When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. The same happens when they make love. — African saying
PASSAGE of over four decades has not eased the pain of the traumatic events of 1971. Much has been written on the subject. The break-up of Pakistan has too often been viewed in the context of internal and regional upheavals. Little attention has been paid to the international dimension of the momentous events in the subcontinent. This factor – though hardly the center-piece – did have a profound bearing on the painful denouement. Possibility cannot be ruled out that the internal upheaval was also engineered by local global pawns ‘tasked’ to do so. An attempt will be made in the paragraphs that follow to explore the impact of what may be termed as the external factor.
All in all, the events of 1971 culminated in a thorough realignment of forces in Asia. South Asia, in particular, was shaken to the core. This region would never be the same again. Coming to brass tacks, if one were to single out the one crucial event around which all the others revolved it was, without doubt, Dr. Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing (July 1971). This history-making event – that was facilitated by Pakistan – had a profound bearing on the developments that followed in due course. Dr. Kissinger described it in the following words, “When we completed drafting the communiqué announcing my secret visit to China in July 1971, Chou En-Lai remarked that the announcement would shake the world. He was right …overnight it transformed the structure of international politics”.
Understandably, both Kissinger and Chou En-Lai were viewing the development from the vantage point of their respective countries – one an acknowledged superpower and the other well on its way to becoming a major player in its own right. The irony of it all was that the crunch of this momentous development was to be borne by a relatively small country of South Asia that had (unwittingly?) got embroiled in what was, in effect, a Big Power game.
At this point, a cursory look over the shoulder may not be out of order. Ever since 1969 – when Brezhnev had propounded his Asian Collective Security ‘doctrine’ – the Soviet Union had been trying assiduously to woo the countries of South Asia in favor of its own scheme of things. These efforts were dictated by the Soviet preoccupation, at the time, with its policy aimed at ‘the containment of China’. Looking at the broader perspective, the one state crucial to this scheme of things was Pakistan, which had developed friendly links with China.
The brewing crisis in East Pakistan presented an embarrassing situation for the Soviets, in that they were being driven towards an open pro-India and anti-Pakistan stance on the question. And yet, despite close and growing friendship with India, the Soviet Union had continued to resist the pressure in this direction for quite a while. During his visit to Algeria in the summer of 1971, for instance, Kosygin had made pointed reference to Pakistan’s ‘territorial integrity’.
The Kissinger visit to China came as a bombshell. Understandably, it was this event that tipped the applecart. While busy tying up the loose ends to firm up an arrangement aimed at the containment of China, the Soviet Union was instead suddenly confronted with the specter of ‘US-China collusion’ in the region. Pakistan’s role in arranging the Sino-American dialogue piqued Moscow. It was this that apparently prompted the Soviet Union to engage in what President Nixon termed “fanciful speculation of a US-China alignment”.
Exactly a month to the day (9 August) after Kissinger’s ‘secret’ flight to Beijing, the infamous Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed. Henry Kissinger summed up the Soviet strategic decision thus: “There was … an ominous side to Soviet Policy. In the growing India-Pakistan conflict, the Soviet Union discovered an opportunity to humiliate China and to punish Pakistan for having served as intermediary”. Soviet green-light appears to have, subsequently, facilitated India in its fateful decision to send its regular forces into East Pakistan.
Pakistan’s establishment, on its part, appears to have made no calculations at all in respect of the ominous consequences of the forces it had (inadvertently?) set in motion. On 1 October 1971, a senior official of the Soviet Foreign Ministry said the following to (a somewhat mystified) Ambassador of Pakistan in Moscow: “You are the victims of what we call an objective situation. Just now a game is being played for very high stakes and it has not got so much to do with you …You should understand the situation, as well as our position”. This conversation was duly reported to Islamabad, which apparently – though surprisingly – took it in its stride.
On its part, the United States – for reasons of its own – made no serious effort to save Pakistan from dismemberment. In effect, the U.S. appeared to have conveniently looked the other way. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “There was no question of ‘saving’ East Pakistan. Both Nixon and I had recognized for months that its independence was inevitable”. So much for taking a sympathetic view of the travails of an ‘ally’ in deep trouble! The US, though, was not at all oblivious of the repercussions of this turn of events in the overall global strategic context. Pakistan could be conveniently thrown to the wolves; not so America’s strategic interests. The rest is history. One does not need an Aesop to educe a moral out of this tale!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.