Srinath Raghavan, in this excerpt from his book ‘The Most Dangerous Place’ writes of the time Nawaz Sharif pleaded with Clinton to mediate the Kashmir dispute.
By May 1999, a conventional, if geographically limited, war was underway in South Asia. And the situation was brimming with the risk of further escalation. Washington watched the conflict with mounting alarm. The Clinton administration’s major concern was that India would strike across the LoC. Such a move could have incalculable consequences, including the involvement of third countries: China and the Arab states on Pakistan’s side, and Russia and Israel on India’s. It could also lead to an all-out war with the danger of a nuclear exchange. ‘The nuclear scenario,’ noted Bruce Riedel of the NSC, ‘was obviously very much on our minds.’ Having been caught out by the Indian nuclear tests, the administration including the President and been worried about the prospect of a nuclear war in the subcontinent. To head off this possibility, Washington swung into action in May 1999.
American officials began meeting regularly with the Pakistani and Indian ambassadors. Secretary Madeleine Albright called Sharif and Jaswant Singh, while General Antony Zinni, commander-in-chief of CENTCOM, spoke with Musharraf. In these private conversations, the Americans stuck to the same line: Pakistan was responsible for provoking the crisis and must withdraw its forces behind the LoC. To the Indians, they also urged restraint to avoid widening the conflict. The Talbot Jaswant Singh channel also came in handy during the crisis. The Indians were at once surprised and relieved that the United States was not tilting towards Pakistan.
When the private messages to the Pakistanis failed to make an impact, the administration went public with the information that Pakistani soldiers were involved in the operation and called on Islamabad to respect the LoC. In late June 1999, Clinton spoke to Sharif and Vajpayee and sent them letters as well. He also sent Zinni to warn Sharif and Musharraf that India would cross the LoC if Pakistan did not reel in its troops. The Pakistanis professed to be unfazed. So, Washington sought to raise the pressure another notch by holding up a $100-million loan that Pakistan urgently needed.
Yet, by the end of the month, the fighting had intensified. As casualties rose on both sides, the temptation for escalation seemed difficult to resist. American intelligence assessments were suggesting that the danger of a full-scale war could become a real possibility. On 2 July, however, Sharif pleaded with Clinton to come up with a plan to stop the fighting and prepare the ground for an America mediated settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Clinton told Sharif that he was welcome, provided he understood two things. First, he had to agree to withdraw his troops back across the LoC. Second, Clinton would not agree to intervene in the Kashmir dispute, ‘especially under circumstances that appeared to reward Pakistan’s wrongful incursion’.35 In another call with Sharif the following day, Clinton held to this line. Sharif did not accept these conditions: he merely said he was on his way. Nevertheless, Clinton called Vajpayee and apprised him of the conversation.
On 3 July, as Sharif flew to Washington, American intelligence found evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing the nuclear arsenal for possible deployment. Clinton’s officials, Talbot recalled, had ‘a sense of vast and unprecedented peril’. Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis came flooding back. Ahead of the meeting with Sharif, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told the President that the objective was not only to induce a Pakistani withdrawal but also to help Sharif stay on in power. The fact that the prime minister was coming to Washington with his family suggested that he was unsure of his position at home. Talbot added that Clinton must also bear in mind Indian sensitivities. The United States seemed poised to clear decades of mistrust in India about American attitude towards Pakistan.
In their meeting on 4 July, Clinton emphasized that a Pakistani withdrawal could not be linked to an American diplomatic intervention in Kashmir. Sharif insisted that Pakistan would withdraw its forces provided India committed to settling Kashmir within a specific time frame. ‘If I were the Indian prime minister,’ Clinton shot back, ‘I’d never do that.’
Excerpted with due permission from Penguin Random House, India.