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Perils of Relying on American Support

Atul Bhardwaj ( is honorary research fellow in the Department of International Politics at the City, University of London.

The contemporary wars in the Indian subcontinent have seen an increasing involvement, or at least, mediation, by the United States. The subcontinental elite have relied far too much on the US to bring them victory in war. India learnt the lesson in 1962 when the US failed to provide India the much needed bomber support to win the war. For Pakistan, the moment arrived in 1971, when despite overt US support, it failed to preserve East Pakistan. Once again India seems to be relying on American support to achieve its objectives in Kashmir, imagining that personal relations with American leadership is enough to win wars.

The presence of President Donald Trump at the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston and the rather low-key criticism of India’s handling of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir led many Indian analysts to imagine that New Delhi’s brilliant diplomatic manoeuvres have defeated Pakistan’s efforts to exploit the complete shutdown of Kashmir for more than two months and to highlight it as the violation of human rights.

Since 2014, the tendency to indulge in premature celebrations and claim victory much before the final whistle is blown, has been a part and parcel of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government’s information management strategy. This is achieved through extensive use of propaganda in which all forms of media are employed, including motion pictures.

The overwhelming propaganda offensive prevents an objective analysis of the event. It often leads to spread of over-confidence among the masses who imagine their local hero to be the lead actor on the global stage. The propaganda campaign not only afflicts the public mind but also percolates down to the policy circles, adding a sense of complacency in the decision-making processes, which in turn leads to the neglect of historical experiences.

In the current scenario, there is a growing feeling that India has a clear advantage over Pakistan to impose its will in the whole of Kashmir, including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK). The existing bonhomie between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump is considered to be India’s trump card in Kashmir. The most naive assumption is that India’s decisive leadership can manage both nuclear Pakistan and international opinion. Pakistan’s weak economy and the lack of full American support are seen as twin factors that would deter Pakistan from launching an offensive.

A somewhat similar mood had prevailed in New Delhi before the commencement of the 1962 war with China. We were gullible enough to believe that China stood isolated as the Soviet Union had given it a cold shoulder, and the United States (US) and other Western countries sympathised with India’s position on the border dispute. Emboldened by near-perfect management of the diplomatic chessboard, India launched the “forward policy” with an assumption that Mao Zedong’s position within the Chinese Communist Party was weak due to the failure of the great leap forward and Beijing was an international outlier, incapable of launching a full-scale war.

Indian calculations went awry. China did declare war on India, we were caught unprepared. To top it all, the US, our main military adviser and supporter during the war, refused to employ its bombers to support us. Our strategy was rooted in the belief that Americans hated China and wanted to see it defeated and humiliated. Little did we know that for the US, war was more important than its outcome. Direct American involvement in bombing China may have brought victory to India, but it would have brought China and the Soviet Union closer, and that certainly was not what the US wanted to achieve through the Sino–Indian war. For them, the Sino-India, war was a means to intensify the Sino–Soviet divide and this objective was achieved by the 1962 war.

Unreliable American Support

Limited wars between two small and medium countries is more than a local affair. There is always a global hegemon waiting in the wings to extract its pound of flesh from every little war. The nationalist sentiments surrounding the war often blind us to the presence of such a hegemon who is friend to none.

The American geopolitical need to contain China may make it imperative for it to court India. But, does this mean it will overlook whatever India does in Kashmir, or if it decides to walk into Gilgit–Baltistan? Will Washington policy circles continue to favour New Delhi if the probability of a nuclear war in the subcontinent becomes imminent? The US is expected to cater to its own strategic needs. If its strategy demands that Gilgit–Baltistan come under India’s control, it may extend support to India. But if strategy demands that Gilgit–Baltistan remain with Pakistan or become independent, then despite overt support to India, the US will act to ensure that India does not succeed in Gilgit–Baltistan.

To understand how the US strategy works, let us take the example of the 1971 war when Pakistan had the US as its close friend. In 1960s, the Pakistani army committed ruthless atrocities against their own people in the then East Pakistan. Heinous human rights abuses were committed to retain Pakistan’s territorial rights on East Pakistan. Confident of American backing in the international fora, the Pakistani elite remained completely oblivious of consequences of their actions. Till, of course, the end of 1971 when the intervention by the Indian Army led to the liberation of Bangladesh and forced 93,000 Pakistani troops to surrender.

It is widely believed that there was a clear anti-India bias in the US administration’s policy during the Bangladesh crisis, and this bias largely arose from President Nixon’s sense of personal friendship with Yahya Khan and his general sympathy for Pakistan.

However, what is not popular knowledge in India is that the Nixon administration’s policy on Pakistan was opposed by many in the state department, like Christopher van Hollen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Besides Hollen, two other officials in the Washington Special Action Group (WASPG), a White House crisis study group that examined events in South Asia on a daily basis, were opposed to Nixon’s tilt towards Pakistan. Joseph Sisco, Assistant Secretary South Asia was practically alone in supporting the President’s policy and for feeding and reinforcing the anti-India prejudices of the President (Clary 2019).

All along, both Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew that Pakistan was on a weak wicket in the Eastern sector and that the US will not intervene. On 30 March 1971, while updating President Nixon on the situation in Pakistan, Kissinger said, “We should just stay out.” Nixon compared the situation in East Pakistan to that of Biafra in Nigeria and said, “It’s just like Biafra. The main thing to do is to keep cool and not do anything. There’s nothing in it for us either way” (Clary 2019: 682).

The Nixon administration did not have any serious reservations to an independent East Pakistan. Their main concern was not to end up being accused of having encouraged the split-up of Pakistan. This attitude comes to the fore by examining the manner in which Kissinger approached the United Nations (UN) on the East Pakistan issue. He knew that going to the UN was an exercise in futility, because the Soviets were expected to use veto and the UN could do little to terminate the war. But all that he wanted to do was register America’s position at the UN to appease Pakistan and perhaps, nudge India more towards the Soviet Union.

Kissinger could allow India to flow into the Soviet camp because he was confident that the elite networks the US had established in India would draw economic benefits and military technology from the Soviet Union while remaining steadfast in their opposition to its ideology. On Indira Gandhi, Kissinger’s appraisal read, “The lady is cold-blooded and tough and will not turn India into a Soviet satellite merely because of pique.”1

The secret internal proceedings of the WASPG were leaked to Jack Anderson, the Washington Post columnist who highlighted the differences within the Nixon administration on Bangladesh issue.

From 16 December 1971, he wrote a series of articles on the Bangladesh crisis, primarily favouring India and highlighting Nixon’s flawed approach. His column on 21 December was titled “US Task Force Didn’t Frighten India,” which quoted reports from the US embassy and Central Intelligence Agency sources in India about the confidential Indo–Soviet discussions leaked to the American sources.

The title of his 1 January 1972 article was “US, UN Damaged by Indian Blitz.” The leaks helped to assure India that it still had friends in the US and simultaneously informing Pakistan that it had support at the highest level.

This fine balancing act was performed by Kissinger to suit his negotiating strategy with the Chinese. In December 1971, when the subcontinent was under the spell of a war, the preparations for Nixon’s maiden visit to China in February 1972 were in full swing. Pakistan was one of the important mediators facilitating the US–China rapprochement. The US was least concerned about the victory of Pakistan. It was more interested in using the crisis to achieve its policy goals. It was chasing China and Pakistan; India and Bangladesh were merely the means to reach Beijing. The coming together of India and the Soviet Union was needed to convince China that national interests, and not ideology, determines international relations.

In Conclusion

These examples of games America played with Pakistani elite during the 1971 war informs us that the more the small and medium countries enter the vortex of war, the more they are vulnerable to exploitation by the global hegemon. Piecemeal support from the US did not prevent Pakistan from paying a heavy price for selective subversion of democratic rights and creating a humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan. A few F-104 from Jordon, and some F-86 from Saudi Arabia that Pakistan received with American help did not change the course of events in East Pakistan. The daily meetings and friendship between Yahya Khan and Joseph Farland, the US ambassador in Pakistan, did not save Pakistan from the ignominy. President Nixon’s personal biases and tilt in favour of Pakistan hardly made a difference. The threat of US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier only added the Soviet naval dimension to the Bay of Bengal, without making any impact on the outcome of war in favour of Islamabad. In a nutshell, friendship with the US did not yield any substantial strategic gain to Islamabad.

Much like the Pakistani leadership in the 1971, Modi’s current strategy is too obsessed with religious ideology to be in a position to make a judicious judgment of both regional and global power. He is too close to the US to appreciate what the latter really desires. The reality is, once again, that China is the main concern for the US. India and Pakistan continue to be viewed as the foot soldiers, always willing to die for an unknown cause.


1 NAI (National Archives of India)/MEA/WII/104(11)/1972 M Rasgotra’s letter to K Rukmani Menon, Joint Secretary (AMS), MEA, on 28 December 1971.


Clary, Christopher (2019): “Tilting at Windmills: The Flawed US Policy toward the 1971 Indo–Pakistani War,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 42, No 5, pp 677–700.

Updated On : 30th Oct, 2019


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