A veiled threat by India to use nuclear weapons or cross the Line of Control to flush out terrorists at the height of the 1999 Kargil war may have nudged then US President Bill Clinton to put pressure on Pakistan to back down.
The revelation has been made in well-known television journalist Barkha Dutt’s book This Unquiet Land – Stories from India’s Fault Lines, to hit the stores on Wednesday.
In a letter to Clinton in the middle of June 1999, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee referred to the Pakisani intruders and said, “One way or the other, we will get them out”.
The letter was delivered by principal secretary and key aide, Brajesh Mishra, to senior US officials in Geneva, where Clinton was addressing an International Labour Organisation meeting. Mishra revealed this to Dutt a few weeks before he passed away.
In the book, Dutt writes the letter never spelt out what options India was considering but the subtext was all bets were off. Mishra told her, “Crossing the LOC was not ruled out, nor was the use of nuclear weapons.”
Had the Americans asked him a direct question, Mishra said he would not have expanded on what it meant but believed the correspondence got Clinton actively involved in the conflict –including personal intervention to pressurize Pakistan to withdraw.
From Geneva, Clinton headed to a G-8 meeting in Cologne. The G-8 countries asked Pakistan to pull its men back behind the LoC. Clinton also sent a top military official, Anthony Zinni, to Pakistan to do some ‘plain-speaking’ with the then military chief, Pervez Musharraf. According to Dutt, Zinni told him “If you don’t pull back, you are going to bring war and nuclear annihilation down on your own country.”
The visit did not yield a breakthrough but less than a fortnight later, Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif was in the White House on the 4th of July – listening to Clinton’s rebuke. Was it the Vajpayee letter, with its implicit threat, that had turned the table?