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Kargil, Clinton & How A Nuclear War Was Averted

As we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Kargil Victory Day this week, we should recall the role played in ending the conflict by President Bill Clinton and the United States.

No doubt, India put up a strong fight in the difficult terrain of Kargil and thwarted Pakistan’s plans to occupy positions on our side of the Line of Control (LoC) and to use it as a bargaining point to negotiate a Kashmir settlement.

As the first war between the two countries after both had become nuclear weapon states, the situation had caused international concern and Clinton decided to step in to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

The “Kargil Spring” came in India-US relations after the “Nuclear Winter” that had set in after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998.

For the first time in history, the US stood by India against Pakistan as there was clear evidence that Pakistan had initiated the war by sending its soldiers to infiltrate into Kargil.

India, even in the face of grave provocation, refrained from crossing the LoC and thus won the support of the US and the international community.

I recall the historic meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had with President Bill Clinton on 04 July 1999 at the Blair House in Washington, which marked a turning point in the conflict that lasted sixty days.

The details of the Clinton-Sharif meeting have been revealed in the writings of Strobe Talbott, Bruce Reidel and Bill Clinton himself. My own book, ‘Words, Words, Words’ has a chapter entitled, ‘Nuclear Winter, Kargil Spring’, which contains the information given to me as the designated representative of the Embassy throughout the day of the meeting by Assistant Secretary for South Asia, Rick Inderfurth.

It is clear that Sharif went to Washington in desperation to end the conflict, but made a heroic effort to drag Clinton to undertake a mediation mission like he had done in the case of the Israel-Palestine situation.

“Sharif was concerned that the situation that Pakistan had created was getting out of control, and he hoped to use my good offices not only to resolve the crisis, but also to help mediate with the Indians on the question of Kashmir itself,” writes Clinton in his autobiography, ‘My Life’.

Clinton’s attention was drawn to the Kargil conflict on account of the intelligence he had received that Pakistan was contemplating to use nuclear weapons in case it was defeated in the Kargil conflict.

He wrote letters to the two Prime Ministers to seek a resolution, abandoning the traditional hyphenation between India and Pakistan by saying clearly that the solution was for Pakistan to withdraw to the LoC and for India to refrain from crossing the LoC in retaliation.

Clinton was impressed that even after Pakistan crossed the Line of Control and captured Kargil, India refrained from crossing the LoC to repel the aggressor.

Moreover, the United States condemned Pakistan’s “infiltration of armed intruders” and went public with information that most of the seven hundred men who had crossed the Line of Control were attached to the Pakistani Army’s 10th Corps.

This completely contradicted the Pakistani claim that the intruders were freedom fighters of Kashmir.

The initiative to seek the good offices of Clinton to resolve the issue came from Sharif as he felt that Pakistan would not get the support from the US to continue the conflict.

But Clinton made it clear to Sharif that he should come only if he was willing to agree to withdraw the Pakistani forces. But in a special gesture, the President agreed to spend the US National Day to discuss the issue with Sharif.

He informed Vajpayee about the visit and invited him also to join. But Vajpayee declined because of India’s position against any third country intervention in India-Pakistan issues. Clinton informed Vajpayee that he would convey the gist of the discussion to him as the talks proceeded.

Although Clinton had made it clear that unconditional withdrawal was the only option for Pakistan, Sharif’s opening proposal was a ceasefire to be followed by negotiations under American auspices.

His fallback was to make Pakistani withdrawal conditional on Indian agreement to direct negotiations sponsored and probably mediated by the United States. After a day of gruelling negotiations, during which Clinton threatened to declare failure of the talks, Sharif agreed to “take concrete and immediate steps for the restoration of the LoC.”

In return, Sharif got an assurance from Clinton that he would take “personal interest to encourage an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts once the sanctity of the LoC had been fully restored.”

The decision on withdrawal was firm and explicit, while the face saving given to Sharif was virtually meaningless. Instead of Clinton mediating, the assurance was only to encourage an expeditious resumption of the bilateral efforts, which was not against the basic Indian position. Still, I made a reservation on that formulation when Rick Inderfurth read it out to me after the meeting.

According to US sources, Clinton telephoned Vajpayee twice during the day to seek his views, but Vajpayee was totally noncommittal. Even when the news of the agreement was conveyed to him, Vajpayee’s reaction was only – “What do you expect me to say, Mr President?” In other words, he kept his distance from Clinton’s efforts even though he may have been grateful about the outcome.

Interestingly, Sharif had gone to Washington with his family, hinting that he might not be able to return to Pakistan if he did not secure US support for Pakistan’s position. But apparently, Clinton leaned heavily on him to agree to withdraw.

He refuted the suggestion that Kargil was similar to the Israel-Palestine situation and that it was the duty of Clinton to mediate. Clinton clarified that in the Israel-Palestine situation, he had requests from both sides to intervene, while India was clearly against his mediation.

Clinton compared the Kargil situation to the Cuban crisis, which had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. When Clinton told Sharif that he had information that the Pakistan army was ready to use nuclear weapons, Sharif expressed total surprise.

The discussion took the whole day essentially because Clinton was careful not to give Sharif a sense of defeat, leading to Sharif staying on in the US as a political refugee.

It was important to keep his credibility with the army intact so that he could return to Pakistan with a face saving device to order the army to restore the sanctity of the LoC.

Clinton proved to be a master negotiator in this particular case as he was convinced that the military adventurism by the Pakistan army should be sternly rebuffed.

According to Talbott, at one point, “Clinton had worked himself back into real anger – his face flushed, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, cheek muscles pulsing, fists clenched. He said it was crazy enough for Sharif to have let his military violate the Line of Control, start a border war with India, and now prepare nuclear forces for action. On top of that, he had put Clinton in the middle of the mess and set him up for a diplomatic failure. Sharif seemed beaten, physically and emotionally. He denied he had given any orders with regard to nuclear weaponry and said he was worried for his life.”

India-US relations have a long history of ups and downs and many of the downs have been on account of the US support for Pakistan.

But Kargil was the one case in which spring broke out in India-US relations after they were frozen in the wake of the Indian nuclear tests. The Kargil victory belonged to India, but the decisive step taken by Clinton and the role of Nawaz Sharif in it may well have prevented a catastrophe. The conflict would have continued and many more lives would have been lost.

It was Clinton’s firm support to India on Kargil, which led to his own visit to India and Vajpayees’s visit to the US in 2000 and marked a major improvement in bilateral relations.

(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)

(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)

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