Situation in Pakistan- USA National Security Council Memorandum |1 March 1971

We are after all witnessing the possible birth of a new nation of over 70 million people in an unstable area of Asia and, while not the controlling factor, we could have something to do with how this comes about—peacefully or by bloody civil war  “

 —United States National Security Council ,1971 March 1.

 Collection of historical documents from Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs United States Department of State . FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1969–1976, VOLUME XI, SOUTH ASIA CRISIS, 1971


Washington March 1 1971

Memorandum From Harold Saunders and Samuel Hoskinson of the National Security Council Staff to the Presidentʼs Assistant for National Security Affairs

SUBJECT

  • Situation in Pakistan

Events in Pakistan today took a major step toward a possible early move by East Pakistan for independence. The following are a brief situation report and some policy considerations flowing from it.

The Situation

President Yahya Khan has announced the postponement until “a later date” of the National Assembly, which was to have begun drafting a new constitution in Dacca on Wednesday,2 so the political leaders of East and West Pakistan can settle their differences. Yahya characterized the situation as Pakistanʼs “gravest political crisis.”

The future course of events now depends largely on the decision of Mujibur Rahman and the other leaders of the dominant Awami League party in East Pakistan. A general atmosphere of tension prevails throughout Dacca, and numerous spontaneous processions and demonstrations calling for the independence of East Pakistan are reported to be underway.3 So far violence reportedly has been limited, but the potential for major destructive outbursts would seem to be great, especially if the West Pakistani-controlled provincial regime takes any heavy-handed actions against the demonstrators.

It is impossible to predict what Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League will do at this point. They are most unlikely, however, to back down from their six-point program calling for virtual autonomy. It has the strong emotional and popular backing in East Pakistan and is [Page 3]adamantly opposed by West Pakistani leader Z.A. Bhutto, important elements of the military and many politically aware West Pakistanis.

Rahmanʼs six points are:

  • —The constitution should provide a federal and parliamentary form of government based on direct elections and universal suffrage.
  • —The central government would have authority only for defense and foreign affairs with all residual and other powers residing in the federating states.
  • —Two separate currencies which would be freely convertible should be created, although one currency would be acceptable provided that there would be adequate protection against the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan.
  • —Responsibility for fiscal policy should rest with the federating units and taxes would be collected by the states rather than by the central government.
  • —The states should maintain separate accounts for foreign exchange and would be free to conduct their own trade and aid negotiations.
  • —The federating units would be empowered to raise and maintain their own militia and paramilitary forces.

In terms of substantive issues, the differences between Rahman and Bhutto seem to have largely narrowed to those of foreign trade and aid. Bhutto in a speech February 28 said he felt the central government would have to retain control in these fields if its control of foreign affairs was to be realistic.

The constellation of political forces and interests in Pakistan is such that any compromise is most difficult at this point. Yahya and Bhutto are both opposed to Rahmanʼs plan for decentralized government but they both have different and conflicting bases of support:

  • Yahyaʼs base of support is the army and economic elite. They do not want to compromise with Bhuttobecause they fear his platform of “equitable distribution of the wealth.” They figure that the weak central government the East wants would loosen their grip on West Pakistan. The Army feels it would jeopardize security.
  • Bhuttoʼs base is the masses. He does not want to compromise with the East because he wants to control a strong central government.

The two men have different ideological outlooks—Yahya a fairly conservative approach and Bhutto a leftist and populist approach. So while they both oppose Rahman, they are also commited to not seeing each other gain a predominant position in any ensuing government.

Rahman is almost solely concerned about East Pakistan and is unwilling to compromise on the autonomy issue. Because he favors normalization of relations with India, he is in further conflict with Yahya and Bhutto who are both fairly hard-line toward India. The scope for compromise is probably minimal and Rahman could well decide that now is the best time to opt out of the Pakistani union. He clearly had [Page 4]this on his mind when he talked with Ambassador Farland on Sunday4and asked about U.S. aid to an independent East Pakistan and as a lever to prevent West Pakistan from intervening militarily against a succession [secession] movement.

President Yahya is well aware that he is risking a strong East Pakistani reaction, but presumably decided that the alternative to postponement would be even worse. He may have seen two principal alternatives: (1) postpone the session and—although he left some room for maneuver—risk an immediate confrontation with East Pakistan; or (2) hold the session, risk an immediate confrontation with his army, the West Pakistani political/economic establishment, or both, and, because he would in the end have to reject an East Pakistan autonomy constitution, a confrontation with the East Pakistanis in a few months.

Thus, Yahya is unable to compromise with Rahman or move closer to Bhutto without jeopardizing his own base of power and risking his ouster by hardline military elements who would end the move toward representative government and most likely precipitate widespread and perhaps uncontrollable disorders in West Pakistan. In short, Yahya may only feel that his only course is to cut his and Pakistanʼs losses.

In short, Yahya appears to have decided to risk a confrontation with East Pakistan now in the slight hope that, if he pushed all the parties to the brink, a compromise might evolve from their coming to grips with the consequences of a split-up of Pakistan. Given the sentiment within the West Pakistani political-military establishment, he may have seen no other realistic choice.

U.S. Policy

As you know, we have so far attempted to remain neutral and uninvolved. Our line has been that we favor the unity of Pakistan and that it is up to the Pakistanis to determine the future of their country. There is at least a theoretical alternative (which one part of CIA holds out) of urging Yahyato take the third of the West Pakistanis opposed to Bhutto and try to reach accommodation with Rahman, but that would provoke a sharp reaction in the West, even perhaps in the army. State is not inclined to become involved in this way. This issue is still open, however.

Beyond that, we have these questions:

  • —Should the U.S. be hedging its bets with East Pakistan against the possibility that East secedes?
  • —If there is secession, how active should the U.S. be in trying to avoid bloodshed?

The contingency plan ordered in NSSM 1185 should be finished in the next twenty-four hours. I will send that to you as soon as it arrives with a recommendation on handling. We are after all witnessing the possible birth of a new nation of over 70 million people in an unstable area of Asia and, while not the controlling factor, we could have something to do with how this comes about—peacefully or by bloody civil war.


  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 625, Country Files, Middle East, Pakistan, Vol. IV, 1 Mar 71–15 May 71. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. March 3.
  3. The Consulate General in Dacca reported on March 2 on the popular reaction in East Pakistan to the announcement that the meeting of the General Assembly would be postponed indefinitely: “It would be impossible to over-estimate sense of anger, shock and frustration which has gripped people of east wing. They cannot but interpret postponement as act of collusion between Yahya and Bhutto to deny fruit of electoral victory to Bengali majority.” (Telegram 567 from Dacca; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POLPAK) In response to the postponement, the Awami League on March 2 called for a hartal, or general strike in Dacca. (Telegram 564 from Dacca, March 2; ibid., POL 15–2 PAK)
  4. February 28. Farlandʼs conversation with Mujibur Rahman was reported in telegram 540 from Dacca, February 28; published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–7, Documents on South Asia, 1969–1972, Document 121.
  5. National Security Study Memorandum 118, directed by Kissinger on February 16 to the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence, called for a contingency study to be prepared outlining the possible range of U.S. reactions to movement in East Pakistan toward secession. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–7, Documents on South Asia, 1969–1972, Document 115.
  6. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v11/d2

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