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archive: There's thaw on the Hill

There's thaw on the Hill

Chidanand Rajghatta
The Indian Express
July 23, 1999


    Title: There's thaw on the Hill
    Author: Chidanand Rajghatta
    Publication: The Indian Express
    Date: July 23, 1999
    
    Introduction: How Washington used Kargil for a foreign policy course
    correction.
    
    
    Adrastic and possibly fundamental shift is taking place in American
    policy towards India amid some thoughtful reflection in both
    governments about whether they can carry the change beyond the
    elections and electoral compulsions in both countries, besides
    overriding the constituency of hawks and hard-linen on both sides.
    
    There is now a sense here that the United States used the Kargil
    episode to correct what many policy folks felt was a long history of
    needless reserve towards India.  "Pakistan, and its Kargil
    misadventure, presented the perfect opportunity to pitchfork the
    correction. The question now is: how do we move forwards" one of the
    many administration officials who spoke to this correspondent on what
    is being described, as the 'Kargil spring', said.
    
    "Who would have thought we would arrive at this point only a year
    after the nuclear tests?  And that too with a BJP government?" another
    official asked in wonderment, highlighting the vast diplomatic
    distance covered between the two Countries, in just 12 months.
    
    Underscoring this change is the meeting that Secretary of State
    Madeleine Albright has sought with India's External Affairs Minister
    Jaswant Singh on the margins of the Asean meeting in Sing4pore later
    in the week.  Singh was not scheduled to go to Singapore, but US
    officials suggested that Madame Secretary would be pleased to meet
    Singh.
    
    "Yes, the word... the signal... went out from here," a State
    Department mandarin acknowledged while speaking of the sea-change in
    mood and language from a year ago when the two met under frost
    conditions in Manila soon after the Indian nuclear tests,
    
    The fact that Albright, who was slightly out of the loop on South
    Asia, has suddenly decided to get back into the thick of things, has
    caused trepidation among some Indian analysts who believe she is not
    particularly well-disposed towards New Delhi.
    
    "Her renewed interest is both good news and bad news.  The Kargil
    episode could have changed her, but on the other hand, her strong
    personality and desire to get 'things done could push it all back,"
    said one official.
    
    But US analysts believe it is now the White House which is laying down
    the line on India and the State Department - and many countries across
    the world - are following it.  According to several sources the
    change, which was oil the cards at the start of Clinton's second term
    but was derailed by the May 1998 nuclear tests, was reinitiated
    through the White House - from the highest levels - and was
    transmitted to the State Department and the Pentagon in the last week
    of May and throughout June this year.
    
    "The institutional bias in these places is being overturned," one
    analyst close to the decision-making process said.  "The question is
    whether it can be sustained.  But don't be surprised if things move
    rapidly from here on."
    
    >From the various accounts put together by Ale Indian Express, the
    Clinton administration - like much of the world, and indeed the Indian
    government - did not take the Kargil spat too seriously in the
    beginning.  When reports of the first clashes surfaced in the second
    week of May, it was treated fairly routinely by the State Department's
    Operations Center, the round-the-clock monitoring unit which alerts
    the ad-ministration to flare-ups across the world.
    
    Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, with one eye on the Kosovo crisis,
    gave it no more than a cursory look.  Albright, who many Washington
    pundits believe is being increasingly marginalised by the White House
    National Security Council on foreign policy matters, paid little
    attention.  "Everyone assumed it was the usual shootouts that happen
    after the snows melt;" one official said.
    
    In fact, even as late as May 21, when Assistant Secretary of State for
    South Asia Rick Inderfurth testified at a Senate hearing on the Hill,
    Kargil was still not on Washington's radar.  Senate committee chairman
    Sam Brownback did not ask any questions either about the
    fast-unfolding developments.
    
    But even as Inderfurth was testifying, New Delhi was readying to press
    its Air Force into the operation, signaling a sharp escalation in the
    conflict.  The next day, the White House convened an NSC meeting on
    the situation in South Asia, with President Clinton and National
    Security Advisor Sandy Berger calling for the latest reports.
    
    NSC's South Asia experts, Special Advisor to the President Bruce
    Riedel (who also handles the Middle East), and Deputy Director Don
    Camp, a subcontinental expert who was earlier with the State
    Department, scrambled to put together the briefs.  Most crucially at
    this point, intelligence reports that were slapped together showed
    clearly who the aggressors were.  "It was an open and shut case of
    infiltration.  There was no doubt about whose fault it was," one
    official familiar with the developments said.
    
    What also worked well for India at this time was that both Riedel and
    Camp were familiar with the torrid history of the Kashmir dispute. 
    "To a leadership that was not entirely familiar with the implications
    of Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz's claim that the LoC was not
    well-defined, they were able to say, 'It damn well is'.  That was the
    first line that was laid down... that there is a defined LoC, the UN,
    the US and the world knows it, and changing it by force is a no-no,"
    one analyst said.
    
    By then, it was also evident that the Kargil gambit was the handiwork
    of the Pakistani army and the generals might have forced Prime
    Minister Nawaz Sharif's hand.  In Washington, it is no secret that the
    previous army chief, Jahangir Karamat, was a blue-eyed boy of the
    Pentagon.  Schooled in Fort Leavenworth, he was regarded as a sober,
    restrained and deliberate soldier, not given to flamboyance or
    ad-venture.  When Sharif eased him out him last year-after he called
    for the formation of a national security council to ensure
    civilian-military coordination - there was some dismay, but Washington
    refrained from making a fuss, recognising the primacy of a civilian
    prime minister in taking such decisions.  But Musharraf was largely an
    unknown entity in Washington.
    
    There was also consternation in Washington at the rabid rhetoric and
    nuclear brinkmanship that was emanating from Islamabad.  In what was
    seen in Washington as brazen nuclear blackmail, Pakistani politicians
    were saying in effect that if the Kashmir dispute was not resolved,
    they would unleash a nuclear war in the subcontinent (the first strike
    would have to come from Islamabad, since India's no-first strike
    commitment was universally accepted).
    
    "If the best thing India ever did in this episode was not crossing the
    LoC, the worst thing the Pakistanis did was talking repeatedly of a
    nuclear strike," a state department official said (There were stray
    calls for a nuclear strike from the Indian side too, including, as one
    US official pointed out, from an oped article in the RSS mouthpiece
    Panchajanya, but it stopped when the RSS leadership realised how
    foolish and dangerous it was).
    
    The White House then decided that Gen.  Anthony Zinni, chief of
    CentCom, would go to Islamabad to dampen some of the Pakistani
    ardour.  Sending Zinni accomplished two purposes: One, as commander of
    the CentCom theater under whose jurisdiction Pakistan falls (India
    comes under the Pacific Command), he knew the country's military
    inside out - institutionally, infrastructurally and individually. 
    Two, it would also reassure India that it was not at the receiving end
    of a military dressing-down
    
    Foreign diplomats in Washington say it was actually a very clever
    piece of diplomacy.  It was the first signal to the world about .who
    the US thought was to blame.  To further reinforce this, Washington
    sent E. Gibson Lanpher, a deputy assistant secretary who is fairly low
    down in the State Department pecking order, to brief New Delhi on the
    Zinni mission.  The message: iron fist to Pakistan, velvet glove to
    India.
    
    American officials say reports that Zinni actually told the Pakistanis
    that the US would "take our" their nukes if they even as much as
    prepared to launch them was hyperbolic (one school of explanation is
    that the missile attack against Osama Bin Laden's terrorist camps was
    also aimed at showing to the Pakistanis).  But most certainly, the
    Pakistanis were asked to back off and behave.  In fact, it was during
    Zinni's trip that Sharif's Washington trip was first mooted.  Although
    the US wanted to keep the lid on the proposal, General Musharraf blew
    the whistle, saying Sharif would soon be meeting Clinton.
    



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