33. Memorandum From Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the Presidentʼs Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Pakistan—A Personal Reflection on the Choice Before Us

Having sent you comprehensive material on the decisions before us in Pakistan, I want to write you this simpler personal note in an effort to leave aside some of the complexities and get down to central thoughts.

It appears that the situation is settling down to one of prolonged conflict. We must guard against moving too quickly to a view that the West Pakistanis are regaining control, but it does seem increasingly clear that we are not going to be dealing with a situation in which the resistance movement is so dramatically successful as to make it immediately apparent to the West Pakistanis that they cannot win.

Nothing has happened to alter our basic judgment that the breakup of Pakistan is inevitable, but events of recent days suggest that we may have been over-emphasizing its imminence.

What this suggests to me is that time may have been bought for a second chance to try mitigating some of the worst consequences of a split.

I have suggested in the analytical summary2 for your SRG book that our basic strategy in South Asia should be to do all we can to avoid having to make a decisive choice among the three major political entities there. While the Soviet Union and Communist China may be more ready to make choices because of their rivalry, the U.S. interest lies in attempting to maintain a U.S. alternative to those two big Asian powers in each of the South Asian entities.

If this is a fair statement of U.S. purpose and strategy, then the present situation in Pakistan means that we have been saved for a moment from making that choice by the fact that an independent East Pakistan has not suddenly been thrust upon us. We may now have some time in which to come to terms with this emerging reality.

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If we are to preserve some position in both East and West Pakistan, we have to consider the interests of both sides:

  • —It is instructive to listen to the way the West Pakistanis are now describing the situation and their intent. They are talking in terms of setting up a political regime of respected East Pakistani politicians and conceding to them the six points as modified by Yahya in the negotiations before March 25.
  • —The general judgment in the intelligence community here is that these politicians will not be acceptable to most East Pakistanis and that the six points as Yahya defines them do not meet East Pakistani demands for government of their own affairs.

Those statements both may be true, but the main fact may be that the West Pakistanis will now succeed in setting up an administration which will at least permit the beginnings of food distribution and a face-saving way for them to back away from the more extreme elements of military repression.

In listening to the West Pakistani plans, one must recognize that accepting them too quickly as realistic could obscure the basic conflict which exists. The West Pakistani military establishment is intent on preserving the unity of the country. The East Pakistanis seem bent on gaining substantial autonomy. We cannot assume that the problem is solved; it is only deferred.

The present situation gives us an opportunity to re-assess one of the options which we discarded before March 25. We decided then not to inject ourselves into the negotiations between East and West. This was probably wise in that we really did not know what was going on and we would have appeared to be meddling in a situation over our depth. Now, however, we have seen the potential consequences—economic problems in West Pakistan beyond our capacity, the possibility of an Indian-Pakistani war and the difficult choices which East Pakistani independence would thrust upon us.

The most important issue before us, therefore, may be whether we wish now to involve ourselves more actively in it attempting to help work out a negotiated settlement between East and West Pakistan.

What I have in mind is fairly limited. It is still true that these negotiations are so intricate and involve such passions on each side that we are ill-equipped to involve ourselves.

However, the very problems we face lay the groundwork for an approach to Yahya which should be the product of the present policy review. However gentle our tactics, I believe our objective should be to encourage movement toward the greatest possible degree of East Pakistani autonomy.

The strategy to follow would be one of attempting to create now a regime in East Pakistan that could be genuinely transitional over time to real East Pakistani autonomy. By creating the impression of movement in [Page 87] that direction, Yahya might just succeed in spinning out this process and averting for the time being the worst of a continued war of independence.

I would not tell Yahya that he must do anything. I am simply saying that it might be useful for us to see what we want in this light. Our approach to Yahya would emphasize the worst of what might come—especially in the economic field where he is already nearing desperation—and base our approach on wishing to share in his planning so that we might be as helpful as possible.

This would be quite different from trying to force him to take a position by cutting off aid. It would be quite different from rushing to get on the Bengali bandwagon. It would be an effort to help a friend find a practical and face-saving way out of a bind. It would capitalize on some of the goodwill we have built. It would be based on our recognition that we cannot keep hands off this problem without being forced to choices later when options for preserving our position in South Asia will be more limited.

This approach would not buy us favor in India or East Pakistan now. We would be sacrificing a near-term gain with the thought that evolution of East Pakistani autonomy would permit improvement in our position over the longer run. The near-term disadvantage might be somewhat lessened by a general dialogue with the Indians on what we are trying to achieve.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–054, SRG Meeting, Pakistan and Ceylon, 4/19/71. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. Dated April 16. (Ibid.)