HONG KONG – Henry Kissinger has distilled many words of wisdom from four millennia of Chinese civilization, and several centuries of Western diplomacy, including almost half a century of personal experience at the sharp end of power politics. He has captured headlines and captivated some of the world’s best commentating minds with his 580-page book “On China.”
Most reviews and comments have been favorable, though professor Andrew Nathan in the upcoming Foreign Affairs neatly dismisses the tome as “really neither history nor memoir. Its purpose is to argue that the United States should yield gracefully to China’s rise in order to avoid a tragic conflict.”
This month marks 40 years since Kissinger feigned sickness in Pakistan and made a secret flight to China to pave the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country the following year. For me, Kissinger’s biggest failure is what he omits.
By the fawning way he used Pakistan as his launchpad, Kissinger’s diplomacy was also helping to perpetrate one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, the slaughter of about 1.5 million people and the flight of 10 million refugees whose only crime was to express their wish for democracy through the ballot box and peaceful protests.
Yet, there is no mention in the book, not a sentence of regret, not a word of apology, not even a passing note that the bloody birth of Bangladesh was brought about because Kissinger, reaching out to China, simultaneously encouraged the Pakistan military to butcher the people of East Pakistan, as it then was. It is their tragic 40th anniversary, too.
To set out the facts, in December 1970 the Bengalis of East Pakistan, separated by 1,600 km of Indian territory from West Pakistan, where the military lived and ruled, voted overwhelmingly in the freest and fairest elections Pakistan had seen for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, which stood on a platform of greater autonomy — not independence — from West Pakistan.
The Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats from East Pakistan, giving it an overall majority in the 300-member constituent assembly for Pakistan.
For the next three months there was deadlock as President General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the People’s Party, which had majorities in two of the four provinces of West Pakistan, played obstructionist games about the terms on which the assembly would meet to arrange a new civilian constitution.
The deadlock was broken when Yahya sent troops to arrest Mujib and his key lieutenants and let the army loose on East Pakistan. Tanks were sent to deal with Dhaka University students, who had been active in protests against the military regime. The army set fire to apartments and then mowed down their fleeing occupants. The military reign of terror spread far and wide beyond the cities. The World Bank said whole villages had just ceased to exist.
By all eyewitness accounts the soldiers conducted mass murder and rape. Estimates of the dead range up to 3 million. About 200,000 women were raped and almost 10 million Bengalis fled to refugee camps in India.
One gruesome picture showed a bloated crow hopping on piles of corpses, its glittering eye contrasting with the bulging sightless eyes of the dead.
The rest of the world condemned the atrocities and sent aid for the refugees. Nixon and Kissinger said nothing but kept supplying aid, including military aid, to West Pakistan and encouraged other countries to divert military hardware to Pakistan when public opinion and Congress tried to block U.S. military deliveries. Kissinger sent a message to Yahya praising his “delicacy and tact” in Operation Searchlight, as the Pakistan Army called the crackdown. In July 1971, Kissinger objected to the idea that the Pakistan army should get out of civilian administration in East Pakistan to help the relief efforts, claiming, “Why is it our business how they govern themselves?”
Archer Blood, the U.S. consul-general in East Pakistan, and his entire staff were so appalled at the callous attitude of their own government that, in April, Blood sent the rightly famous eponymous cable of dissent: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities … Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy … But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state…”
For his courage, Blood was called a “pansy” by Kissinger, silenced, recalled early and transferred.
Kissinger continued to support Yahya and the Pakistan military through thick and thin, beyond the need for Pakistan’s good offices in opening the door to China. As war between Pakistan and India, strained by the costs of housing and feeding the refugees, loomed toward the end of 1971, Kissinger was urging China not to be “a silent spectator” at the impending dismemberment of its ally Pakistan.
Kissinger was wrong at almost every turn, even if he could justify the murder and mayhem of Bengali civilians, women and children to satisfy his diplomatic ego.
He was wrong to see India or Indira Gandhi as a Soviet stooge. Whatever her many faults, Gandhi was never anyone’s stooge, and anyone with any understanding of India would see in it a civilization as rich and historic as China’s.
He was wrong, and insulting to both countries, to imagine that East Pakistan “would become a Bhutan” — how shallow to compare a tiny Himalayan kingdom with a teeming country of 100 million people in the floodplain of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers.
He was wrong to assume that India would move on with Soviet backing to carve up West Pakistan and upset the political balance of the whole area as far as the Middle East.
He was wrong to regard Bangladesh as an eternal “basket-case” economy that would forever need foreign aid, although the original expression was not his.
Bangladesh will struggle to reach middle-income status, but is on the way there. Bangladeshis are proving that they may not be as intelligent as Kissinger, but they are brighter, more economically productive and less destructive than Pakistani generals.
He was wrong to support the Pakistan military. It is a mystery how someone as intelligent as Kissinger could support a group so stubborn and stupid as the top Pakistani generals under Yahya Khan. By doing so, he set the precedent for military might as a substitute for political negotiations, for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to disregard the wishes of the electorates in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, and later for the army to overthrow and execute Bhutto.
If the United States had persuaded Yahya Khan to concede autonomy and even independence to East Bengal, then it would have saved the deaths and devastation of one of the world’s poorest areas that had been damaged by decades of misrule by the Pakistan military. It would have improved America’s standing in the world, boosted its relations with India and changed the culture in Pakistan.
Perhaps then, the whole history of Pakistan’s troubled frontier areas with Afghanistan would have been changed before Islamic extremists appeared on the scene.
Equally dangerously, a few years later in the mid-1970s Kissinger missed the signals coming from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s then President Sardar Mohammed Dauod gave me an interview, pleading for renewed American interest and investment to counteract the Soviet economic domination that Daoud himself had originally encouraged.
If he talked to a small-fry newspaper editor — I was founder-editor of Business Times in Malaysia — Daoud must have tried to get the message out to people who could influence politics and investment flows.
Was Kissinger asleep or just dreaming of his global realpolitik that he missed a chance to effect a practical change to a dangerous world?
Daoud was overthrown in 1978 by leftists who were a precursor to Soviet-backed communist rule, and to the creation of U.S.-fomented Islamic rebels using Pakistan as a base and Pakistan army and intelligence and U.S. supplies as their weapons. The rest is not merely history, but continues to haunt the whole world today.
Dr. Realpolitik Kissinger, in defiance of all the proud traditions of his adopted country, did not give a damn about democracy. He will no doubt reply that “On China” is about China, the differences between Chinese diplomacy based on the game of wei qi, which teaches the art of strategic encirclement, rather than chess (which Kissinger should know originated in India, 13 centuries before Clausewitz), with its concepts of clashes and total victory, and his meandering meetings with Chinese leaders over the past 40 years, and definitely not about Bengalis who got in the way.
But what is diplomacy that does not have regard for the people it affects, and who are diplomats who regard millions of victims as mere collateral damage?
Kissinger may not be the monster who was Mao Zedong, responsible for 40 million to 70 million deaths of his Chinese comrades. But it would have been good if in his declining years Kissinger had been humble enough to acknowledge and apologize to those whose lives he blighted by his pursuit of power.
Kevin Rafferty covered the East Pakistan cyclone and 1970 elections and the Bangladesh war of 1971 for the Financial Times.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.