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The World of Diplomatic Backstage

De-classification of official documents have been a routine practice in the United States, while just the opposite is true of Pakistan. Successive governments over the years have believed in hiding away from public eye even the most innocuous of official documents without realizing that the practice only adds to the sense of national confusion. "I will expose everybody when the time is right," is a sentence that finds place in every politician's armory. A case in point is that of Mohammad Khan Junejo who kept repeating the line in the context of the Ojhri disaster, but the "right time" never came in his own lifetime.

The book, The American Papers, is a selected bunch of documents de-classified by the US government in recent times, and now resting at the National Archives II at College Park in Maryland. The documents in the current volume have been drawn from State and Defense Department files, and focus on the 1965 war, the East Pakistan crisis of 1971, the breakup of Pakistan, and the first two years of Z.A. Bhutto's rule. The documents, consisting of correspondence between the US embassy staff in Pakistan and the State Department, confidential letters to the US president, draft replies and minutes of high-profile US government policy meetings, constitute the thought of American diplomats and the US government about events taking place in the subcontinent.

The documents give the reader a taste of how foreign missions conduct their business, and the quantum of input that the US government has at its disposal before taking any decision. For instance, a Policy Appraisal airgram dated February 2, 1971, from the US embassy in Islamabad to the State Department in Washington talks of a "hypothesis" which leads to the question: "... will the country split into two independent wings, East and West?" The same document later says, "Keeping Pakistan together has now become a major political task ... both parties lack seasoned leaders except Mujib and Bhutto at the top. Both parties have more experience in agitating than in governing."

The 14-page appraisal and a few more follow-up papers based on various embassy officials' meetings with key Pakistani figures of the time led to the National Security Study Memorandum 118, dated February 16, 1971, which was issued by the National Security Council, advising the State and Defense departments and the CIA that the "President has directed that an immediate contingency study be made of the alternative US postures towards a possible move in the East Pakistan toward secession." This study was to be completed not later than February 26. All this, mind you, was being actively discussed when the actual event was still a good ten months away!

All this input, naturally, cannot be generated in the absence of willing and colluding local officials. For instance, the note on President Yahya Khan's visit to China in December 1970 repeatedly quotes Tabarak Hussain, who was director-general (Socialist countries) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and had accompanied the president on the visit. The covering letter for the detailed note ends thus: "Some of Hussain's comments to the reporting officer were made in `strict confidence'. Please protect source."

What might give a feeling of nausea to a discerning reader are the repeated and continued assurances handed out to American officials by almost every single key Pakistani figure -- political or otherwise -- of continued allegiance to the might of the United States. Whatever had been the public posture of various politicians and military officers active during 1965 and 1973 -- which is the relevant period in the context of this book -- they were all in one voice the moment they reached backstage.

The anti-US, anti-West stance of the Pakistan People's Party, for instance, was quite obvious during the 1970 election campaign, with Bhutto and his cohorts going out of their way to condemn Imperialism. Various notes sent by US embassy staff to Washington, however, show what was going on behind the scene, with Bhutto offering private assurances in this regard to calm down any frayed nerves his campaign may be causing. One of the notes by Ambassador Farland talks of a meeting Bhutto had with him in Peshawar where he had also brought Mustafa Khar and Hayat Sherpao, "who during political campaign was violently anti-US." The ambassador notes: "He (Bhutto) was quite jovial in acknowledging that Sherpao had been one of my principal vilifiers, adding that Sherpao's presence in this meeting indicated that `that chapter' had now closed." Not just that, "Bhutto said that he had asked them to come with him to stress the fact that these two men would serve in their respective areas as the PPP's principal contact for `Mutual Briefings' with US officials."

The cynicism and disillusionment that even a quick glance through the book causes is, indeed, enormous. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Interestingly, however, when Roedad Khan embarked upon this gigantic task, he himself had been below his usual self. Jamshed Marker has this to say in the Introduction: "The material in this book was culled by Roedad Khan during a period of enforced medical confinement following a surgical procedure in Washington, D.C. This is an unusual form of convalescence, but then all who know Roedad would know that he is an unusual man ... Roedad's assertion that his research work formed a therapeutic component of his convalescence is a value judgment which is best left to the discernment of the reader."

The documents, naturally, have the potential to constitute source material of immense importance to research scholars, historians, diplomats, students of History and International Affairs as well as the general public. Having said that, it must be borne in mind that these documents have been selected from among a large number of papers available, and, as such, any concrete assessment of any subject that has come under discussion in the book will have to be made keeping in view the documents that have been left out for reasons of brevity or even otherwise.

While the readers must be grateful to Roedad Khan for having done what he has, the importance of the Introduction written by Jamshed Marker must not be forgotten. The 23-page write-up gives the correct context to the accompanying 985 pages of official correspondence. Those who may fall to the temptation of skipping the Introduction and heading straight for the text would do so at their own cost, for they will be making hasty and inexact conclusions.

The American Papers: Secret and Confidential India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Documents 1965-1973. Published by Oxford University Press, Karachi.

The writer is a senior Pakistani journalist, associated at present with the largest circulate English-language newspaper of the country, the daily Dawn, as its Assistant Editor. He is based in Karachi. he can be reached at Humair_IQ@hotmail.com

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