The 1971 trauma — global dimension!

One does not need an Aesop to educe a moral out of this tale!

Khalid Saleem December 16, 2019
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and ex-Assistant Secretary-General of the OIC

When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled; the same happens when they make love — African saying

An over-the-shoulder look at the global dimension of the traumatic events — culminating in December 1971 — that convulsed this country would be in order. On a broader canvas these developments resulted in a thorough realignment of forces in Asia. South Asia, in particular, was shaken to the core.

If one were to single out the one crucial event around which all the others revolved, it would be Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing (July 1971). This history-making event, which was facilitated by Pakistan, had a profound bearing on the developments that were to follow. Kissinger described it as, “When we completed drafting the communiqué announcing my secret visit to China in July 1971, Zhou Enlai remarked that the announcement would shake the world. He was right… overnight it transformed the structure of international politics.”

Understandably, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai were viewing the development from the vantage point of their respective countries — one an acknowledged superpower and the other on its way to becoming a major player in its own right. It was Pakistan that was destined to bear the brunt.

Since 1969, when Brezhnev propounded his Asian Collective Security “doctrine”, the USSR had been trying assiduously to woo the South Asian countries in favour of its own scheme of things. These efforts were dictated by the Soviet preoccupation at the time, 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.

For quite some time, the Soviet attitude remained circumspect despite a close and growing friendship with India. During his visit to Algeria in 1971, Alexei Kosygin made pointed reference to “Pakistan’s territorial integrity”.

Kissinger’s visit to China tipped the applecart to the detriment of Pakistan. While busy tying up loose ends to firm up an arrangement aimed to contain China, the USSR was suddenly confronted with the spectre of “US-China collusion”. Pakistan’s role in arranging the Sino-American dialogue piqued Moscow apparently prompting USSR to engage in what president Nixon termed, a “fanciful speculation of a US-China alignment”.

Exactly a month to the day (August 9) after Kissinger’s “secret” flight to Beijing, the infamous Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed. 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.” The Soviet green-light appears to have, subsequently, facilitated India in its fateful decision to send its regular forces into then East Pakistan.

Pakistan’s establishment on its part appears to have not calculated the ominous consequences of the forces it had (inadvertently?) set in motion. On October 1, 1971, a senior official of the Soviet foreign ministry told (a somewhat mystified?) Pakistani ambassador 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 US, for reasons of its own, made no serious effort to save Pakistan from dismemberment. In effect, the US appeared to have conveniently looked the other way. In Kissinger’s words, “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 oblivious to 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!


Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2019.

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