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How Pak's big lie bombed

Read our Foreign Editor Pramit Pal Chaudhuri's column, Wonk's World, every alternate Monday.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2002 17:41 IST

Over the past few days, Islamabad has been taking journalists to a site near the line of control in the Gultari region of Kashmir. Pakistan's claim: This is where Indian warplanes bombed a border post on midnight August 22.

Serious stuff, if the charge was true or the world believed it was.

During peacetime, India and Pakistan spar constantly along their disputed border with artillery and sniper fire. The only time India switched to airpower was during the Kargil war of May 2000. That was a deliberate and successful move to signal to the United States that this was not a normal border incursion.

At a time when both sides have mobilized their armies, an airstrike on Pakistani soil would been a dangerous and irresponsible military escalation by India. Even at the height of the Kargil war, Indian warplanes never crossed the line of control. Yet the world has been remarkably placid about Pakistan's accusations. No alarm bells have been rung. No questions asked. No knuckles rapped.

There's a story as to why.

On July 29 India used airpower to dislodge some Pakistani troops who had set up shop on the Indian side of the line of control. Indian Mirage fighter-bombers fired two, 1000-pound laser-guided missiles. The Pakistanis withdrew, taking their dead and, Indian officials believe, the remains of one missile.

Diplomatic sources in Washington and New Delhi say the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, got on the hooter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell and complained India had bombed Pakistani soil. Powell asked the US embassy in New Delhi to send a stinker to India. There was a frisson of alarm. But it didn't take long for the embassy to report that if anyone deserved a diplomatic demarche, it was Islamabad. End of story.

ARMITAGE'S VISIT

But the drama opened for a second act when US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage dropped by South Asia three weeks later.

On August 23, the night before Armitage arrived in New Delhi, the Pakistan army spokesperson Major General Rashid Qureshi suddenly announced that Indian troops and Mirage fighter-bombers had attacked Pakistani border posts in Gultari. He called the attack "highly escalatory". Which was true – if it had happened.

Armitage arrived in New Delhi the next morning. Through the day, US diplomats worked the telephones asking: what happened at Gultari? In Islamabad, Pakistani diplomats rang up Western embassies to loudly demand they take India to task.

India quickly put together evidence showing nothing of the scale that Pakistan claimed had happened at Gultari, just some normal cross-border shelling. This was shown to US diplomats. Combined with what its own intelligence was providing, Washington was soon convinced India was right – Pakistan was lying through its teeth. "We came to the same conclusion on our own," said a US diplomat afterwards.

Armitage was briefed accordingly the night before his Sunday morning flight to Islamabad. The State Department's number two gave his Pakistani interlocutors a tongue-lashing, warning them against playing make-believe war games in a region with two million loaded guns.

First Published: Sep 03, 2002 12:08 IST