Pakistan in 1971 encompassed both the present-day country and the more populous East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The country’s two wings were separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory and a massive cultural barrier. From its inception, Pakistan had been ruled by the politicians and soldiers of the West Wing, whose view of their Eastern compatriots was best expressed to me by a Pakistani general: “Our East Wing, you see, is a low-lying country inhabited by . . . heh, heh . . . low, lying people.’
In early 1971, the Western rulers inexplicably permitted a free, nationwide election–the first in the country’s history. The downtrodden masses of East Pakistan united behind a single candidate, swept the polls, and ended up in complete control of the nation’s parliament. The dumbfounded Westerners promptly annulled the election, tossed the victorious Eastern leaders in jail, and shipped a good part of Pakistan’s army to the East to ensure tranquility. The result was a campaign of brutal oppression, followed quickly by a civil war, the flight of ten million refugees into neighboring India, and, in due course, Indian intervention in support of the resistance.
Back in Islamabad, we at the embassy were increasingly preoccupied with the deepening crisis. Meetings became more frequent and more tense. The ambassador fulminated against our consulate in Dhaka, East Pakistan’s capital, for reporting to the State Department the enormity of the slaughter. We argued over what we should recommend to Washington, and we were troubled by the complex questions that the conflict raised.
That is, most of us were troubled. No such doubts seemed to cross the mind of Chuck Yeager. I remember one occasion on which Farland asked Yeager for his assessment of how long the Pakistani forces in the East could withstand an all-out attack by India. “We could hold them off for maybe a month,’ he replied, “but beyond that we wouldn’t have a chance without help from outside.’ It took the rest of us a moment to fathom what he was saying, not realizing at first that the “we’ was West Pakistan, not the United States. After the meeting, I mumbled something to Yeager about perhaps being a little more even-handed in his comments. He gave me a withering glance. “Goddamn it, we’re assigned to Pakistan,’ he said. “What’s wrong with being loyal?!’ Disloyally, I slunk away.
The dictator of Pakistan at the time, the one who had ordered the crackdown in the East, was a dim-witted general named Yahya Khan. Way over his head in events he couldn’t begin to understand, Yahya took increasingly to brooding and drinking. Somehow he also took a fancy to Farland, who had met with him on several occasions to deliver suggestions and ukases from Washington. He would invite the reluctant ambassador over to his office to drink and brood with him. It would have been fun to hear their conversations: Major Hoople chatting with Caliban. The link proved less useful than we hoped, however, as it became clear that Yahya was more interested in having a drinking partner than an advisor.
In December of 1971, with Indian-supplied guerrillas applying more and more pressure on his beleaguered forces, Yahya decided on a last, hopeless gesture of defiance. He ordered what was left of his armed forces to attack India directly from the West. His air force roared across the border on the afternoon of December 3 to bomb Indian air bases, while his army crashed into India’s defenses on the Western frontier.
Yahya’s attack caught the embassy more than normally unprepared. As it happened, Farland’s deputy, the career officer who had actually been running the embassy, was halfway around the world on a long-delayed vacation. Although he rushed back, it was several days before he could reach war-torn Islamabad. Meanwhile, Farland was quite uncomfortable, since he was now in actual, rather than nominal, control of the embassy. Faced with a host of urgent decisions, he sat frozen behind his desk, unable to decide on much of anything (which, in retrospect, turned out to be the best thing to do). Yeager, meanwhile, spent the first hours of the war stalking the embassy corridors like Henry V before Agincourt, snarling imprecations at the Indians and assuring anyone who would listen that the Pakistani army would be in New Delhi within a week.
It was the morning after the initial Pakistani strike that Yeager began to take the war with India personally. On the eve of their attack, the Pakistanis had been prudent enough to evacuate their planes from airfields close to the Indian border and move them back into the hinterlands. But no one thought to warn General Yeager. Thus, when an Indian fighter pilot swept low over Islamabad’s airport in India’s first retaliatory strike, he could see only two small planes on the ground. Dodging antiaircraft fire, he blasted both to smithereens with 20-millimeter cannon fire. One was Yeager’s Beechcraft. The other was a plane used by United Nations forces to supply the patrols that monitored the ceasefire line in Kashmir.
I never found out how the United Nations reacted to the destruction of its plane, but Yeager’s response was anything but dispassionate. He raged to his cowering colleagues at a staff meeting. His voice resounding through the embassy, he proclaimed that the Indian pilot not only knew exactly what he was doing but had been specifically instructed by Indira Gandhi to blast Yeager’s plane. (“It was,’ he relates in his book, “the Indian way of giving Uncle Sam the finger.’) At this meeting, I ventured the timid suggestion that, to an Indian pilot skimming the ground at 500 miles per hour under antiaircraft fire, precise identification of targets on an enemy airfield might take lower priority than simply hitting whatever was there and then getting the hell out. Restraining himself with difficulty, Yeager informed me that anyone dumb enough not to know a deliberate attack on the American flag when he saw one had no business wearing his country’s uniform. Since I was a civilian wearing a gray sweater at the time, I didn’t fully grasp his nuances, but the essential meaning was clear.
Our response to this Indian atrocity, as I recall, was a top priority cable to Washington that described the incident as a deliberate affront to the American nation and recommended immediate countermeasures. I don’t think we ever got an answer.
The destruction of the Beechcraft was the last straw for Yeager. He vanished from his office, and, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t seen again in Islamabad until the war was over. It wasn’t a long period; the Indians took only two weeks to trounce the Pakistanis. East Pakistan, known as Bangladesh, became an independent country, and Yahya resigned in disgrace. He was so drunk during his televised farewell speech that the camera focused not on him but on a small table radio across the room.
And where had Yeager been during these dramatic two weeks? The slim entries in his autobiography aren’t much help. Yeager says that he “didn’t get involved in the actual combat because that would have been too touchy.’ He then goes on to explain casually that he did “fly around’ on such chores as picking up Indian pilots who had been shot down, interrogating them, and hauling them off to prison camps. There are clues, however, that suggest a more active role. A Pakistani businessman, son of a senior general, told me excitedly that Yeager had moved into the big air force base at Peshawar and was personally directing the grateful Pakistanis in deploying their fighter squadrons against the Indians.
Another swore that he had seen Yeager emerge from a just-landed jet fighter at the Peshawar base. Yeager was uncharacteristically close-mouthed in succeeding weeks, but a sly grin would appear on his leathery face when we rehashed the war in staff meetings. I once asked him point-blank what he had been up to during the war. “I went fishing,’ he growled.