Pakistan: Vultures and Wild Dogs

Newsweek April 26, 1971; pp. 35-36

For more than two weeks, the Pakistani Army of President Mohammed Yahya Khan had played a curious waiting game, Sitting tight in their well-fortified cantonments in the rebellious eastern wing of their divided country, the federal troops virtually ignored the taunts of the secessionist “liberation forces.” But then early last week, the lull came to a sudden end, Springing from their strongholds, the Punjabi regulars simultaneously staged more than a dozen devastating attacks from one end of beleaguered East Pakistan to the other, And when the blitzkrieg was over, it was clear that the less-than-one-month-old Republic of Bangla Desh (Bengal nation) had been delivered a stunning blow.

In a civil war already marked by brutality, the lightning attacks were notable for their savagery, In the port city of Chittagong, Pakistani troops reportedly forced Bengali prisoners to ride on the front of a truck, shouting “Victory for Bengal” – an independence slogan. When other Bengalis emerged from their hiding places, the Pakistanis opened fire with machine guns. And in the cities of Sylhet and Comilla along the eastern border, West Pakistani firepower routed the folIowers of nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and left the bodies of scores of dead peasants to be picked apart by vultures and wild dogs.

All in all, the bitter campaign seemed to suggest that the West Pakistanis had more than purely military objectives in mind. In city after city, in fact, the soldiers were apparently determined to shatter the economic base of East Pakistan in order to crush the independence movement. On orders from the Islamabad high command, troops systematically gunned down students, engineers, doctors and any other persons with a potential for leadership, whether they were nationalists or not. “They want to push us back to the eighteenth century,” said one Bengali soldier,” so that there will be famine and we will be reduced to eating grass. They want to make sure that no head will ever be raised against them again.”

Despite the devastating offensive, the Bengalis showed little inclination to throw in the towel. A group of Mujib’s Awami League colleagues announced the formation of a Bangla Desh war Cabinet, promising “freedom as long as there is sun over Bengal.” Beyond the rhetoric, the rebels were hoping that the approaching monsoon season would sever the West Pakistanis’ already strained logistical lifeline. “The supply lines are Yahya Khan’s Achilles’ heel,” said one pro-Bengali analyst. “By our calculations, the Pakistani Army is facing the monsoons without a supply margin. The commanders cannot be happy.”

Locked Up: Happy or not, the West Pakistani leaders had, most observers said, good reason for confidence. The Westerners claimed to have Mujib locked up and awaiting trial on charges of treason. And with the dynamic, 51-year-old symbol of the rebel movement seemingly out of the way, the new government appeared to be more shadow than substance. In the field, the Bengalis have suffered staggering casualties, losing as many as 25,000 men.

More important, the fighting disposition of the Bengalis was increasingly open to question. “I met a steady stream of refugees carrying their belongings in big bundles on their heads and driving small Hocks of scrawny goats or cattle,” cabled NEWSWEEK’S Milan I. Kubic after a trip into East Pakistan last week. “But I saw only one Toyota jeep of the ‘Mukti fouj,’ Bengal’s liberation army. Its unarmed driver, a young Bengali from Jhingergacha, had an idea that the enemy was just up the road, but neither he nor the two other soldiers with him seemed anxious to seek battle. ‘What would we fight with?’ he asked with a grin. ‘We haven’t got anything’.”

Neighbors: That let-someone-else-do-it attitude, combined with the absence of effective central leadership, did not augur well for Bangla Desh. But one big question mark remained: the reaction of the neighboring big powers-China and India. Almost from the beginning of the conflict, the West Pakistanis have charged that arch-rival India was an active participant on the side of East Pakistan. And last week Islamabad officials claimed to have wiped out two companies of Indian border-security forces allegedly operating within the eastern province.

For its part, New Delhi stoutly denied any direct involvement. And most observers on the scene supported that contention. Moreover, it seemed certain that President Yahya Khan was trumpeting the charges at least in part to unite his own people-many of whom had gotten queasy about the reports of full-scale slaughter in the east. But it was equally apparent that New Delhi had indeed gone out of its way to make friendly noises toward the rebel Bengalis-and to take a slap at Islamabad. Throughout the week, Indian newspapers gleefully carried accounts of purported Pakistani atrocities. And the Indian Cabinet met in a well-publicized but closed session to discuss recognition of Bangla Desh.

Chou’s Cable: In response, Peking seemed more than willing to weigh in with a tough statement in support of the West Pakistanis. In the most specific declaration since the fighting broke out late last month, Premier Chou En-Iai sent a cable to Yahya blasting “Indian expansionists” and adding that the Chinese would firmly back the Pakistanis “in their just struggle to safeguard their -state sovereignty and national independence.” On top of that, there were rumors throughout Asia last week that the West Pakistanis only instituted the military crackdown after extensive consultations with Peking.

Yet for all the ominous signs of a brewing confrontation on the subcontinent, most analysts doubted that the rhetoric would escalate to action, at least not in the near future. For one thing, China’s support for Islamabad-Peking’s ally in its long-haul competition with India-seemed to have been something of a pro-forma necessity. For another, the Indians are currently more than preoccupied with their own domestic problems. Still, the volatile brinkmanship of Yahya Khan and the highly emotional Indian response carried with them the threat of a major explosion. “If the fighting and the bloodshed simmer on,” said one observer, “then there’s always the possibility that any tiny spark may send the entire region up in flames-eventually engulfing all of Pakistan, India and maybe even China as well.”