As India moved its troops to the Pakistan border in December 2001, the US struggled to come to grips with the situation, unable to get a definitive read from its intelligence services.
Consumed by the fear of a nuclear exchange between the neighbours, it clearly didn’t know whether India was only threatening to go to war or it actually meant it.
“The challenge for a policy maker is to interpret the evidence and that was proving to be difficult,” recalled Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor, in “No higher Honor”, her account of her years in Washington DC.
In short, the US didn't know.
The Pentagon, headquarters of its military, and the CIA, the famed intelligence service, relied on second-hand information.
“The Pentagon and the CIA gave very different assessments of the likelihood of war,” wrote Rice. The defense department viewed India’s preparations as “steps any military (including our own) would take, given the circumstances”.
But, it concluded, the “buildup was not necessarily evidence of a formal decision to launch an attack”.
The defense department was merely guessing.
The CIA could do no better. It believed that armed conflict was unavoidable, as India had decided to “punish” Pakistan.
“That was likely the view Islamabad held and wanted us to hold too,” Rice wrote. “The fact is that after years of isolation from India, a country that had viewed the US with suspicion, the CIA was heavily reliant on Pakistani sources in 2001.”
That was not to change quickly either. Rice said this lack of “institutional intelligence” remained the pattern for the rest of her tenure in the Bush administration.
The US had famously missed the 1998 nuclear tests by India and according to recently declassified intelligence documents, the first tests in 1974 also.
But in December 2001, within weeks of the September 11 attacks, the US decided to jump into the South Asian crisis irrespective of what its intelligence services knew or didn’t know.
In her book, Rice said the US strategy was three-fold: Pressure then Pakistan president Musharraf to make a public break with extremism; make sure he didn’t look like he was capitulating to India; and show the US was acting too, freezing the assets of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
In mid-January, the US concluded tentatively the crisis had been averted.
Rice had asked Bush to call then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf to thank them for “preventing tensions from getting out of hand”.
“Are they in hand?” Bush had asked, in a conversation reported by Rice in her book. “No,” Rice said, “but let’s act as if we’re confident that they are.”