Although free of war for the 28 years since the Bangladesh Independence War in 1971, Pakistan remained a deformed country, single-mindedly obsessed with only one issue: Kashmir, with India in the background. Since it had been clear for decades that its conventional armed forces were too small to be a match for India and that no outside power would support Pakistan militarily against India, the Islamist faction of Pakistan’s military establishment and its notorious intelligence service – Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – had been practicing ‘Talibanization’ – that is, giving fundamentalist Muslim boys, who only received some minimal education in Koran schools, military training and unleashing them on Indian targets, whether the parliaments in Delhi and Srinagar in 2001 or any non-military target or mountainous areas in Kashmir. Another option since the successful nuclear tests of 1998 was to play the nuclear card and threaten with the bomb, nothing less! That is exactly what happened in 1999: a reckless militia operation, planned and remote-controlled, according to many sources, by the Chief-of-Staff, General Pervez Musharraf himself, half a year before he launched the coup that made him Pakistan’s newest military dictator.
In February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. They spoke about increasing trade, simplifying the visa regime and Kashmir, of course, but no progress was made on the political stalemate. But as long as they talked, everybody considered it a good sign and this measured optimism was called the ‘Spirit of Lahore’. Then three months later, hundreds of Pakistani army regulars, disguised as Kashmiri insurgents, infiltrated the Kargil district of Kashmir. The idea was to occupy the mountain tops that overlooked the highway from the state capital of Srinagar to Leh, the district capital of Ladakh. The generals apparently believed that the nuclear shield provided protection, inhibiting the Indians from repulsing the intruders. Indian artillery soon started bombarding the enemy positions while fighter planes screamed overhead with rattling heavy machine guns and foot soldiers hauled themselves laboriously up the perpendicular slopes for man-to-man combat. Dozens of peaks, each with nests of machine guns, had to be recaptured one by one. It took the Indians almost two months to clear the mountains of an estimated 5,000 insurgents, some of them Kashmiris but most of them Pathans from Pakistan. On the Indian side there were over 500 dead; on the Pakistani side close to 4,000.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alleged that he was only informed of the conflict by the generals when the fighting was in full swing. The US administration was alarmed by the fighting and the danger that it would escalate into a regional war, with China and Saudi Arabia – the great global financier of Islamicization – supporting the Pakistanis and India turning to its old ally Russia and perhaps its new one Israel! US President Clinton sent Tony Zinni, the marine-general in charge of Central Command, to Islamabad to demand an immediate pullback from Sharif and Musharraf. When they did not comply, Clinton threatened to freeze an IMF credit of US$ 100 million. Sharif then rushed to Beijing to get comfort from Pakistan’s staunchest ally, but he got nothing. By the end of June 1999, the Pakistani generals realized that their invasion had just been another ill-conceived military adventure that had produced nothing positive and not at all the American support for which they had hoped. The generals felt stabbed in the back by the civilians for making them believe that they were successfully bleeding India. Sharif made a telephone call to US President Bill Clinton on 2 July 1999, begging for his personal intervention. Clinton told Sharif in very strong terms that he would only get involved if Pakistan withdrew immediately and unconditionally from Kargil, a demand that Clinton himself simultaneously conveyed to Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee. The next day Sharif called the President to inform him that he was on his way to Washington. Clinton did not instantly shrug him off, so as not to make a bad situation worse. Sharif was bringing his wife and children with him, causing the White House to wonder whether he was coming to seek an end to a crisis or for protection against a coup and political asylum. What Sharif wanted was a ceasefire, followed by a ‘Kashmir Peace Process’, similar to the one for the Middle East that Clinton was chairing at that moment. According to US intelligence, Pakistan might on the eve of Sharif’s arrival be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment. The assessment was that a missile crisis worse than Cuba in 1962 could be in the making. In the end Sharif had to settle for a promise that Clinton would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts (i.e. that is, the Spirit of Lahore) once the sanctity of the Line of Control had been fully restored. The Indian government was satisfied that Pakistan had been denied any benefit from its aggression and considered President Clinton’s performance during the Kargil crisis ‘the prelude towards a new era in US-India relations.
Sharif had paid a crippling price for yielding to Clinton in Washington. Back in Islamabad, he untruthfully stated publicly that he had not been briefed by the generals on Kargil, admitting both his weakness and the military’s command over civilians rather than the other way. Soon afterwards, Sharif provoked his own downfall when he ordered the airport to refuse landing rights for an airplane with General Musharraf upon returning from an overseas trip. The army rebelled and deposed Sharif, who was sentenced to death for attempted murder (on the grounds that the plane could have crashed), thus ending another brief flirtation with parliamentary democracy. Under American pressure, Musharraf, however, lifted the death sentence on Sharif and his brother fourteen months later and allowed them to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.
China had started moving away from blind support for Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir after Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Simla Agreement in 1972, binding the two countries ‘to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations’. The Agreement also cemented the Line of Control as something close to a permanent border. The Agreement has been the basis of all Chinese official pronouncements on the conflict.
When Indian Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China to have his first look at post-Mao China after seventeen years of a freeze in relations (from 1962-1979), he discovered that the Kashmir issue had become an irritant in Sino-Pakistani relations that had to be addressed. As young Uygurs from Xinjiang went to Pakistan in the 1980s for military training to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a worrisome dimension was added to China’s close relationship with Pakistan. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s with the full backing of Pakistan’s military, China became apprehensive about Pakistan becoming a catalyst for an Islamic revival in its troubled Xinjiang region. A PRC circular of late 1999 (the same year as the Kargil War) expressed the belief that there was a strong reason to suspect that Uygur separatists received help from abroad. Explosives used by separatists in Xinjiang had Chinese markings. They were exported to Pakistan, re-exported to Afghanistan and then found their way back to terrorists in China. The worst ‘blowback’ of China’s decades-long build-up of Pakistan as a military and nuclear power would be if Pakistan’s Islamist terrorism-sponsoring generals used nuclear weapons in Kashmir. Pakistan’s military’s intelligence agency, ISI, has for twenty years run a proxy war in Kashmir aimed at forcing New Delhi to amass troops in the disputed valley. If diplomatic pressure failed to resolve the Kashmir question, the ISI reasoned, Islamabad would have the option of launching a nuclear first strike that would take out half of the Indian army in one hit. Leaving the area uninhabitable for generations underlined the ISI’s Kashmir strategy: if we cannot have it, neither can you.