Kargil: When Vajpayee stood firm and got Nawaz Sharif to buckle
New Delhi, Aug 17: During his tenure as Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has faced several challenges and despite his peace moves, it was Pakistan which troubled him the most.
Be it the Kargil War, Khandahar hijack or the Parliament attack, Vajpayee dealt with one crisis after another. However, what was remarkable was that despite pressure from all quarters, he stood firm and did not give in.
One particular incident was at the time of the Kargil war. There was intense backroom diplomacy going on by the United States in 1999. Pakistan was trying to get the better of India through the US. There were several calls made to Vajpayee, but he stood firm.
A top Bill Clinton aide, Bruce Riedel gave an account of how it was hard to get Vajpayee to change his stance and how the then PM of India stood form on India's demand for unconditional withdrawal of Pakistan troops, which eventually led to then Pakistan PM, Nawaz Sharif buckling.
There was no give in:
There was no give in Bruce Riedel, Special Assistant to former US President Bill Clinton had said in an article. Riedel was part of the entire parleys the US had with Pakistan to force it to withdraw from Kargil unconditionally.
Clinton had invited Vajpayee to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with Sharif but the Indian Prime Minister had declined to undertake the visit in view of the then security situation.
Clinton had informed Vajpayee after intensive parleys with Sharif in Washington in early July 1999 that he was "holding firm on demanding the withdrawal of Pakistani troops to the Line of Control."
Interestingly, according to Riedel''s account, Sharif briefed an angry Clinton on his frantic efforts during that period to engage Vajpayee and get a deal that would allow Pakistan to withdraw with some face saving.
Sharif's brief was confused:
"Sharif''s brief was confused and vague on many details but he seemed a man possessed with fear of war," Riedel said. Riedel said the US was quick to make known its view that Pakistan should withdraw its forces back behind the Line of Control (LoC) immediately.
At first, Clinton aides Rick Inderfurth and Thomas Pickering conveyed this view privately to the Pakistani and Indian Ambassador in Washington late May that year after the outbreak of the conflict.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Sharif two days later followed by similar tough talk by General Tony Zinni who also spoke to then Army Chief Pervez Musharraf.
"These message did not not work. So we went public and called upon Pakistan to respect the LoC," Riedel said adding that Clinton called both Vajpayee and Sharif in mid June and sent letters to each pressing for Pakistani withdrawal and restraint from Indian side.
Sharif became increasingly desperate as he saw how isolated Pakistan''s position had become and sought urgent American intervention. In the last days of June, Sharif began to ask to see Clinton directly to plead his case.
On July 2, Sharif called Clinton and appealed to him to intervene and stop the fighting and also help resolve the Kashmir issue. Clinton made it clear that he could help only if Pakistan first withdrew to the LoC.
Clinton also consulted Vajpayee on phone, Riedel said, observing that the Indians were adamant. Vajpayee would not not negotiate under the threat of aggression. Clinton sought to assure the Indian leader that Washington would not not countenance Pakistani aggression nor nor reward them for violating the LoC, he said adding the US stood committed to the Lahore peace process. On 3rd July, Sharif was more desperate and told President Clinton he was ready to come immediately to Washington to seek help. "The President repeated his caution ''Come only if you are ready to withdraw, I can''t help you if you are not ready to pull back''," Riedel wrote. Sharif said he was coming and would be there on 4th.
Pakistan undermined Lahore efforts:
Riedel said Sharif''s intention also became clearer. He was bringing his wife and children with him to Washington, a possible indication he was afraid he might not be able to go home if the summit failed or that the military was telling him to leave.
Clinton started his discussion with Sharif on July 4 by handing him a cartoon from the day''s Chicago Tribune newspaper that showed Pakistan and India as nuclear bombs fighting with each other.
During the parleys, the US leader, according to Riedel, reminded Sharif that Washington played a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict because both sides invited it to mediate. But this was not not the case with Kashmir.
Clinton advised that the best approach was the road begun at Lahore, that is direct contact with India. He bluntly told Sharif that Pakistan had completely undermined that opening by attacking at Kargil and it must retreat before disaster set in.
"The room was tense and Sharif visibly worried," Riedel wrote. Sharif also warned that fundamentalists in Pakistan would move against him and this meeting would be the last with him. Clinton was clear and firm. Sharif had a choice -- withdraw behind the LoC and the moral compass would tilt back towards Pakistan or stay and fight a dangerous war with India without American sympathy.
The President told Sharif he had draft statement ready to issue that would pin all the blame for the Kargil crisis on Pakistan. "The President was getting angry."
After 90 minutes of intense discussions, the meeting broke to allow each leader to meet with his team and consider next steps.
What do you want me to say:
Clinton put through a short call to New Delhi just to tell Vajpayee that he was holding firm on demanding the withdrawal to the LoC, Riedel said, adding Vajpayee had little to say, even asking the President "What do you want me to say"?
Riedel said there was no view in New Delhi and none was asked for.
"After an hour, when the President, Sharif and I returned to the discussions, the President put on the table a short statement to be issued to the press to announce agreement on withdrawal to the LoC," he said.
The statement also called for a ceasefire once the withdrawal was completed and restoration of the Lahore process. It also included a reaffirmation of the President''s longstanding plans to visit South Asia.
"Sharif read the statement several times quietly. He asked to talk with his team and we adjourned again," Riedel said. "After a few minutes Sharif returned with good news. The statement was acceptable with one addition," Riedel said, adding Sharif wanted a sentence added to say ''The President would take personal interest to encourage an expeditious resumption and intensification of bilateral efforts (i.e. Lahore process) once the sanctity of the LoC was fully restored.
The President then called Vajpayee to preview the statement, Riedel said.