Conflict and Diplomacy: US and the Birth of Bangladesh; Pakistan Divides
Dr. Bhartendu Kumar Singh ·       

More than 37 years on, the India - Pakistan War on Bangladesh still provides enough fodder for engendering new perspectives. Conflict & Diplomacy is one such example. The authors, having served earlier in the Indian Army, have used the declassified material released by the US State Department to study the 1971 War that led to the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state much to the chagrin of the US. At the same time, the balance of power in South Asia changed through dismemberment of Pakistan and reassertion of authority by India. While there were many stakeholders in the war, the focus of the book is primarily on the conduct of US diplomacy: much of that took place in the White House between President Richard Nixon and his National Security Assistant Henry Kissinger on the one hand and their diplomatic interlocutors in Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad and of course at the UN headquarters in New York.

Many American publications on the 1971 War have taken an anti - India stand, holding it responsible for precipitating the crisis and forcing a military solution on Pakistan. Henry Kissinger, in his book The White House Years, is the protagonist of this school. As he wrote in that book, the Bangladesh War was a carefully worked out plan designed by Indians. The Conflict & Diplomacy is a critique of this hypothesis. The authors, based upon their interpretations of the declassified materials, argue that failure of US diplomacy was one of the many reasons that led to war between India and Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh.

As the crisis unfolded in early 1971, chinks in the US diplomatic corps were apparent. While the diplomats based in Islamabad, Delhi and Dhaka did convey the trajectory of Bengali nationalism as it took a divergent path, the White House chose to ignore them. Those based in Dhaka, perturbed over the approach of the US towards the then East Pakistan, even sent a signed telegram. President Nixon, as expected, ordered Consul General Archer Blood transferred from Dhaka. This did not mean the end of dissent for the Nixon - Kissinger team. As their conversation reveals, they bore a deep distrust of the South Asia specialists in State Department for being sympathetic to the Indian viewpoint. Often they complained of the State Department being out of sync and not falling in line with the established view of the White House.

More than the failure of US diplomacy to act in a harmonious manner, it was the strategic assumptions of Henry Kissinger that thwarted any constructive role for the US in preventing the crisis. He doubted India's capacity to wage and win a war in East Pakistan and cut it off from West Pakistan. Also, he was overly optimistic about China coming to Pakistan's help by opening another front and the Soviet Union baulk under US pressure. Neither of the two happened. Nixon, who relied heavily on Kissinger, could not decide US policy in a crisis that was threatening to turn into war.

It was not that the US was unaware of the seeming refugee population from East Pakistan to neighbouring parts of India in the wake of brutal onslaught by the Pakistani military. The CIA reports relayed the gravity of the deteriorating situation in East Bengal and the possible spill over such as anti - US public opinion in India and a pre-emptive attack by Pakistan (p. 47). Nixon wanted to avoid a situation where the US could be accused of having encouraged the break up of Pakistan. He failed to read the gravity of the reports coming from the CIA and the missions in Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad. If only he had done a periodic review and see if the developments were in tandem with their basic policy tenets in South Asia, as the authors point out, US role could have been more influential.

When the war broke out, a desperate US found it difficult to sit on the sidelines and be a mute witness to Pakistan's dismemberment. While it was willing to press for maximum autonomy for East Pakistan, such arrangement was to be within the framework of 'united Pakistan'. But it was too late. India had already recognised Bangladesh. Much of what happened in the Security Council and then in the General Assembly has been well captured elsewhere in other books. Enough has also been written elsewhere about the entry of USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal during the last days of the war. Whatever be the stated motives, it was not taken to very kindly in India. If only the authors could have extracted the relevant papers and throw some light on the real intentions of the White House in packing off the aircraft carrier when the war had already taken a decisive turn, the book could have been more useful. Fortunately for India, the limited war objectives and an early victory in Dhaka ensured that the objective of sending the warship close to Indian waters remained unfulfilled.

When the war ended, Nixon and Kissinger again patted each other for bringing an early end to confrontation and ensuring survival of West Pakistan. But the readers who go through the pages would certainly come with a palliative conclusion. While India's limited war objectives and focus on East Pakistan certainly brought an early end to the war, the Soviet Union also played a vital role in supplementing India's assurances of having no territorial ambitions in West Pakistan.

This book may not reveal, but Americans who are witness to the 1971 War still feel the pangs of their country's helplessness against India's ruthless pursuit of war objectives. The US threats of economic sanctions did not work. Worse, the US failed to convince Britain and France, its old allies, to take punitive actions against India. Even China did not move beyond those verbal gymnastics in the Security Council. Much of it was because the Nixon - Kissinger duo failed to read the progress of Bengali nationalism as reported regularly through their diplomatic channels. At no stage did the Americans try encouraging democracy in Pakistan. Despite the pro - American stance of the Awami League, it got no moral support from US when it was denied power despite a triumph in elections. Probably Pakistan was too important in the Cold War calculations to be told how to set its own house in order!

While the book does touch the great power politics amongst themselves and on institutional platforms, the authors have ignored the debates in American society and bureaucratic circles over the Bangladesh issue. As the spearhead of the US diplomacy, the conduct of State Department has not been researched adequately. Much of that must surely be available in the declassified records. In the absence of that, it cannot be said with certainty the amount of public support enjoyed by the White House on its diplomatic handling of the Bangladesh issue.

One can also question the originality of the book. The book is merely a collection of extracts from the declassified papers. There is hardly any contribution by the authors themselves except for sporadic explanatory notes. They have not even bothered to conclude their findings and leave the readers to make their own judgements! This is certainly an innovative style in book writing. Perhaps the credit should go to the US State Department that made the original papers public. Overall, the authors must be given their due for selective filtering of documents to convey their message. The book should have a palliative effect on people who view the 1971 India - Pakistan War from Kissinger's prism.