Nixon felt he owed Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan a debt of gratitude for his government’s role in facilitating Kissinger’s secret trip to China. Ignoring reports of Pakistan’s military atrocities against Bangladeshi civilians, the U.S. actively supported Pakistan to the extent of violating congressional restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistani troops. Estimates of the human toll of what became known as the Pakistani Army’s genocide in Bangladesh range from 300,000 to 3 million fatalities according to International sources.
As national security adviser, Kissinger visited both India and Pakistan several times during the Bangladesh crisis and fashioned the “tilt towards Pakistan”—a policy that avoided joining international condemnation of Pakistan’s actions in East Pakistan without expressly supporting them—that Nixon probably demanded. Nixon did not want “Soviet stooge” India to overrun “U.S. ally Pakistan” and wanted to spare the Pakistani Army from humiliation. In the end most of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s exertions proved futile. On December 16, 1971, Indian forces marched triumphantly into Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, where Pakistan’s army laid down its arms. Ninety thousand Pakistani troops, civilian officials, and allies became prisoners of war. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born and was, after some hesitation, recognized by the United States.
Although the United States, with Soviet help, had prevented India from overrunning West Pakistan as well, it received no gratitude from Pakistan for its efforts. The Indians claimed that they had no plans of doing that anyway, whereas the Pakistanis resented the United States for not stepping in with guns blazing to help save the country’s eastern wing. Meanwhile, the Indians often recall America’s failure to scare them from supporting the Bangladeshis. Nixon had ordered the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet to move to the Bay of Bengal to psych out India, though the fleet was instructed not to engage in conflict. The Bangladeshis to this day remember that the U.S. supported Pakistan’s army as it committed atrocities against them.
Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has lived in constant turmoil. Conceived as a democracy, it has been ruled by the military for half its life. Engaged in off-and-on talks with its traditional foe India, its leaders have deep suspicions of the fellow nuclear power next door that continue to drive national priorities. Even as it allows notorious Islamic militants to operate on its soil, the world’s sixth-most populous nation has developed an emerging middle class as well as an increasingly independent judiciary and news media. It is both a fragile state and a modernizing society.