Thursday, November 21, 2013

US president Nixon complicit in East Pakistan genocide, author says

Imagine a country whose regime is engaged in the mass murder of its own citizens, forcing millions of refugees to flood across the borders, destabilising neighbouring states. The only solution to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis, it seems, is to bring the atrocities to an end, even if it means using military force.

It’s not Syria that we are talking about, but the equally momentous tragedy of East Pakistan in 1971, the subject of Gary J Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, is also the author of a highly regarded book on the origins of humanitarian intervention titled Freedom’s Battle.

The Blood Telegram takes this interest in human rights and politics a fascinating step further. Bass examines the multiple dimensions of the East Pakistan conflict, which led to the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971, India’s victory in that war and the establishment of an independent Bangladesh. His work relies on years of research in the U S and Indian archives as well as on the Nixon White House tapes and memoirs from those years. He also interviewed many people involved in the events of 1971, or their relatives. This makes for a rich book, constantly shifting between Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad, all corners of the narrative expertly covered by the author.

For Bass, whom I interviewed by email, this “crushingly difficult” task was necessary because “people can’t begin to hold their government accountable if they don’t know the facts, and I think a lot of Americans will be shocked to hear what President Richard Nixon and [national security adviser, later secretary of state] Henry Kissinger were secretly doing”.

Bass’s topic is the genocide carried out by the Pakistani military regime of Yahya Khan in East Pakistan. In 1970, Pakistani parliamentary elections resulted in a majority for the Bengali-nationalist Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which sought autonomy for East Pakistan. The Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis had long been restless, feeling they were second-class citizens in a country run by West Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking elite.

This displeasure reached new heights when a cyclone hit East Pakistan in November 1970, killing more than 230,000 people. The response of the Pakistani authorities was lethargic — “It was almost as if they just didn’t care,” recalled Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dacca (now Dhaka). When elections were held in December, the resentment helped fuel the Awami League’s sweeping victory.

Faced with a humiliating loss, President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the opening of the new national assembly in March 1971. On March 26, he ordered his army to carry out Operation Searchlight, a military intervention in East Pakistan that aimed to crush Bengali nationalism. Anywhere between a few hundred thousand to three million people were killed, while up to 10 million crossed into the Indian state of West Bengal, most of them Hindus who were a prime target of the Pakistani army, creating a refugee crisis of massive proportions. The Nixon administration, which viewed Khan as an ally in the Cold War, not only did nothing to stop the killing, it sided with Pakistan. “American presidents looked the other way in Bosnia or Rwanda,” says Bass. “But in Bangladesh, Nixon and Kissinger were actively supporting one side, which was the military government cracking down on its own civilian population. This wasn’t a story of passivity.” At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger illegally sent arms to the Pakistani government, even after the slaughter had begun and despite opposition in the US Congress.

There was something else. The president was preparing the American opening to China with Kissinger, and Khan was acting as the principal intermediary with Beijing. The Americans feared that any pressure to end the killing would derail their Chinese strategy.

While few would disapprove of the advantageous consequences of the Sino-American rapprochement, Bass has some reservations. “We tend to remember only the positive side of the ledger. We shouldn’t forget how many Bengalis died or became refugees as collateral damage for the opening to China,” he says.

Bass believes that “in democratic countries, foreign policy isn’t just the dictate of the king or president, but also a reflection of what that society believes in”. A theme in his book is how two democracies, India and the United States, found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict with deep moral implications, and how America’s choices provoked a crisis of conscience among some American officials. Bass explains: “The United States, like other major democracies, has its own particular national security priorities, but also has a liberal ideology that champions human rights everywhere, and a free domestic system where citizens can mobilise for helping foreigners.”

In East Pakistan, the American duality between the amoral pursuit of national interests and moral aspirations led to unintended consequences. Among those shocked at the time by Nixon’s and Kissinger’s conduct was Blood, the consul-general. With other staff members at the Dacca consulate, he sent a blistering cable of dissent to the State Department condemning US policy. It would become known as “the Blood telegram” — a term both literally and figuratively apt.

The cable affirmed: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities … Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya [Khan]a message defending democracy, condemning arrest of the leader of a democratically elected majority party (incidentally, pro-West) and calling for an end to repressive measures and bloodshed.”

The telegram enraged the president and secretary of state, and ensured that Blood would never get an ambassadorship. After he was recalled from Dacca, the diplomat was banished to the State Department’s personnel office. Many years later, his wife would lament her husband’s professional fate to Bass, and add: “For some reason, they thought it could be kept quiet. All of those killings.”

He was not alone. The US ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, was equally incensed by what he was seeing. However, as a former Republican representative and senator, he was more difficult to silence and boldly confronted Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office. Keating warned them that their Pakistani ally was committing genocide. Both would wince at the ambassador’s defiance, and after he had left the room they “never mentioned the accusation of genocide, nor expressed a hint of compassion for the Hindus or the refugees”, Bass writes in his book.

American collaboration with Yahya Khan was possible, Bass believes, because the public was consumed with Vietnam. “Americans were eager to get the troops back home,” he says. “Nixon was very canny and very effective about branding those who spoke up for the Bengalis … as dragging America into another civil war in Asia. That was the last thing that public opinion would have accepted in 1971.”

How strange that Nixon and Kissinger, who together had helped undermine the Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968, fearing a deal would hand the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey an election victory, could usurp that argument with a straight face. Tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese would die because of the delay they had shamefully brought about, before they later accepted virtually the same conditions on the table in 1968.

That same callousness was on full display in East Pakistan, culminating in a confrontation with India, for which both men had ill-concealed contempt. Nixon did not like India’s closeness to the Soviet Union and had not forgotten that Indira Gandhi, a notoriously aloof politician, had treated him discourteously while he was on a visit to India when he was languishing in the political wilderness.

This hostility against India led Washington to take decisions that were both irresponsible and duplicitous. Kissinger encouraged the Chinese to deploy troops near the Indian border in the event of an Indian attack against Pakistan. The only problem is that this might have led to a dangerous altercation with the Soviet Union, since India would likely have asked for Moscow’s assistance. The Chinese, realising the risks, never fulfilled the American wishes.

Most disgraceful, Kissinger had given assurances to senior India officials, including Gandhi, that the US would stand with India against threats of Chinese aggression. Nothing was said of American threats, however, when, as India’s army advanced in East Pakistan, Nixon ordered the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate the Indians and prevent an attack against West Pakistan. Gandhi, having achieved her objectives, ended the war, but would not soon forget what the United States had done.

It would take a long time for US-Indian relations to recover from those bitter months. America’s behaviour, says Bass, meant “alienating the world’s biggest democracy for decades”. Today, this may sound odd, given America’s troubled relationship with Pakistan and its reliance on a strong India in South Asia.

Bass’s skill in unravelling the complex strands of what he sees as largely an “antiheroic story” is admirable. Most importantly, it shows that when crimes are committed, principle can sometimes triumph. But not always.

No comments: