Revisiting The Kargil Misadventure

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The deluge outside today makes me wonder if there isn’t something to the ancient myth of the great flood which came from an ancient Diety’s decision to punish mankind for its unrepentant sinfulness with 40 days and 40 nights of steady and heavy rain. Given the present assault on our constitution, and the rule of law over the past 18 months, surely some divine retribution here in Washington is not unimaginable. But the steady rain for some days now has driven me afar in search of something else beside the many sins of our government to write about. And my friend (or at least she used to be my friend), the political commentator Nasim Zehra, has provided a welcome relief of subject, if not a happier interlude in Pakistan history to write about-the Kargil misadventure of 1999.

Miss Zehra has just published a book titled From Kargil to the Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan. It is clearly a deeply researched and thorough book, as I think she started it about 15 years ago. I remember that she interviewed me a long time ago, probably around 2006 or 2007, so long ago that I have forgotten much of what I said to her. I have been told that I am quoted in it, but have not yet been able to get hold of the book to see what I said. My impression of the book comes from a trusted close Pakistani friend, who I believe has read it and from a column by another good friend, Zahid Hussain, who writes for another Pakistani journal.

I have ordered it from Amazon, and I may, if lucky, receive it before I leave on a long trip to Europe in three days. But if not, I will not see it until mid-July, at which time I may have more to say about it.

But for lack of any better ideas, I think I will again recount the Kargil episode from my perspective. This will not be a comment on Zehra’s book, as I haven’t read it, and frankly do not anticipate that I will want to take issue with any part of it when I do. From what I have heard and read, it seems to bear out my own experience.

As US ambassador to Pakistan during the Kargil crisis, I was one of the main interlocutors with the Pakistan government during that very traumatic time. In the US government, there is rarely only one interlocutor and sometimes ambassadors do not know who all in Washington are picking up the phone and talking to their counterparts in the government they are accredited to, and what they may be saying. It is often enough to have everybody on the same page. I have written on Kargil previously, not only in my 2009 book, but also in Pakistani publications, although not as I recall in The Friday Times.

I begin with the great breakthrough of the Lahore meeting in February 1999, which produced what I considered at the time an enormous breakthrough in relations between two nuclear-armed countries which had been bitter rivals for many years. The Lahore Declaration, ratified by both parliaments in short order after the February meeting, was thought by most of us to be the start of a new era in South Asia. I had been in Pakistan about six months at the time, and the thrill of hearing the Indian prime minister say that India accepted the existence of Pakistan was enormous. I felt that I was almost present at the creation. Yes, there were rumours of dissidence among the army high command, even that they had threatened not to show up at the meeting, but at least the latter proved not to be true. And because then chief of army staff General (r) Musharraf had been picked by prime minister Sharif over a more senior general, partially because he was a Muhajir, I did not give enough weight to those rumours. The Kargil incursion became known in May, three months after the Lahore meeting, although it was planned and begun well before the February meeting in Lahore. Nonetheless, there was time to bring the infiltrators back before it was discovered and became public, so the army simply ignored the Lahore Declaration and all that it promised.

Reports on the new book focus on Zehra’s finding that the Kargil incursion was a serious example of the lack of coordination that still bedevils Pakistan’s government because of the still unsettled struggle for power between civilian governments and the army. In this case, it was not only the civilian government but, indeed, much of the senior army officer corps that was not consulted about a plan for military aggression that would totally undercut the Lahore Declaration and possibly escalate to the nuclear level.

The extent of this became clear to me quite early in the crisis, in a meeting I have written about often. After media reports from India started appearing in the Pakistani press in May about the conflict which was beginning at Kargil, the Pakistani government (I believe it was the Foreign Ministry) stated that the fighting was between mujahideen elements and India forces. Within a day or two, my embassy’s military attaches along with those from the UK embassy were called in by the army’s director general of military operations who told them explicitly that the battle in Kargil was between elements of the 13th Mountain Light Division, a regular Pakistan Army unit, and the Indians. The attaches reported this to me immediately and we reported it to Washington.

Within hours I received instructions to register the USG’s profound dismay and condemnation of this military incursion to the Foreign Ministry and our insistence that Pakistan immediately withdraw its troops. I went to see the officer in charge of Indian affairs and when I repeated my instructions, he replied that it was Mujahideen fighting at Kargil, over which the Pakistan government had no control. I told him that we had learned from the Pakistan army itself that this cover story was not true, that it was regular Pakistani troops fighting there. I will never forget the look on his face as I said it; he looked stunned, as if I had struck him. It was clear that he had not known until then. I cannot say whether higher levels at the Foreign Ministry such as the secretary of foreign affairs or even the foreign minister were informed by this time, but I suspect not. I spent much of the next six weeks shuttling back and forth between the embassy and the Foreign Ministry often with letters from President Clinton to PM Sharif, and more productively in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, where I followed the twisted trail of the back-channel dialogue.

The final scene that will live forever in my memory is really the denouement. Toward the end of June, President Clinton sent General Zinni, to see if he could persuade Musharraf to withdraw. At their meeting, it was clear to me that Zinni needn’t have come – Musharraf was already persuaded. His body language told me so. I am convinced that he knew the gambit had failed by then and the Pakistani forces in Kargil were slowly being rolled up by the Indians. He wanted to cut his losses but wanted the prime minister to take the blame. He deferred to the prime minister on any decision to withdraw.

More compelling was his action to ensure Zinni met with the prime minister, whose office was stonewalling us for some reason. We met with the prime minister the next morning and after playing coy for a while, he suddenly agreed to withdraw. We were not sure we had heard him right when we left. I figured out later the reason he agreed so readily – the Pakistanis believed their back-channel dialogue with the Indians had succeeded and that there would be an agreement with India on a ceasefire and withdrawal. It turned out that that was wrong. The PM was supposed to stop in Delhi to sign it on the way to Beijing, but he did not, and when he came back from Beijing he made the famous call to President Clinton to get whatever political cover he could before pulling out.

The Article First Appeared Here

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