Kargil and New Power Equations in South Asia

Kargil and New Power Equations in South Asia


Arvind Acharya

Coming as close as to the sub-continental nuclear adventurism and ‘Bus Diplomacy’, the engagements in Kargil was the catalyst for India to bring about a significant turn-in the strategic perceptions of the international community about the players on both sides of as yet undetermined ‘Line of Control’. Loss of life notwithstanding, the engagement also justified post Pokhran predictions about ” South Asia’ becoming the “hot spot” of post cold war politics. For the first time India was in a position to receive almost universal international acclaim for its` restraint’, while Pakistan stood exposed as a country- a rogue country at that directly in the hot bed of organized international terrorism and drug cartel. Interestingly, the scenario was just right- the western hostility towards India based on Cold war bi-polarism and a distinct tilt towards socialistic pattern of development being no longer relevant and for the first time in the history of the world, the United States- a single country emerging as the undisputed leader of the world. Although America has no conflict with China that demanded Indian friendship, Beijing need to be balanced in the long–term. Could India be the candidate for that role? That was not all either. The conflict drew world attention on India’s terms. Most of the international community, the United States, Britain, Russia, China included, made it clear that Pakistan was to blame for the flare up. China- Pakistan’s long-term ally in defence and strategic diplomacy, moved away from a position of professed neutrality to alignment with the international mainstream. The show of restraint by India also heightened the perception that India is a mature and responsible country.

Kargil, nevertheless, left too many a questions to be answered. It is in-fact, not easy to find answers to whys and what, just as it has not been possible for the so-called responsible members of the international community to understand the Kashmir problem in its entirety. Its members, based as they are on a narrow ethnicity based definition of nationhood, would certainly find it difficult to endorse India’s plurality, where the ‘millennial civilisational basis’ has been ‘unity in diversity’. The fact that behind all the hype of change of attitude on the part of the United States toward India lie a veiled threat of intervention in terms of what now come to be known as ‘Clinton Doctrine’ must not be lost sight of. Besides, after having dealt blows on both military and diplomatic fronts, Pakistan has been left with no option other than to internationalize the Kashmir issue drawing its strength from its terrorist net-works and cash-rich drug cartels.

The triumph at Kargil, did not give India enough rationale to be optimistic about finding a permanent solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. The indications that emerged from the ashes along the line of control, and as subsequent events were to prove, have some what been contradictory, at best conflicting. Important, from Indian standpoint, however, were the ‘tilts’ in strategic relations that even the world took notice of. First there was this tilt of the US towards India and then China’s tilt away from Pakistan. This was at a time when after decades of self-proclaimed equi-distance under the veil of alignment with the communist bloc, India was finding itself in cold isolation. It was further castigated to the levels of the untouchables with its nuclear explosions that spearheaded a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. This paper seeks to trace the origin and movement of the ‘tilts’ and their significance in the South Asian power politics.

In this context it is relevant to understand the nuances of ‘Bus Diplomacy,” and the Lahore Declaration, which the world acclaimed as ‘history in the making’. The initiative was seen as the right catalyst to catapult Indo-Pak relationship to a level of constructive rapprochement. ‘This type of dialogue at the highest level was the only way to get together the relationship going beyond the rhetoric, one-upmanship and attempts to score points over one another. Dennis Kus, former diplomat and the author of ‘India and the US, Estranged Democracies’, described the bus diplomacy and the Lahore meeting between Vajpayee and Shariff as akin to ‘turning light bulb into a hitherto empty socket. The initiative, on the face of it, reflected a desire by India and Pakistan to put aside the bitterness of the past and to make a new beginning. Though nothing was gained in substantive terms from the visit the improvement in the political environment conducive to further talks was considered gain enough for both India and Pakistan with the hope that the hand shake and the smiles between the two leaders would set the note for a constructive dialogue at bureaucratic level.

In a diplomatic leg slip however, India dismissed the statement of the Pakistan Foreign Minister S. Ajij and Foreign Secretary S. Ahmed that Kashmir remains the real issue and there can be no progress until this is resolved, as necessary lip service to a domestic constituency. What was even worse, for the first time India choose to omit reference to Kashmir as being an ‘ integral part of India’. As the ‘Lahore spirit’ evaporates on Kargil hilltops, a heartbroken India can seek solace from the failure of Pakistan in drawing international sympathy and isolating India in the world community. And although the US political caning forced Shariff to agree to call back the hounds, there is no evidence that suggests any shift in Islamabad’s policy on Kashmir. As subsequent event were to prove, India stood exposed to intensified terrorism through out the country, violence in Jammu and Kashmir and expanding militancy across the valley. “The ‘third front’ in the post Kargil battle with Pakistan will be international arena. Having failed to obtain support from traditional friends- US, China and the Islamic world- Pakistan is made bound to exploit the unfairness of the international community’s tilt towards India, demanding diplomatic support for internationalization of the Kashmir dispute.”

It is here to appreciate the intricate calibration of Pakistan’s policy toward India. Pakistan tend to have two policies- an India policy – sincerly built on a desire for peace with India and a Kashmir policy, that is far more permanent yet uncompromising. Kashmir is what Pakistan always wants to possess and it can do any thing including the possibility of a nuclear war to seek world intervention to weaken India’s hold. Pakistan need not take Kashmir to the United Nations, … it’s job is only to activate the UN to intervene. Even after being forced to retreat , Shariff lost no bones about so-called oppressed Kashmirites’ ‘struggle for freedom’

Unfortunately, India on its own, continued to be on the defensive, allowing Pakistan to define the Kashmir issue and set the agenda in all available forums whenever the issue came up for discussion. Except as in 1971, Pakistan has been defining the terms of conflict with the Indian military. Kargil came to remain as a classic case where the terms of conflict was determined entirely by Pakistan with a reactive India drawn out on enemy fashioned pit to recover lost territory. On diplomatic front too, India was forced to be pathetically defensive.

Kargil engagement brought about a fundamental change in the security scenario in the region. On the one hand, Pakistan attempted to delineate the LOC in violation of Simla Agreement, on the other, it tried to change the complexion of the secessionist movement in the valley. The ideology of the organisations that played the Kargil role i.e. Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat-e- Jehad- Islamin, makes it clear that objective has never been merely to liberate JandK but also to establish the supremacy of Islam in the region.

Most of the world considers the LOC as nothing more than a cease-fire like pending a final solution that eventually amounts to freezing it into an International boundary. Pakistan, however, won’t have it this way, even though India for these many years has been working to realise this. The conversation of the LOC into an international border may seem to be a neat and tempting solution, but is of relevance both for India and Pakistan. For India, the problem is not one of’ delineating a border, as with China, but of subversion and insurgency aided and abetted by Islamabad. Especially so, when there is no guarantee that Pakistani soldiers in civilian garb and Afghan mercenaries do not have to have any compunction in violating it, with Islamabad claiming that it has no control over the so-called ‘Kashmiri fundamentalists’. From Pakistan’s standpoint, LOC would, if it went north-east of the Siachin glacier, keep the Karakoram Pass out of the Indian administered side of JandK and within Pakistani control. Besides, Pakistan’s control of the strategic pass would be China managed.

The biggest surprise involving the Kargil engagements have been the international reactions especially that of the US and China considered aligned to Pakistan with long traditions of friendship. It won’t be out of place to mention that Pakistan’s entire misadventure might have been based on an expectation of support from its well established allies- both military and diplomatic. But things did not happen this way much to Pakistan’s consternation (Pakistani miscalculations are only one part of the explanation for the international response.) a development which forced Pakistan to back out eventually. The fact is that, Kargil made Kashmir synonymous with nuclear flash point making the international mainstream wary of any redrawing of borders. For the first time perhaps, Pakistan finds itself so much isolated what with the most of the international community making it clear that Pakistan is responsible for the flare up. China moved from a position of neutrality to one of alignment with international mainstream wary as it has become of Islamic fundamentalist influence radiating from Afghanistan.

The pro- India stance adopted by most countries did have its origin in the initiative taken by Prime Minister Vajpayee while he rode to Lahore with a view to strengthen bi-lateral relations that left a lasting impact on public opinion in the world. It was also a part world’s appreciation of India’s stand on Kashmir that it should be settled according to the provisions of the Simla Agreement.

In the closed circle of the Islamic community too, Pakistan failed to find any takers for its justification for Kargil adventure. Saudi Arabia was instrumental in persuading Pakistan to ‘shallow the bitter pill of retreat’ . Worried about the rise of radical Islamic forces, the Saudi Kingdom joined hands with Washington to encourage Islamabad to take concrete steps to diffuse tension in Kargil.

Similarly, France contemplated delaying the delivery of mirage combat jets to Pakistan as a consequence of fighting in Kargil. ” In the framework of routine verifications carried out due to the increase in fighting in Kargil, there may be delays in the execution of on-going contracts”, the foreign ministry spokesman, Francois Rivasseau told reporters. In contrast to west’s subtle criticism and silence over Pakistan’s military backup to the intruders, Russia was categorical about its denouncement of the infiltrators as ‘fundamentalists, extremists and separatists. Four Permanent Members of the Security Council assured India that the Kargil issue will not be taken up in the Council. Koffi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, had reported to have said that LoC in Kashmir must be respected.

As Indian Troops continued the operation to flush out the intruders, international support for Indian stand on Kargil kept on gathering momentum with the United States telling Pakistan to withdraw and take steps to diffuse the crisis. Frank Pallone, the founder and former co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India was unequivocal about India’s right to defend itself against cross border infiltration and New Delhi’s stand on ‘hot pursuit’. On 11th June 1999, the foreign ministers of the Group 8 industrial nations voiced deep concern over the continuing military confrontation following ‘infiltration of militants across the LoC’ and appealed to both sides to stop fighting and return to negotiation table in the spirit of the ‘Lahore declaration’. The ‘Summit’ at Cologne that followed, crystalised the mood of the world community in its communiqué that was unambiguous in identifying the cause of crisis, tracing its origin to the infiltration of armed intruders and called on Pakistan to restore status quo ante along the border. The essence of the communiqué, even though Pakistan wanted to hide behind the argument that it did not name Pakistan, was to bring home the realisation that there can not be any military solution to the Kashmir issue and that bilateralism is the best route for progress in the subcontinent. There were tactical reasons for the G-8 leaders to be cautious in open condemnation of Pakistan. It was reluctant “to raise the political rhetoric to a level where it becomes incumbent on them to act in defence of international principles.” Nevertheless Pakistan’s international isolation was complete.

There was an almost universal international consensus that Pakistan was on the wrong. It is a different matter that in the post cold-war uni-polar world, international consensus can nothing but a passive moral position that needs United States to make it active. To India’s advantage, the United States activated Indo-Pak bilateralism vis-a-vis Kargil.

International isolation of Pakistan in the Kargil crisis meant world acceptance of India as ‘Democratically developed Asian state’- a power without paranoia, with a clear vision about its national interests. It also gave India an opportunity to share its interests and fears with the United States – the only country that really matters.

As victory in Tiger Hills put Pakistan’s military establishment in the defensive India seemed to gain international acceptability for its role in diffusing the crisis by its traditional restraint and maturity in politico- strategic judgement.

International reactions, however, came as a two-edged sword, from India’s point of view at least. “Kargil may well become a symbol of the high level of deterrent stability that prevails in South Asia and could help institutionalise deterrence at even threshold levels. Or, unlikely as it is Kargil may become a symbol of immaturity, a let-motif of Third World irresponsibility and a slogan for the west to use in its campaign against nuclear proliferation.” The international acquiescence to India’s stand on Kargil was nothing more than an event specific, reaction, an expression of support rather than a fundamental shift in policy. The price tag came eventually, as it was bound to come, the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue. It was a sort of gave-in to Pakistan’s incessant one point propaganda and expression of an aspiration for third party mediation. All these were to weaken India’s hitherto stubborn refusal for mediation of any kind. (Waiting in the wings, thereafter, shall be international expectation for India to sign CTBT)

The pro-India stance was prompted by the changed strategic and economic priorities in South Asia. For this reason alone, India can not make international support the basis for future engagements- diplomatic, military- with Pakistan nor can it expect the global goodwill in Kargil translating into support on Kashmir. It would be tragic mistake to ignore the nature and complexity of the area and the problem as western strategists tend to do to find instant remedies. There are hardly any parallels between Jammu and Kashmir and the Balkans. Any extra- regional involvement (at Pakistan’s behest) involving multi lateral effort to broker peace in the sub- continent can only be counter productive given the historic, cultural and demographic profile of the region.

The reactions of the sole surviving super power ranged from diplomatic arm-twist to veiled threat of intervention. At the basics, however, there was an understanding that it is India that needs the support and Pakistan has turned itself into an ideological rogue and has become a threat to peace with its nuclear proliferation and sponsorship of the nacro-religious terrorism. Kargil, perhaps, came as one of the first opportunities for Washington to review the core premises of its policy toward Pakistan. Even though a ‘paradigm shift’ in US policy in India’s favor was not to be expected, Washington’s options included tacit support to increased Indian military operations and finally to a US led military action to clear the intruders from the Indian side of the LoC.

As a face saving measure Nawaz Shariff might have succeeded in obtaining a promise of ‘personal attention’ by President Clinton to the Kashmir issue. It was, however, made amply clear that there was no intention on the part of the US to intervene, nor even mediate. Speaking to Hindu, a State Department official clarified that ‘attention’ to a crisis does not constitute mediation. The interest of the US was in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of efforts by India and Pakistan to resolve their differences.

For US, there was an acknowledgement that Indian decision not to cross the LoC was a courageous step that merited continued positive response. It also lent its support for the back channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan. In addition, US offered the use of its overhead satellite imagery to monitor the withdrawal to give the process a credibility of sorts. Thus in clear terms, and after decades of intensive engagement with Pakistan, Washington’s response to the Kargil developments went the distance in isolating Pakistan in the comity of nations.

The thunders of Kargil reshaped the patterns in US policy choices as well. Pakistan’s contemptuous disregard to the Simla Agreement and the verifiable presence of Pakistani army regulars inside Indian side of the LoC made US worried and angry. There was the fear about the Kargil crisis spinning out of control with grave strategic and political implications for the region. The US administration was genuinely concerned about the blind political leadership in Pakistan not being quite in the know of things vis-à-vis the generals behind the façade of a hallow democracy and pseudo civilian administration. There was also an apprehension that a country tottering on the brink of economic collapse might bring with it more problems not only for the region but for the world in the long run.

For almost two decades, India has been making every effort to convince Washington about the true nature and ultimate ramifications of Pakistan’s proxy war in the valley. After initial hiccups the US woke up to this grim realisation. The general opinion including those of the members of the Congress, corporate institutions and strategic advisors veered towards alignment with India, even as Rohrabacher – the known India basher’s – attempted amendment for ‘plebiscite on Kashmir’ was getting rejected by the US panel. On the other hand, the same congressional panel overwhelmingly accepted the Gilman Resolution that asked the Clinton administration, inter-alia, to push for the immediate withdrawal of the intruding forces supported by Pakistan on the Indian side of the LoC and urged for its reestablishment and future respect. At the same time, the House international relations committee approved an amendment sought by Gary Ackerman that called on the administration to slap punitive measures against Islamabad for its incursion in Kargil. The Stimson center – a well respected non-partisan organisation in the States- reflected the general mood while it pointed out the direct involvement of the government of Pakistan, its army and the intelligence services. The center derived this involvement from the scope of the military operations and the equipment, logistics, artillery and communications support necessary to carry out such an offensive. It debunked Pakistan’s claim that the LoC around Kargil is not clearly defined. Simla Agreement, it argued, includes detailed maps, which delineate the LoC in all sectors except for the Siachin Glacier area.. The Washington Post in its editorial dated 29th June 1999, squarely blamed Pakistan for triggering off the crisis and warned that the escalating fighting was fraught with dangers since, Islamabad’s head strong generals or its weak civilian leadership’s fear of “perspective humiliation” at the hands of India makes for a “pervasive nervousness”. The paper called on Pakistan to stop “blowing on the fires of armed revolt in India held Kashmir”.

Pakistan’s US bashing can be cited as an example of an opportunistic alliance becoming irrelevant in the changed context of post cold war world politics. Pakistan no longer serves a useful purpose for the US as it did during the cold war era and during the period of intense US hostility towards Iran. The administration has been increasingly worried about the growing Islamisation of the Pakistani armed forces. US was bound to interpret Pakistani aggression in Kargil as an assertion of its “autonomous nuclear status”. A defiant nuclear Pakistan involved in international terrorism, narcotics traffic, money laundering and pan-Islamism has become rather a liability.

Unkindest of all, for Pakistan, was the attitude adopted by China. In the background that Beijing had supplied Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology in order to boost it as a counterweight to India, China’s support for Pakistani misdemeanor should have been a foregone conclusion. For China, Pakistan has always been a convenient tool to keep India counter-balanced in the subcontinent. In this context, the intrusion and physical occupation of high ridges in the Drass-Kargil- Batalik sectors by Pakistani army regulars were to make Pakistan playing to China’s strategic game of containing India through active engagement. As events unfolded however, China seemed to have its own agenda for South Asian politics. The United States, to start with, made China clear on its ‘responsibilities’ as a ‘major player’ in South Asian crisis. Beijing, on its part was in search of ways to normalise its relationship with Washington after Belgrade fiasco. Brokering peace in the subcontinent was one way to achieve this objective. It also reinforced Beijing’s big power status. Thus, the leadership in China advised Shariff to accept Lahore declaration as a good basis for resolving its problems with India. The fact, however remained that, US pressure was not the only reason why China was so averse to cross border forays. The basic concern for China was about Islamic fundamentalism emerging in a nuclear capable Pakistan. China could not but recognise the fact that fundamentalist forces, which are opposed, to its interests, drive Pakistan. Besides, it could not have been pleased at the prospect of growing proximity between India and the US as a result of Kargil crisis. It was, nonetheless, hesitant in identifying Pakistan as the aggressor in Kargil. It adopted a position of cautious neutrality and resisted from doling out any special diplomatic, strategic favors to Pakistan on the issue. It did not even oblige Shariff in his expectation for a Chinese call for an immediate cease-fire. The thrust of Chinese reactions was on the need for restraint, respect for the LoC and the importance of resolving the crisis through negotiations. “This is an issue left over from history, concerning territory, ethnic nationalities and religion and can only be resolved through peaceful means”.China even expected Pakistan to call back the intruders before any credible step could be initiated.

China’s reactions were dictated by the constraints of real-politik as well. Its honeymoon with Pakistan was the necessity when Tibet was an issue with India and Beijing needed access to the oilfields of Central Asia. Tibet became a consolidated possession with China settling its own people from elsewhere. There have been continuous, even though slow, improvements in Sino-Indian relationship dating back to Rajiv Gandhi’s Beijing visit. In the meantime, abundant oil reserves have been found in the South China Sea. With compulsions of the past becoming the conveniences of the present, a lack of open response in favor of Pakistan’s India orchastrasation was only but on the expected lines. Besides, the overt nuclearisation of the subcontinent and Pakistan’s roughish behavior contained threats to Chinese interests, which prompted Beijing’s rethink.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the change in the mood of its oldest and closest allies was nothing short of a foreign policy and propaganda disaster. In the face of an overwhelming international pressure to withdraw, Pakistan developed an aspiration to activate third party mediation led by the US or under the UN umbrella. For some time world opinion seemed to be in favor of the idea. Until India made its firm reservations against mediation of any kind, clear.

Why then, the genuine concerns of the international community were interpreted as coming with a veiled threat of intervention? Why should India be wary of any mediation, US included? It is also interesting to note that during the entire crisis, the US, on number of occasions, was categorical in ruling out any intention of involvement, direct or otherwise. The US supported the Indian military action against the infiltrators. It was rather clear in this perspective that intruders on the Indian side of the LoC would have to go. “Clearly the Indians are not going to cede this territory. They (the infiltrators ) have to depart, and they will depart, either voluntarily or because the Indians take them out.”

India had reasons to be wary about third party involvement. It was afraid of the political and strategic costs of mediation. If past experience were to of any guidance, India could even justify its concerns. Consider the scenario in which international mediation succeeded in halting Indian operations. The gains for Pakistan would have been immense in terms of acquisition and control of highly strategic territory. Politically, it would have made heros out of generals in Pakistan who planned the operations and Indian army down the moral dumps. By rejecting third party mediation, India was risking the prospect of a total war with Pakistan – a non-option, considering the Pakistan’s economic bankruptcy and inability to sustain a prolonged conventional war. India could have accepted limited third party mediation to bring an end to the Kargil crisis at the least. The fact that bilateral negotiations in crisis situations tend to be intractable was not lost to the Indian leadership. Any mediatory effort is based on the presumption of neutrality on the part of the mediator/s. Unfortunately for India, this had never been the case over last fifty years. Besides, there had always been a perceptible lack of concern in the world about resolving the Kashmir imbroglio and the welfare of its people. The international concern had always been limited to ensure that any Indo-Pak conflict on Kashmir should not escalate in a full-scale war in the subcontinent. The only role, therefore, that India could envisage for the international community was for them to persuade Pakistan to desist from the misadventure and agree for a dialogue to find solution rooted in ground realities in the spirit of the Simla Agreement. The subsequent developments were to prove that India’s firmness stood it in the right perspective. India’s arguments won international acceptability.

Could there have been a military intervention if diplomatic efforts failed? It is easy to find examples of intervention recent one being in Kosovo. But there are no parallels. Any involvement on Kashmir would have created a costly diversion leaving the basic problems untouched and impeding the progress towards sub-continental stability . There was, nonetheless, a genuine concern for India that Clinton, having gone ahead in Kosovo, “might turn his attention to…..and might be tempted to try his hand at solving the Kashmir issue…. If he is aided by Britain’s Tony Blair, there can be sad results for every one to see.”

Kargil threw open a number of issues for both India and Pakistan to ponder. From total opposition to external involvement, India veered towards soliciting active support for its stand on Kashmir. The also gave the subcontinental rivals an opportunity to abhor fixed ideas about the immutability of cold-war US-Pakistan, US-China, and China-Pakistan relationships. It was a bitter travesty for those who rationalised Indian nuclear tests citing Chinese threat. The expectation post Kargil, had been in identifying New Delhi’s interests with improvements in and normalisation of relations with Washington and Beijing respectively. But India stands to err if it takes friendship with US or China as granted.

Kargil also put Kashmir on the world map. As long as India and Pakistan retain nuclear weapons , they can no longer cite bilateralism to resist international attention on Kashmir.

It is time both India and Pakistan realise that friendship of nations is indicated more by political expediency and the dictates of national interest than by affinity or neighborliness. In international politics, few friendships remain unaltered over a period of time. The volatility of the alliances are more pronounced when these are based on highly opportunistic considerations. The trend is precisely discernible now as President Clinton gets set for his South Asian visit next March. From a position of cold rejection, Clinton edged towards Pakistan visit with the ostensible necessity to break the “cycle of mistrust and violence”, for which he stood “personally committed”.