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July 4, 1999: Clinton, Nawaz, Vajpayee and a N-war

May 17, 2002

The Indian Express

July 4, 1999: Clinton, Nawaz, Vajpayee and a N-war
By Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel, a director on the Bill Clinton administration's National Security Council, described July 4, '99, as the day the former US President performed ‘one of the most sensitive diplomatic high wire acts of any administration'. Clinton's feat: persuading then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pull back Pakistani backed fighters from Kargil and preventing a nuclear confrontation with India.

Riedel rewound to those nerve racking days in a paper titled American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House, prepared for the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. Exclusive excerpts, in two parts.

July 4th, 1999 was probably the most unusual July 4th in American diplomatic history, certainly among the most eventful. President Clinton engaged in one of the most sensitive diplomatic high wire acts of any administration, successfully persuading Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pull back Pakistani backed fighters from a confrontation with India that could threaten to escalate into a nuclear war between the world's two newest nuclear powers.

As the President's Special Assistant for Near Eastern and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council I had the honor of a unique seat at the table and the privilege of being a key adviser for the day's events.

Kargil and Kashmir

For fifty years Pakistan and India have quarreled over the fate of Kashmir. Since the early 1990s it has been particularly violent with almost daily firefights along the Line of Control (LOC) that divides the state and within the valley between the Indian security forces and the Muslim insurgency.

In the spring of 1999 the Pakistanis sought to gain a strategic advantage in the northern front of the LOC in Kargil. Traditionally the Indian and Pakistani armies had withdrawn each fall from their most advanced positions in the mountains to avoid the difficulties of manning them during the winter and then returned to them in the spring. The two armies respected each other's deployment pattern and did not try to take advantage of this seasonal change.

In the winter of 1999, however, Pakistani backed Kashmir militants and regular army units moved early into evacuated positions of the Indians, cheating on the tradition. The Pakistani backed forces thus gained a significant tactical advantage over the only ground supply route Indian forces can use to bring in supplies to the most remote eastern third of Kashmir.

What was all the more alarming for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's hard-line Bharatiya Janata Party government was that the Pakistani military incursion came after the Prime Minister had made a bold effort in early 1999 at reconciliation with Pakistan by traveling by bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore for a summit with Sharif.

The spirit of Lahore was intended to be the mechanism for breaking the two giants of south Asia out of their half century of violence and fear. Instead, the Indians felt betrayed, deceived and misled by Sharif and were determined to recover their lost territory.

By late May and early June 1999 a serious military conflict was underway along a 150-kilometer front in the mountains above Kargil, including furious artillery clashes, air battles and costly infantry assaults by Indian troops against well dug in Pakistani forces. Pakistan denied its troops were involved, claiming that only Kashmiri militants were doing the fighting — a claim not taken seriously anywhere.

The situation was further clouded because it was not altogether clear who was calling the shots in Islamabad. Prime Minister Sharif had seemed genuinely interested in pursuing the Lahore process when he met with Vajpayee and he had argued eloquently with a series of American guests, including U.S.UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, that he wanted an end to the fifty year old quarrel with India.

His military chief, General Pervez Musharraf, seemed to be in a different mold. He was said to be a hardliner on Kashmir, a man some feared was determined to humble India once and for all. We will probably never know for sure the exact calculus of decision making in Islamabad. What is clear is that the civil-military dynamic between Sharif in Islamabad and Musharraf in Rawalpindi was confused and tense.

The United States was alarmed from the beginning of the conflict because of its potential for escalation. We could all too easily imagine the two parties beginning to mobilize for war, seeking third party support (Pakistan from China and the Arabs, India from Russia and Israel) and a deadly descent into full scale conflict with a danger of nuclear cataclysm.

Since the surprise Indian tests in May 1998 the danger of a nuclear exchange had dominated American nightmares about South Asia. Clinton had spent days trying to argue Sharif out of testing in response and had offered him everything from a State dinner to billions in new U.S. assistance. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Central Command chief General Tony Zinni, Assistant Secretary for South Asia Rick Inderfurth and I had traveled to Islamabad to try to persuade him, but all to no avail. Sharif had gone forward with his own tests citing as a flimsy excuse an alleged Israel plot to destroy Pakistan's nuclear facilities in collusion with India. (I had the Israeli Chief of Staff deny categorically to the Pakistani Ambassador in Washington any such plan the night before the tests but that fact mattered little to Islamabad).

Given these consequences, the U.S. was quick to make known our view that Pakistan should withdraw its forces back behind the Line of Control immediately. At first Rick Inderfurth and Undersecretary Thomas Pickering conveyed this view privately to the Pakistani and Indian ambassadors in Washington in late May. Secretary Albright then called Sharif two days later and General Tony Zinni, who had a very close relationship with his Pakistani counterparts, also called Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf.

These messages did not work. So we went public and called upon Pakistan to respect the LOC. I laid out our position in an on the record interview at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. The President then called both leaders in mid-June and sent letters to each pressing for a Pakistani withdrawal and Indian restraint.

The Pakistanis and Indians were both surprised by the U.S. position: Pakistan because Islamabad assumed the US. would always back them against India and India because they could not believe the U.S. would judge the crisis on its merits, rather than side automatically with its long time Pakistani ally. Both protagonists were rooted in the history of their conflict and astounded that the U.S. was not bound by the past.

Nawaz calls for help

By late June the situation was deteriorating fast. The two parties were engaged in an intense conflict along the Kargil front. The danger was that the Indians would grow weary of attacking uphill into well dug in Pakistani positions. New Delhi could easily decide to open another front along the LOC to ease its burden and force the Pakistanis to fight on territory favorable to India.

Sharif became increasingly desperate as he saw how isolated Pakistan was in the world. He urgently requested American intervention to stop the Indian counterattack. Washington was clear — the solution required a Pakistani withdrawal behind the LOC, nothing else would do. In the last days of June Sharif began to ask to see President Clinton directly to plead his case. Sharif had met the President several times earlier, in New York and Washington and at the funeral of King Hussein in Amman.

They had also spoken extensively in the spring of 1998 when the President had pleaded with Sharif not to follow India's example and test its nuclear weapons. Although that effort failed, the two leaders had developed a genuine personal bond and felt comfortable talking to each other.

On the 2nd of July the Prime Minister put in a call to the President.

He appealed for American intervention immediately to stop the fighting and to resolve the Kashmir issue. The President was very clear — he would help only if Pakistan withdrew to the LOC. The President consulted with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee on the phone. The Indians were adamant — withdrawal to the LOC was essential, Vajpayee would not negotiate under the threat of aggression.

The President sought to reassure Vajpayee that we would not countenance Pakistani aggression, not reward them for violating the LOC and that we stood by our commitment to the Lahore process, i.e. direct talks between India and Pakistan were the only solution to Kashmir, not third party intervention.

On the 3rd, Sharif was more desperate and told the President he was ready to come immediately to Washington. The President repeated his caution — come only if you are ready to withdraw, I can't help you if you are not ready to pull back. He urged Sharif to consider carefully the wisdom of a trip to Washington. Sharif said he would be there on the 4th.

The White House and State Department spent much of the rest of the 3rd preparing. Logistics were one problem. Blair House had to be made available for the Pakistanis and the Secret Service needed to secure Pennsylvania Avenue. A small group also prepared for the substance of the encounter. I led the effort at the NSC to prepare the President, National Security Advisor Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger and Chief of Staff John Podesta. The State effort was led by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the senior point man on South Asian issues in the Department and Karl (Rick) Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs at State.

Strobe, Rick and I had already logged many hours traveling to South Asia to work to advance the President's agenda of improving our relations with this too long neglected part of the world. The product of this work was two pieces of paper. The first was a draft statement the President would issue if Sharif agreed to pulling back his forces to the LOC, the second a statement which would be used if Sharif refused. The latter would make clear that the blame for the crisis in South Asia lay solely with Pakistan.

More information developed about the escalating situation — disturbing evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment. Sharif's intentions also became clearer. He was bringing his wife and children with him to Washington, a possible indication that he was afraid he might not be able to go home if the summit failed or that the military was telling him to leave.

Sharif would be met at Dulles Airport, where his commercial PIA flight was being diverted to from JFK, by the Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar had a long history of helping assist key American diplomatic initiatives and also had worked with Pakistan extensively in the past during the Afghan war against the Soviets. Bandar promised to weigh in forcefully with Sharif on the ride from Dulles to Blair House, and he secured Crown Prince Abdallah's support for our position. British Prime Minister Blair also contacted Sharif to weigh in as well on the need for withdrawal. Other governments, including Pakistan's ally China, shared these concerns as well and we asked Beijing to weigh in with Islamabad.

Tomorrow: Clinton loses his cool

(Courtesy the Center for the Advanced Study of India)

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