Tomorrow marks the 51st anniversary of the conclusion of the worst genocide of the post-World War II-era. The U.S. State Department monitored the slaughter of Bengalis in real-time, but under the then-secretary’s orders, it did nothing. U.S. President Joe Biden recognizes the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Holodomor, but he and his predecessors remain silent on what transpired in Bangladesh. Recognizing such history is not only a matter of historical justice. It also remains relevant to policy today, as some in the State Department and White House propose allying themselves with the same forces responsible for that genocide, and for sponsorship of terror since.
A History of Genocides
First some perspective: Much of the Western world recoiled just over a decade ago, when Syrian President Bashar al Assad turned his guns on his own people. Over the course of that conflict, the United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 civilians have died, with more than ten times that number displaced.
In Washington’s political debate, the Yemen conflict overshadows Syria and Afghanistan. The latter two are forgotten conflicts, at least for Americans. Progressives demand that the United States downgrade or cut ties with Saudi Arabia due to the Kingdom’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war and suggest failure to do so makes the United States culpable in a conflict that has claimed perhaps 400,000 civilian lives since its 2014 outbreak.
The last decades of the 20th century were even more brutal. The 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda killed 800,000 in just three months. Between 1992 and 1995, approximately 350,000 people, one-quarter of them civilians, died in the Bosnia civil war. Systematic rape during that conflict horrified Europe and became the focus of subsequent war crimes trials. The conflict in Cambodia following the Vietnam War was particularly egregious. While groups like the American Friends Service Committee ran interference for the Khmer Rouge, Yale Prof. Ben Kiernan showed an ethnic component to the communist group’s rampage through Cambodia, a slaughter that claimed between 1.5 million and 3 million lives over a four-year period.
Americans Stand By and Watch
All of these conflicts were horrific, and each represents an attempt, if not to commit genocide, then to ethnically cleanse and permanently alter a country’s demography. Only the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda comes close, however, to the scale of murders over time that occurred in what is now Bangladesh. The slaughter, deliberate displacement, and systematic rape that Pakistani forces unleased against ethnic Bengalis in East Pakistan over the course of eight months in 1971 killed an average of 375,000 persons per month. In the end, 3 million perished.
Like so many genocides, the precursor to Pakistan’s slaughter was racism. Unlike in the United States, the founding fathers lived for years and sometimes decades after independence and were able to develop and solidify the ideological base and character of the new country, Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah died after just a year, leaving the shape of the country unsettled. Ethnic Punjabis dominated the new state and sought to monopolize its institutions. Over subsequent years, West Pakistan systematically discriminated against East Pakistan, which lay more than a thousand miles away, on the other side of India’s breadth. Such systematic racism catalyzed the Bangladeshi independence movement. As the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight, unleashing death squads across East Pakistan to crush that province’s challenge to West Pakistan’s supremacy, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the Awami League, declared Bangladesh’s independence. Pakistani President Yahya Khan did not mince words. “Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands,” he declared, and that is exactly what he did.
A decade ago, former Economist writer Gary Bass published The Blood Telegram, chronicling the creation of Bangladesh. Drawing on a host of White House tapes, declassified documents, and other untapped sources, Bass painted a damning narrative of U.S. knowledge, inaction, and complacency that has stood the test of time and all efforts by Pakistan’s partisans to debunk it.
President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, were hostile to India. Nixon resented India’s non-alignment, while Kissinger cultivated Pakistan in pursuit of his China policies. During Kissinger’s secret trip to China, and during a follow-up visit in October 1971, he and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai bonded over a mutual dislike of Indira Gandhi, prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. These dynamics and the justifications of realpolitik led Kissinger to counsel silence in the face of Pakistani actions.
Thanks to the reporting of Archer Blood, the U.S. consul-general in Dhaka, Kissinger and Nixon knew of the ongoing massacres in almost-real time. Because the United States had largely armed the Pakistanis, the White House had reason to intercede diplomatically. The Pakistanis not only used small arms against the Bengalis, but also jet fighters dropping bombs and napalm. While Blood’s reporting shocked the State Department and many within the National Security Council, Kissinger simply did not care.
Blood then sent a famous telegram — the first State Department dissent cable — directly to the secretary of State, who shared it immediately with the White House. “With the conviction that U.S. policy related to recent developments in East Pakistan serves neither our moral interests broadly defined nor our national interests narrowly defined, number officers of American Consulate General Dacca…consider it their duty to register strong dissent with fundamental aspects of this policy,” he wrote. “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities.” It continued to call the ongoing slaughter genocide.
Blood was right, but he paid the price for his dissent, as Nixon and Kissinger ordered him recalled. The incident effectively ended his career. Bangladesh, meanwhile, gained its independence after, with Indian backing, it forced the surrender of Pakistani forces. Pakistan responded not with introspection, but rather with a turn toward dictatorship, greater Punjabi control, and deliberate Islamization.
In 2008, I visited Bangladesh for the first time as part of a joint National Democratic Institute/International Republican Institute election observation mission. Bitterness still ran deep, with arguments about the war criminals of the era and the complicity of Pakistani political parties at the forefront of the political debate.
They are not wrong. The same forces responsible for the Bangladesh genocide are those that today support the Taliban and facilitate the murder of Hazaras and other ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan. Nor are Pakistanis spared. As Pakistan’s economy falters and its military continues down the rabbit hole of Islamist incitement, the Pakistani leadership seeks to distract by scapegoating moderates and minorities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, channel their inner Kissinger to counsel new military sales to Pakistan. Their policy prescription, however, will be no more successful than that of the White House a half-century ago. To rely on Pakistan but ignore its reality is the strategic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
There is no magic formula in South Asia, but reality matters. To recognize the Bangladesh genocide might not only help develop relations with an important but often neglected South Asian state, but it would also force much-needed introspection in Islamabad, and within the State Department.
Nor should the White House lose sight of the larger goal. Recognizing the Bangladesh genocide would be no more anti-Pakistan than recognizing the Armenian genocide is anti-Turkey or recognizing the Holocaust is anti-German. Instead, the goal of such a move would be to nudge Pakistan to become a responsible member of the international order, much like Germany has become.