Forty-four years ago in August 1969, the newly elected president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, visited Lahore, Pakistan, to meet with that country’s leader, President Mohammed Agha Yahya Khan, who had taken over earlier that year from his predecessor, Mohammed Ayub Khan, who dominated Pakistani politics for more than a decade.
That mini-summit in Lahore would eventually play a role in two subsequent historic events – Nixon’s visit to Communist China in 1972 and the 1971 liberation war that created the new state of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).
According to Sultan Mohammed Khan, Pakistan's foreign secretary at the time and a former ambassador to the U.S., Nixon made the trip to Lahore to informally become acquainted with Yahya Khan. (Nixon had visited Pakistan many times before, while serving as U.S. vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s and also as a private citizen in the following decade).
“[Nixon] mentioned to Yahya Khan that [he was] thinking of re-establishing contact with China,” Mohammed Khan told PBS. “It [had] been almost two decades [since the U.S.] broke relations with [China] and there [had] been no official contact and, when the time is right, [Nixon would] like to get in touch with [Yahya] to help [Nixon] and act as an intermediary in the establishment of relationship.”
Yahya agreed, but the matter was not raised again until October 1970, when he visited the White House and discussed China with Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.
The following month, Yahya Khan visited Beijing, where he was warmly greeted by Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai. During that trip, China signed a number of military supply agreements with Pakistan and even erased financial debts the country owed to Beijing.
“[Yahya Khan] conveyed President Nixon's proposal for sending an envoy to China to meet Zhou En-lai or some other Chinese leader to discuss problems between the two countries,” Mohammed Khan said.
“[Zhou] said we have received many proposals from different sources for establishing contact with the United States but this is the first time a message has come from a … head of state. The United States knows that Pakistan is a great friend of China and therefore we attach importance to the message you have given, and we accept the proposal to receive an envoy of President Nixon in [Beijing].”
Pakistan was a key U.S. ally during the Cold War, said Dr. Ehtisham Ahmad, a visiting senior fellow of the Asia Research Centre at the London School of Economics.
“Despite President John F. Kennedy's tilt towards India, and the freezing of military and economic ties after the 1965 war with India, Pakistan still remained of geopolitical importance to the U.S. at a time when the Cold War was still very much on,” he told International Business Times. “And the U.S. facing difficulties in extricating itself from Vietnam, Nixon was shoring up his support base.”
Apparently, Nixon’s efforts to reach out to China were kept classified and were known only to a very few officials in Washington, Islamabad and Beijing. (After several months of silence, in April 1971, the Chinese finally agreed to receive Nixon, facilitating the epoch-making event in 1972).
However, back in late 1970, having secured the willingness of the Chinese to meet with Nixon and other favorable deals, Yahya Khan nonetheless had another more urgent matter to contend with – the growing secessionist movement in East Pakistan. (When the British partitioned India in 1947, they created the Muslim nation of "Pakistan,” which comprised two distinct territories – West Pakistan and East Pakistan – separated by 1,500 miles.)
Moreover, elections held in December 1970 showed how hopelessly divided Pakistan was -- the Awami League won virtually all seats in East Pakistan, but had no presence at all in West Pakistan. Similarly, the Pakistan People’s Party dominated the legislative assembly of West Pakistan, but held nothing in East Pakistan. (The two leaders of these two parties, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, respectively, would play crucial roles in this drama in the years to come.) Ahmad explained that the December 1970 election presented a serious problem for both Yahya and Bhutto, because the poll gave Mujib an overall majority in the national Parliament. “Both Bhutto and Yahya were afraid that if Mujib became prime minister (as was his right), all the provinces of Pakistan would have come apart -- not just East Pakistan,” he said.
Fearing East Pakistan would secede (with the help of India), in March 1971 Yahya Khan commenced a crackdown on Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan that would eventually lead to a devastating war which would kill as many as 3 million people and prompt the flood of many more millions of (Bengali) refugees into India.
Yahya Khan’s military maneuvers failed against the combined forces of Bengali rebels and the Indian military -- and, as he had to watch the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh -- he apologized to his countrymen and stepped down in favor of Bhutto in December 1971.
Bhutto subsequently placed Yahya Khan under house arrest, a result of what Ahmad describes as “effectively a military coup” to remove Yahya.
“Even though Bhutto had been elected to Parliament, he came to power as chief martial law administrator,” Ahmad said. “Ideally, he should have sought a new mandate by another election -- he did not have the majority in Parliament, but because the Bengali MPs were effectively disqualified, he assumed a leadership role.”
The U.S. also played a remote, but tangible, role in this South Asian adventure.
During the liberation war, Nixon ostensibly supported Pakistan but urged restraint on the part of Yahya Khan. In December 2002, declassified U.S. government documents revealed that Nixon ordered his aides not to do anything to compromise Yahya Khan’s war in East Pakistan.
“To all hands, don’t squeeze Yahya at this time,” declared a handwritten note Nixon wrote in April 1971.
Kissinger himself referred to Nixon’s fondness for Yahya Khan during a meeting in June 1971 with Kenneth Keating, then the U.S. ambassador to India, in stark contrast to Nixon’s hostility to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
According to reports, Kissinger said Nixon had a “special feeling for President Yahya” and that he wanted to treat the Pakistani president “with love, rather than with brutality.”
“One cannot make policy on that basis [personal feelings and friendship], but it is a fact of life,” Kissinger added.
Nixon and Kissinger even threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with India during the war – an event that was canceled by (West) Pakistan’s loss and surrender in the conflict as well as India’s declaration of a ceasefire in mid-December 1971.
There are also indications that the U.S. may have violated its own arms embargo on Pakistan during the liberation war – weapons that Yahya’s forces may have used to kill tens of thousands of Bengalis. Of course, Nixon likely viewed this South Asian battle in Cold War terms – with Pakistan as a strong ally of the U.S. and India as a proxy for the still-powerful Soviet Union.
Ahmad suggested that (West) Pakistan may have become better off losing (East) Pakistan.
“It is not clear that there was much appetite in Islamabad or the military command to hang on to East Pakistan in the face of a hostile citizenry,” he noted. “West [Pakistan] did very much better economically after East [Pakistan] had separated.”
Interestingly, the two men at the center of this global geostrategic power play, Yahya Khan and Richard Nixon, ended up as discredited politicians with a decidedly mixed legacy.
Yahya Khan remained under house arrest until 1977 when the new Pakistani leader, Gen. Zia al-Haq, released him. Yahya died in 1980 in relative obscurity in Rawalpindi.
”Yahya is largely forgotten and unimportant in the context of present-day Pakistan,” Ahmad noted.
Less than three years after the Bangladesh war, Nixon had to resign from the White House, a consequence of the Watergate break-in scandal. Nixon would spend the remaining 20 years of his life largely as a pariah and seek in vain to rehabilitate his image.