The Men Behind Yahya in the Indo-Pak War of 1971
By Stephen R. Shalom, professor of Political Science, William Paterson University, New Jersey.

In 1971, Pakistan became engulfed in civil war. Pakistan consisted of two regions separated by more than 1,000 miles, with India in between. The two regions shared a Muslim majority, but differed in language, ethnicity and culture. West Pakistan politically dominated the more numerous, largely Bengali population of the East and exploited them economically. The callous indifference shown by the authorities in Islamabad in the West to a devastating cyclone that struck the East in November 1970 further inflamed separatist sentiment. 
When the military government of Yahya Khan permitted the country's first free elections in December, the Awami League, a middle-class Bengali nationalist party headed by Sheik Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), swept 167 of the 169 East Pakistan seats, giving it an absolute majority in the National Assembly. But Yahya then announced that he was postponing the convening of the Assembly. Calls for independence and communal violence erupted in the East and on the evening of March 25-26 the Pakistani army - that is to say, West Pakistani troops - arrested Mujib and launched a brutal crackdown on the Awami League and on Bengalis more generally.
In the center of Dacca, the main city of East Pakistan, the army set fire to 25 square blocks and then mowed down those trying to escape. Thousands were massacred in Dacca in the first few days and the killings spread throughout the countryside. Bengali guerrilla resistance led to further bloody reprisals. U.S. consular officials in Dacca reported privately to Washington that "selective genocide" was going on. A World Bank mission reported in July that in every city it visited there were areas razed and in every district there were "villages which have simply ceased to exist." Sober estimates by the summer put the death toll between two and three hundred thousand. ("When one fights, one does not throw flowers," Yahya told the press). Literally millions of Bengalis fled across the border into India in what was probably history's largest one-way movement of refugees in so short a time.
World opinion was horrified at the carnage. But from the Nixon administration, there was not a word of condemnation. Officers at the U.S. consulate in Dacca, East Pakistan, sent a cable to Washington dissenting from the official policy: "Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities....we have chosen not to intervene, even morally" - whereupon Nixon ordered the Consul-General transferred.
The U.S. moral failure began earlier. At the beginning of March, in a meeting of top policymakers called the Senior Review Group (SRG), a State Department official suggested that the U.S. try to discourage Yahya from using force. According to one insider, the official did not press the point "after Kissinger cautioned SRG members to keep in mind President Nixon's 'special relationship' with Yahya.... SRG members concluded that 'massive inaction' was the best policy for the U.S.." "All agencies agreed that the U.S. should not get involved."
Nixon's "special relationship" with the Pakistani dictator had two sources: (1) a general fondness for right-wing generals. (When Yahya visited Washington in October 1970, Nixon assured him that "nobody has occupied the White House who is friendlier to Pakistan.") (2) Yahya had agreed to let Pakistan serve as the jumping off point for Kissinger's secret trip to China in July 1971. Kissinger wrote that "Pakistan was our sole channel to China; once it was closed off it would take months to make alternative arrangements." This excuse is nonsense. Romania had already been established as an alternate channel, and there was no reason for a secret channel. As Kissinger acknowledged, the Chinese opposed the trip's secrecy. It was insisted upon by Nixon and Kissinger.
Ten days before the bloodbath, the CIA, the Pentagon and electronic intelligence sources all detected the Pakistani military preparations, yet Washington chose not to warn the Bengalis. The day after the violence erupted, Kissinger told a high level meeting that President Nixon "doesn't want to do anything.... He does not favor a very active policy."
Private communications between the U.S. and Pakistan were extremely restrained. Nixon warmly praised Yahya for his statesmanship and expressed understanding of his difficult circumstances. 
In their rampage, Pakistani troops used U.S. weapons, among others. Public criticism of U.S. policy forced the administration to announce in April a ban on further arms deliveries to Islamabad. Two months later it was discovered that the ban did not apply to arms licenses issued before March 25. To do otherwise, the State Department explained, would "be interpreted as sanctions" and "seen as an unwarranted intrusion into an essentially internal problem." To cut off arms "would cause Pakistan to rely exclusively on other sources of supply" - a rather lame excuse given that the main other source was China, with whom the U.S. was now establishing ties.
The pre-March 25 licenses were supposed to cover only "non-lethal" military equipment, but reporters found that "non-lethal" included ammunition. Asked when ammunition might be considered lethal, a State Department spokesperson replied that this was "a theological question." After March 25, ten ships sailed from the U.S. with military cargo bound for Pakistan worth some $5 million. Congress further discovered that the Department of Defense continued to approve weapons requests from the Pakistani military after March 25. The State Department testified that these approvals, worth some $10 million, could not override the ban on issuing new arms export licenses, but certainly they did not give Yahya a very strong message of U.S. disapproval of his actions. By July 1971, the U.S. was the only western nation still delivering military goods to Pakistan. By early November, Washington finally announced that the military pipeline had finally dried up.
Substantial international humanitarian assistance was sent to East Pakistan (where famine threatened) and to India (where all the refugees were massed). The World Bank recommended in June that no new development aid go to West Pakistan until a political accommodation was reached in the East. Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and West Germany among others suspended their aid, but the U.S. did not. As the U.S. representative at a meeting of aid donors declared, "the U.S. did not plan to use aid as a lever to secure a political solution."
Despite administration objections, the House of Representatives voted to suspend aid. This provoked Nixon's first public statement on U.S. policy toward the crisis: "We are not going to engage in public pressure on the Government of West Pakistan. That would be totally counterproductive." U.S. development aid continued to flow to Pakistan.
Nixon's support for military and economic aid, and his statement that the crisis was an internal Pakistani matter, must have strengthened the dictator's resolve. "Don't squeeze Yahya at this time," Nixon instructed U.S. officials, May 2.
The U.S. was a major contributor to the international relief operations in East Pakistan. A State Department official believes that this aid was intended to "defuse pressures upon the White House to exert influence on Yahya to make meaningful political concessions." At a meeting on July 31, when the Deputy AID administrator suggested that Washington recommend to Yahya that the army be removed from civilian-type administration in East Pakistan so that relief efforts could go forward, Kissinger barked: "Why is it our business how they govern themselves?"
In the meantime, guerrilla war raged in East Pakistan and India increasingly provided training, arms and bases for Bengali guerrillas. Pakistani and Indian troops exchanged artillery fire across the border and made some cross-border incursions. In late November, Indian troops took up positions in East Pakistan. On December 3, the Pakistani air force launched attacks on Indian airfields and a full scale war was on. Two weeks later, Pakistan's armed forces in the East surrendered to the Indians and a cease-fire was agreed to in the West. Bangladesh became an independent nation.
The millions of refugees that had poured into India between March and December 1971 had caused incredible hardship for the government in New Delhi. The refugees were concentrated in the Indian state of West Bengal, where they constituted more than 20% of a chronically impoverished population. Recurrent outbreaks of disease, including cholera, threatened to spread beyond the camps. Hundreds of thousands of additional refugees were living among the general Indian population, competing for scarce jobs. Indian officials considered it essential that the refugees return to their homes, but this was obviously never going to happen as long as the West Pakistani army was running amok in the East. 
Another Indian motive for intervention was more problematic. Indian officials believed that Bengali independence forces would become increasingly radicalized. Eventually the guerrillas would defeat the Pakistani army, which was essentially fighting a colonial war a thousand miles from home. The longer it took to achieve victory the more likely the leadership of the movement - and of post-independence Bangladesh - would fall to the left. The Indian government already had enough difficulties with its own volatile Bengali population: New Delhi routinely took over the West Bengal state government for being too radical. Indian leaders were unwilling to accept an independent leftist Bengali nation just over the border. 
In November and December, Yahya virtually cut himself off from all outside influences except his almost daily visits with the U.S. ambassador. Despite this unusual opportunity for leverage, the U.S. did not press Yahya to accept either the independence of Bangladesh or the release of Mujib. When full-scale war broke out in early December, Kissinger told top policy-makers, "I am getting hell every half hour from the President that we are not being tough enough on India.... He wants to tilt in favor of Pakistan." Kissinger told his Senior Review Group as early as July 30, 1971 - more than four months before the war - that "the President has said repeatedly that we should lean toward Pakistan."
On December 4, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, George Bush Sr., began his remarks with what one commentator has called "unconscious irony." "It is time for the UN to bring the great moral authority of this body effectively and quickly to bear to preserve the peace between two of its largest members." The time for the UN to have acted was back in March, not nine months and hundreds of thousands of corpses later. Secretary General U Thant had tried to get the Security Council to deal with the crisis in July, but neither the U.S. nor anyone else was interested in hearing the issue.
Bush declared in the Security Council in December that Pakistan's "tragic mistake" did not entitle India to use force. The U.S. introduced a resolution in the Security Council and then, after a Soviet veto, in the General Assembly, calling for an immediate cease-fire and troop withdrawal. Kissinger told U.S. officials that he was willing to have the resolution include a general reference to political accommodation in East Pakistan but "we will certainly not imply or suggest any specifics, such as the release of Mujib." The General Assembly endorsed the resolution by a wide margin.
There was a serious danger that the war between India and Pakistan might spread. For some months, officials in Islamabad warned that in the event of war, China would not be neutral, and Indian leaders - who signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in October - replied that they would not be alone either. Kissinger reportedly suggested in Islamabad in July that it would be helpful if India received a signal from China that it was strongly committed to maintaining the unity of Pakistan and that in case of war, China would not remain a "silent spectator." In December, Kissinger thought there was a real possibility that Beijing might go to war. He instructed his assistant that if the Chinese informed the U.S. that they were going to move, Washington should reply that it would not ignore Soviet intervention. Apparently, no word of discouragement was to be offered, though the entire region might be consumed in war, and the U.S. guarantee would, if anything, make a Chinese decision for war more likely. However, the Chinese proved more restrained than Kissinger and did not get involved.
Kissinger asked his advisers whether the U.S. could authorize the transfer to Pakistan of military equipment from allies such as Jordan. Told that it would be illegal, Kissinger sent letter to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran keeping open the possibility of weapons transfers and letting the Indians know these transfers were being contemplated. When Jordan's King Hussein requested permission to send eight U.S. jets to Pakistan, Nixon authorized sending ten and promised Hussein that they would be replaced.
Nixon and Kissinger claimed to be worried that India would not content itself with defeating Pakistani forces in the East, but was determined to destroy West Pakistan as well, even though Indian military moves in the West were basically defensive holding actions. Washington dispatched a naval task force headed by the nuclear-armed aircraft carrier "Enterprise" to the Bay of Bengal. On December 10, the commander of Pakistan troops in the East tried to arrange a cease-fire and transfer of power to Bangladeshi officials. Encouraged by the prospects of U.S. and Chinese intervention on his side, Yahya ordered his troops to fight on. (Civilians continued to suffer: as it retreated the Pakistani army killed Bengali non-combatants, and Bengal-is killed non-Bengali Pakistanis.) On December 16, Pakistani forces in the East surrendered unconditionally.
Despite the end of the war, conditions in Bangladesh were still grim. Washington did provide food aid, but in September 1974 it threatened to cut off the aid unless Bangladesh stopped exporting jute (its principle crop) to Cuba. In 1975, the Mujib government in Dacca was overthrown in a military coup, perhaps with U.S. involvement, and the new regime became heavily dependent on the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia, while cutting its ties to Moscow and New Delhi. 

Source: "The U.S. Response to Humanitarian Crises," Z Magazine, Sept. 1991. Available online (with footnotes) at web site:

For more information about the author, and selected writings, see his web site:


The White House Tapes

"The Indians put on their sanctimonious peace Gandhi-like, Christ-like attitude," Nixon told George Bush Sr., then U.S. ambassador to the UN on December 8, 1971. "Aggression is wrong," he lectured Bush. "Those god damn communist countries are engaged in it, but even if a democracy [such as India] engages in it, it's wrong." 

For image-sake, Nixon told advisers it was paramount to convince people he was neither anti-India nor pro-Pakistan, but instead "pro-peace." 

In private, however, Nixon denigrated the Indians. "The Indians just smother you out there with all their devious tricky things," he once said to McCormack. 

Source: Mark Wilkinson, "White House tapes show Nixon's bias against India," Rediff on Net, October 27, 2000. Online at: