‘Nawaz Sharif was unaware of Pakistan army’s infiltration of Kargil’
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and several senior officials, including Pakistan Army generals, were unaware of the military operation to occupy strategic heights in the Kargil sector of the Line of Control in 1999, according to a new book by a leading journalist.
Nasim Zehra’s From Kargil To The Coup, launched this week in Islamabad, adds to the long-standing debate on just how much the three-time premier knew about the operation launched by then army chief Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in a coup months after India repulsed the Pakistani intruders.
The book says Sharif was presented with Kargil as a fait accompli much later when he confronted Musharraf to explain what was happening.
It was on January 16, 1999 that the operation was formally approved in the military operations directorate. By that time, Zehra writes, Pakistani troops had infiltrated almost seven kilometres into Indian territory from seven directions. This meeting of key generals took place less than five weeks before the historic Lahore Declaration on improving relations between Sharif and his then Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Zehra writes that Musharraf and his colleagues isolated themselves and made some tactical errors. They underestimated the response from India and the international community. After initial successes, there were reverses, and it was only in May 1999 that Musharraf and his generals took the civilian leadership into confidence. By that time, the Indian side had detected signs of the operation.
The main Pakistani players have offered widely differing accounts of the operation. Sharif has contended for long that he knew nothing of the operation and only learnt of it from Vajpayee. In 2006, Musharraf dismissed this claim and even provided pictorial evidence that Sharif had been briefed on the plan during a visit to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to the south of Kargil on February 5, 1999.
In the new book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI And The Illusion Of Peace, former ISI chief Asad Durrani says Sharif “knew a bit, not the whole thing” about the Kargil operation “but he had given the go-ahead”.
Zehra’s book finally gives Pakistani readers an alternate point on a conflict of which they had little information to go on. Till now, much of the Pakistani version was a sanitised account of what happened in Kargil. She brings out the nitty gritty, peppering her information with anecdotes and memorable quotes by the key players. She also links the blunders in Kargil to the eventual exit of Sharif as prime minister in 1999.
Zehra, a national security analyst, interviewed a wide range of personalities for the book, including the main players in the conflict from the Pakistani side such as a number of senior serving and retired military officers, diplomats, government officials and politicians. This is possibly the most extensive research done on Kargil on the Pakistani side.
There are also interviews with Indian diplomats and politicians and a sprinkling of US diplomats and other relevant officials.
The result of this research is a book that gives a blow-by-blow account of Operation Koh Paima (Operation KP), the code name for the offensive in Kargil.
By the end of June 1999, Pakistani troops occupying ridges in Kargil-Drass sector were at a dead end. The Kargil clique, writes Zehra, had no plans for them when Indian troops struck back ferociously. By July, fully aware of the situation, Sharif started talking of a withdrawal.
By July 4, despite a meeting at the airport with Musharraf who insisted the Pakistani troops were holding their positions, Sharif left for the US for a meeting with then president Clinton to end the conflict.
Ironically, it was Sharif who took the heat for the Kargil misadventure. While Musharraf publicly supported Sharif’s visit to the US, Zehra writes a backlash started in Pakistan on the decision to withdraw at the insistence of the US. Some quarters were keen to use this opportunity to oust Sharif but this didn’t happen as he fought back with an address to the nation on July 12.
Zehra writes Musharraf did not have much smooth sailing as the officer corps was angry and upset. Stories of the treatment of soldiers and officers who went to Kargil had filtered through. Their unpreparedness and the manner in which they reached a dead end with no exit plan angered many. Others were upset at how Musharraf had let Sharif agree to a withdrawal.
It was this tension that led to a breakdown in relations between Sharif and Musharraf. By the time Sharif decided to sack Musharraf, it was too late. The scapegoat for the army would be Sharif and not Musharraf. Sharif was unwilling to decorate the heroes of Kargil and insistent on repairing ties with India.
By September 1999, Shehbaz Sharif was in Washington, warning his American hosts of a possible military takeover. By October, the stage was set for the sacking of Musharraf. A fascinating part of the book is the manner in which Sharif, without taking into confidence his closest advisors, announced the dismissal of Musharraf on state-run television.
The book also delves into history – how in the past successive governments had looked at Kargil, including some planning under General Zia-ul-Haq that was abandoned on the grounds of the futility of the exercise unless Pakistan was prepared to mount a supporting offensive across the boundary in Sialkot.
It was in 1989 that Pakistani attention turned again to Kashmir, when the ISI began deploying its Afghan-trained jihadis. The ISI revived the Kargil plan and took it to then army chief Gen Jahangir Karamat, who was not enthusiastic about it. But it caught the fancy of another officer, Lt General Aziz Khan, who later became one of the main players.
Following the nuclear tests of 1998, Pakistan and India were nudged closer by international pressure. In the background, Sharif was fighting his own battles with the military. From being an outsider in the country’s foreign policy decisions, Sharif was pushing the boundaries.
His battle of wills led to the resignation of Karamat but then Sharif appointed Musharraf, by then part of what Zehra describes as the “Kargil clique”, as the army chief. By November 1998, two policy approaches towards India were in play. The elected government opted for dialogue while a small group of generals surreptitiously set off on the path of covert war.