Back from nuclear brink

DURING the first week in June 1999, just as Milosevic was acceding to Nato’s demands over Kosovo, President Clinton turned his own attention to India and Pakistan. In letters to Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee, the president went beyond the studied neutrality that both prime ministers were expecting - in Pakistan’s case with hope, and in India’s with trepidation.

By Strobe Talbott

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Published: Thu 16 Sep 2004, 8:59 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:59 AM

Clinton made Pakistan’s withdrawal from Kargil a precondition for a settlement and the price it must pay for the US diplomatic involvement it had long sought. Clinton followed up with phone calls to the two leaders in mid-June emphasising this point.

The US condemned "infiltration of armed intruders" and went public with information that most of the seven hundred men who had crossed the Line of Control were attached to the Pakistani Army. In late June Clinton called Sharif to stress that the US saw Pakistan as the aggressor. The administration let it be known that if Sharif did not order a pullback, we would hold up a $100 million International Monetary Fund loan that Pakistan sorely needed.

On Friday, July 2, Sharif phoned Clinton and pleaded for his personal intervention in South Asia. Clinton replied that he would consider it only if it was understood up-front that Pakistani withdrawal would have to be immediate and unconditional.

The next day Sharif called Clinton to say that he was packing his bags and getting ready to fly immediately to Washington. He warned Sharif not to come unless he was prepared to announce unconditional withdrawal; otherwise, his trip would make a bad situation worse. The Pakistani leader just said he was on his way.

"This guy’s coming literally on a wing and a prayer," said the president. It was not hard to anticipate what Sharif would ask for. His opening proposal would be a cease-fire to be followed by negotiations under American auspices.

After several long meetings in Sandy Berger’s office, we decided to recommend that Clinton confront Sharif with a stark choice that included neither of his preferred options. We would put before him two Press statements and let Sharif decide which would be released at the end of the talks. The first would hail him as a peacemaker for retreating -- or, as we would put it euphemistically, "restoring and respecting the sanctity of the Line of Control." The second would blame him for starting the crisis and for the escalation sure to follow his failed mission to Washington.

On the eve of Sharif’s arrival, we learned that Pakistan might be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment. When Clinton assembled his advisers in the Oval Office for a last minute huddle, Sandy told him that overnight we had gotten more disturbing reports of nuclear arsenal being readied. Sandy told the president that he was heading into what would probably be the single most important meeting with a foreign leader of his entire presidency. It would also be one of the most delicate. The overriding objective was to induce Pakistani withdrawal. But another goal was to increase the chances of Sharif’s political survival. We had to find a way to provide Sharif just enough cover to go home and give the necessary orders to Musharraf and the military.

The conversation had already convinced Clinton of what he feared: the world was closer even than during the Cuban missile crisis to a nuclear war. Unlike Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1962, Vajpayee and Sharif did not realise how close they were to the brink, so there was an even greater risk that they would blindly stumble across it.

Adding to the danger was evidence that Sharif neither knew everything his military high command was doing nor had complete control over it. When Clinton asked him if he understood how far along his military was in preparing nuclear-armed missiles for possible use in a war against India, Sharif was genuinely surprised. Clinton decided to invoke the Cuban missile crisis. Now India and Pakistan were similarly on the edge of a precipice. If even one bomb were used — Sharif finished the sentence: "… it would be a catastrophe."

[Clinton] returned to the offensive. He could see they were getting nowhere. Fearing that might be the result, he had a statement ready to release to the Press in time for the evening news shows that would lay all the blame for the crisis on Pakistan. Sharif went ashen. Clinton bore down harder. Having listened to Sharif’s complaints against the US, he had a list of his own, and it started with Taleban — the then key ally of Islamabad — which allowed Osama bin Laden to run his worldwide network out of Afghanistan. The statement the US would make to the Press would mention Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorism in Afghanistan — and, through its backing of Kashmiri militants, in India as well. Was that what Sharif wanted?

Clinton had worked himself back into real anger -- his face flushed, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, cheek muscles pulsing, fists clenched. He said it was crazy enough for Sharif to have let his military violate the Line of Control, start a border war with India, and now prepare nuclear forces for action. On top of that, he had put Clinton in the middle of the mess and set him up for a diplomatic failure.

Sharif seemed beaten, physically and emotionally. He denied he had given any orders with regard to nuclear weaponry and said he was worried for his life. When the two leaders had been at it for an hour and a half, Clinton suggested a break so that both could consult with their teams. The president and Bruce briefed Sandy, Rick, and me on what had happened. Now that he had made maximum use of the ‘bad statement’ we had prepared in advance, Clinton said, it was time to deploy the good one. Clinton took a cat nap on a sofa in a small study off the main entryway while Bruce, Sandy, Rick, and I cobbled together a new version of the ‘good statement,’ incorporating some of the Pakistani language from the paper that Sharif had claimed was in play between him and Vajpayee. But the key sentence in the new document was ours, not his, and it would nail the one thing we had to get out of the talks: "The prime minister has agreed to take concrete and immediate steps for the restoration of the Line of Control." The papers called for a cease-fire but only after the Pakistanis were back on their side of the line. It reaffirmed Clinton’s longstanding plan to visit South Asia.

The meeting came quickly to a happy and friendly end, at least on Clinton’s part.

Adapted from former US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb (Brookings Institution Press).

©Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

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