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Clinton warned Sharif of dangers of going to war with India: excerpts from Srinath Raghavan’s book

Read excerpts of Srinath Raghavan’s latest book, The Most Dangerous Place, which details the history of US’ engagement with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

books Updated: Jun 09, 2018 14:38 IST
HT correspondent
Soldiers take position during the Kargil war.
Soldiers take position during the Kargil war.(HT Archive)

Srinath Raghavan’s latest book, The Most Dangerous Place, details the history of US involvement in South Asia, discussing its engagement with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It looks at how the US has been a crucial player in regional affairs even as South Asia experienced tumultuous changes. Excerpts: 

On the Kashmir crisis

In early 1990, New Delhi accused Pakistan of arming and training Kashmiri militants to wage a covert war against India. Islamabad shot back that it was merely providing diplomatic and moral support for ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir. The Pakistan Army also undertook a large-scale military exercise close to the border with India. Very like India’s Exercise Brasstacks, Zarb-i-Momin was aimed at once at testing Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities and sending a deterrent message to India against flexing its muscles in response to the escalating insurgency in Kashmir. The Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had been in power for just about a year and had limited say on strategic matters. After conferring with the army chief and the President of Pakistan, Bhutto sent a senior diplomat, Yaqub Khan, to convey a tough message to India. In his meetings with the Indian foreign minister and prime minister, Yaqub spoke bluntly of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and elliptically about ‘clouds roaring with thunder’ and ‘lightning in the skies’.

The Indians were unsure if this was a veiled nuclear threat, but they took it seriously. Prime Minister V.P. Singh made it clear that ‘India would have to review its peaceful nuclear policy if Pakistan employed its nuclear power for military purposes’. Indian intelligence suggested that Pakistan was planning a surprise attack in northern Punjab to sever the lines of communication on the Indian side and a declaration of independence by Kashmiri insurgents that would provide a pretext for the Pakistan Army to attack the Valley. In consequence, some Indian Army formations were mobilized. On 13 March 1990, Bhutto added fat to fire when she travelled to Pakistani Kashmir and vowed a ‘thousand-year war’ in support of the insurgents. While the statement may have been designed to shore up her domestic standing, it was taken gravely by the Indians. Prime Minister Singh responded in Parliament: ‘I warn them that those who talk about 1,000 years of war should examine whether they will last 1,000 hours of war.’ Warning the Pakistanis that ‘such a misadventure would not be without cost’, he exhorted Indians to be ‘psychologically prepared for war’.

Since the CIA remained concerned about the potential for nuclear use in the event of war, the Bush administration decided in mid-May to send Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates to South Asia. Arriving in Islamabad on 20 May, Gates met the Pakistani President and army chief. Bhutto was out of the country. Gates warned the Pakistanis that if a war broke out, it would not remain confined to Kashmir. The Americans had war-gamed every such scenario and were sure that Pakistan would end up losing the war. What is more, in the event of war, Islamabad could not expect any support or assistance from Washington. Gates urged Pakistan to refrain from supporting terrorism in Kashmir, tone down its rhetoric, and work towards confidence-building measures with India. The United States was willing to help such a process by technically verifying that both sides had pulled back their troops. In New Delhi, Gates relayed a similar message, telling the Indians to back off from the brink and adding that the Pakistanis would shut down the terrorist training camps. Although the Pakistanis had held out no such specific assurances, Gates took it that they would fall in line with the American warning. The Indians, however, insisted that until Pakistan turned off support for the insurgents, they could not initiate talks. Nevertheless, in the wake of the Gates mission, both countries took unilateral steps to defuse the crisis.

On Kargil

In the winter of 1998-99, Pakistani forces crept across the northern portion of the LoC and occupied the Indian Army’s positions in the Kargil area. Hitherto, both sides used to vacate these high-altitude posts in winter to avoid unnecessary casualties owing to the weather, and returned to them in spring. By pre-emptively occupying these posts, the Pakistan Army sought to gain a commanding position overlooking the key Indian lines of communication in northern Kashmir and to credibly threaten Indian control of these parts. A secondary objective was to give a boost to the insurgency in Kashmir and to set the stage for international intervention on the Kashmir dispute. The operation was conceived by the new Pakistan army chief, General Pervez Musharraf. It was (and remains) unclear to what extent Sharif knew and approved of these plans.

Washington watched the conflict with mounting alarm. The Clinton administration’s major concern was that India would strike across the LoC. Such a move could have incalculable consequences, including the involvement of third countries: China and the Arab states on Pakistan’s side, and Russia and Israel on India’s. It could also lead to an all-out war with the danger of a nuclear exchange.

On 3 July, as Sharif flew to Washington, American intelligence found evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing the nuclear arsenal for possible deployment. Clinton’s officials, Talbot recalled, had ‘a sense of vast and unprecedented peril’. Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis came flooding back. Ahead of the meeting with Sharif, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told the President that the objective was not only to induce a Pakistani withdrawal but also to help Sharif stay on in power. The fact that the prime minister was coming to Washington with his family suggested that he was unsure of his position at home. Talbot added that Clinton must also bear in mind Indian sensitivities. The United States seemed poised to clear decades of mistrust in India about American attitude towards Pakistan.

In their meeting on 4 July, Clinton emphasized that a Pakistani withdrawal could not be linked to an American diplomatic intervention in Kashmir. Sharif insisted that Pakistan would withdraw its forces provided India committed to settling Kashmir within a specific time frame. ‘If I were the Indian prime minister,’ Clinton shot back, ‘I’d never do that.’ In any case, he was unwilling to go down this route. The President warned Sharif of the dangers of sleepwalking into a major war: ‘I genuinely believe you could get into a nuclear war by accident.’ In their one-on-one session, Clinton brought up the Pakistani moves to prepare nuclear-armed missiles for deployment and warned that it could lead to catastrophe. Eventually, Clinton persuaded Sharif to issue a statement on restoring the status quo on the LoC. At Sharif’s insistence, Clinton agreed to add a line that once the sanctity of the LoC had been restored, he would take a personal interest in encouraging a speedy resumption of the dialogue agreed to in Lahore.

By 26 July, the last of the Pakistani intruders had pulled back behind the LoC. Although Clinton was sincere in his assurance to Sharif, he was unable to deliver on his commitment. In October 1999, following a gauche attempt at forestalling a coup, Sharif was deposed by General Musharraf. US-Pakistan relations sank to a new low. So frayed were their ties that the following year Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offered to Musharraf to intercede on his behalf with Clinton.

By contrast, the United States’ relations with India broke through to previously untouched heights of trust and goodwill. Clinton was now raring to undertake his long-planned visit to the subcontinent. At the end of October 1999, he waived many of the sanctions against India while retaining more on Pakistan. The administration sought to demonstrate that it wished to deepen relations with democratic, though nuclear-armed, India while going slow with Pakistan’s military dictator.

On Indira’s 1980 win

The victory of Indira Gandhi in the Indian general elections of mid-January 1980 did not appear to portend well for Washington’s relationship with New Delhi. The upswing in ties under Desai was not expected to continue under Indira Gandhi. ‘Mrs. Gandhi is winning in India,’ (Jimmy) Carter noted in his diary. ‘I’ll try to be friends with her, but I think she’s inclined toward the Soviets.’ American diplomats in the region were equally sceptical, underlining the gulf between ‘US global and Indian regional preoccupations and the impediments posed by our differing historical experiences’. The accuracy of this analysis was matched by the weary realism of officials in the State Department. ‘US-India relations,’ wrote Harold Saunders to Christopher, ‘do not prosper in a Cold War environment when the natural inclination of the Indian leadership to tilt toward the Soviet Union is more offensive to us and injurious to our interests.’ This situation was ‘compounded by Mrs. Gandhi’s return to power with her long held suspicions of US policies and motives’.

Indira Gandhi’s victory in the general elections in 1980 made American diplomats sceptical, says the new book. (HT Archive)

Quoting the great British climber Leigh Mallory, who famously said he wanted to scale the Everest because it was there, Saunders added, ‘we want satisfactory relations with India because “it is there”: 650 million strong with considerable military power, relative stability under democratic institutions, and a substantial industrial and resource base’.

Mrs Gandhi’s own concern was about the possibility of the United States offering massive military aid to Pakistan, including F-16s... When the F-16s deal was formally announced in June 1981, the Indian government reacted with a familiar blast of complaint and criticism about American policy spurring an arms race in South Asia. Washington responded coldly: ‘Our aid to Pakistan is not aimed at India. The USA is not fuelling an arms race.’ This set the tone for periodic wrangling for the remainder of the decade.