March 1, 1971: Pakistan’s “gravest political crisis.”

Memorandum From Harold Saunders and Samuel Hoskinson of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)/1/


Washington, March 1, 1971.


/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.


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 Pakistan‘s “gravest political crisis.”


/2/ March 3.


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.


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 Rahman’s plan for decentralized government but they both have different and conflicting bases of support:


Yahya’s base of support is the army and economic elite. They do not want to compromise with Bhutto because 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.


-Bhutto’s 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 this on his mind when he talked with Ambassador Farland on Sunday/4/ and 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 Pakistan‘s 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 Yahya to 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 118/5/ 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.


/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.


Source: Document 2, volume XI, South Asia crisis 1971, Department of State.

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