17. Telegram From the Embassy in India to the Department of State1

4824. For the President and the Secretary. Subj: Report of South Asia Chiefs of Mission Conference.2 Refs: A. ’77 Kathmandu 5528, B. 79 Colombo 0182.3

1. Secret–Entire text.

2. Summary: Since our last meeting in Colombo a year ago (ref B) there have been substantial changes, mostly for the worse, of a global and regional nature that affect the prospects for stability and orderly economic and social development in the South Asian countries as well as their relations with the US. The collapse of Iran and the extension of Soviet power into Afghanistan have posed new and serious challenges to US interests in the area and have shocked the nations of this historically troubled and complex region.

3. These events present the US with difficult decisions as well as some opportunities to evolve new relationships with South Asian nations, especially India and Pakistan. In dealing with the Afghan problem India can be helpful or a spoiler. Pakistan in pursuit of greater security against old (India) and new (Afghan/Soviet) threats has developed or strengthened its association with the Islamic and non-aligned nations to supplement its ties with China. The other countries of the region are troubled by events in Afghanistan and what they portend for stability in the area as well as by the effect on their interests of a return to power of Mrs. Gandhi.

4. Underlying current security concerns is the continuing awareness that one of our major tasks in South Asia continues to be to contribute to the economic and social development of the people of the region.

5. We have concluded that US interests in South Asia continue to be limited and that it is in our interest to minimize the possibility of a direct confrontation with the USSR in the area. Pakistan does not appear to desire direct US involvement at this time, and India is more [Page 55] likely to avoid over-commitment to the Soviet Union and adopt more responsible policies toward Pakistan if the US is not so involved. However, if faced by substantial Soviet escalation we will have no choice but to involve ourselves directly and we should be prepared to meet this contingency.

6. Recommendations are contained in paras 33–41. End summary.

7. The South Asia Chiefs of Mission met in New Delhi March 3–5, 1980, for the third in their round of annual meetings which started in Kathmandu in December 1977 (ref A) and continued in Colombo in January 1979 (ref B). Participants this year were Ambassadors Goheen, Heck, Hummel, Schneider, and Toussaint, Charge Mills, and NEA/DAS Coon and NSC Staff member Thornton from Washington.

8. We reviewed last year’s report and recommended strategy (ref B). Our principal findings have held up reasonably well during the year, especially our recognition of a fundamental change in Afghanistan which we saw to be no longer a buffer, and which had acquired a potential Soviet ally in pursuing irredentist goals. We also concluded then that Pakistan was a nation of weakness, while India had great potential to influence South Asia and possibly the larger region including Iran. We advanced a strategy of insulation of the region and economic support to meet the threat to US interests. The key to this strategy was Indian willingness to reassure Pakistan and to exert effective influence with the Soviets. We rejected a military course of action but felt we should hold the military option in reserve. Where we went wrong was in overestimating the role the then Indian Government was able or willing to play. In addition, we too readily assumed that Pakistan would be compliant to US suggestions. It is now clear that we must lower our previous expectations of what countries of the region can or will do—as some countries of the region have lowered their expectations of us.

9. Although this strategy was advanced against a background of relative regional stability and lowered tensions, Afghanistan cast its shadow over this historically troubled and complex region.

10. The sudden collapse of Iran—a key element in the American security framework in Southwest Asia—followed by the sudden extension of Soviet power into Afghanistan have posed new and serious challenges to vital US interests in West Asia. Our response has included an enhanced US military presence in the Indian Ocean4 and efforts to support and reassure regional states facing potential external threats. The very rapidity of these changes, the sudden injection of superpower rivalry into the region—all coming on top of basic instabilities in the [Page 56] South and Southwest Asian areas—have made it difficult for regional leaders and their politically-conscious elites to absorb the implications of and fashion policies responsive to these new circumstances. More than ever in the past, this is a region out of kilter with itself and with external powers.

11. Not surprisingly, while there have been some new and constructive policy departures by regional states, more often than not old suspicions have been revived and longstanding tensions exacerbated. Indeed, in looking at the area this year again, we were struck anew by its complexities and by the subtleties of regional relations which are not always easy for the US to grasp or to take into account in doing business with these countries. We are faced with paranoias that deeply affect relations among the South Asian countries—for example, Pakistan is intensely concerned by a perceived Indian threat to its security. India is equally emotional over the issue of arms to Pakistan, and the small countries are troubled by what they consider to be a domineering and potentially threatening neighbor—especially with Mrs. Gandhi’s return to power. The situation is further complicated by the interplay of other major actors on the scene—the USSR, China, and the US—each with mutual suspicions of one or the other or both.

12. There are some encouraging signs. Seeing Soviet activities in Afghanistan as a major threat to the region and to the Gulf, China has begun to seek to improve its relations with India. This increased Chinese flexibility towards India may result from a realization that it has so far backed the weaker of the major countries in the area and a wish to hedge that bet. It is also in China’s interest not to push India closer to the Soviets. China is making a considerable effort to consult with us, although this relationship has not yet reached the stage where it will share with us details of its activities and assistance to Pakistan. We should encourage China in these trends.

13. Secondly, countries of the region may be in a position to play a role in easing the transition of Iran from its present isolation to a more rational relationship with the region and the outside world and in attempting to communicate with Iran on our behalf as we look for some way to relate to that country.

14. Regionally, South Asia finds itself confronted by increased pressures from outside powers as a result of the Afghan problem. India, the dominant country of the region, is disturbed by this intrusion of the outside world, by increased superpower activity in neighboring oceans, and by what it fears may become a major-power confrontation in the area. Threats to India’s interests caused by these developments could lead it to move closer to the Soviets than is its current inclination. These developments have also brought into sharper focus a new web of international connections—with the Islamic and non-aligned nations [Page 57] added to China—which Pakistan has evolved over recent years. Pakistan’s ability to look to these nations to meet its needs is altering its relations with the US in ways that may put less strain on our relations with India.

15. Developments in Afghanistan, the nature of the US response globally and in the region, and the threat which these developments pose to Pakistan dominated our discussion. The consensus was that the Soviets are in Afghanistan to stay for some time and that their next step is likely to be a major effort at a military solution. In the circumstances, we felt that the neutralization proposal currently being considered by some countries would probably not produce a real solution at this time but may be useful tactically. Farther down the road, a political solution might be put together involving a government acceptable to the Afghans and not dependent on Soviet military support. India could play a role in achieving this objective and we should encourage it in that direction.

16. Meanwhile, we understand US objectives in Afghanistan to be to (a) get the Soviets out of the country promptly and deter them from further adventures; (b) work toward the installation of a government acceptable to the people; (c) make the Soviets pay substantially while they remain in the country. In doing this we should avoid trying to humiliate the Soviets or paint them into a corner. We recognize Soviets have legitimate interests in Afghanistan, while ours are minimal.

17. We were impressed by the very tenuous balance between making the Soviet occupation costly and making it so costly that the Soviets may respond by escalating and widening the conflict. This would obviously have dangerous consequences for our interests and those of the countries of the area.

18. We were particularly disturbed by what we understand to be a lack of adequate US military resources in the region to cope with further Soviet advances and the apparent lack of clarity in the nature and extent of our commitment to Pakistan.

19. Pakistan, which we regarded last year as the sick man of South Asia, has grown weaker. The government lacks both popular support and confidence in itself, and its weakness and fragility give us little room to maneuver. The country faces serious economic problems which are complicated by GOP policies and the prospect of a negative transfer of resources from donors unless debt rescheduling is undertaken in the context of IMF prescribed reforms. We see no real hope for significant rapprochement with India or for deflecting Pakistan’s determination to proceed with its nuclear program. Further, Pakistan has become ambivalent about US military assistance. It is torn between its need to strengthen itself militarily and by the risks to its credentials with its new friends which such a step may entail. A drawing back in Islamabad [Page 58] seems matched by similar second thoughts in Washington. While this development may be desirable within the region, globally it may result in a lessening of confidence in US commitments.

20. In considering a role which India could play in dealing with the Afghan situation, three possibilities occur: it could be supportive of Soviet actions in Afghanistan; it could reluctantly acquiesce in the Soviet takeover; finally, it could work to help bring about a Soviet withdrawal by diplomatic or other means. It is unlikely that India will pursue the first option, and we and others should avoid actions that would cause it to do so. It is in our interest to persuade India to pursue the third instead of the second option.

21. The GOI appears to be trying to put the debacle of its position on the UNGA resolution regarding Afghanistan behind it and move to a more balanced position. The GOI has found itself out of step with the countries of the region for which it aspires to speak and with most of the Non-Aligned Movement. So far Mrs. Gandhi appears to want good relations with the US, but her efforts and ours are threatened by the tendency of both sides to overreact to the public rhetoric of the other instead of being guided by national interests. We must maintain a dialogue with India and convey our interest in having India’s help in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan. At a minimum, we need to dissuade India from undermining our efforts.

22. However, in spite of reports of Indian initiatives to develop a regional plan of action or to explore other ways to “defuse the situation”, India’s role to date has been essentially passive. Salient exceptions are the GOI’s refusal to endorse Soviet action in Afghanistan as sought by Gromyko during his recent visit to India5 and its campaign against US arms to Pakistan. India does not appear to have worked out any plan of its own, and we doubt that India will take a leadership role in the Afghan situation; perhaps the most we can expect is that India not cause problems with Pakistan. We considered the possibility of the GOI giving Pakistan a sense of confidence to deal with its own ethnic and security problems by moving troops away from the border with Pakistan. Indo-Pak military talks on a mutual withdrawal are an attractive objective, but may not be achievable.

23. India asserts its interest in a stable Pakistan and in the integrity of Pakistan’s borders. The GOI has conveyed such assurances to the GOP. However, Indian restraint could rapidly change if Pakistan starts falling apart or succeeds in acquiring a nuclear capability.

24. Continuing around the region, we were reassured by the current reasonably satisfactory state of affairs in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, [Page 59] but troubled by uncertain prospects for Nepal’s stability and economic viability.

25. Bangladesh continues to enjoy relative stability, but opposition to the regime is increasing and its political structure is fragile. As one of the moderate non-aligned and Islamic countries, it is playing a generally constructive, albeit cautious, role in international fora. While friendly to the United States, Bangladesh has been worried about its perception of a gradual change in the global balance in favor of the Soviets. It seeks a reversal of this change and supports a strong US determination to meet its commitments in the Persian Gulf and to Pakistan. Bangladesh, which recognizes the extent to which India can affect its security and stability, does not wish to get too far out of step with India and leave itself overexposed. It also wishes to remain within an Islamic consensus. However, it is prepared to be responsive to our requests for support on issues of importance to us where such responses do not undermine its own interests. We should recognize that the more we ask, the more Bangladesh will expect in return in assistance and reassurance.

26. In Sri Lanka, the prospects for stability are reasonably good until the next elections in 1983. US interests are well served by the present government. It provides us with a VOA facility under an agreement which ends in 1981; and we have begun negotiations for a greatly expanded facility to reach Soviet Central Asia and West China as well as northern India. We hope for acceptance of increased US naval visits, and continued moderation in the Non-Aligned Movement. The Sri Lankans are proud of the progress they have made in economic development and in turning to a market economy. They feel the success of this experiment, which is being watched by the Third World, is important to them and to the US and the West. They hope the US and other donors will contribute additional assistance to insure its success.

27. While the Maldive Islands have escaped our attention in the past, our concern about Soviet naval deployments in the Indian Ocean underlines the importance of insuring that the airport facilities at Gan Island do not fall in the wrong hands.

28. Nepal is a different story. It is disturbed by Soviet ambitions in Asia and Soviet activities within the country. It is paranoic on the subject of its relations with India and anxiously awaits indications from New Delhi whether the new government will continue the policy of good neighborliness of the Janata government or will revert to the hardline policy formerly pursued by Mrs. Gandhi. It considers itself particularly vulnerable at this time because its economy is in trouble and politically it is in a state of transition as it seeks a popular mandate on the type of political institutions the country wants in the forthcoming [Page 60] referendum.6 Should the political or economic situation deteriorate, Nepal could become a permanent burden on the international community and a serious threat to regional stability, and even promote a Sino-Indian confrontation.

29. While our attention has been focused on the Afghan problem we wish to flag our very sober observation that South Asia may well be the area for a major setback in our nonproliferation effort. We believe Pakistan is determined to continue developing a nuclear device. This development would require India to reconsider its nuclear options. We must therefore look beyond our present nonproliferating world. We should of course continue to seek to retard these developments in India and Pakistan.

30. We recognize that US policies have necessarily been evolving, particularly in the two months since the Soviet invasion into the region. However, we have, quite frankly, been disappointed that we have not been receiving timely policy guidance and views from Washington. This deficiency occurs not only in Washington’s discrete programmatic decisions but it also has been evident in the field of broad policy and strategy.

31. In the long run, the security of the nations in the subcontinent depends on their ability to make social and economic progress. While managing our response to regional crises, we must continue to devote major attention to the development of the water resources of the Gangetic and Brahmaputra River basins. Although progress in this direction is not encouraging, the importance of the subject to the welfare of the area justifies, in our view, a more active though quiet US role with the concerned countries and with international institutions like the World Bank, which eventually should be major participants in this effort.

32. Conclusion and recommendations follow:

33. We conclude that US interests in South Asia continue to be limited. Our attention has been focused on the security of this region because of the global implications of Soviet invasion and because our vital interests in the Persian Gulf region are threatened by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and collapse of Iran.

34. Because of the nature of our interests in South Asia, the complex factors concerning India and Pakistan described above, and the military disadvantages to the US in this region, we believe it is in our interest to minimize the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union in this area. Pakistan does not appear to desire direct US involvement at this time. India is more likely to avoid over-commitment to [Page 61] the Soviet Union and adopt more responsible policies toward Pakistan if the US is not so involved. As noted above, we recognize that the absence of direct US involvement now may lessen confidence elsewhere in the world in US commitments; but, considering only factors within South Asia, on balance this policy seems designed to serve US interests here best. If faced by substantial Soviet escalation we will have no choice but to involve ourselves directly and we should be prepared to meet this contingency.

35. Despite disparities between US global and Indian regional preoccupations and the impediments posed by our differing historical experience, we need to work to build firmer and more enduring relations with India as the largest and strongest nation in the region, as a functioning democracy, and as a leader among the non-aligned.

36. While we may not be able to persuade India to support actively US policy and/or initiatives on the Afghan problem, we must seek to avoid having India undercut our efforts and move toward greater reliance on the Soviet Union. To these ends, we should

—keep India abreast of our views and initiatives regarding the Afghan problem in a timely fashion;

—encourage India to use its good relations with the USSR to urge Soviet restraint and withdrawal from Afghanistan;

—seek to encourage closer Sino-Indian relations and to reduce India’s fears over the emergence of a US–PRC-Pakistan axis;

—encourage India to strengthen and extend its reassurances to Pakistan, including perhaps a less threatening positioning of Indian forces;

—convey to India and the regional states our acceptance of genuine non-alignment;

—maintain in a substantial way our interest in advancing India’s economic and social development;

—reassert our interest in helping India meet some of its pressing national defense requirements, especially in respect to sophisticated types of equipment;

—seek to increase cultural, scientific, and commercial ties.

37. We should find constructive ways to adjust to Pakistan’s apparent decision not to have too close a military and security relationship with us.7 While keeping open our offers of congressional reaffirmation of our 1959 security commitment, and of resuming development aid despite the Symington Amendment, we should be responsive to Pak desires that our principal material help be in economic aid and cash [Page 62] military sales. It is important that we promptly agree in principle to a rescheduling of Pakistani debt repayments subject to Pak economic reforms. We will need to pay close attention to newly emerging Pakistani attitudes, and avoid too-great Pak discouragement and turning away from us. This will require patience in maintaining a supportive posture in order to place on Pakistan the responsibility for determining the scope and level of bilateral relations. We must maintain momentum in efforts to help Pakistan obtain increased aid from traditional donors, particularly Arab oil producers.

38. In addition, we should continue to

—work toward limiting and/or terminating Pakistan’s nuclear development;

—urge rapprochement with India;

—augment our exchange of views with Pakistani leaders as evidence of our continuing support and concern.

39. We should find better ways of keeping the other countries of the region—Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal—informed of our policies and actions designed to meet the Soviet threat to the region. The three countries are concerned and need reassurance that a further Soviet advance will be prevented and that our strategy for doing this will not endanger their relations with India. For this purpose our Embassies should receive more information to convey to local governments about US policies and actions, and at an appropriate time—as major policies are determined and after they have been discussed with India and Pakistan—a senior US official should visit the three countries.

40. We must not forget that for the long term our major business in the region is helping meet unfulfilled economic expectations. The Afghan crisis requires that we attach an even greater priority to economic development in the region, and we should not permit our preoccupation with crises to divert us from the task. We will need both a stable staff and the resources for this purpose.

41. More generally,

—while we should continue to seek to retard nuclear proliferation in the subcontinent, we need to look beyond our present nonproliferation policy and develop new strategies to deal with a proliferating world;

—we need to develop and implement effective narcotics programs, especially in Pakistan where the government has on its own recently taken very encouraging steps to curtail production;

—we need to settle the Palestinian and Jerusalem issues which continue to be vital elements in our relations with Islamic countries and to some extent also with India;

—we urge the strengthening of Embassy staffs, as we feel the State Department personnel of our Embassies have been cut so extensively [Page 63] that it is difficult for Ambassadors to provide adequate direction to other elements of the Mission, to coordinate their activities, and to perform our vital functions of political, economic and military reporting.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800122–0611. Secret; Exdis. Sent for information to Colombo, Dacca, Islamabad, Kabul, Kathmandu, Beijing, London, Moscow, and Paris.
  2. In a March 14 memorandum to Carter, Brzezinski summarized the findings of the South Asia Chiefs of Mission meeting. Carter initialed Brzezinski’s memorandum, indicating that he saw it. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Subject Chron File, Box 127, Weekly National Security Report: 3–4/80)
  3. See Documents 5 and 9.
  4. See Document 16.
  5. See Document 171.
  6. See Document 227.
  7. See Documents 413416.