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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

When India, Pak nearly went to war

September 08, 2006

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A new report by the Henry Stimson Centre -- the only Washington, DC-based think tank with an exclusive confidence building measures programme on South Asia -- titled 'US-Crisis Management in South Asia's Twin Peaks Crisis,' has revealed that during both peaks of this extended crisis between India and Pakistan, there was much concern in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who believed that 'war was possible, either by design or by inadvertence.'

The report authored by Polly Nayak and Michael Krepon, who extensively interviewed more than a dozen senior administration officials at the time who helped shape or who led the US diplomatic response during the extended crisis -- including then Secretary of State Colin Powell, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, then US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, and then Senior Director for Policy and Special Assistant to the President in the White House's Office of Homeland Security Richard Falkenrath -- recalled that for 10 months between late December 2001 and October 2002, 'India and Pakistan kept approximately one million soldiers in a high state of readiness along their international border and the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, raising the spectre of conflict.'

The report noted that 'the immediate trigger for the deployment was a brazen attack by militants on the Indian Parliament in December 13, 2001. The attack set in motion an extended crisis with two distinct peaks when tensions were extremely high and when war appeared imminent to many observers.'

'The first peak, immediately after the attack on Parliament, occurred in the December 2001-January 2002 timeframe. The second peak, in May-June 2002, followed another high-profile attack by militants, this time near the town of Kaluchak in Jammu.'

According to the report, 'During both peaks of the crisis,' which it said 'grew in part out of tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir,' high-level US officials were 'deeply involved in crisis management, seeking to avoid war and to secure the return of Indian and Pakistani forces to their cantonments.'

It said it was the second peak that was 'more worrisome to most US participants,' although the 'actual beginning and end of the crisis were less clear-cut to American crisis managers.'

'Some US officials belatedly saw the October 1 attack in Srinagar as the start of the crisis. In New Delhi, a few discerned a worrisome pattern of events in the summer and fall of 2001 that could lead to another crisis, but most American officials in Washington and Islamabad were consumed instead with the imperatives of defeating Al Qaeda, routing the Taliban, and capturing or killing their leadership.'

The report said, 'The end-date of the crisis -- and whether the crisis really ended at all, or merely went into remission -- is also a subject of some debate among participants.'

It said the views of US officials on the crisis also 'varied with their vantage point,' and the authors noted that their interviews suggested 'that it mattered whether participants were located in Washington, New Delhi or Islamabad. Each venue had its own political and bureaucratic environment, day-to-day preoccupations, information networks, and perceptions of risk and opportunity.'

'Organisational affiliations also mattered,' the report added, and argued that 'because the White House and Pentagon were absorbed in the military campaign in Afghanistan, crisis management on the sub-continent fell quite naturally and almost exclusively on the leadership of the State Department,' with Powell and Armitage being assisted by the US ambassadors in New Delhi and Islamabad and their country teams, and other senior State Department officials, and National Security Council staffers.

The report said Kashmir was not even on the radar screen of most policymakers on October 1, 2001, when the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly building in Srinagar occurred, with Washington's attention, instead, being riveted on the fast-moving events in the military campaign in Afghanistan.

It quoted Armitage as saying that the events of October 1, rang 'no bells or whistles' and that 'policymakers do one problem at a time.'

Falkenrath spoke of how focused senior US officials were on prosecuting the war on terrorism, noting that 'you can't even imagine the bandwidth problems, especially for the President, the National Security Adviser (at the time the current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), and most cabinet and sub-cabinet-level officials. They paid little attention to anti-Indian militants mounting cross-border attacks. There was so much going on� 9/11 was a gravitational black hole for the principals and deputies, who rushed into the Situation Room.'

The report said whereas the Kashmir state assembly car bombing had 'little impact in Washington, it loomed large for some US embassy officials in New Delhi,' and quoted one former official posted with the US embassy in New Delhi as recalling that 'Warning lights flashed at the US embassy in New Delhi... though not on the 6th and 7th floors of the State Department (where the Assistant Secretary for South Asia -- at the time Christina Rocca -- and the leadership of the State Department reside).'

It said while the October 1 bombing appeared important to New Delhi 'as a litmus test of US attitude toward India and the terrorist threats it faced,' other US officials based in New Delhi, 'did not view the October 1 attack as a harbinger of a major crisis.'

Thus, for senior White House officials and the State Deparment's 7th floor, the December 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament marked the start of the crisis, but the report quoted a Pentagon official as saying that while under ordinary circumstances, this attack would have been the dominant concern of the administration, Afghanistan, however, was still the 'main fight.'

Moreover, the United States, according to this official, had 'unusually salient equities' in Pakistan -- the need for help in blocking the retreat from Tora Bora -- when the attack on the Parliament occurred. Thus, for many Washington policymakers, the December 13 attack and the subsequent Indian and Pakistani military deployments were serious and unwelcome diversions from the war on terror.

The report quoted one regional specialist as saying that 'for the first time, I viewed (the management of) tensions between India and Pakistan as a means, not an end. The end was to keep our Afghanistan policy on track.'

It spoke of the meeting between the first US official to meet with Indian leaders after the attack on the Parliament, Senior National Security Director for Asia Torkel Patterson, who was on a swing through Asia to brief governments about the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- as facing the full brunt of Indian anger from India's then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra.

It said Mishra 'was seething in their meeting -- red-faced, grasping a pencil, charging that Washington did not seriously take the problem of Pakistani support for terrorism. Patterson felt that Mishra's aim was to clarify that India had red lines that could not be crossed, including terrorism against India's leadership.'

The report, quoting Armitage, said, 'Once the violence moved to New Delhi, India-Pakistan tensions became a whole new ball game.'

It said another senior Bush administration official had recalled that 'it was extremely serious. The emotional part of it was the attack on the Parliament. Almost everything else you could discuss calmly... They would point out in every conversation how close they (the militants) came to killing 'my colleagues' and decapitating the Indian government. The attack occurred at a time when almost the entire executive branch as well as the legislature was there. It shook them to their boots. They made clear that they could no longer live under this level of threat. You had to (1) listen and (2) allow them to vent their anger. (The) US message: 'We know how mad you are, but this is not the time to let MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) take over.'

President Bush called President Pervez Musharraf and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and counselled 'patience and calm'. But he acknowledged to his aides that Vajpayee was 'very unhappy.' The South Asia Bureau went into crisis mode, preparing contingency press guidance on the India and Pakistan crisis virtually daily from December 13 through January 2002. In the preceding three months, they had done so only three times: after the October 1 state assembly bombing; on October 16, when shelling resumed across the Line of Control; and on November 2.

The report said that as India mobilised for war and prepared to move against the bases used by militant groups implicated in the attack, Musharraf also put his army on high alert, and US 'policymakers worried that these moves and counter-moves could trigger unintended escalation to a general war or even nuclear use.'

It said according to one State Department official, 'The question was would things get out of hand and prompt one side or another to slide toward (nuclear weapon) use... Escalation would come quickly.' A particular concern was that India and Pakistan could misperceive or not recognise each other's 'red lines.'

The report noted that the alleviation of the pending crisis came after Musharraf blacklisted certain terrorist groups operating with impunity on Pakistani soil, even though he did so only 'cosmetically,' and his speech in January 2002, for which 'Washington provided detailed advice to Musharraf on the content of the speech.'

It said that as one former National Security Council staffer described it, the address was a success for the US effort to 'help Pakistan reposition itself to oppose terrorism,' and even though the implementation of Musharraf's promises would take time, it would nonetheless, during this period, make if politically difficult for New Delhi to initiate a military campaign.

The report said while the Twin Peaks crisis may not have persuaded Pakistan to abandon unconventional warfare as a means to leverage India on Kashmir, the 'rewards' of this misguided policy 'have become increasingly meagre, and the risks of imperilling Pakistan's foreign standing have become greater.'

Meanwhile, concern about the sacrifice of US credibility hinged on assumptions about the nature of future crises -- 'counterfactuals,' as one former dismissively had described them.

The report said Armitage believed that US crisis management bought time and space for subsequent moves away from confrontation by New Delhi and Islamabad, but that if another severe crisis were to occur, its shale as well as its resolution would likely be different as a result of what transpired during the 10 months of military confrontation and the diplomacy employed to end it. Thus, the tools and techniques needed to defuse any future confrontation would be different from those during the Twin Peaks crisis, and in Armitage's opinion, 'there may never be another India-Pakistan crisis of this magnitude to defuse.'

Nayak, currently an independent consultant, retired from government in 2002, but from 1995-2001, was the US intelligence community's senior expert and manager on South Asia.

Krepon, is the co-founder of the Stimson Center, where he served as president and CEO from 1989 to 2000, and since then is its president emeritus.

The Rediff Specials

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Number of User Comments: 14

Sub: Greater India to include Pakistan

I do not think freedom of speech, democracy can ever work in Pakistan as we have seen over the last 60 years. A policy decision ...

Posted by Omar Syed

Sub: pakistan and pervez musharaf

First of all,I am Indian and i do not beleive in what the the UK did by dividing my own country.In a very long run ...

Posted by H.G.Jagtiani

Sub: We must pray!

Yes--this was a dangerous situation which could have led to a nuclear war with horrific consequences on both sides. We must prayer in such situations ...

Posted by Joseph

Sub: India, Pak nearly went ot war

Established and sustainable democracy in Pakistan can contribute to reduce the tensions in sub-continent. NADELLA MANIKYA RAM JYOTHINAGAR-505 215 KARIMNAGAR DIST AP

Posted by nadella manikya ram

Sub: About the culprit Musaraf

Iam a NRI. Two things i notes is 1.Mr.Musaraf the culprit was planning for a nuclear attack on INDIA when he was a general under ...

Posted by sezkar



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