It was Henry Kissinger, the infamous American National Security Adviser, who said, "The US doesn't have any permanent friends or enemies, only interests". A similar sentiment was expressed by Czar Alexander III a century earlier: "Russia has only two allies; the army and the navy".
Both the statements ring true to this day, for they express vividly what great powers seek when they talk about alliance and enmity in their continuous struggle to gain a stronger foothold in the world. And that is why "The Blood Telegram", a book written on foreign interventions in Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, still remains relevant on the 49th year of her independence.
The author Gary J Bass, an American journalist, writes a scathing criticism of President Nixon's policies in East Pakistan during the 1971 war.
The US Government led by President Nixon was an outspoken supporter of Pakistan's military government in the 1970s due to its commitment to anti-communism, and on a personal level, the President liked the authoritarian leader of Pakistan. As the author puts it: "President Nixon liked very few people but he did like Yahya Khan".
But the feeling was not shared by Bengalis as the central government's continuous exploitation of East Pakistan for decades had left them bitterly disappointed. A political deadlock ensued after the 1970 nationwide election when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League won 169 of 313 seats in the Pakistani Parliament. The junta's refusal to hand over power to the elected representatives was followed by a brutal army crackdown on Bengali nationalists on 25th March at midnight.
Pakistani Army's indiscriminate shooting of unarmed civilians and students shook the US Consul-general Archer Blood in Dhaka to his core. Burning student halls of Dhaka University and piled-up dead bodies stirred his conscience. When the US Government continued its unconditional support of the Pakistani Junta, he along with his staff registered their protest on 4th April through a telegram which came to be known as the "blood telegram".
The consul-general and his staff rebuked the US state department's failure to denounce genocide and halt armament supply that actively contributed to massacres. Yet, the US government continued the arms supply till the very last day of the war while punishing disloyal bureaucrats.
Gary J Bass' book examines all these events and more. With the help of US State department's declassified documents, it confirms President Nixon's indifference to the ongoing genocide in East Pakistan who couldn't care less about dark-skinned Bengalis when the perpetrators of the massacres were helping him achieve a strategic and political goal.
The President along with his Secretaries and National Security Adviser actively kept a lid on any news of the genocide going public and smuggled weapons into Pakistan when the US lawmakers halted arms exports after a full-scale war between India and Pakistan broke out over East Pakistan in December.
This behaviour is however not unique to the US. Similar attitudes were shown by China and Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union). For strategic reasons and balancing India's influence in South Asia, China doubled down on its support of Pakistan and condemned the "troublemaker Bengalis" of East Pakistan who were supposedly "misguided" by Indian propaganda.
This unconditional support and a blank cheque to acquire sophisticated arms led the Pakistani Army to slaughter three million Bengalis before the freedom-fighters could destroy their morale in the nine-months long guerilla warfare with Indian help.
The book also sees Soviet and Indian involvement against the Pakistani Junta as another example of great power politics which had little humanitarian concern. India sought to disintegrate the Pakistani menace once and for all while the Soviet Union acted to limit US presence in South Asia.
Gary J Bass' narrative all but confirms that the bloody war in East Pakistan was only possible because of the great powers without whose support and arms, a year-long genocide could not have happened.
As soon as Bangladesh became independent on December 16, 1971 after the collapse of Pakistani Army's Eastern Command, the tables turned. The US quickly recognized the new nation on March 1972 and vowed to work for the betterment of Bengalis, something that is ironic because millions of Bengalis were butchered with the US arms and diplomatic support only three months ago.
Now, five decades into Bangladesh's independence, the US and China have turned into our most important trade partners. With increasing investments and imports, both of these economic and military behemoths are continuously trying to have an influence on this region.
The US imports billions of dollars worth of textiles and garment products from Bangladesh each year (a whopping 16.3% of Bangladesh's entire export figure) and provides Bangladesh with aid. Experts believe the US' dream of building a moderate Islamic bloc to confront extremists in its never-ending war on terror includes moderate and constitutionally secular Muslim nations like Bangladesh.
China too has been inching closer to Bangladesh. A $24 billion investment plan in Bangladesh stands as a testament to that (not to mention multiple MoUs signed in 2016). Similar developments have happened in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar in what diplomats refer to as China's grand plan to encircle India. Chinese involvement in the Bangladeshi energy sector and infrastructural projects has also raised some eyebrows.
Yet, China has rejected Bangladesh's appeal numerous times when it comes to UN resolutions to stop the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar where China has other interests and needs to be on the Myanmar generals' good sides. Thousands of Rohingyas were slaughtered in 2017 by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar's Armed Forces).
All these things point to the unmistakable truth about the great powers. They will always back their own interests even if the 'pawns' on their chessboards suffer as a consequence. The US' justification of Bengali Genocide by Pakistan in 1971 has an eerie resemblance to that of China's acquiescence Myanmar's brutality in 2017. In the late '60s, the Russians accused the Americans of genocide in Vietnam yet at the same time, Soviet tanks crushed Czechoslovakian nationalists in Prague.
The great powers and their struggles for supremacy have been written and discussed for a long time. Yet, Gary J Bass has done something unique. His book describes the human toll of the conflicts in excruciating detail. He provides a human face to the tragedies caused by a great power's blunder in a way that may still serve as a caution for Bangladesh today.
We must always be cautious not to be embroiled in any global power's sphere of influence which could do irreparable damage to our sovereignty. The US response to Bengali genocide in 1971, though it should not be held against any current administration, should serve as a reminder of the consequences people might face for the narrow strategic needs of a global power.
In this regard, "The Blood Telegram" by Gary J Bass is an important read. Published in 2013, the 544-page historical narrative unapologetically criticises global leaders while giving praise wherever it is due. It brings forward something that is generally overlooked - the dark side of the great powers who preach virtue.
On the eve of 49th anniversary of Pakistani Army's surrender that freed our nation, it is worth remembering that morality or humanitarian concerns rarely move global powers to act against a perpetrator. While Bangladesh rightly treasures her warm relationship with all great powers, she must not ever be used as a pawn in great power politics. As history has shown us countless times, wars always kill the pawns while the kings settle their differences.