|KARGIL WAR: ESSAY
The war helped India rediscover its underlying oneness. But the inspiring triumph will ever be a reminder that the smugness can cost the country dear.
By Raj Chengappa with Zahid Hussain in Islamabad and Sujatha Shenoy in New York
In the game of chess, there is a German expression for the predicament that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself in last week: Zugswang. It essentially means an obligation to make a move on one's turn even if it is highly disadvantageous. The English language has a more direct word for it: cornered.
Few imagined that Sharif would find himself in such an inexpedient position over the Kargil war so soon. For, just a few weeks ago in May he had breathed fire when the Pakistani Army took India by surprise by surreptitiously crossing the Line of Control (LoC) and occupying the commanding heights at Kargil.
There was little doubt that Sharif's and the Pakistani Army's initial moves were tactically brilliant. They had exposed the Achilles heel of the Indian Army by catching it napping in an area it believed had been made militarily impregnable. They had struck when India's political leadership was in a state of suspended animation and the country was led by a prime minister who had lost the support of Parliament. They thought they had the perfect cover for their shock tactics: it was Kashmiri mujahideen (freedom fighters) who had made such a daring thrust. If their master strategy had worked Pakistan would have dealt India its most stunning blow in Kashmir in the past 50 years. Pakistan could have severed Leh from Srinagar, trapped the Indian forces on the Siachen glacier, questioned the sanctity of the entire LoC, raised the banner of militant revolt in the Valley and made its perennial fantasy of internationalising the Kashmir dispute a powerful reality.
Yet in just eight weeks of war, Pakistan found its audacious gamble beginning to go awry. On a hot, steamy fourth of July in Washington DC, a world removed from the cold mountains of Kashmir, Sharif, who had just made a panic dash to the US capital, was desperately seeking a way out of the noose tightening around Pakistan's neck in Kargil. He had sought the emergency meeting with President Bill Clinton. Sharif and his entourage, which included Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, had tried to describe it otherwise but much to their discomfiture the US State Department clarified that the meeting was being held at his request. When the two leaders met at Blair House, across from the White House, for three hours, including a working lunch, Clinton reportedly read out the riot act to Sharif. In between Clinton even woke up Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at midnight to give, according to an Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official, "an accurate briefing" of how the talks with Sharif were progressing. It was evident that Sharif was being forced to do what the late Ayatollah Khomeini, when he called a halt to Iran's losing war against Iraq in the '80s, described as "sipping from the poisoned chalice of peace". Even before his meeting with Clinton the options had begun running out for Sharif and Pakistan.
WILL SHARIF KEEP HIS WORD TO
The Pakistani leader left Washington promising to restore the sanctity of the LoC in accordance to the 1972 Simla Agreement with India and to use the bilateral dialogue begun in Lahore in February as the forum for settling disputes between the two nations. Shed of jargon, it meant: Pakistan will pull its troops back from across the LoC immediately and get back to the negotiating table. In return, the only concession Sharif wrested from Clinton was a promise that the US President would take "personal interest" in expediting talks between Delhi and Islamabad. But the joint statement issued by Clinton and Sharif made it clear that it would be done "once the sanctity of the LoC has been fully restored".
Even before Sharif flew into Islamabad, after stopping briefly in London where he didn't get much sympathy from Prime Minister Tony Blair either, his capitulation had provoked a furious political backlash in Pakistan. This was largely because the Pakistan Government in the past two months, through its rhetoric, had created a public perception that the Mujahideen had achieved significant victories and it would not back down under pressure.
Opposition political parties, particularly the right-wing Islamic organisations, were quick to reject Sharif's claim that the US-brokered agreement has helped bring the Kashmir issue on the international agenda. Many of them saw the joint statement as a surrender deed and even accused Sharif of treason and betraying the freedom struggle. "The nation will not forgive Sharif for the sell-out on Kargil," warned Munawwar Hussain, secretary-general of the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is closely linked to the Islamic militant groups fighting in Kashmir. The reaction of the other Kashmiri militant groups involved in the Kargil war was much stronger. "We will not put our guns down. We will continue to fight till the last drop of our blood," declared Syed Salahuddin, chief of the newly formed United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of some 20 militant groups. He described the Washington deal as "a conspiracy against the Kashmiri freedom struggle".
Defence experts in Pakistan now believe that Sharif had agreed to pull out from Kargil before his departure to Washington. According to them, General Anthony Zinni, chief of the US central command, during his visit to Islamabad in the last week of June had made it clear to the Pakistani leadership that it would have to take concrete measures to defuse the situation. William Milam, the US ambassador to Pakistan, hinted at this when he said: "General Zinni's talks with the Pakistani leaders were very productive in view of the flexibility in their position." The announcement by Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf that Sharif would meet Clinton even before the Pakistani Foreign Ministry had made it public, was evidence that the army was in step with the prime minister's actions. That impression was strengthened a day after Sharif's agreement with Clinton when Musharraf told the largest circulated Urdu daily Jang, "There is total unanimity between the military and the Government on the Kargil situation."
All these cleared the major doubt on whether Sharif would be able to carry the military along on his decision to pull out the Pakistani troops from Kargil. Given the fact that his party, the Muslim League, enjoys a handsome majority in Parliament , there is no immediate threat to his Government. Before the Kargil war, Sharif had emerged as his nation's most powerful civilian prime minister having tamed all the other major levers of power: the presidency, the judiciary and the army. Although his public esteem has considerably dipped since then, he still has the clout to push through the decision without fear of being ousted. Part of the reason why the army is stringing along with Sharif is the steady reverses its troops have suffered in Kargil. The Indian Army, by recapturing vital peaks in the past fortnight such as Tiger Hill and Jubar heights from where the intruders threatened the strategic Srinagar-Leh highway, has thwarted the Pakistani objective of isolating Ladakh from the Kashmir Valley. By following a policy of restraint and not crossing the LoC to strike back, the Vajpayee government also won the diplomatic war with even Pakistan's close allies like China and the US turning their backs on it. With Pakistan's precarious economy dependent on international financial institutions like the IMF -- a $100 million tranche is due -- to bail it out, Sharif's options began to narrow considerably. Given his express commitment to Clinton, whatever palatable twist the prime minister may give it, a Pakistan pullout from Kargil seems imminent. However, Sharif will do his best to make it a messy affair and create, as a senior MEA official describes it, "plenty of halla gulla before he leaves".
HOW PAKISTAN WAS CHECKMATED AT
That Pakistan's game plan was coming apart was evident even before Zinni's visit to Islamabad. While its army had moved well militarily, preparing elaborately for the assault from last October, its calculations began to go wrong after May. Lulled by the Lahore declaration, Indian intelligence agencies had failed miserably in detecting the intrusions, but the Vajpayee government's tough response thereafter stunned Pakistan. Vajpayee immediately upped the ante by ordering the Indian Air Force to bombard enemy posts in Kargil and signalled that he would take "all possible steps" to throw out the intruders. Initially the policy seemed to be floundering with the ill-equipped and poorly prepared Indian Army taking massive casualties as it made virtually suicidal assaults to regain some of the heights. Later the Indian government and the armed forces were forced to change the strategy: they decided to contain the intruders while massing troops not just in Kargil but all across the 3,500 km border with Pakistan. The message was clear: Not only was India preparing to strike hard in Kargil but if needed it could open other fronts and was willing to risk even a full-scale war. As General V.P. Malik, Indian Army chief, put it, "I am fully balanced now in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. Both my feet are on the ground."
With a range of military options available, Vajpayee and his advisers took the sagacious decision not to send troops across the LoC until they had exhausted the diplomatic alternative. At the same time in Kargil, instead of battling on all fronts, the Indian Army decided to focus on freeing the Srinagar-Leh highway from any threat and then tackling other heights. The policy paid off with victories in the Drass and Kargil sectors putting added pressure on the Pakistani Army, forcing it to rethink on its aggressive strategy. Also, India unfurled its diplomatic war machine with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh spearheading the charge. He made an early breakthrough by meeting US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in Moscow in the last week of May and persuading him to get the US to take a firm stand on Kargil. In return Singh promised Talbott that India would exercise restraint by not crossing the LoC or escalating the war. The US shocked Pakistan by openly asking it to pull back from across the loc. The US then used its clout to get the G-8 countries to endorse much the same message despite stiff resistance from Japan and Canada.
If the US was taking greater interest than usual it was because a nuclear India and Pakistan had still not agreed on the rules of the game in the event of a major military confrontation. The political change in India saw one of the main agreements of the Lahore declaration to evolve nuclear confidence-building measures being put on the back-burner. As Michael Krepon, president, Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank that came out against Pakistan's Kargil intrusions, says, "The US and the world had justifiable concerns that any escalation in the war may lead to an environment where the nuclear option is brandished." The US's worst fears of an armageddon is an incident like Kargil rapidly escalating into a nuclear catastrophe. Thomas W. Graham Jr, Clinton's former special representative for nuclear non-proliferation, points out: "Kargil is one of the worst less-than-war situations ever between India and Pakistan. Set against the backdrop of nuclear armed states, the security implications are more serious than ever before."
There were also fears of the growing Islamisation of the Pakistani Army and its links with fundamentalist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Osama bin Laden breed of militants. It was for this reason that China took a neutral stand on Kargil. It has its own fears of Muslim fundamentalism in its Xinjiang autonomous region and last week even had a Pakistan militant executed for subversion. So when Sharif sought China's help during his visit to Beijing on June 28, he was bluntly told by China that he could not count on its support. The Pakistani prime minister even cut short his visit claiming pressing concerns back home. Earlier in India, with casualty figures mounting, the government began to come under public pressure to act more decisively.
As the war hysteria built up, Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, met Sandy Berger, the US national security adviser, in Geneva and handed him a letter from Vajpayee for Clinton. In it the Indian prime minister indicated that the country's patience was wearing thin. He wanted the US and the world to come down more sternly on Pakistan. The threat was implicit: if the world failed to respond India would be forced to escalate the war. A worried Berger talked to Clinton and assured Mishra that the US action would come "in days, not weeks". That took Zinni rushing to Islamabad. Reports from the battlefront also showed that the Indians were unlikely to get bogged down in Kargil before the onset of winter. Sharif knew that he was getting checkmated and met, as a diplomat put it, "the big white chief" in Washington to find a face-saving exit from Kargil.
WHAT BATTLES LIE AHEAD FOR
It was Sharif's plan B. Or possibly even Z. But in Clinton he was certainly looking for a political cover to help him get out of the Kargil jam and minimise the damage internationally and nationally. Stephen Cohen, South Asian analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, feels, "Sharif was also demonstrating to the Pakistani people that he was still a person who could wield influence in the world." The joint statement from Clinton and Sharif, though clear, did have some nuances that Pakistan could exploit. Like the intriguing statement that the US president would take "personal interest" in intensifying the bilateral dialogue. Aziz claimed Pakistan had succeeded in bringing in the world's only superpower as a broker in Kashmir. The mea dismissed it saying India will never agree to a third-party mediation.Aziz also tried several ploys to obfuscate the issue. Among them was to say that Pakistan could only request the Mujahideen to pull back. But that is a fig leaf. Without the active support of the Pakistani Army, the Mujahideen would be cannon fodder for the Indian Army. Pakistan then tried to interpret the wording "restoring the LoC according to the Simla Agreement" as meaning that India should vacate the Siachen glacier which it captured in 1984. The US, however, made it clear that the statement related only to the Kargil intrusions.
Perhaps Sharif's best bet is to dilute Kargil by saying it was limited to internationalising the Kashmir issue. As Aziz threatened in a BBC interview, "If you do not deal with the fundamental issue of Kashmir there will be many more Kargils." But Pakistan is unlikely to attempt a similar misadventure in a hurry for fear of international opprobrium. The real difficulty for India is in trying to get the bilateral dialogue back on the road. After Kargil, as former foreign secretary S.K. Singh points out, it would take several years before an Indian prime minister can shake hands trustingly with his Pakistani counterpart as Vajpayee did with Sharif in Lahore.
Yet one of the IOUs the international community would demand for supporting India on Kargil is substantial progress on the bilateral front. After all, it was India which wanted the issue to remain bilateral. But if new initiatives are not forthcoming and another Kargil erupts, then Pakistan's demands may appear more credible. As Hasan Askari Rizvi, Quaid-e-Azam professor of Pakistan studies at New York's Columbia University, says, "Sharif can now try to extract dividends from a withdrawal by saying we have done our part and now India must be persuaded to begin an open-ended dialogue on Kashmir." Adds Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC: "The international community is now looking differently at the Kashmir issue because there is belief that there is need for an extra margin of safety."
For India it calls for a radical rethink militarily, politically and diplomatically in the way it handles its Kashmir policy. The tactics of wearing out Pakistan's demand to make Kashmir the core issue needs an overhaul. Sure India should insist that Pakistan end cross-border terrorism before any meaningful dialogue resumes. But it needs to get over what Cohen calls "its paranoia over internationalising the issue". Instead of hunkering down on Kashmir, the MEA must show signs that it can take on the international community confidently. Meanwhile, India needs to drastically improve its military preparedness in Kashmir, perhaps going in for far more sophisticated and hi-tech methods. Lt-General V.R. Raghavan, a former director-general of military operations, says, "We have to give full marks to the army for doing well despite the shoestring budget of the past 12 years. But we need to look beyond Kargil and make vast improvements."
Also, instead of trashing the Lahore process, it is in India's as well as Pakistan's interest to ensure that the spirit is revived. The two countries must realise that as in the Middle East, once some leaders start working towards peace there would be others picking up the gun. While the sense of outrage on what Pakistan did in Kargil is justified, India must realise that there is a different kind of battle underway. It needs to back the people who are trying to push the process of peace forward. Also, as in chess, all endgames have the longest moves. To expect quick results in the Kargil dispute or even in relations with Pakistan may be folly.
© Living Media India Ltd