Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Bill Clinton (Photo: Getty Images)
President Clinton has gone down in history as the first president of the US to have supported India against Pakistan when he spent his national day of 1999 with Nawaz Sharif, insisting that Pakistan must withdraw from Kargil to its own side of the Line of Control (LoC). He rejected every argument advanced by Pakistan to continue to occupy Kargil until the issue of Jammu and Kashmir was resolved. He did not accept the suggested condition that Clinton should agree to mediate between India and Pakistan.
The new US position surprised both India and Pakistan because Islamabad had thought that the US would always back them and India did not expect the US to judge the issue on merits. The evidence provided by India about the conspiracy to invade Kargil matched with US intelligence, leading to the intervention by Clinton. Once the US position changed, other countries also began demanding that the sanctity of the LoC should be maintained. After a day of grueling negotiations, Sharif had no choice but to agree to withdraw from Kargil and this was an important reason why the war ended a few days later.
There was no doubt, however, that India maintained severe pressure on Pakistan during the war without crossing the LoC. The celebrations of our Kargil victory over Pakistan are more than justified because of the way we responded to the unexpected aggression across the LoC and capture of the strategic Kargil post in Jammu and Kashmir. The aggression had taken place earlier, but it was discovered only after the winter months of 1999. Traditionally, Indian and Pakistani armies withdrew in the autumn from these mountains to avoid the difficulties of manning this inhospitable region in winter. A deployment pattern had emerged, which was respected by both the armies over the years. But in the winter of 1999, the Pakistan militants and army moved into the evacuated Indian positions, thus breaking tradition and trust. Pakistan had gained a certain tactical advantage by threatening the only ground route to take supplies to Ladakh. As the Indian Army geared up to vacate the aggression, we had to fight a battle in Washington to convince the Americans that this was Pakistani aggression.
The erstwhile ambassador to the US, Naresh Chandra, I as his deputy chief and the present ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu had just finished a marathon in the corridors of the Congress and the Senate to heal the wounds of our nuclear tests when Kargil exploded. The dust of the tests had barely settled. But we had no time to lose and we started our padayatra again. The Americans were very nervous about a confrontation between the two new nuclear powers and we received warnings wherever we went that India should refrain from crossing the LoC, even though Pakistan had already done it by stealth. They felt that even the bombing on the Indian side of the LoC was excessive.
The Kargil intrusion was particularly shocking for India as it came close on the heels of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic effort to normalise relations with Pakistan by travelling to Lahore. The spirit of Lahore was supposed to have opened a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations and paved the way for peace. For this reason, India felt betrayed and humiliated by Sharif. By early June 1999, a serious military conflict had erupted in the Kargil sector, including artillery clashes, air battles and infantry assaults by our troops against Pakistani forces, which had dug in well.
The details of Clinton’s conversations recorded by the American side are now in public domain. It appears that the meeting of July 4, 1999 was at the request of Nawaz Sharif. But on the American side, there was considerable alarm about the conflict’s potential escalation. “We could all too easily imagine the two parties beginning to mobilise for war, seeking third party support (Pakistan from China, and India from Russia and Israel) and a deadly descent into full-scale conflict all along the border with a danger of nuclear cataclysm,” according to an official account. Once Sharif realised that Clinton would not embark on a negotiating process, he made a last-ditch effort to gain something out of the military misadventure by his generals, perhaps without his knowledge. Finally, the agreement between Clinton and Sharif was that Sharif had agreed to take concrete and immediate steps for the restoration of the LoC. In return, Sharif got an assurance from Clinton that he would take personal interest to encourage an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts once the sanctity of the LoC had been fully restored, according to official American sources.
Clinton had invited Vajpayee to join the talks, but India did not agree. Clinton however kept informing Vajpayee about the progress in the talks and the latter gave non-committal responses. According to White House sources, “there was no give on the part of Delhi and nothing was asked for.”
The reason for the change of attitude of Clinton to India can be traced back to 1997, when Clinton had taken a clear decision to make relations with India the cornerstone of his policy towards South Asia. He was awaiting an opportunity to return to that track after the setback of the nuclear tests of 1998 and their aftermath. Kargil provided an opportunity for him as Pakistan was patently wrong in crossing the LoC to occupy Kargil. Moreover, the Americans had supported the Lahore process, which was torpedoed by Pakistan with its actions in Kargil. Clinton was also keen to visit India, what he called a missing piece in his political career.
In his autography, Clinton confirms that it was Nawaz Sharif who asked for the meeting on July 4, 1999 as “Sharif was concerned that the situation that Pakistan had created was getting out of control and he hoped to use my good offices not only to resolve the crisis and also help mediate with the Indians on the question of Kashmir itself.” Clinton felt that Sharif had come also to use the pressure from the US to provide himself the cover to order his army to withdraw. In a sense, the meeting benefitted both Clinton and Pakistan to pursue their policies on the subcontinent. But the real winner was India which won a war against Pakistan with the support of the US.