General Yahya agreed to withdraw forces, India did not
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: In October 1971, General Yahya Khan agreed to withdraw forces from the front in East Pakistan if India were to do the same, according to an American diplomat who was the second-in-command at the US embassy in Islamabad during that period.
Sidney Sober told this week’s State Department-sponsored conference marking the release of 1971-related classified documents that on 11 October 1971, he met Gen Yahya and got acceptance from him of a US plan that both countries should pull back their forces from the border in East and West Bengal but the move faltered. Apparently, India did not agree. Yahya also told the Americans that he planned to announce his constitution – drafted by Justice AR Cornelius – on December 20 and call the National Assembly on 27 December.
He also said that Gen Yahya continued until the end to believe that it was still possible to find a political solution to the crisis and keep Pakistan united. That, he added, was an “illusion.” He said he held many meetings with Yahya and after the March crackdown which he called “brutal, ruthless and wanton,” the US kept urging Yahya not to execute Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who had been arrested and brought to West Pakistan.
The US also kept urging the removal of Gen Tikka Khan from his all-powerful post in East Pakistan. He said it was US policy to retain a “degree of influence” with the Government of Pakistan as the crisis deepened. He also said that the US embassy in Islamabad did not know until May 1971 of the Washington-Peking dialogue taking place through Pakistan.
Anthony Quainton, a former US ambassador who served in Pakistan and India, said as the crisis erupted, Dr Henry Kissinger told a meeting of officials at the White House, “No solo voices, we sing as a chorus.” He said Kissinger was “suspicious” of Frank Keating, the US ambassador to India, who he thought was suffering from “localitis,” as he was of the US Consul General in Dhaka. The general belief in the White House – but not the State Department – was that Gen Yahya Khan had the sincerity of a soldier, while the Indians were insincere. It was believed that India led by Mrs Indira Gandhi was “hell bent” on destroying Pakistan.
Former ambassador Bruce Laingen told the conference that after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dramatically tore up the “UN Charter” (actually, he only tore up his notes) and stormed out of the Security Council, he flew to Washington and told Secretary of State William Rogers that Pakistan’s past attitude towards the US was hostile but “that’s going to change under my leadership.” In Islamabad, he told the American ambassador Joseph Farland, “We are in a hell of a mess.”
Samuel Hoskinson, who served in the National Security Council in Washington in 1971, said the US had a Cold War perspective of the 1971 crisis and felt that the Soviet Union was making US allies look weak. He said, “We liked Yahya who was a personable military man.” There were “good reports” about him. He was not seen as a statesman, as Mrs Gandhi was, but a “simple soldier.” In the end, he added, he did what soldiers do in a crisis: he went to war. Talking about the “tilt” in favour of Pakistan, he said the Nixon administration was keen that the world should see the US doing its best for its ally Pakistan. He described the situation in 1971 in South Asia as a “chess game with big toys.”
During the question-answer session, Sidney Sober said he had paid three visits to East Pakistan after the March 25 army action. He said the US Consulate staff was emotionally affected by the “carnage” but added that there was “no deliberate exaggeration” in the reports the Consulate sent from Dhaka. He stated that no member of the US Consulate in Dhaka had personally witnessed any killing by Pakistani troops. The information being sent by the staff was based on “second hand reports.”
He said there was, however, evidence of violence and killing, especially at Dhaka University, “the one event best remembered by the people.” Asked what role Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had played in the 1971 crisis, he replied, “I don’t know what role he played. He was in Dhaka (on March 25, 1971). He must have had a role.” However, it was clear that Sober had no personal knowledge of what Bhutto’s political opponents and critics have always held him responsible for. The former diplomat said, “It was said Bhutto wanted to be No 1. I don’t know if it is true. We did not know what was going on.” He added that in his subsequent meetings with Bhutto, after he had taken over as President, Bhutto never said anything about his role.
Bruce Laingen, answering a question, said Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a man of “enormous ambition and style.” He said he knew him well and of all the politicians Pakistan has produced, he was the “most impressive.” He said he saw him in 1972 hold a crowd of 100,000 people in Lahore spellbound as he spoke in Urdu which was not his first language. He had Kissinger “eating out of his hand”. Bhutto was capable of holding his own in meetings with Kissinger and carry on in a “very sophisticated way.” The retired diplomat said of Bhutto, “He sought to stay on too long at too high a post.”
He also spoke about the US “tilt,” which he explained was not to keep Pakistan as a unified state, but to stop India from any attempt to break up Pakistan and occupy Azad Kashmir after the war ended in East Pakistan and Bangladesh came into being. He recalled that George Bush, who was US permanent representative at the United Nations in 1971, called India an “aggressor.”