9. Telegram From the Embassy in Sri Lanka to the Department of State1

182. Dept for Deputy Secretary Christopher and Assistant Secretary Saunders. Subj: Report of South Asia Chiefs of Mission Conference. Ref: 78 State 327405.2

Summary: While there is great diversity in the arc extending from Bangladesh to Yemen, we believe we can generalize regarding the problems there and regarding a broad strategy for dealing with them. The problems are chiefly caused by unfulfilled economic expectations and the resulting demand for greater political participation. They are complicated by the invitation the parallel instability presents for foreign intervention. We propose a political and economic strategy of orderly change (our definition of stability) for meeting this threat to U.S. interests which would consist of two main elements: the insulation of the nations of the region from external intervention and the provision of economic assistance where necessary to ease economic pressures while domestic problems are being worked out. Looking at the South Asian sub-region, a fundamental change has taken place in Afghanistan, which is no longer a buffer and which is a potential Soviet ally in pursuing its irredentist goals. Pakistan, threatened from Afghanistan, is a nation of weakness whose economic and political development programs have faltered. The resulting instability has added to Pakistan’s often exaggerated fear of threats from across its eastern and western borders. On the other hand, India’s relatively stable and effective institutions have made possible notable achievements which, when considered with the country’s size and resources, give India great potential influence in South Asia and possibly in the larger region, including Iran.

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In view of this situation we propose for South Asia a U.S. sub-strategy of insulation and economic support to meet the threat to U.S. interests there. The strategy would include the following elements:

(A) Insulation of Pakistan from outside intervention through a warning that no state should intervene in Pakistan’s internal affairs while that country works out its domestic problems.

(B) U.S. provision of substantial security supporting assistance to Pakistan to ease economic pressures while solutions to political problems are pursued.

(C) Limited military sales to Pakistan and India and consultation with each about sales to the other.

(D) An important Indian role of monitoring the effort to insulate Pakistan from outside interference and of influencing the Soviets to desist.

(E) Indian reassurance to Pakistan that it faces no threat from India.

(F) Major U.S. actions to strengthen our relations with India in order to support this strategy.

(G) Chinese support to our strategy which we anticipate because of Chinese interest in stability on the subcontinent.

(H) Close consultations at senior levels with India to convince it our strategy is consistent with its interests and with Pakistan to give it confidence during its days of adversity.

(I) Consultation with our NATO Allies and other friends (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Japan) to attain their active support for our strategy.

(J) Increased high-level exchanges with all the countries of the region to demonstrate our interests and concern.

In proposing this policy for South Asia we have rejected a military course of action. Such a course would risk causing India to become more dependent on the Soviet Union because of a perceived U.S.-Pakistan threat to India. We believe we should hold the military option in reserve, however, in the event that our insulation strategy is not effective. Key to this strategy is Indian willingness to reassure Pakistan and effective Indian influence with the Soviets. We believe there is a good chance that India will see both these actions in its interest and that the Soviets will respond because of their desire to protect their valuable relationship with India.

Observations and recommendations concerning the other countries of the region are contained in the body of our report. End summary.

1. We have examined the situation in Southwest and Southern Asia, interests and U.S. strategies to protect those interests over the next five years against the background of recent Washington studies3 [Page 21] and the questions posed for us by Assistant Secretary Saunders (reftel). We have agreed upon the following conclusions and recommendations.

2. While there is a great diversity among the nations extending along the arc from Aden to Bangladesh, we believe there are sufficient similarities among them so that we may generalize regarding the problems there and a broad U.S. strategy for dealing with those problems. Throughout this area the demands for modernization have not been met by the pace of modernization; promises of economic development have not been met by the managers of that development. Economic dissatisfactions have created a demand for wider political participation. At the same time, especially in Islamic countries, modernizing developments have stirred reaction and added to instability. In many nations, political institutions have proved unable to meet this demand and political instability has resulted. The causes of this instability are internal.

3. Another common characteristic of this broad region is the threat that the Soviet Union will intervene to take advantage of instability to the detriment of U.S. interests. Finally, virtually all of the nations of the region have influence over either access to oil or its transport; or they are important to the security of nations with such influence. The expansion of Soviet hegemony in this area would both alter the global balance and add to the perceptions of reduced U.S. influence and reliability.

4. While we claim detailed knowledge only of the South Asian portion of this region, we believe it is possible to generalize regarding a broad strategy, to be broken down into regional sub-strategies, designed to meet the threat to U.S. interests from instability and Soviet intervention. Stated briefly, this strategy would be one of insulation of the nations of the region from external intervention while they resolve their own internal problems and direct their energies toward fulfilling the economic aspirations of their people. In appropriate cases the U.S. would supplement actions designed to insulate the region from external intervention with economic assistance intended to ease economic pressures while domestic problems were being worked out. We see this strategy as primarily political and economic and would not see recourse to military measures unless our effort to insulate the region from Soviet intervention failed. Should we have to pursue a military strategy elsewhere in the broad region, we should be aware that this could involve costs in Indo-U.S. relations.

5. Our deliberations focused on the South Asian countries and we did not attempt to consider Iran in depth because of the absence from our deliberations of Ambassador Sullivan. Viewing the region as a whole, we saw all the nations struggling to meet public demands for economic betterment and greater political participation with widely [Page 22] differing results. All were concerned at the external threat posed by the proximity of Soviet power to the area, especially the expansion of its role in Afghanistan. Considering the countries individually, we concluded that a fundamental change had taken place in Afghanistan with the result that it is no longer a buffer; the Soviet Union now sees Afghanistan as an investment in their favor in the global balance. We can expect the Afghan regime to summon Soviet help to meet any counter-revolutionary movement and the Soviets to respond with materiel and, if necessary, men. While the regime in Kabul seems relatively secure, we believe it will be preoccupied with consolidation for some years before it is able to pursue its irredentist objectives in Pakistan.

6. For the time being, we should maintain a low-profile presence in Afghanistan, bearing in mind that we do not wish to be seen as providing undue support to an authoritarian, Communist-oriented regime which is showing itself to be callous in the human rights field. At the same time, we wish to maintain access to the regime to demonstrate that there is an alternative available to complete dependence upon and eventual subservience to the Soviet Union and to work with the new government on narcotics control problems. Our hope is that the new regime may eventually pursue a more independent nationalism that emphasizes regional stability and the avoidance of a provocative policy toward Pakistan. Our leverage with Kabul may increase should it find that U.S. and free world assistance is crucial to Afghanistan’s economic and social progress and/or should Afghanistan face a series of bad harvests and seek food support from us.

7. Confronted with this geopolitical change in Afghanistan, Pakistan is a nation of weakness. Its programs of economic and social development have faltered. Its political institutions had failed to meet public demands for economic improvement and wider political participation. The trend toward the application of conservative Islamic doctrine may retard economic and political revival. It is insecure and irrationally fearful of threats from across its western and eastern borders. We concluded, therefore, that Pakistan must now be the focus of U.S. concern in South Asia.

8. India, on the other hand, has been able to develop stable political institutions which have permitted orderly change (our definition of stability); its economic development has been slow, but has provided just enough hope of future progress to moderate popular discontent. India’s political structure, even with the quarreling of its key figures, and its vast diversity have made possible the containment and resolution of political disputes. Its stability and resulting achievements, its size and its resources make it central to dealing with the problem of Pakistan.

9. Nepal has enjoyed an almost static stability for many years. Its apparent calm has concealed economic and political discontent which [Page 23] could within several years cause tensions beyond the capacity of current governmental institutions to control.

10. Bangladesh is currently trying to develop a political structure which will provide for both the administration of development programs and the broadening of public participation in government; and there is some prospect that the new structure can provide for orderly change. U.S. supply of ample food stocks has eased this process. However, given Bangladesh’s turbulent history and its vast economic problems, there is at least equal prospect of a return to turmoil and frequent changes of regime.

11. Sri Lanka, like India, has developed political institutions which over the years have managed orderly change, if uneven economic achievement. This stability should continue if external assistance is sufficient and not unduly intrusive.

12. In the South Asian regime generally, we believe our strategy should be primarily one of assisting governments to meet economic aspirations. We should be careful to avoid planning and programs which stimulate aspirations more rapidly than they can be fulfilled; this will require restrained application of often overly stringent aid criteria. We should encourage economic reform and wider participation in government, but recognize that orderly change will usually be much slower than we would wish. In some countries, such as Pakistan, there will be period of political stress and it will be in our interest to use our economic assistance in ways which will ease economic pressures while political problems are resolved.

13. During our deliberations we focused our attention on the problem of Pakistan caused by the changes in Afghanistan, uncertainties in Iran, and the internal weakness of Pakistan. Pakistan typifies the threat to U.S. interests which exist in varying degree throughout the arc from Bangladesh to Yemen. Unstable governmental institutions have failed to provide adequate economic achievement. Domestic discontent has complicated traditional regional rivalries and brought additional problems to a weak governmental structure. The changes in Afghanistan invite Soviet intervention, threatening U.S. interests.

14. We have examined the Southwest Asia security situation and propose the following U.S. approach to the Pakistan problem.

First, we would seek to insulate Pakistan from external intervention so that it could work out by itself its own internal political problems. For this purpose we would inform the Soviets that we expect them not to intervene in Pakistan’s affairs.

Second, in order to ease the economic pressures which complicate Pakistan’s effort to develop stable political institutions, the executive will have to mobilize whatever effort will be necessary to provide Pakistan with substantial security supporting assistance.

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Third, recognizing that the Pakistan problem is not a military one, we would continue our policy of restraint in providing equipment to Pakistan. We would discuss these transfers with India. Similarly, we would exercise restraint in regard to military sales to India, keeping Pakistan informed regarding any sales.

Fourth, we would make clear to India our expectation that India, in its own interest, would play a major role in contributing to conditions which would give the best prospect for stability and freedom from external interference in Pakistan. We would expect that India, like the U.S., would use its influence to insulate Pakistan from Soviet interference. Our estimate is that the Soviet Union would be reluctant to risk its good relations with India for an uncertain prospect in Pakistan and that therefore to that extent good India-Soviet relations could serve U.S. interests. We would also expect that India’s own interest would prompt it to reassure Pakistan regarding the security of its border with India and any sort of Indian interference. At the same time, we would inform Pakistan that we did not accept its exaggerated view of the threat from India.

Fifth, because of the importance we attach to India’s role in this strategy, we would take actions designed to strengthen our bilateral relations. We would manage our policies toward India in the same way that we do with regard to other major nations where we have important interests. This might include flexibility in applying our nuclear non-proliferation policy. The most senior U.S. leaders should consult frequently and frankly with the Indian leadership. We should consider policy concessions in areas of interest to India, such as trade.

Sixth, what the Chinese say and do with the Pakistanis is crucial to our strategy. We would inform China in detail of our South Asian strategy and seek its cooperation. We believe the Chinese also see their interest in countering Soviet influence served by stability in South Asia. Assuming that Sino-Indian relations continue to improve, Peking may therefore urge the Pakistanis to work out a viable relationship with India. We consider that our new relationship with China will be a positive support to our strategy since it provides additional reassurance to Pakistan and better foundation for our attaining Chinese cooperation. That new relationship could have negative results however, if India concluded it had been achieved at the cost of U.S.-Indian relations. Consequently, it is particularly important that we take steps to indicate to the Indians the importance we attach to our relations with them.

Seventh, we would consult closely and frequently through visits of senior U.S. officials with the Governments of both Pakistan and India. We believe that such consultations can achieve important political results even though they are not accompanied by additional commitments of resources. Since India would be central to our strategy, we [Page 25] would discuss with the Government of India our analyses and plans regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the region generally. By so doing, we would seek to obtain India’s confidence that our strategy was consistent with India’s interests. By presenting our policy so that its limits and its consistent application over a period of time are clear, we would hope that India would accept a greater U.S. economic and security participation in Pakistan than would be the case were our policy open-ended and undefined. The objectives of our consultations with Pakistan would be both to keep the government informed of our views and policies and build Pakistan’s confidence based upon our friendship and support. The initial result of our consultations with Pakistan regarding our new policy would be—to put it midly—disappointment; nonetheless, we think we should be candid as in time we consider our consultations and our actions can produce the confidence we seek.

Finally, we would consult with our NATO Allies and other friendly countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Japan) seeking to obtain from them an appreciation of the Pakistan problem similar to ours and their active engagement in policies consistent with ours.

15. In proposing this policy we have considered and rejected a military course of action designed to protect Pakistan from Soviet expansionism via Afghanistan. We see no practical way of strengthening CENTO and we believe that the stability of the area would not be seriously affected if it is allowed to quietly fade away. We believe that India can do more to reassure Pakistan (and conversely to undermine its stability) than any other nation. If we pursued a U.S. military strategy we would risk creating an Indian perception of a new threat to India and we would risk stimulating closer Soviet-Indian relations, thus adding to the dangers of Soviet penetration in the subcontinent. However, we believe we should hold a military option in reserve in case our insulation strategy is failing.

16. We recognize that the success of this policy will depend upon India’s tolerance for our actions in Pakistan and India’s pursuit of its own interests in the manner we project. India’s tolerance will depend upon the limits we impose on the steps we take to strengthen Pakistan’s security, the effectiveness of our consultations, and the credibility of our efforts to improve bilateral relations. Our review of India’s history indicates that the Indians, when they have seen their interests threatened by developments in neighboring countries, have taken decisive actions to protect those interests—but only after deliberation and the development of a clear and present threat. We therefore believe our strategy presents the best—although uncertain—prospects for success. But it may require considerable patience on our part. While we should review our policy if Mrs. Gandhi should return to power, our estimate [Page 26] is that the actual foreign policies she would pursue would not be markedly different from those of the present government. Her rhetoric would, of course, be considerably different and might heighten Pakistani concerns.

17. As for the smaller countries in South Asia, we should continue our support of Sri Lanka’s efforts to develop a more prosperous and equitable society. We should also continue to use our assistance policies to ease political strains and support a strategy of orderly change in all three states. We should also monitor closely developments in Bangladesh and Nepal because of prospects for instability and turmoil in these countries which could affect the stability of the whole area and invite outside involvement.

18. Request S/S distribute as appropriate to other posts such as London, Moscow and Peking.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790017–0040. Secret; Exdis. Sent for information to Dacca, Islamabad, Kabul, Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Tehran.
  2. In telegram 327405 to multiple posts, December 30, 1978, Saunders, noting that he would be unable to attend the January Chiefs of Mission meeting in Colombo, indicated his interest in the status of regional and extra-regional relationships, as well as whether there were “a sensible way of thinking about some region larger than South Asia.” He noted, however, that he had “no illusions about our developing either a tightly knit strategy toward that region nor about any possibility of new formal relationships among the nations there. But the practical fact is that, with the increased instability across that region, we must find new ways of talking about the area and new doctrines for expressing our relationship with it.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780539–0512)
  3. Not further identified.