As the sun went down in Dhaka, tens of thousands converged on the Race Course from all directions. Throughout the afternoon, the city had been humming with rumors of an impending surrender of the Pakistan army. At the ceremony, a small contingent of Pakistani and Indian soldiers presented an honor guard to Lieutenant General J. S. Aurora and Lieutenant General A. A. K Niazi. The surrender documents were signed by both commanders in front of a peering audience on that darkening evening. Niazi unbuttoned his epaulette, removed his revolver, and handed it to Aurora. The war for Bangladesh was at an end—just thirteen days after it had formally begun.

The speed and scale of the victory—India took around 93,000 prisoners of war—has led historians and chroniclers to assume that this outcome was a foregone conclusion. Sisson and Rose, to take but one example, argue that the result was “not in doubt, as the Indian military had all the advantages. Its force was considerably larger, much better armed, more mobile and had complete control of air and sea.” India also had better logistics and excellent local intelligence owing to the Mukti Bahini. By contrast, the Pakistanis suffered from disadvantages on each score. Add to this the claim that the Indian military had superb leadership while the lions of the Pakistan army were led by donkeys, and the outcome seems ineluctable.

To be sure, these factors did contribute to the Indian victory. But they did not make it inevitable. For the top Indian leadership had not conceived of such an outcome until well into the war, and then their strategy was shaped not just by operational considerations but wider political ones. Similarly, the eventual outcome was considerably influenced by chance and contingency. It was, in many ways, a strange victory.

What were India’s political and military objectives on the eastern front? The conventional wisdom is that India sought to liberate East Pakistan by launching “an all-out offensive to capture Dhaka.” On the contrary, India’s strategy was more modest. It aimed at capturing maximum possible territory, installing the government of Bangladesh, and thereafter securing the withdrawal of Pakistani forces, leading to eventual independence for Bangladesh. Indeed, from the outset, the contingency plan drawn up by the army headquarters did not specify the capture of Dhaka as the military aim, nor did the subsequent modifications to the war plan identify either Dhaka as the main objective or earmark resources for its capture.

The operational framework conceptualized by the director of military operations, Major General K. K. Singh, had three components. The first was to capture the two major ports of Chittagong and Khulna (a river port) and prevent further reinforcement of Pakistani forces in the region. The second was to secure such positions as would prevent the Pakistanis from switching their forces from one sector to another. These included key river crossings and airfields. The third was to split the Pakistani military formations within particular sectors into “penny packets” and thus enable their piecemeal destruction by the Indian army. The capture of Dhaka was considered—but deemed too ambitious. In the first place, reaching Dhaka would entail getting across at least one of the three massive rivers that traversed East Pakistan: the Padma, the Jamuna, and the Meghna. Crossing these rivers in the face of enemy opposition was seen as a tall order. In the second place, General Singh felt “rather strongly that the Indian Army, with its inherent inhibitions against anything unorthodox and a more speedy type of manoeuvre” was ill-suited for attempting the capture of Dhaka. In the third place, the military planners worked on the reasonable assumption that the operations would last no longer than three weeks. India’s experience, especially during the 1965 war, was that international pressure for a ceasefire would not allow more prolonged operations. Owing to these considerations, the military task assigned to the army’s eastern command was “limited to occupying the major portion of Bangladesh instead of the entire country.” Both Major General Singh and General Manekshaw, the army chief, felt that this strategy would pave the way for the eventual collapse of the Pakistani resistance.

Manekshaw conveyed this plan to the eastern army commander, Lieutenant General Aurora, in early July 1971. Although Aurora agreed with the proposed plan, his chief of staff, Major General Jacob, demurred. Jacob felt that the plan should be designed with the deliberate aim of capturing Dhaka. A few months before, he had drawn up a draft sketch of operations premised on the idea of isolating and bypassing Pakistani strongholds and marching straight to Dhaka. These differences came to the fore at the beginning of August 1971, when Manekshaw and K. K. Singh visited the eastern command headquarters in Calcutta. After the director of military operations had spelled out the objectives and presented the plan, Jacob insisted that the “geopolitical heart” of East Pakistan was Dhaka and that its capture was imperative to ensuring control of East Pakistan. Manekshaw interjected and sought to defuse matters: “Don’t you see if we take Khulna and Chittagong, Dacca will automatically fall?” Jacob replied that he did not agree, and he reiterated that Dhaka should be the key objective. Manekshaw, however, insisted that Dhaka was not a priority and that no troops would be allocated for its capture, and Aurora agreed.

Enterprising commanders down the military chain bridled at the restricted aims of the plan. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, commander of IV Corps based in Tripura, believed that his forces could swiftly advance to the Meghna River and thence to Dhaka. But the top brass remained unconvinced. The commander of 301 Brigade, which stood within touching distance of Dhaka when the war ended, recalled that “at no stage … did I hear of Dacca being one of the objectives or the aim being the complete occupation of East Pakistan.”

By October 1971, the Indian plan was firmed up. In the eastern theater, the political objective was “to assist the Mukti Bahini in liberating a part of Bangladesh, where the refugees could be sent to live under their own Bangladesh Government.” The military strategy was “to capture sufficient area bordering the Brahmaputra and Meghna river lines.” The theater was divided into four sectors. In the northwestern sector, which lay north of the Padma and west of the Jamuna, it was decided to advance up to the key communication center of Bogra and pin down the Pakistani forces. In the western sector, south and west of the Padma, the objective was to capture the main communication centers of Jessore and Jhenida. In the eastern sector, lying east of the Meghna, the plan was to occupy the Meghna bulge composed of three key towns along the river: Chandpur, Dhaudkandi, and Ashuganj. The Chittagong port would be dealt with by the Indian navy. In the northern sector, east of Jamuna and west of Meghna, a thrust would be made along the Jamalpur-Tangail axis to secure this area.

These remained the objectives when the Indian offensive began on the night of 3 December. The air force chief, Air Chief Marshal P. C. Lal, would recall that the aims were “to gain as much ground as possible in the east, to neutralise the Pakistani forces there to the extent we could, and to establish a base as it were for a possible state of Bangladesh.” This was because of the government’s realization that the UN Security Council and the great powers were bound to intervene. The possibility of a complete collapse of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and the fall of Dhaka were not regarded as likely outcomes. “Caution dictated,” Lal observed, “that the [military] people commanding the East should work to limited objectives, but go about achieving them as rapidly as possible.”

The Indian offensive progressed broadly along the lines envisaged by the planners. In the western sector, Indian troops captured Jessore on 7 December, after the Pakistani garrison withdrew without a fight. The Pakistanis, however, put up a stern resistance in Khulna, a town that did not fall into Indian control until after the surrender of 16 December. In the northwestern sector, Indian forces were moving closer to the line of the Jamuna, though they frittered away precious resources and time in mounting set-piece attacks on well-prepared Pakistani positions. In the eastern sector, by contrast, the army made rapid progress, bypassing Pakistani strongholds and exploiting the gaps in their defenses. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh’s assessment proved accurate: by 9 December, the city of Sylhet was surrounded and cut off from other Pakistani formations. His troops also had captured the three key towns on the banks of the Meghna—Ashuganj, Dhaudkandi, and Chandpur—and secured the Meghna bulge. The same evening, Indian forces in the northern sector were poised for an attack on Jamalpur following the garrison’s refusal to surrender.

Even at this point, India’s strategic aims had not expanded to include the capture of Dhaka. On 6 December, the Indian government announced its formal recognition of the government of Bangladesh. Three days later, a note on India’s objectives was prepared by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. This stated that India sought “a speedy return of 10 million refugees to their homeland” and that this was unlikely to happen “so long as the armies of West Pakistan continue to operate in Bangla Desh.” The document did not state that India aimed to occupy Dhaka or to liberate all of East Pakistan; it only observed that “a mere cease-fire which does not simultaneously go into the basic causes of the conflict will prove … illusory.” New Delhi was evidently hoping that by the time a ceasefire was announced Indian forces would have made enough progress to render the Pakistani position politically untenable. Eventually, the scale of their victory just a few days later greatly exceeded their expectations. To understand this strange victory, we need to look beyond the battlefield.

“Pakistan thing makes your heart sick,” said Nixon to Kissinger on learning of the war, “for them to be so done by the Indians and after we have warned the bitch.” Kissinger’s concerns were more practical. “If a major war [develops] without going to the Security Council it would be a confession of poverty.” At the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) meeting later that day, Kissinger said, “I’ve been catching unshirted hell every half-hour from the President … He wants to tilt towards Pakistan.” This desire to tilt toward Pakistan, as noted earlier, stemmed from reputational concerns. Nixon and Kissinger believed that if they merely looked on while Pakistan was cut to size by India, their relationship with China would be nipped in the bud. As the war progressed, their concern with reputation would lead them to imagine that even greater interests were at stake and to take a series of steps that would profoundly, if unintentionally, influence the outcome of the conflict. The WSAG quickly concluded that the United States should call for a meeting of the UN Security Council and introduce a resolution.

At the Security Council meeting the next day, the US permanent representative, George H. W. Bush, put forth a resolution calling for the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of the armed forces of India and Pakistan from each other’s territories, and the use of the UN secretary-general’s good offices to promote a settlement. Because Pakistani troops on the western front had not yet broken through into Indian territory, the resolution was properly tilted toward Pakistan. In response, the Soviet Union tabled its own resolution, which tersely called “for a political settlement in East Pakistan which would inevitably result in a cessation of hostilities.” This position, of course, sat well with India. The Soviet proposal was a nonstarter, as only Poland supported it. When the American resolution was put to the vote, eleven member states of the Security Council voted for it and two against it. The Russians vetoed it.

Interestingly, Britain and France abstained on this vote. Even before the war formally began, the United Kingdom and France had begun adjusting their positions toward India. The British envoy had told the Indian government that if the crisis came up in the Security Council, they “would not find [the] British position in any way embarrassing to us on this matter.” When informed of the British and French abstentions, Nixon was peeved. “What do you think [is] the real game there,” he asked Kissinger, “afraid to make Russia mad, isn’t that it?” Kissinger concurred. “I am beginning to think,” said Nixon, that “one of the worst mistakes we made was to push Britain onto the Common Market.” In any case, the Security Council carried on in its state of catatonia. Resolutions introduced by the smaller countries failed to take off. The People’s Republic of China, which had recently entered the Security Council after having displaced Taiwan in October 1971, showed its evident inexperience; the resolution tabled by the Chinese representative “strongly condemning India” found no takers.

The Security Council kept itself busy nitpicking innumerable amendments and hearing impassioned speeches. All this was music to Indian ears, as the Indian army continued to make steady inroads into East Pakistan. On 6 December—the day India formally recognized the Bangladesh government—the Soviets proposed a draft calling for an immediate ceasefire and calling upon Pakistan “simultaneously to take effective action towards a political settlement in East Pakistan, giving immediate effect to the Will of the East Pakistan population as expressed in the elections of December 1970.” In other words, the Soviets wanted a ceasefire accompanied by a transfer of power to the Bangladesh government while leaving the Indian forces in place. The resolution was vetoed by China. Eventually, the only resolution that was accepted by all members was to transfer the issue to the UN General Assembly.

In the Security Council debates, the Indian representative had initially sought to justify India’s intervention on humanitarian grounds, arguing that “military repression” in East Pakistan was such as to “shock the conscience of mankind.” “What has … happened,” he asked, “to our conventions on genocide, human rights, self-determination, and so on?” India’s motive was “to rescue the people of East Bengal from what they are suffering. If that is a crime, the Security Council should judge for itself.” The Council was unmoved by such pleas, forcing the Indians to fall back on claims that they were acting in self-defense or—more imaginatively—that they were victims of “refugee aggression” by Pakistan.

The issue was debated by the General Assembly in a marathon session that ran late into the night of 7 December. The resolution finally adopted by the General Assembly asked India and Pakistan to accept a ceasefire and withdraw their forces from each other’s territory. It also urged the intensification of efforts “to create conditions necessary for the voluntary return of the East Pakistan refugees to their homes,” but inserted the caveat that these efforts should be in accordance with “principles of the charter of the United Nations.” This was not surprising given that the General Assembly was dominated by champions of sovereignty from the Third World. All the same, it was a heavy blow for India when 104 countries voted in favor of the resolution and only eleven against it. The latter were the Soviet bloc (minus Romania), Bhutan, and India itself. There were ten abstentions, notably Britain and France. None of India’s stalwart friends from the nonaligned world—Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Indonesia—had stood by it. The sole consolation lay in the fact that, unlike Security Council resolutions, the resolutions of the General Assembly were not binding on member states.

As the General Assembly debate wound down, both India and Pakistan sent their foreign ministers to New York for the next round of sparring at the United Nations. In the meantime, Nixon and Kissinger were already focused elsewhere.

For several weeks, Kissinger had been working the back channel with the Soviets, emphasizing the need for Moscow to rein in India. In mid-November, he told the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the United States was “extremely concerned” about the situation in the subcontinent: “We think India is determined to have a showdown … Sending arms to India is adding fuel.” “I doubt that,” Dobrynin told him. “I think it’s publicity.” At a farewell dinner for Dobrynin, Kissinger again broached the issue of Soviet arms to India and the danger of war. According to Kissinger, the ambassador said he saw no reason why the United States and the Soviet Union should be “competitive” in South Asia. Moscow was “urging restraint on India.” Dobrynin’s account suggests that he did not take Kissinger’s remarks too seriously.

As the crisis escalated toward the end of November, Nixon wrote formally to Kosygin seeking support for the idea of withdrawing the troops of both sides to a limited distance and stationing UN observers. Kosygin’s reply was received on 3 December, after the war had begun. It claimed that Nixon’s proposal was “scarcely feasible.” The key to defusing the crisis lay in a political solution, which could only be initiated by the Pakistan government.

Once the war was under way, Kissinger felt that “there’s no way it [the crisis] could blow away without East Pakistan being separated from Pakistan.” This did not, however, mean that the United States would acquiesce to a fait accompli. Kissinger held that American interests in one part of the world were tightly linked to those in others. Thus, adversaries and allies alike would observe US behavior and draw their conclusions about its resolve and reliability. Kissinger believed that “however this issue started and whatever the pros and cons of the local situation were, it’s gone far beyond that.” “What we are seeing here,” he told Nixon, “is a Soviet-India power play to humiliate the Chinese and also somewhat us.” The dismembering of Pakistan would lead “all other countries watching it … [to conclude] that the friends of China and the United States have been clobbered by India and the Soviet Union.” Speaking to the treasury secretary, Kissinger outlined three concerns. First, “we have Indian-Soviet collusion, raping a friend of ours.” Second, Beijing had reached out to the United States, concerned that the same situation might be visited on China. Hence, “some demonstration of our willingness to stand for some principles is important for that policy.” Third, if the Soviets “get away with” this crisis, then “we have seen the dress rehearsal for a Middle Eastern war.”

Following the Soviet veto of the US resolution on 5 December, Kissinger was livid. The Russians, he insisted to Nixon, “are playing for big stakes here.” “If the Chinese come out of this despising us, we lose that option.” And “if the Russians think they backed us down,” it would lead to a lot more trouble. Their “only hope,” said Kissinger, was “to become very threatening to the Russians and tell them that if they are going to participate in the dismemberment of another country, that will affect their whole relationship to us.” This sort of message could not be sent through the sedate diplomacy of the State Department; it needed an active back-channel effort.

That afternoon, Kissinger met with the Soviet counselor Yuli Vorontsov to convey a message to Brezhnev. Nixon could not understand how the Soviet Union could seek a détente with the United States while “encouraging Indian military aggression against Pakistan.” The United States and the Soviet Union, he warned, were “at a watershed in our relationship.” If Moscow agreed to support a resolution for ceasefire and withdrawal, the United States would be prepared to work with them on a political solution. Vorontsov expressed “surprise” and asked “why events between India and Pakistan are so insistently and obviously being extended to relations between our two countries.” His assessment was that “the White House is nervous about the fairly complicated situation in which the U.S. has found itself” and that the message was an attempt to “transfer the dissatisfaction” over the situation “onto Soviet-U.S. relations.”

Clearly, the Russians did not regard the war as a crisis of high geopolitical stakes or linkages. Be that as it may, Nixon followed up with a written message to Brezhnev the next day. Nixon claimed the Soviet Union was backing India’s quest to partition Pakistan, which ran counter to “recent encouraging trends” of cooperation between Washington and Moscow. It was in everyone’s best interests, Nixon said, “if the territorial integrity of Pakistan were restored and military action were brought to an end.” Nixon asked Brezhnev to use his “great influence” on India toward these ends.

On 6 December, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) received intelligence from an Indian source that Prime Minister Gandhi had briefed her cabinet that day and emphasized that India had three aims in the war: quick liberation of Bangladesh, incorporation into India of the southern part of Azad Kashmir (Pakistan-administered Kashmir), and the destruction of Pakistan’s military might so that it could never again attempt to challenge India. Nixon and Kissinger seized upon this as firm evidence that India sought not only to liberate East Pakistan, but thereafter to launch a major attack on West Pakistan as well.

For one thing, it fit well their preconceptions about India’s intentions. As far back as the summer of 1971, even before Kissinger’s trip to the subcontinent, they had believed that “Mrs. Gandhi perceived a larger opportunity … perhaps trying to spread the centrifugal tendencies from East to West Pakistan.” In October, Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, “It is our judgment that the Indians see in this situation no longer a legal problem of East Pakistan but an opportunity to settle the whole problem of Pakistan which they have never accepted.” During Indira Gandhi’s subsequent trip to Washington, Kissinger had strained to interpret her remarks about Balochistan along these lines. Further, because the intelligence had reached them in an unprocessed form, they were able to interpret and embellish it as they chose.