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The Basket Case

Few nations have been born with such unpromising prospects. Bangladesh found no friends among the powerful nations during its bloody liberation struggle, and support was slow to emerge even once nationhood was achieved (with India's reluctant intervention). It now seems difficult to imagine that a territorially split state straddling 1,000 miles of its main military enemy was ever thought viable, but there was nothing inevitable about the break-up of united Pakistan (see, in particular, Raghavan 2013). After the failed Prague Spring of 1968 and the Biafran independence movement of 1970, it seemed unlikely that an independent nation-state would emerge from the conflict. All the major global powers viewed the military crackdown on East Pakistan as a matter for national sovereignty, despite credible accounts of genocide early on (Bass 2013).

There were powerful reasons for this deaf-blindness. The independence struggle was politically inconvenient for the US, for whom the Pakistani military leadership were brokering relations with China. It was undesired by India and the Soviet Union, which neither viewed secessionist movements kindly at home nor encouraged popular independence struggles on the doorstep of their own unruly movements. And Bangladesh was already seen as economically unviable—a densely populated part of the world prone to natural disaster and famine, with high levels of poverty and low levels of economic development, and no natural resources. From the outset, aid and economic prospects coloured foreign policy.

The extent of the 'tilt' in White House foreign policy (led in the Nixon administration by National Security Advisor, later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger) to the Pakistan side has been closely documented in Gary Bass's account of the US's role in the genocide in East Pakistan: 'the Bengalis became collateral damage for realigning the global balance of power' (Bass 2013, xv). The affiliation with West Pakistan was personal as well as political, and White [1]

House foreign policy ignored witness accounts of genocide from its own diplomats and abetted Pakistan despite an official ban on military support to either side. At the height of the military crackdown, the then-US representative to Dhaka 'blasted the United States for silence in the face of atrocities, for not denouncing the quashing of democracy, for showing "moral bankruptcy" in the face of what they bluntly called genocide' (Bass 2013, xiii). The 'Blood telegram' was named for the Consul, Archer Blood, but it could equally have referred to what the US had on its hands.

It was at the height of the war that the infamous 'basket case' epithet was used. It is worth putting that moment in context, because the label has had such lasting power over the country's international image and national identity. While not an inaccurate assessment of the country's short-term prospects, the 'basket case' label was as much about political, ideological, and indeed military 'tilt' as an assessment of the economic prospects of a country at war.

The label was used during a high-level crisis meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) early on in the war.[2] The meeting covered military briefings, aid, and strategies for bringing about a ceasefire and withdrawal of (Indian, not Pakistani) forces. Kissinger wondered whether the US could prevail on Jordan to send Pakistan arms under conditions where the US was legally constrained from doing so, and showed concern about a likely backlash against Urdu-speaking minorities, but no response is recorded when similar fears were raised about the fate of the Bengali population in West Pakistan.

It was towards the end of the meeting that Kissinger raised the possibility of famine, apparently apropos of nothing that has gone before:

dr. kissinger: (to Mr. Williams [Deputy Administrator, USAID, Chairman of Interdepartmental Working Group on East Pakistan Disaster Relief]) Will there be a massive famine in East Pakistan?

mr. williams: They have a huge crop just coming in.

dr. kissinger: How about next spring?

mr. williams: Yes, there will be famine by next spring unless they can pull themselves together by the end of March.

dr. kissinger: And we will be asked to bail out the Bangla Desh [sic] from famine next spring?

mr. williams: Yes.

dr. kissinger: Then we had better start thinking about what our policy will be. mr. williams: By March the Bangla Desh will need all kinds of help. mr. johnson: They'll be an international basket case. dr. kissinger: But not necessarily our basket case.

mr. sisco [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs]: Wait until you hear the humanitarian bleats in this country. (US Department of State 1971)

Now that we know the US withheld food aid to Bangladesh in 1974 on grounds that trade with Cuba made it ineligible for food aid under the Us Public Law 480 (PL480), this exchange cannot help but ring alarm bells. With the benefit of this hindsight, Kissinger's questions suggest an unseemly alacrity to think about 'what our policy will be' regarding a possible famine in a country whose birth he had hoped and worked to abort. Seen in this light, the comment 'not necessarily our basket case' reads like an idea to shape humanitarian policies on the basis of political considerations.

The term 'basket case' originated in the First World War to refer to a soldier who had lost all four limbs and was deemed helpless, and the use of the term to describe East Pakistan confirmed—if there had been any doubt—that the US had 'tilted' to West Pakistan (Anderson 1972). The term took on a very specific character in relation to Bangladesh when The New York Times published an editorial in October 1972 about the vast aid being poured into the relief effort, only for as much as two million tons of food aid to be stolen by 'hungry hyenas' for re-sale in Indian markets (The New York Times 1972). The 'basket case' label came to mean not only hopelessness in terms of the need for aid, but also a case from which the aid leaked (Bari 2008). Thus in its earliest days, the problem of underdevelopment with weak governance came to be seen as a defining concern for aid.

  • [1] Ahmed (1983) offers a detailed catalogue of the dimensions and causes of this deteriorationand the response to them at the time.
  • [2] The meeting comprised the President's National Security Advisor (Kissinger) and seniorofficials from the National Security Council, including U. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary ofState for Political Affairs;Alexander Haig, Deputy Assistant to the President for National SecurityAffairs;and Maurice Williams, Deputy Administrator, Agency for International Development(USAID) and Chairman, Interdepartmental Working Group on East Pakistan Disaster Relief.
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