Henry Kissinger has thrown new light on Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971. For perhaps the very first time since he and President Richard Nixon adopted a patently pro-Pakistan policy throughout the nine months of the Yahya Khan junta’s repression in what was looking like an increasingly vanishing East Pakistan, Kissinger gives us fresh food for thought. It is of course another matter whether we will take his word for what he now tells us.
In the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic, the former US Secretary of State tells Jeffrey Goldberg in a fairly exhaustive interview that he and Nixon had reached a deal with President Yahya Khan in November 1971 on the crisis: that Pakistan would grant independence to Bangladesh in March 1972. Here he is in his own words:
After the opening to China via Pakistan, America engaged in increasingly urging Pakistan to grant autonomy to Bangladesh. In November, the Pakistani president agreed with Nixon to grant independence the following March.
Observe the incongruities in Kissinger’s revelations, if they can at all be called revelations. By November 1971, the soon-to-emerge Bangladesh had already lost millions of its citizens to genocide committed by the Pakistan army; the Mukti Bahini was increasingly rattling Pakistan’s soldiers everywhere; and Bengali refugees continued to flood into India. The Mujibnagar government, or the Bengali government-in-exile, was in favour of nothing less than a military defeat of Pakistan’s forces. Even as a clamour arose in the United States and in the rest of the world for an end to the atrocities being committed in East Pakistan, not a whiff of protest was raised against the actions of the army by the Nixon-Kissinger dispensation. The despatches on Pakistani atrocities by the American consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, to Washington were treated with disdain both by Ambassador Farland in Rawalpindi and Nixon and Kissinger in the White House. In the end, Blood saw his diplomatic career come to a screeching end, for he had displeased his superiors. But note the new, and certainly false, note in Kissinger today:
The US diplomats witnessing the Bangladesh tragedy were ignorant of the opening to China. Their descriptions were heartfelt and valid, but we could not respond publicly. But we made available vast quantities of food and undertook diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation.
It is difficult to take Kissinger seriously here, for a host of reasons. For one thing, all the other actors in the crisis, especially Nixon and Yahya Khan, are dead. For another, during the entire course of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, the White House said or indicated nothing that could be construed as policy that would eventually be sympathetic to Bengalis. And then there is the matter of the visit undertaken by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the US in November 1971, the very period in which Kissinger and his president purportedly reached their understanding on Bangladesh. The talks between President Nixon and Mrs. Gandhi, with their aides (including Kissinger) in attendance were underlined by hostility, not least because to the Americans the Indian leader was anathema. She was pushing Pakistan, America’s long-time ally and at that point its conduit to China, into a corner, wasn’t she? Besides, had there been any agreement on Bangladesh’s being granted freedom in March 1972, Nixon and Kissinger would or could have enlightened Mrs. Gandhi about it. They did not. The reason? There was no such deal.
The definitive conclusion is that in the Atlantic interview, Henry Kissinger was being very economical with the truth. Here you have Indira Gandhi touring Washington and other global capitals on a mission to publicise the Bangladesh cause, knowing nothing about the Nixon-Yahya ‘plans’ for Bangladesh. In the Atlantic, Kissinger has a new spin on the Indian role in the war, probably as an excuse for why the ‘November plan’ did not work out:
The following December . . . India invaded East Pakistan (which is today Bangladesh).
The spin, as spins usually are, is not convincing, for at another end you have Zulfikar Ali Bhutto leading a high-powered Pakistani delegation, at the behest of Yahya Khan, to China to seek Beijing’s support in Islamabad’s likely war with Delhi. The Bhutto visit too took place in November, which is proof again that despite what Kissinger says now, there was no Bangladesh plan hammered out in Rawalpindi and Washington. Remember too that in November 1971, the secret trial of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman before a special military tribunal in Mianwali was either drawing to a conclusion or had come to an end.
Given all these factors, there is little reason to attach validity to Kissinger’s new thoughts on the Bangladesh crisis forty five years after the hostility the Nixon administration demonstrated towards the Bengali struggle. In the Atlantic interview, Kissinger makes clear to Goldberg the difficulties, in his view, Washington was under in 1971:
The US had to navigate between Soviet pressures; Indian objectives; Chinese suspicions; and Pakistani nationalism.
Much fallacy underlines Kissinger’s assertions. It is a cooking of the book he engages in. America was not navigating between the impediments he cites, but had clearly come to believe that Pakistan needed to be prevented from collapsing in its eastern wing. American maneouvres to drive a wedge in the Bangladesh government-in-exile, through patronizing Foreign Minister Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed (who was scheduled to visit the UN in September as Bangladesh’s spokesman and in all likelihood would have dissented from his government by urging a deal within the concept of a united Pakistan) are part of history. Again, the record does not show that Nixon and Kissinger let the Soviet Union, which had concluded a deal on defence cooperation with India in August 1971, know that the US was leaning on Pakistan to arrive at a political solution to the crisis. Neither did the White House take any steps to keep leading American politicians, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, in the loop on its diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Bangladesh.
Henry Kissinger is guilty here of twisting the truth. He notes that ‘India invaded East Pakistan’, which statement does not tally with reality. If President Nixon truly reached a deal with General Yahya Khan in November on independence for Bangladesh in March 1972, which would be a full year since the beginning of Bengali guerrilla resistance against Pakistani military occupation, how was it that he did not or would not prevent Yahya Khan from ordering his air force to strike Indian bases on 3 December?
There are other gaping holes in the new Kissinger interpretation of 1971. Assuming that Washington were able to convince Yahya Khan to let the Bengalis go their separate way in March 1972, with whom would the junta negotiate the terms of a settlement? There is nothing on the record to suggest that the generals were ever in contact with the Bangladesh government-in-exile on a possible political end to the war. And nothing has so far emerged of the regime making overtures to the incarcerated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on a negotiated end to a crisis it had precipitated and was unable to roll back.
Was the opening to China worth the sacrifices, the deaths, experienced in the India-Pakistan Bangladesh crisis?
The question is Jeffrey Goldberg’s. Observe how Kissinger dissembles:
Your question on Bangladesh demonstrates how this issue has been confused in our public debate. There was never the choice between suffering in Bangladesh and the opening to China.