On this day 25 years ago — May 21, 1990 — Robert M Gates, then President George H W Bush’s Deputy NSA, flew out of New Delhi after a two-day trip that had followed a similar flying visit to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, Gates had met President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg. In India, he met with all top officials of the V P Singh government, which had then been in office for about six months. While in Pakistan, Gates could not meet Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
In mid-March 1990, Bhutto, during a visit to PoK, had announced that Pakistan was prepared for “one thousand years of war with Hindu India” to free Kashmir. This was a tense time in India-Pakistan relations. Kashmir was on fire, the new home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya having been kidnapped and released by militants only a couple of months earlier. Prime Minister V P Singh’s National Front government was shaky, dependent on outside support from the Left and BJP for survival.
The prime minister responded to Bhutto in Lok Sabha on April 10: “I warn them [that] those who talk of a thousand years of war should examine whether they will last [for] a thousand hours of war.” Soon afterward, during a speech to troops in Sriganganagar, he said India was in the process of initiating military measures against Pakistan.
India had by then deployed paramilitary forces and reserve Army units to Kashmir. India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, J N Dixit, was called into the Foreign Office in Pakistan for an explanation.
Until here, the facts are indisputable. What happened thereafter — leading to Gates’s visit to the subcontinent — is foggy. There are three broad narratives — the American, Pakistani and Indian versions.
The American version was put forth by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in a March 1993 piece in The New Yorker. It said tensions between India and Pakistan had escalated so much that nuclear strikes were considered. India moved its strike military formations to the Rajasthan border, and the Pakistanis began a counter-mobilisation. The Pentagon, Hersh wrote, had evidence that Islamabad was preparing to deploy nukes — this, significantly, was a time when the US President was still certifying under the Pressler Amendment that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device.
The nuclear angle made the Gates mission critical. He secured a promise from Pakistan that it would shut terror training camps, and provided to each country satellite images showing troop positions on the other side. Within two weeks of Gates’s visit, the crisis was over.
Gates, now 72 and retired nearly four years as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense, had said then: “Pakistan and India seemed to be caught in a cycle that they couldn’t break out of. I was convinced that if a war started, it would be nuclear.”
The Pakistani version of events is somewhat different.
According to that narrative, Islamabad got suspicious after a few Indian armoured units did not return from training exercises in Rajasthan, and this led to a cycle of deployment and counter-deployment of forces on both sides. Pakistani intelligence seemed to believe that India and Israel — two countries that did not then have full diplomatic relations with each other — were planning an aerial strike against Dr A Q Khan’s Kahuta Research Laboratory.
To preempt the attack, Gen Beg said, Bhutto “ordered the army and air force to get ready. A squadron of F16s was moved to Mauripur [a base in Karachi] and we pulled out our devices and all to arm the aircraft, [which carried out] movement from Kahuta, movement from other places, which were picked up by the American satellites”.
The US reacted by sending Gates, according to the Pakistani narrative, whom Pakistan used to warn India and stress its resolve to launch a nuclear strike. The mission produced the trend of US presidents sending out an envoy during every subcontinental crisis.
India’s version — articulated by K Subrahmanyam in the 1999 Kargil Review Committee Report — is totally different.
According to this narrative, even though the majority view among officials was that there existed an implied Pakistani nuclear threat, the then Indian foreign secretary, S K Singh, trashed the idea of looming war “as a fairy tale”, and described the standoff as an “elephantine non-crisis”.
A decade later, following the publication of Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman’s The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, Subrahmanyam argued that the Gates mission had neither defused an ongoing crisis nor helped avert an undefined future crisis. According to Indian officials close to the developments then, Gates did not even raise the nuclear issue. Accounts of perceived Indian military preparations having triggered off the crisis are also untrue — the then US ambassador to India, William Clark Jr, has made it clear that the Indian Army had permitted the US defence attache to tour the border areas extensively, making it clear that no forces had been deployed for an impending operation.
If not an India-Pakistan nuclear crisis, what then was the Gates mission about? According to Reed and Stillman, a nuclear weapon test was conducted for Pakistan by China at Lop Nor on May 26, 1990 — a week after Gates visited Pakistan. It was the preparations for this test that presumably led to Gates’s trip to Pakistan. The visit to India and the story of an Indo-Pak crisis were, according to Subrahmanyam, intended to cover up the nuke test carried out by China on Pakistan’s behalf.
In October 1990, President Bush denied certification under the Pressler Amendment to Pakistan, and suspended all US aid to Islamabad. Both India and Pakistan went openly nuclear in 1998. The rest, as they say, is history.
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