Thursday May 23, 2024

The myths of December

By Dr Murad Ali
December 16, 2018

The month of December has always been a time to reflect upon our past, or to be precise, on the collective magnificent follies that we have so eagerly been part of.

While it used to be only December 16 that was the day of sombre thinking, now the list goes on to include the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Bashir Bilour and of course the great tragedy of the APS attack where over 140 school-going children and their teachers were mercilessly massacred. Of the latter three incidents, we do not know more than the fact that some unnamed terrorists carried out these heinous acts of terrorism.

However, a lot has been written on the nature and role of national and international actors in the debacle of Dhaka. Also, like several national and international villains, the US is also considered to have not played its due role as expected by Pakistan. It is a dominant perception in Pakistan that the US ditched its close ally and could not come to its rescue when the country needed it most. As in the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the US enforced sanctions on both India and Pakistan during the 1971 war.

It was in this context that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote that ‘the United States imposed an embargo on the delivery of military equipment to Pakistan when the country was struggling for its survival against an aggressor five times its size. For three years, a complete ban was placed on the sale of weapons and spare parts to Pakistan. The government of a country in three military alliances had to run from pillar to post in search of armaments and spare parts, from black market centres and notorious arms peddlers’.

Well, this was and it is still an overriding perception among laypersons and the educated class, including academia and researchers. Pakistan was in three military alliances with the US, including the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement (MDA, signed in May 1954), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato, 1954) and the US-sponsored Baghdad Pact (signed in 1955). In 1958, its name was changed to Cento and it comprised Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Great Britain. To be honest, the main impetus behind these treaties was to contain rising Soviet influence in the adjoining regions and beyond and not to bolster Pakistan’s military prowess vis-à-vis India.

Article I of the MDA very explicitly states what the US expected of Pakistan and what the latter was not supposed to do. The agreement asserts: “The government of the United States will make available to the government of Pakistan such equipment, materials, services or other assistance as the government of the United States may authorize in accordance with such terms and conditions as may be agreed”. Para 2 of Article I clarifies that “The government of Pakistan will use this assistance exclusively to maintain its internal security, its legitimate self-defense, or to permit it to participate in the defense of the area, or in UN collective security arrangements and measures, and Pakistan will not undertake any act of aggression against any other nation. The government of Pakistan will not, without the prior agreement of the government of the United States, devote such assistance to purposes other than those for which it was furnished” (italicized for emphasis).

So, Pakistan’s leadership was either not good at English language or simply ignored this in the hope that the US would oblige it irrespective of Pakistan’s follies. Although the US neither helped India nor Pakistan in these testing times, the latter felt that – being a close ally – the US should not have let them down. Although the US imposed sanctions on both Pakistan and India, Pakistan suffered more because it was relying on weapons imported from the US, unlike India which was importing huge arms from the USSR. As a result of the US arms embargo, Pakistan also responded by closing military bases on its soil used by the US for the surveillance of the USSR in the region.

Pakistan felt betrayed when the US avoided to directly involving in the India-Pakistan controversy. However, to assume that Pakistan was let down by the US is perhaps showing one side of the picture. The reality is that while directing Task Force 74 with the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 crisis, US President Nixon sent a loud message to India not to stretch the war to Pakistan’s western borders and attack the mainland West Pakistan. In Pakistan, though, a common perception is that the US did not overtly oppose or stop India from dismembering Pakistan as the USS Enterprise did not arrive in time to stop Indian aggression.

The kind of cordial relationship Islamabad had with Washington during those years, it is argued that the US could not offer enough help to Pakistan to save it from defeat at the hands of India. Although the US could not prevent India from splitting the eastern wing of Pakistan; by sending a US naval ship the US administration also deterred India from carrying out a full-fledged attack on Pakistan’s eastern borders. If that had happened, Pakistan could have faced a complete defeat on its eastern frontiers. Therefore, although the US did not play a more vital role which Pakistan might have expected, to some extent the gestures given to India in the form of sending the naval fleet to the Bay of Bengal at least saved Pakistan from complete defeat at the hands of its arch rival.

Have we learnt anything from such episodes? Does the country’s leadership make a thorough cost-benefit analysis before joining alliances with external powers? Whether it was during the cold-war period or in the so-called ‘war on terror’, Pakistan has paid and continues to pay a heavy price for involving itself in others’ wars. And if the country is eager to do so again and again if it is offered a better price tag, then it is not right to scapegoat other countries for its own failures. There is always a unique sense of satisfaction when one absolves oneself of all the wrongs and puts the whole responsibility of failures on others.

The US has been doing this too as it wrongly blames Pakistan for the Afghan quagmire. In the same way, Pakistan itself was largely responsible for the Dhaka disaster. The US could not help Pakistan as it should have, but under the treaties signed, the US had not committed either. Under US-carved alliances involving Pakistan, American aid to Pakistan was premised on the ground of protecting US as well as those of Pakistan’s interests pertaining to the expansion of communism and the rising influence of the Soviets. US economic and military assistance was not aimed at making Pakistan a military power to challenge India’s security superiority. Pakistan wrongly thought otherwise and paid a huge price for that by losing half of the country in the process.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.