Dhaka Sunday December 16, 2012

Super Powers In Liberation War

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley

The two super powers that dominated a largely bipolar world until the early 1990s played a significant role in the liberation war of Bangladesh. The part they played in the sanguinary birth of Bangladesh was defined by the strategic shifts that occurred in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Since those times spectacular changes in the international world order have transformed the world. The Soviet Union, one of the super powers that had a positive role in the emergence of Bangladesh, collapsed from within by 1992. The end of the Soviet Union also signified the retreat of socialism in Europe and the end of the cold war in a bi-polar world.

In consequence, the other super power, the United States of America became a virtual hyper power in a uni-polar world. Other remarkable developments also marked the international scenario. Many developing nations emerged as regional powers and are in the process of becoming great powers. Included in the list of these rising powers are China, India, Brazil and South Africa. China is emerging as the second largest economy in the world of our times, while India is also rapidly developing as a significant power. The post cold war world is thus pregnant with the possibility of becoming a multi-polar world replacing the present uni-polar dispensation.

It may be difficult for the generations born after the 1990s to understand and appreciate the international backdrop in which Bangladesh was born. The bi-polar world in which the balance of terror was created by nuclear parity of the super powers is also a thing of the past. It is not easy to understand how things were during those times. Nevertheless, hindsight may contribute to a clearer understanding of the dramatic emergence of Bangladesh in the context of relentless competition and rivalry launched by the super powers.

During the 1960s apparently strong ties of comradeship between the Soviet Union and China loosened. This ended the myth of a monolithic communist camp. By the late '60s China on her own became a major actor on the international stage. On the capitalist side, strains appeared in the anticommunist coalitions. Non-military, especially economic issues came to the forefront. Conflict of interest increased between the United States and its closest cold war allies, Western Europe and Japan. As a result of all this the cold war coalitions on both sides gradually weakened.

In a world where the challenge of secessionism was met by existing states and international order with stern measures, any secessionist group would be faced with virtually insurmountable obstacles. Nevertheless, in the case of Bangladesh the attempt to secede from a repressive state was crowned with success.

The Caesarean birth of Bangladesh marked the success of the first armed separatist struggle in the post colonial Third World. How then, precisely, the development of the polycentric world still dominated by two super powers helped hasten the birth of Bangladesh? The case of Bangladesh underscores the fact that not only regional and inter-state rivalries, but intra-state ethno-linguistic, economic and political conflict can also threaten to draw the super powers to the edge of war.


The role of Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was the first great power to deplore publicly the Pakistani military crackdown on Bengalis. It was also the first major power to officially recognize the State of Bangladesh, which it did within thirty eight days of its de facto liberation from the Pakistani forces.

The response of the Soviet Union to the 1971 crisis in East Pakistan was conditioned by the general Soviet policy with regard to Asia in the 1960s. It was a policy of growing involvement, initially undertaken to contain America's influence in Asia, but increasingly directed at stemming the diplomatic and military as well as ideological advance of China which at that time was emerging as the Soviet Union's principal rival in the Third World. The Soviet Union's desire to present its credentials as an Asian power, its desire to counter potential American, Japanese or Chinese backed schemes for alliances and alignments led to its launching in the spring of 1969 a campaign for a system of collective security in Asia. This campaign became the mainstay of the Soviet Union's diplomacy in Asia as events and developments in the South Asian sub-continent were setting the stage for the conflict in East Pakistan.

The Soviet Union's close tie with India was a vital factor in shaping the Soviet response towards the East Pakistan crisis in 1971. An amiable working relationship had prevailed between the two countries since the visit of Bulganin and Khrushchev to New Delhi in December 1955. The Indo Soviet ties were further strengthened in the wake of the 1962 Sino Indian border war. India's defeat in the 1962 clash and the worsening Sino Soviet relations eventually (mainly during 1969 1971) caused Moscow to attach more significance to its ties with India. As the dominant power in the South Asian subcontinent, India could be built up as an effective counterpoise to China and thus could provide help to Moscow to contain Beijing militarily and diplomatically.

Another important factor behind the Soviet Union's response and rather close involvement in the 1971 crisis in South Asia was the Soviet self image as “a Great Power situated on two continents Europe and Asia” which, as the Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, speaking in the Supreme Soviet in June 1968, said, did not “plead with anybody to be allowed to have their say in the solution of any question involving the maintenance of international peace, concerning the freedom and independence of the peoples ...”.

The relatively high priority given by the Soviet policy makers to Bangladesh crisis in 1971 was the consequence of their perception of the contemporary world and Asia and the proper Soviet role in both the world and Asian dimensions as a great power. Moscow was concerned about maintaining the stability and security of its ally, India. It wanted to ensure the position of India as the dominant power in South Asia. Bangladesh might have been viewed by the leaders of the Soviet Union as a “fringe responsibility to their Indian interests”, but in 1971 it was of considerable importance to them as the first test case of their political and diplomatic abilities in an emerging “triangular world”. The Sino American detente had opened Moscow's eyes to the new and none too pleasant possibility of being cornered and isolated. The apparent convergence of the Chinese and the American policies and objectives with regard to the Bangladesh issue in 1971 increased the Soviet fears in this respect and probably further hardened the Soviet resolve to back Indian assistance to Bangladesh.

Thus behind all that happened in the sub-continent over the 1971 Bangladesh struggle “was a power struggle between China and the Soviet Union and a strategic conflict between Moscow and Washington”. In South Asia during December 1971 the Soviet Union seemed to have gained most from this three-cornered fight.

A Bangladesh freed from Pakistan, which was backed by both China and America, was for the Soviet Union in 1971 a proof of the realism and immediate (though not necessarily permanent) success of its global and Asian policies. The birth of Bangladesh with India's support and sympathetic Soviet supervision did indeed mark the emergence of the Soviet Union as “the military arsenal and political defender of India with access for [Moscow's] rising naval power to the Indian Ocean and a base of political and military operations on China's southern flank”.

Irrespective of the motives and gains of the Soviet Union in its involvement in the Bangladesh war of liberation, its solid and unflinching support to the Bengali cause was invaluable to the Bengali. During the penultimate days of Indo-Pak war over Bangladesh, the Soviet veto in the UN Security Council against US backed proposal for ceasefire paved the way for the Indo-Bangladesh allied forces to march into Dhaka and secure the defeat and surrender of 90 thousand Pakistani troops on the 16th December 1971. Soviet Union's positive role thus contributed immensely to the historic triumph of Bangladesh.

The Role of the USA
Of the two super powers dominating the World in 1970s the USA played a more complex and somewhat negative role in the 1971 war. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the US society's response was one of positive support contradicting the state's negative role. In the pluralist and open society of the US, influential and articulate segments stood solidly behind the cause of Bangladesh.

The 1971 crisis in East Pakistan erupted at a time when the United States, under President Nixon, was busy recasting its global and Asian policies to suit the needs of the new international system which by 1970 “had become much more complex”. “The Sino¬-Soviet misunderstanding had ripened into heated clashes, both ideological and territorial. China had become a nuclear power ... and had found itself at war with India in 1962. The American Cold War alliance system lay in shambles and American power was deeply committed against a nationalist communist force in Vietnam. Above all the USSR had attained nuclear weapon destructive parity with the United States”.

During 1969 and 1970 President Nixon's Asian policy was dominated by a gradual US disengagement with China. This process, which was virtually coterminous with the “reinstatement ... of the Soviet Union as necessarily the main rival of the United States, began under the so called 'Guam' or 'Nixon' doctrine; and by the beginning of 1971 the United States and China were both ready to undertake its complement the improvement of Sino American relations as a means of improving the position of both states against their common rival”. This was the immediate background of the highly controversial White House policy toward the East Pakistan crisis in 1971 when the Nixon administration supported Pakistan, an old ally of America and friend of China and opposed the democratically elected representatives of East Pakistan (aided by India, which was in turn backed by the Soviet Union) in their attempts to separate East Pakistan from its western part.

As the crisis developed the American response to it went through several discernible phases.

The first phase of quiet non-involvement began on 25 March and lasted roughly until 9 10 July 1971. During this phase the US posture was “neutral” and it described the problem in East Bengal as Pakistan's “internal matter”.

The second phase started with the secret trip by President Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to China during 9 10 July 1971. This marked the real beginnings of the Sino US detente and led indirectly to the formalization of Indo Soviet alliance by a treaty in August. During this phase, which lasted until September, the United States pursued diplomacy of restraint, counselling India to desist from armed conflict with Pakistan and privately pressing Pakistan to thrash out a 'political settlement' of the East Pakistan issue.

During the third phase, lasting from September until December 3, when the Indo Pakistan war over Bangladesh broke out, the United States attempted to promote a constructive political dialogue between the Pakistani military government and the Bengali nationalist leaders in India, but in vain.

The fourth phase covered the period of the Indo Pak war. During the 14-day sub continental war, the United States backed Pakistan and blamed India for the escalation of hostilities and tried through the United Nations and other means to bring about a ceasefire and “save West Pakistan” from possible Indian attempts to destroy it militarily.

As noted earlier, throughout all these phases there was a great divergence between the policy and attitude of the US administration and the American press, legislative bodies, and academic community. For the most part these entities openly and emphatically sided with the Bengali nationalists and supported the Indian role in aiding and assisting them.

On 9th December “the CIA produced a report that Kissinger found alarming”. It allegedly contained minutes of an Indian Cabinet discussion on launching a major offensive against West Pakistan in order to modify the border of West Pakistan and destroy the Pakistan army. Kissinger reportedly suggested tough action to deter India. According to Anderson's later 'revelations', the President heeded Kissinger's advice and ordered a task force of eight naval ships, led by the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise, to sail into the Bay of Bengal in a 'show of force' aimed at India and its ally, the Soviet Union.

Nixon and Kissinger also reportedly took measures to put pressure on the Soviet Union to restrain India from attacking West Pakistan. When diplomatic contacts and communications failed to elicit the desired response from Moscow, Kissinger caused a 'pool report' to be circulated in the press that “if the Russians didn't begin to exercise a restraining influence very soon, the entire US-Soviet relations might be reexamined” and “a new look might have to be taken at the President's summitry plans”.

On 16 December as the Pakistan army in the East surrendered to the “Allied Indo Bangladesh Forces” and Bangladesh was liberated, India declared a unilateral ceasefire on the West Pakistan front and President Yahya Khan accepted the offer. Thus the hostilities ended and the US administration's fear with regard to Indian invasion of West Pakistan did not materialize.

In the United Nations
On 4 December 1971 Kissinger reportedly told a White House strategy session: “The exercise in the UN is likely to be an exercise in futility, inasmuch as the Soviets can be expected to veto. The UN itself will in all probability do little to terminate the war ... Nothing will happen in the Security Council because of Soviet vetoes. The whole thing is a farce”.

Nevertheless, the United States continued its efforts within the UN to achieve a ceasefire without such delay as would put Pakistan into a disadvantageous position. To this end, the US moved two draft resolutions on its own and an additional one in cooperation with Japan. None of these made any substantial reference to the need for a political settlement in East Pakistan. They simply proposed an immediate Indo Pakistan ceasefire and withdrawal of troops. Consequently they were vetoed by the Soviet Union which insisted that the proposed ceasefire should be related to an acceptable political settlement of the East Pakistan question.

The role of super powers in the war of liberation brought to bold relief the reality of international politics during the early 1970s. Each of the two super powers played its part in accordance with its own national, regional and global interests.

Bangladesh, as a part of Pakistan, was a geopolitical rarity with its own cogent reasons for successful separation from a post colonial polity. In addition, it was a land struggling for independence at a time when global politics was undergoing strategic shifts. Involvement of the superpowers, positive or negative, resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state.

The writer is a social scientist and founder chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs. He was also a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University.