Colombo, July 9: It was 19 years ago, on July 26, 1999, that the two-month long Pakistan-India war over Kargil in Kashmir ended, after claiming the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers on both sides.
In many ways, the Kargil war (May-July 1999) was a milestone in the history of India-Pakistan relations. It was the first war in which the two countries faced each other as nuclear powers, both having successfully conducted nuclear tests in the late 1990s setting off alarm bells in the US, the world’s only superpower at that time.
But most importantly, the war resulted in cataclysmic political changes in Pakistan from which it took almost a decade to recover.
After the war ended in the complete withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Indian territory, the civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sacked Army Chief Gen.Pervez Musharraf. But Musharraf in turn sacked Sharif and ushered in era of direct and indirect military rule which could be thrown off only in 2008 by a long and hard peoples’ struggle.
The war alienated the US so much that President Bill Clinton told Sharif that if he did not withdraw his troops from Indian territory, the US would begin to openly support India on the Kashmir issue. According to The Clinton Tapes, A President’s Secret Diary by Taylor Branch, Sharif told Clinton that if he ordered withdrawal, Musharraf would overthrow him. But Clinton told him bluntly that it was Sharif’s problem not his.
For Sharif, the choice was between the devil (a full scale disastrous war with India) and the deep sea (being overthrown and imprisoned for treason by Musharraf).
Musharraf’s Unilateral Action
Army Chief Musharraf, who believed that a state of war with India was “eternal” had secretly launched the Kargil operations without informing Prime Minister Sharif and the cabinet. He had decided to fight the war with the army’s own financial resources.
Musharraf’s strategy was: occupy posts in the mountains of Kargil overlooking a key road linking Indian Kashmir’s capital Srinagar with Leh in Ladakh; send Jehadi insurgents into Ladakh; attack and destroy Indian troops rushing to tackle the insurgency in Ladakh; and lastly provide logistic support to an insurgency in all parts of Kashmir. He believed that the Indians would be unable to oust the Pakistanis from their hill top posts, and would sue for peace to settle the Kashmir question in favor of Pakistan.
Musharraf did not keep Sharif in the loop because he feared that the Prime Minister would not like to go for a military confrontation with India in view of the February 1999 peace pact with Indian Prime Minister A.B.Vajpayee called the “Lahore Declaration”.
Musharraf Lied To Get Sharif’s Consent
When Musharraf did tell Sharif about the Kargil operation on May 17, the impression he gave was that pro-freedom insurgents (the Mujahideen) had entered Kashmir to help local Kashmiri separatists to step up their campaign. Sharif later told India Today that he assented to the operation because it was to be conducted only by insurgents, with the Pakistani army giving only logistic support without entering India.
It was Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee who first told him that the attackers were Pakistani regular army troops and asked him to pull the troops back, to prevent Indian counter measures. But Sharif said his troops had not crossed the Line of Control (LoC).
However, as Nasim Zehra points out in her book: From Kargil To The Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan’, while Sharif seemed to no views, there were many in the Pakistan Establishment who openly criticized the move or raised doubts about the operation.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)’ s point man for Afghanistan and Kashmir, Lt. Gen Gulzar told Sharif about the limitations of the Mujahideen and revealed that the Mujahideen were not present in the area of operation as claimed by Musharaff. Later, Gulzar branded the operation as “a blunder of Himalayan proportions.”
Likewise, the head of the ISI’s analysis wing, Maj Gen Shahid Aziz, later wrote that the operation was an ‘unsound military plan based on invalid assumptions, launched with little preparation, and in total disregard to the regional and international environment.”
According to Zehra, Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz expressed reservations on two counts: one, that it was incongruent with the spirit of the Lahore Declaration, and, two, that the US would not support the operation. Sharif’s Minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas, Majeed Malik, a former General, asked “What if the Indians do not remove their troops from the valley and instead induct air power in the conflict theatre?”
The Air Force and the Navy Chiefs had complained that they had not been consulted.
Defense Secretary, Lt.Gen (rtd) Iftikhar Ali Khan, said that the operation “would either end in all-out war or a total military disaster for Pakistan.” He pointed that the army should not carry out operations without prior approval from the government
He later confronted Sharif and asked him two questions: Did the military leadership get his permission to cross the Line of Control (LoC) which is the border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir? And whether crossing the LoC would mean war with India.
The Prime Minister in turn asked him whether the army had actually crossed the LoC. Khan. Khan replied in the affirmative and added that no insurgents were involved in the crossing. On the possibility of war with India, Sharif blithely said that war was ruled out as neither side had crossed the LoC!
Sharif had swallowed, hook, line and sinker, Musharraf’s claim that only insurgents had crossed.
In another meeting, Defense Secretary warned that escalation would be inevitable as the “Indians would not take it lying down.” A few “paper tigers” had started the Kargil adventure without consulting anyone, he complained.
Zehra recalls that Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz said that his Ministry had no clue about the operation. The Minister for Kashmir Affairs, Majeed Malik, said he was shocked that he had not been taken into confidence.
Foreign Office Skeptical
Senior Foreign Office officials in the meeting warned that this operation would be indefensible on global forums. Additional Secretary UN, Riaz Mohammad Khan, categorically stated, “If it comes to the UN Security Council, our position will be undercut. The Chinese along with other UNSC members would simply ask Pakistan to respect the LoC and vacate the areas occupied across the LoC in Indian Occupied Kashmir,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad expressed concern regarding the possible expansion of the conflict and told the participants: “I cannot guarantee that India will not attack on the international borders.”
Ahmad cautioned the army against repeating the miscalculation made prior to the 1965 Operation Gibraltar, when the key military and civilian officials had guaranteed that India would not retaliate across the international border.
Sharif himself asked no tough questions. On this Zehra says: “He wanted a resolution of the Kashmir issue and appeared convinced that Op KP (the code for the war ) would advance that objective.”
And Sharif could well have been an accomplice in Musharraf’s plan. Zehra recalls that in March, a month after the summit with Vajpayee in Lahore, Sharif had approved an ISI-convened meeting to “upgrade the freedom movement in Kashmir.”
A confident Musharraf met all the concerns saying: “We can defend every inch of our territory.” And at any rate, ‘war with India is eternal”.
After this, Sharif asked Musharraf if the army had indeed crossed the LoC and if so if he had taken permission for it.
Musharraf’s Fake Humility Worked
Mushrraf admitted that the army had crossed the LoC and that he ordered it on his own volition. But he humbly offered to withdraw from all captured areas if ordered to do so.
Musharraf’s fake humility worked. Sharif announced that the army is part of the government and that its actions must be approved.
But by the end of June it was clear that the Indians were driving the Pakistani intruders out and that Islamabad ought to seek American help to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.
Sharif told India Today that Musharraf kept pressing him to go to the US and meet President Clinton to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf. But that meeting too was a disaster.