of the United States in Korea, or in Vietnam for that matter, cost thousands of lives. American activities in Latin America and Africa before 1969 were not particularly altruistic either. Kissinger’s term as National Security Advisor, at least with regard to the South Asian Crisis, therefore seems to maintain a tradition of cold realpolitik established in the post-1945 era.

There can be no defence of the dangerous behaviour exhibited by Nixon and Kissinger between December 3 and December 16. The incitement of China to cause trouble along its border with India, the plan to sell weapons to Pakistan through other client states such as Iran, Jordan, and Turkey, the inspiration to come to the aid of Pakistan through clauses in the SEATO or CENTO treaties, and the deployment of the Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal so close to Soviet naval vessels were all rash and cannot be condoned. However, these motions were taken only at the very end of the conflict and did not particularly affect the loss of human lives in East Pakistan. Thus, as deplorable as these actions were, they cannot be said to have contributed to the South Asian Crisis in any meaningful manner.

Finally, most scholars in their criticism of Kissinger and Nixon fail to recognise the two central figures in this entire drama: Yahya Khan and Indira Gandhi. Every proposal for a peaceful settlement in East Pakistan met with objections from either Yahya Khan or Indira Gandhi. The Indian prime minister refused to accept UN observers along the border, made the return of refugees and the release of Mujibur Rahman a central condition for negotiations, and demanded a political settlement before the refugees could return, knowing full well that what she was asking for, in essence, was East Pakistani independence. For his part, Yahya was influenced – badgered and coerced – by Bhutto’s adamant refusal to negotiate with Mujib, and after March 25, was unwilling to negotiate with the Awami League.[111] What Yahya wanted was to be bailed out of a sticky situation now that he had his back to the wall. Thus, the two personalities that were able to controls events most were Yahya and Indira
Gandhi, neither of whom have been studied in a comparative and international manner in relation to the crisis. Many of the recent studies of Kissinger’s role in South Asia have neglected South Asian leaders and the roles they played in events. Like other leaders of nations on the Cold War periphery, South Asian politicians were, in the words of Tony Smith, “sometimes fearful and defensive, but just as often determined nationalists, hardened realists, principled idealists, high-rolling risk takers, committed ideologues, brazen manipulators, and opportunists able to use world crises for their own ends…wounded national pride, historically conditioned fears, racial ideologies and demagogic leaders looking to solve deeply felt problems interacted with the superpower struggle in complex ways.”[112]

All things considered, the United States came out of the South Asian Crisis far better than could have been expected. Relations with Islamic states actually improved, China was opened, and the United States remained the chief benefactor in the Indian subcontinent. Although it is impossible to ascertain to what extent Kissinger’s South Asia policy affected these other developments, as Sisson and Rose note, an overtly anti-Pakistan policy may have hindered US relations in other parts of the world.[113] The South Asian Crisis did indeed have components other than international. It would do well for historians to investigate the local nature of the conflict to arrive at a fuller understanding of those nine months. Research, not only on the Indian and Pakistani side, but also on the Bangladeshi and Chinese side needs to be done before we can gain comprehensive knowledge of the events.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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