The Seventh fleet and the 1971 Indo-Pak war

Task force 74 in the Indian Ocean

The arrival of the US Seventh fleet in the Indian Ocean caused much apprehension in an already volatile Indo – East Pakistan war zone, in the middle of Dec 1971. India had just staved off a Pakistani attack on its western borders and was crushing Pakistani army forces at its Eastern flanks, off Calcutta. It was at this juncture that the mighty 7th fleet, headed by its flagship USS Enterprise, steamed into the Indian ocean. Hot at their heels was a Soviet task force, supported by submarines. Much has been written about this event, but unfortunately, quite a bit of it is glazed with bombast. After some deep digging, I unearthed a better picture, so here it is.

Let’s first recap the Bangladesh saga, referring to my earlier article covering journalist Jack Anderson’s involvement.

Following the Agartala case, the West Pakistani government’s keenness to prove that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an Indian agent and a separatist backfired, and a mass movement erupted. Yahya Khan became the dictator of Pakistan and surprisingly held open elections only to find the rebel Mujibur Rehman winning most of the seats, 141 of them amid murmurs of secession from West Pakistan.  The Awami league headed by Mujib won the 1970 elections and was in control of East Pakistan, much to Yahya’s disgust. He then launched Operation searchlight with the ruthless dictum – ‘kill 3 ½ million of ‘em Bengalis and the rest will eat out of our hands’. In the resulting genocide, millions perished and others (close to 10 million) took to flight, towards the Indian border, while India offered support to the Mukti Bahini.

Anderson explains - When the slaughter of the Bengalis began, Archer K. Blood, then U.S. Consul General in Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, sent details to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad and to the State Department in Washington. Blood was summoned to Washington in June 1971, but planned to return to Dacca for the remaining eighteen months of his tour of duty. At the State Department he was told he was an alarmist, and was given a desk in the personnel office.

Nixon and Kissinger threw their lot with Yahya while badmouthing Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, in the vilest terms. While the bad personal equations resulted in a lot of friction, Nixon believed that the bluff, direct military chiefs of Pakistan were more congenial to him than the complex and apparently haughty Brahmin leaders of India (Kissinger).

Nixon had in the meanwhile planned to restart friendly relations with China, using Pakistan’s help. That said, Nixon also supported Pakistan and their dastardly actions in the public sphere and refused to condemn the atrocities being wrought in East Bengal. Yahya ramped up the rhetoric accusing India of direct support for Mujib, and launched a propaganda campaign ‘crush India’. Indira Gandhi who wanted to stop the genocide quickly was informed by Gen Manekshaw that it was not yet opportune due to various tactical reasons. As the water was getting to a boil, Russia warned Yahya not to go to war. China was expected to support Pakistan and the reason why Manekshaw delayed his counter was to stop the Chinese with the snow and the ice-clad Himalayas in December. War was inevitable, armies were amassed at both western and eastern borders, and the Taj Mahal was camouflaged.

In Dec 1971, Pakistan preemptively attacked Indian airbases, and as the world quickly condemned the attack, Nixon demurred, stating staunch neutrality and non-involvement. However, that was only in public, for in secret he decided to help Yahya, in spite of a congressional ban on any form of aid to these warring countries. Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were contacted and asked to stealthily assist Pakistan by transferring fighter planes and armaments, which they all did, except for Iran. Indian forces countered the attack with massive well-coordinated air, sea, and land assaults on Pakistan from all fronts. The Pak navy was decimated and soon enough the submarine Ghazi was sunk, a story I had written about some years ago. As China continued their military preparations (53rd and 157th infantry) at the Himalayas to carry out ‘urgent missions’, Russia contemplated a preemptive strike at Sinkiang to wipe out some of China's missile launchers.

Anderson the Washington journalist who had been publishing about the misdeeds of the Nixon administration thus far now informed the world about the US Pakistan tilt and the movements of task force 74 – the seventh fleet, and the dangerous turn such a move could take, potentially WW III.

After the initial attack, the Pak air force went into a defensive mode. Nixon, following up the above indirect actions, ordered the seventh fleet and its support force, into the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly to rescue a handful of Americans in East Bengal. He wanted to throw a royal scare onto Indira Gandhi, and needle the Soviets who were planning to support India. It is specifically the involvement of the task force 74 (7th fleet) hastily mobilized by a brash Nixon and his security advisor Kissinger, which we will get into today.

Nixon and Kissinger were absolutely convinced that India was planning to crush Pakistan once and for all, and many of their actions were based on that singular premise. There may have been a lack of clarity in India’s stance on the retaking of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but there were no declarations of a larger invasion strategy. Despite assurances from India and USSR albeit later in Dec that they would not dismember West Pakistan, Nixon, was convinced that Indira Gandhi, who he hated fervently, was lying. We now head to Dacca, to the closing stage of the 14-day war (which started on 3rd Dec 1971) in the Eastern theater, while the global powers were still in the grip of cold war throes.

Pakistan was aligned to the US, and a member of the SEATO plus CENTO while India was tied to the USSR. The Bengalis of East Pakistan were the aggrieved party and were pulled into this fracas by Pakistan, who was in turn allied with China. Note here that China though communist, were wary of Russians at their borders and had thence opened themselves to talks with the US, through Pakistan’s Yahya Khan. The US, represented by Kissinger, wanting an ally on USSR’s borders, was mighty thankful to Pakistan, for this opening. At that juncture, India signed the friendship and peace treaty with USSR, due to these strategic concerns and alliances. Anyway, the war on the Eastern front which started with the offensives on the 3rd Dec saw India’s infantry might at play, and by the 10th, Pakistani defense had ground to a halt, and the Pakistan Army in the East had made its first tentative move to obtain a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger had been planning other strategies, Goh explains - Kissinger encouraged Beijing to support actively its Pakistani ally in several ways. He provided the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua, with detailed intelligence information about Indian deployments. He also indicated that the US could provide details of Soviet forces at the Chinese Northern border and tacit US support. Nixon then decided on the deployment of the 7th fleet. This same fleet had been around for quite a while and its deployment to the region in India’s support during the 1962 Chinese aggression had been contemplated when India asked the US for support, but the Chinese quickly withdrew and Ambassador Galbraith who originated the idea (as he said - with the benefit of insomnia) canceled his request.

The 1971 involvement was broached in a Nixon-Kissinger meeting on 8th Dec and discussed around a plan to repatriate Americans in E Pakistan using helicopters, to a US aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal. On the 9th, the order was given to the 7th fleet to move towards the Indian ocean. The Chinese when asked to move their military over the Himalayas, demurred, promising nothing (anyway it was a mammoth task, during those winter months). On the 10th the USS Enterprise and support ships left Yankee station in Vietnam and sailed towards the action zone.

On the 11th, the news hit the press and India was in an uproar, hearing about the US naval moves against her. A lot of things happened the next day. The fleet arrived in Singapore on the 12th, Nixon concluded that China would not act and the opinion was that this could even culminate in a US-USSR conflict. A Soviet delegation in Delhi reported that India would not invade West Pakistan. Four C130 aircraft owned by the UK airlifted most American personnel from Dacca. Nixon and Kissinger flew off to attend some MBFR talks and the 7th fleet in Singapore awaited further orders. Niazi is exhorted to hold on for another 36 hours by Gul Hassan – Yellows from the North, whites from the South.

The US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Adm Zumwalt halted the fleet (Kissinger says he halted it, awaiting a report from Moscow) at Singapore for two days since his advice had not been taken, and because vague orders had been given by the civilian administration. The original orders for the TG74 were to deploy to a position off East Pakistan. Adm Zumwalt felt that this would put them in harm’s way and he convinced the powers to change their deployment area to a holding position, South-East of Sri Lanka. Finally, they were ordered to proceed to the Bay of Bengal through the Malacca Strait in broad daylight so as to be as conspicuous as possible.

They left on 13th evening, destined for Lanka. On 14th Yahya wrote to Nixon - The Seventh Fleet does not only have to come to our shores but also to relieve certain pressures which we by ourselves are not in a position to cope with. In this connection, I have sent a specific proposal through General Raza about the role the Seventh Fleet could play at Karachi which, I hope, is receiving your attention. This probably referred to Raza’s note to Kissinger the previous day which - requested that the Seventh Fleet be used to keep the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea open to Pakistan and to deter the Indian Navy from attacking Pakistan's harbors

On 16th Niazi surrendered. According to Niazi’s memoirs, he took the final decision because he was told to do so by the Pakistan GHQ and since Air Chief Marshall Rahim called him up and told him that West Pakistan was in danger.

Late on 16th December, the day after Pakistan forces in East Pakistan surrendered, TG 74 arrived at this station, many hundred miles away from the combat zone. The TF74 comprised the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, three missile-bearing destroyers, 3-4 amphibious assault ships, an ammunition ship, and a nuclear class submarine. It was considerably powerful, compared to the Soviet task force in pursuit, but still 2 days behind.

On 14th, Pakistan had formally requested the 7th fleet’s support at the Bay of Bengal, and US politicians mentioned the fleet deployment in a press conference, but neither confirming, nor explaining its real purpose. India once again reaffirmed that it would not attack W Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Soviets task force comprising a guided missile cruiser, a diesel-electric submarine, and a replenishment ship were on the move, in pursuit, but expected to arrive in the region 3-4 days later, around the 18th. The situation had by now escalated to dire proportions and the deliberations at the UN security council were reaching nowhere with a plethora of resolutions and vetoes.

The paper by Srikant, Doraibabu and Ashish states - The Indian Naval leadership assessed that Task Force 74’s primary intention was to frighten the Indian Forces into withdrawing their forces from the operational area and let the PN ships break out. Admiral Krishnan, FOCINC East, decided that it must be ensured that Chittagong airport, which had already been bombed and rendered useless to the Pakistanis, must remain in that condition. Also, the five merchant ships that had been camouflaged and concealed by the enemy to be used for evacuation of troops were located after a thorough aerial search and destroyed.

FM Manekshaw and his generals, who had been ordered to hasten the warp up of operations in East Pakistan, met his objective in the nick of time and forced the Pakistani military to the surrender table (Yahya, not expecting this, was incensed!) on the 15th. The Soviet Ambassador to India now dismissed the possibilities of US or China intervening by emphasizing that the Soviet Fleet was also in the Indian Ocean and would not allow the Seventh fleet to interfere; and if China moved into Ladakh, the USSR would respond in Sinkiang [Xinjiang].

The 7th fleet as we saw, arrived at Lanka on the 16th, a day after the surrender. Lanka already the refueling point for Pakistan due to overflight bans, now formally invited the US fleet in, for demonstrative purposes. The first Soviet task force arrived on the 18th and a second on the 26th. The waters churned as the naval assortments faced and shadowed each other, though unequal in might.

Interestingly, India did have a dialogue with China at this juncture – As Raghavan explains - Mrs. Gandhi sought China’s understanding for India’s predicament and requested Zhou to “exercise your undoubted influence” on Yahya to acknowledge the will of the Bengalis. “We seek China’s friendship,” she said. “In my last letter, I had indicated our readiness to discuss problems of mutual interest”. Zhou later explained to Kissinger, “By that time East Pakistan was already unable to be saved.”

So, what was it all about? A subtle threat to intervene if India invaded West Pakistan? Mishra explains the rationale - Considering the international milieu where its (US) stock was low by the Vietnam overhang, the emergence of a technologically improved and numerically robust Soviet Navy under Admiral Gorshkov, and the necessity of sending a reassuring signal to its allies, mandated some visible proof. The naval deployment was a gesture of solidarity for a formal ally (Pakistan) and an indicator to a future partner (China), that the US could be relied upon to abide by its formal commitments.

Kissinger confirms it in his memoirs - The Soviet aim in the wake of our China initiative was to humiliate Peking and to demonstrate the futility of reliance on either China or the United States as an ally. Nixon had to disprove this by sending a clear message, even though E Pakistan was falling and he had been reasonably assured that India would not attack the West.

Jack Anderson, however, concluded that it was - a) compel India to divert both ships and planes to shadow the task force, b) weaken India's blockade against East Pakistan, c) possibly divert the Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant from its military mission; and d) force India to keep planes on defense alert, thus reducing their operations against Pakistani ground troops.  

But as it turned out, this was generally interpreted in India as US chest thumping and posturing, resulting from its misinterpretation of third-party intentions and actions. Wild press reports could be seen by now, including mentions of Soviet Nuclear submarines in the area. Did the soviet task force also possess a nuclear submarine, in hot pursuit? Was there a possibility for a nuclear showdown? Did the 7th fleet beat a hasty retreat as claimed by the press?

According to Anderson, there were many more Soviet assets in the region, in poised readiness. He stated that there were a total of sixteen Soviet ships and submarines near the combat area, though in reality, the Soviets reached only on the 18th and 26th. As far as Russian nuclear submarines are concerned, the reports were wrong, while an Alpha class prototype was developed in 1971, the Delta class was inducted only in 1974, and hence, there was no Russian nuclear submarine trailing the 7th fleet. Were the Soviets like the US testing their naval surge capabilities and also posturing for public eyes? Some strategists believe so and conclude that the US were victors in that sense - The US found it took them 5-6 days to get to the Indian Ocean while the Soviets took 10-15 days.

The 7th fleet remained in the vicinity for a few more weeks with the Russians shadowing them, before moving back to Yankee station. Bass summed it nicely - The USS enterprise carrier group was an atomic-powered bluff, mean to spook the Indians and increase soviet pressure on India for a cease-fire, but nothing more, while Palmer added - The U.S.S. Enterprise, though doing nothing to change the outcome of the war, damaged Indo-American relations for years to come and risked a clash between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the first time, India started to consider the United States a serious security threat to India.

Kissinger explains in his memoirs - Were we threatening India? Were we seeking to defend East Pakistan? Had we lost our minds? It was in fact sober calculation. We had some seventy‐two hours to bring the war to a conclusion before West Pakistan would be swept into the maelstrom. It would take India that long to shift its forces and mount an assault…. It was also the best means to split the Soviet Union and India. Moscow was prepared to harass us; it was in our judgment not prepared to run military risks. Moving the carrier task force into the Bay of Bengal committed us to no final act, but it created precisely the margin of uncertainty needed to force a decision by New Delhi and Moscow.

According to him, this pressure resulted in firm Indian assurances via Moscow that it would not attack W Pakistan. He concludes - Next day Mrs. Gandhi offered an unconditional cease‐fire in the West. There is no doubt in my mind that it was a reluctant decision resulting from Soviet pressure, which in turn grew out of American insistence, including the fleet movement and the willingness to risk the summit. Kissinger also mentions that Yahya and Niazi held on long enough, i.e., until the 16th, time enough for US to ensure that the 7th fleet strategy was in place, to deter a W Pakistan attack. Then again, if there had been no such Indian West Pakistan attack plan, such a deterrence move becomes purposeless, simply because there was nothing to deter.

But in a meeting with Zhou En Lai June 20th, 1972, he said - The reason we moved our Fleet into the Indian Ocean was not because of India primarily – it was as pressure on the Soviet Union if the Soviets did what I mentioned before. This is a bit confusing, though Sheldon Simon states in his 1973 paper that - The Soviets, meanwhile, were reported to have fulfilled their part of the security arrangement with India not only through stepped up military supplies but also through timely troop movements along China's borders.

People continue to ponder over the question - Did India indeed have a plan to roll into Pakistan, as Bhutto, Yahya and Nixon feared? Who was the CIA mole in Delhi who fed them this information and started the whole rigamarole? It was obviously a very senior asset.

Kissinger writes - A report ( 8th Dec?) reached us from a source whose reliability we had never had any reason to doubt and which I do not question today, to the effect that Prime Minister Gandhi was determined to reduce even West Pakistan to impotence: she had indicated that India would not accept any General Assembly call for a cease‐fire until Bangladesh was “liberated”; after that, Indian forces would proceed with the “liberation” of the Southern part of Azad Kashmir—the Pakistani part of Kashmir—and continue fighting until the Pakistani army and air force were wiped out. He added in his memoirs that Anderson never understood the strategical significance of all this.

In subsequent years, many allegations were leveled at prominent people in power, but nothing ever came out of those allegations. Indira Gandhi stated that no such discussion took place in any cabinet meeting (the details of which had purportedly been sent as a cable by the mole, confirming India’s intent to invade West Pakistan) according to Srinath Raghavan. The mystery still remains.

Anyway, as all this ended, many Indians were left with some distrust of America, while Kissinger moved on to work with new masters, after muttering to Ambassador Keating, "the President has a special feeling for President Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis, but it is a fact of life”. Interestingly we can see from Kissinger’s memoirs that he is still mystified at why he and Nixon did not get any Congressional or public support for what they staunchly believed in – that India was at fault and Pakistan was in the right, as well as the US response. He says - But neither our briefings nor the overwhelming expression of world opinion softened media or Congressional criticism.

But there was still some humor to take back - When discussing the final, feeble UN resolution (where Bush termed India as the aggressor), Kissinger told the UN Ambassador, George W Bush - “don’t screw it up the way you usually do.” to which Bush Senior replied, “I want a transfer when this is over. I want a nice quiet place like Rwanda.”

This was all long ago, and life today, so also the world, has changed drastically, with another cold war looming at the horizon, though the players are pretty much the same. It is all difficult to track, and to put simply, as I do often - Geopolitics is best understood by those in power, not mere mortals like us!

The Blood Telegram – Nixon, Kissinger & a forgotten genocide – Gary J. Bass
1971 A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh - Srinath Raghavan
Revisiting the 1971 ‘USS Enterprise Incident’: Rhetoric, Reality and Pointers for the Contemporary Era – Raghavendra Mishra
Superpower naval diplomacy in the Indo-Pakistani CRISIS - James M. McConnell, Anne M. Kelly
Operational Aspects of the 1971 War in the Maritime Domain - Srikant B. Kesnur, M. Doraibabu and Ashish Kale
Nixon, Kissinger, and the "Soviet Card" in the U.S. Opening to China, 1971–1974 - Evelyn Goh
Indo-US Relations, 1947-71: Fractured friendship - Shri Ram Sharma
The White House Years, 1968-72 – Henry Kissinger