Escaping Vietnam/Afghanistan quagmires: when the superpowers sought India’s advice

New Delhi, May 3 (IANS) Could America have stopped going down its ruinous road in Vietnam if Jawaharlal Nehru had responded to president John F. Kennedy’s plea for advice in 1961? Or South Asian history could have been different if the Soviet leadership had accepted Indira Gandhi’s advice on ending their Afghan imbroglio in 1982?

Former Indian foreign secretary M.K. Rasgotra, in his autobiography “A Life in Diplomacy” (Penguin India, Rs.699), offers a tantalising glimpse of how the course of history could been been changed had Nehru, who was well showing his age, been a little more forthcoming, or Mrs. Gandhi less cryptic.

Rasgotra, who was a member of the Indian mission to the UN when Nehru met “his long-time admirer” (Kennedy) in Washington during his 1961 visit, says “from all accounts, Indian and American,” the meeting was an absolute failure.

Citing then envoy to the US, B.K. Nehru, who was also present, he says that the prime minister “just did not react to Kennedy’s repeated pleas for his advice as to what he should do, or not do, in Vietnam; there were pressures on him to rush in there with military force, he did not know Asia well and he wanted the great Asian statesman’s personal advice as a guide for his action”.

But, the “president never received the word of advice directly from the prime minister that might have prevented America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam”.

However, trying to make amends, Nehru next day told foreign secretary M.J. Desai to meet his State Department counterpart or the secretary of state and “tell them that the US should not get involved in Vietnam; that they will get bogged down there with no good result”.

“This was sound advice, which might have saved the US a long war and a morale-shattering defeat,” says Rasgotra, but adds that the “American bureaucracy was not inclined to accept from Desai what the prime minister had himself failed to convey to the president”.

As to the Soviet Union, he says Mrs. Gandhi was asked by then General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, during her 1982 visit, how his country could extricate itself from its Afghan misadventure.

“Brezhnev told Gandhi: (Then Afghan leader Noor Mohammad) Taraki kept asking me for 10,000 troops; and I kept refusing, After much hesitation I sent 10,000 Russian soldiers to Afghanistan in 1979. Now there are 110,000 soldiers in Afghanistan! I do not know what they are doing there. I want to get out of Afghanistan. Madam, you know that region well! Show me a way to get out of Afghanistan.”

“Silence followed. Indira Gandhi did not show the slightest inclination to react to Brezhnev’s plea. Brezhnev then repeated his little speech in Russian; the interpreter read out the English version from his notes” but she sat silent, till Ragotra and her principal secretary P.C. Alexander, sitting beside her, whispered to her to say something.

“Reluctantly she obliged with a nugget of wisdom born out of long reflection: ‘Mr general secretary, it is a good idea to withdraw your forces from Afghanistan. The way out is the same as the way in’,” recalls Rasgotra, who was saddled with the task of explaining her meaning to the Soviets, despite not being given an explanation and “knowing better than to ask”.

The veteran diplomat also recalls that he was himself asked, during his US stint when the anti-Vietnam protests were at their height, by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger for his views.

“There is a declaration every day from new Delhi criticizing us over the war in Vietnam. We want to end the war. What should we do?” he asked. As Rasgotra gave his “honest opinion as a friend of the United States” ending with a suggestion that “you should negotiate a ninety- or a hundred-day ceasefire, declare victory and withdraw your forces from the country”.

“Dr Kissinger looked at me in utter disbelief and asked,’ What kind of thinking is that?’ ‘Indian’, I said and I could see that he was not amused.”

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at




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