A new book by a Pakistani journalist claims that Pakistan and India had a “done deal” through backchannel diplomacy to end the Kargil confrontation at the end of June 1999, a month before it finally wound to a close with the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from their encroachments on the Indian side, and that India backtracked because it was confident that US pressure would force Pakistan to pull back.
Nasim Zehra had reported this “deal” at the time, and it was not denied by the Indian side. Her book From Kargil to The Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan, released in Pakistan last week, contains more details, but is mostly an indictment of a “clique of generals” headed by then Pakistan Army chief Pervez Musharraf, who planned and implemented the Kargil operation in secrecy and autonomously of the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif.
Released days after The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace by two former heads of the Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies caused a backlash in Pakistan against the Pakistani co-author, Lt Gen Asad Durrani (retd), for appearing to endorse the view that Pakistani military had made several wrong decisions, Zehra’s book is a narration of how the military took that country to the brink in Kargil without the Sharif government’s authorisation, and finally pinned the blame on him, claiming that Pakistan would have achieved all the objectives of the operation if only the political leadership hadn’t panicked and succumbed to US pressure.
The book also comes at a time when Sharif, judicially ousted as Prime Minister in 2017 and disqualified for life by the Pakistan Supreme Court, is embroiled in a battle of wits with Pakistan Army, and has been painted as “pro-India” weeks ahead of national elections in which his party remains a powerful contender.
According to Zehra, an influential media voice in Pakistan, though the book may be seen as being “pro-Sharif”, it is also about the former Prime Minister’s naivete back in 1999.
When and whether Sharif got to know about Kargil has always been a question. Zehra is unequivocal that it was sprung on him nearly five months after the generals had begun implementing it, even as he and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had embarked on a diplomatic process with the Lahore Declaration in March 1999.
Zehra writes that when Sharif was finally told about the operation on May 17, 1999, the briefing was vague, and did not reveal that regular troops were involved, or that they had already crossed the LoC. He was told only that the Kashmir “war of liberation” had been “upgraded”, and that the first stage of the five-stage operation — which involved Mujahideen taking positions behind the lines — had been completed. Sharif asked no tough questions, and fell for flattery when told he would go down in history as the “liberator of Kashmir”, the book says..
“My book is about how Kargil derailed a [diplomatic] process [after the Lahore Declaration], that it led to Pakistan losing good strategic ground it had gained after the nculear tests and the Lahore summit, and as it played out, it exposed multiple weaknesses in how Pakistan policy is framed and executed,” Zehra told The Sunday Express from Islamabad. “It is about how the asymmetry of power within is best dealt through competent leadership and institutionalised decision-making.”
In the book, Zehra details how, when India responded with force that Musharraf had failed to foresee, he wanted Sharif to pull the Pakistan Army’s chestnuts out of the fire. The Prime Minister ended up doing with US help, in the process taking the national rap for calling off a “successful” operation. In fact, Zehra says, the July 4 statement after Sharif’s meeting with Bill Clinton in Washington announcing that Pakistan had agreed to withdraw, was a relief to the Pakistani troops on the ground. “We said a two rakaat prayer of gratitude to Allah,” Zehra quotes a Pakistani major as saying.
“Contrary to the allegations made against [Sharif ] that he had bartered away in Washington the military victory that the troops were winning in Kargil, [he] bought to a rapid close costly military, diplomatic and political losses…,” says the book.
In Zehra’s telling, in June 1999, after a flurry of visits by India’s backchannel envoy R K Mishra, Sharif’s backchannel envoy Niaz Naik visited New Delhi on June 27 and finalised an agreement under which “both sides” would respect the LoC determined by the 1972 Simla Agreement, military officers from both sides would meet for the purpose; both leaders would reiterate their commitment to the Lahore Declaration, and find a solution to Kashmir and other unresolved issues within a specified timeframe — “the two Prime Ministers had arrived at the conclusion that it could be done in 10 months”.
Sharif was to cut short a planned five-day visit to Beijing starting June 27, and stop over in New Delhi. On his way to Beijing, he was to issue a goodwill messsage to Vajpayee while over Indian airspace, and Vajpayee was to reciprocate. According to the book, the Indian PM asked Naik, who was leaving for Islamabad the same day, to return to Delhi on June 28 to prepare for Sharif’s visit. Naik returned to Islamabad with the message “All on board”.
According to the book, an understanding had been reached about the points of an agreement that would be signed in Delhi between Sharif and Vajpayee. All other modalities, including Sharif’s flight over, and into Delhi, the contents of their respective goodwill messages, and the joint statement, too had been worked out.
The Pakistani side prepared Sharif’s message and faxed it at 5 pm, and waited for New Delhi to fax Vajpayee’s meesage.
“The message came at 10 pm, and it was a bombshell,” Zehra writes. Vajpayee was not inviting Sharif to Delhi, instead he was asking Pakistan to withdraw the intruders from Kargil so that bilateral dialogue could be resumed.
According to the book, Vajpayee also called Sharif right before his message was faxed over.
“I’m very happy, it’s good news,” Sharif said. But Vajpayee said, “There’s a mistake. I never said I would invite you. Come, but I will not invite you.”
Panicked officials in Pakistan reached out to Mishra and invited him to come to Pakistan the next day. But Mishra said he would need clearance to travel, and did not show up.
Zehra writes that there are three possible explanations for Delhi’s sudden reversal. First, that Islamabad may have imagined a “done deal” when none existed, but she dismisses this as unlikely, as Naik would not have gone to Delhi without something in the works. Second, that it was a ruse by Delhi to lead on Islamabad. But the most likely explanation, she says, was that the “hawks” in the Indian establishment had prevailed. The Vajpayee government was in touch with the Clinton Administration throughout the backchannel process, and was encouraged by the US and other international pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its troops.
Asked if any deal had indeed been agreed upon by the backchannel, Vivek Katju, a former MEA official who played a key role in India-Pakistan relations at the time, said he could not offer a comment without reading the book. But, he said: “The Pakistan Army stared at a complete defeat in Kargil, and was looking toward Nawaz Sharif to provide it a face saver”.
The book, which is yet to arrive in India, goes on to narrate Sharif’s dash to the US on July 4, Clinton’s insistence on the Pakistani withdrawal from Kargil, and subsequent events until Musharraf’s coup in October.
Though many Indian establishment figures point to Kargil for their opposition to a settlement on Siachen, Zehra says the roots of Kargil go back to India’s 1984 Operation Meghdoot.
She writes that the origin of Operation Koh-e-Paima, as the Kargil Operation was named by the Pakistan Army, lay in Pakistan’s desperation to wrest Siachen back from the Indian Army. In 1986, according to the book, the Planning Directorate of GHQ came with a plan to expel India from Siachen, with Kargil as the centre of the operation, as it was close to NH 1, India’s supply route to Siachen. It was this plan that Musharraf revived, according to the book.
Zehra told The Sunday Express, “The unsettled Jammu and Kashmir question has provided Pakistan and India, especially their armies, the opportunity for adventurism.”