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15 years ago: When war was imminent and peace imperative

Updated Oct 03, 2016 04:51pm

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A soldier patrols the Pakistan-India border | Reuters
A soldier patrols the Pakistan-India border | Reuters

It was late at night on December 21 when President Pervez Musharraf was approached by the country's intelligence supremo who wished to discuss a matter of grave urgency. Pakistani intelligence had picked up credible signals from across the border that the Indian Air Force was planning a major strike, possibly in Azad Kashmir, in the name of hot pursuit. Pakistan was in touch with Washington minutes later and what followed was a flurry of night-long diplomatic activity that ultimately convinced India to back off. A major war, if not a catastrophe of epic scale, had been averted in the subcontinent.

But the threat did not dissipate entirely, top security officials say. The following night significant movements of the Indian Air Force were reported not only in the Kashmir region but also in the jurisdiction of its Western Air Command. Washington again came into the picture and another diplomatic exercise ensued, during which the Indian side once more denied any aggressive intent. "The air strikes were ultimately averted but the movements on the Indian side on December 21 and 22 strongly suggested that Delhi was seriously considering the war option," a top ranking security official told the Herald. "In fact we were convinced that war was imminent."

From that point onwards, Pakistan's armed forces were put on full alert, leaves were cancelled and a major troop deployment was ordered along the borders. Pakistan too was now prepared for war. Even though the situation on the western Afghan border was far from stable, the military establishment was now seriously considering a fourth war with Pakistan's hostile eastern neighbour. In addition to the three pitched battles fought in 1948, 1965 and 1971, the two countries were also involved in a major armed conflict in Kargil just two-and-a-half years ago. But the latest crisis was clearly the most severe in over 30 years, with the possible exception of a potentially explosive situation in the mid-eighties when India conducted a military exercise called Brasstacks'.

Pakistani soldier on high alert | Reuters
Pakistani soldier on high alert | Reuters

Last month the conventional forces of Pakistan and India stood eyeball to eyeball with their sophisticated military machines revving furiously, sending shock waves across the globe. The world is accustomed to periodic flare-ups between the two South Asian foes but this time round both were equipped with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The absence of a no-first-use treaty only made for an even worse case of the jitters. Not surprisingly alarm bells rang out in almost every world capital, with Washington and London taking the lead in calling for restraint. In a calculated reference to the horrors of a nuclear holocaust, Pakistan's foreign minister Abdul Sattar also offered a timely word of caution. "The deterrence value of these weapons [will] be kept in mind by those thinking of any misadventure."

The drums of war had begun reverberating soon after the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. With its inflammatory rhetoric, the BJP government quickly managed to convince ordinary Indians that the bloody attack was carried out by militants from across the border. This in turn made the case for a strategic attack on Azad Kashmir which, in New Delhi's view, houses training camps for Kashmiri militants. Hawks such as L.K. Advani and George Fernandes, as well as those working from behind the scenes, were now eager to cash in on the international 'war against terror' and go after Pakistan in the name of combating cross-border terrorism. Some in the Indian government camp felt that this was a golden opportunity to finally 'settle' the long-standing Kashmir issue. As the war frenzy in Delhi reached fever pitch, coupled with a massive deployment of men and military hardware along the border, there was a real danger that unrelenting talk of war may leave the Indians no choice but to match word with deed.

The world is accustomed to periodic flare-ups between the two South Asian foes but this time round both were equipped with nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

For his part, Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was quick to accuse Pakistan-based militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba of orchestrating the parliament attack. While rejecting Islamabad's demand for concrete evidence or an impartial inquiry, New Delhi took a firm stand that Pakistan should either initiate telling action against these groups or be prepared to face the consequences. For some this was a chilling flashback from the early days of the US-Taliban stand-off.

India then proceeded to sever all possible contacts and channels of communication with Pakistan. The Indian high commissioner to Islamabad was unilaterally, withdrawn, a Pakistan high commission staffer was beaten up and expelled from India on espionage charges and train and bus services between the two countries were suspended. Until then President Musharraf had shown utmost restraint and even suggested a meeting between the two sides to discuss the matter. India turned down this offer and raised the temperature even further by increasing troop deployment. It also barred Pakistani commercial planes from Indian airspace and slashed its own high corn-mission staff in Islamabad by 50 per cent. Only then did Pakistan opt for a tit-for-tat response.

Indian officials run amok in distress | Reuters
Indian officials run amok in distress | Reuters

Senior Pakistani security officials say their assessment of a possible war had assumed concrete form by December 27. By this time, the concentration of Indian forces along the border was such that Delhi's intentions were clear not just to Islamabad but also Washington. Pakistani intelligence reports maintained that India had moved 11 divisions, along with three additional brigades as well as 25 loose battalions, into the Kashmir region alone. Although some of these troops were still engaged in internal security operations against Kashmiri militants, most had been deployed o offensive action. The Indian Air Force in the area had meanwhile been beefed up to 103 aircraft by December 27, Pakistani security officials say. Indian army strength in the Lahore-Kasur sector was then approaching three infantry divisions, one armoured brigade and one mechanised brigade. In the Sulemanki-Bahawalpur sector it had risen to two infantry divisions, two RAPID (combination of infantry and armoured) and one armoured brigade. Similarly, in the desert region, the Indians had deployed three armoured divisions, five infantry divisions, two RAPID, one mechanised brigade and three armoured brigades. Pakistani officials reveal that India's air force strength was also boosted significantly in all these sectors. India's Western Air Command now boasted 234 aircraft while the South Western Command's ranks had swollen to 235 planes. These included SU-30s, Mirage 2000s, MiG-21s and MiG-23s. The navy was perhaps the only arm of the Indian military that did not embark on a major build-up, possibly due to the US fleet's presence in the Indian Ocean.

According to a highly placed official in Islamabad, a critical phase in this war of nerves came on December 29 when President Musharraf spoke on the phone with the US secretary of state. By then India had relocated its forces in Assam to the Pakistani border. Musharraf told Powell that India had made this move only twice before, in 1965 and 1971, adding this was a clear sign that Delhi was preparing to strike. Within no time President Bush was on the phone with the Pakistani leader, asking Musharraf to show restraint and also promising that the White House would contact the leadership in New Delhi to ask them to back off. Later Colin Powell called the Pakistani president, informing him that India may not go for the war option. At the same time, however, he asked Islamabad to do something about the "foreign militants" allegedly operating in Kashmir. Even though the US administration was still pleased with Pakistan's role in the Afghan war and was more than willing to keep the relationship going, Washington had also decided to up the ante. To appease Delhi, the emphasis now was on taking action against organisations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, groups that the US state department had already placed on its list of 'foreign terrorist organisations'.

Not surprisingly alarm bells rang out in almost every world capital, with Washington and London taking the lead in calling for restraint.

Another Pakistani official confided that even though the government was not prepared to go public with its own findings, security officials had by then collected evidence of these groups' freelance or sans frontiers approach to militancy. The bulk of this information was gleaned from some 300-odd Pakistani militants who were formally arrested when they recently returned home from Afghanistan. (In all more than 1,300 Pakistanis are said to have escaped from Afghanistan and made their way back into the country.) Most of the arrested militants were found to be linked with Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkatul Mujahideen while a few were associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Acting on directives issued by President Musharraf the authorities detained the highly controversial Jaish chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, and later rounded up 30 or so of his group's leading lights. But neither India nor the US were impressed and Pakistan's efforts were dis¬missed by Delhi as 'cosmetic' con¬cessions. As pressure from the US continued to mount, Pakistan eventually detained Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed whose decision to change his organisation's name to Jamaat-ul-Dawa convinced no one at home or abroad.

President Pervez Musharraf | Reuters
President Pervez Musharraf | Reuters

The authorities, for their part, tried their best to play down this renewed crackdown on the home front. But it was a significant development nonetheless, one that suggested roundabout acknowledgement of the tacit or direct involvement of these groups in activities that could not be described as part and parcel of the Kashmiri freedom struggle. And it made all the difference at the right time. Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh called it a step in the right direction and everyone from Bush and Blair to Kofi Annan praised Musharraf for his drive against militancy. Whether it was Pakistan that blinked first in the increasingly hostile stand-off is a moot point. What is clear, however, is that President Musharraf's timely acceleration of his ongoing campaign against religious extremism went a long way in pulling the region, at least temporarily, back from the brink of a war that no one in the world can afford.

President Musharraf's move to rein in the militant groups fighting in Kashmir was perhaps far more difficult than his decision to abandon the Taliban. After more than a decade of both overt and behind-the-scenes sup¬port for groups fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir — an uprising in which tens of thousands have laid down their lives — changing Pakistan's Kashmir policy overnight was an endeavour fraught with monumental danger. Afghanistan was a major cause only for a handful of hardline Islamic groups and their religiously motivated supporters numbering no more than a few thousand. Kashmir, on the other hand, is an emotional national issue for a large section of the Pakistani population. As one analyst said, tinkering with Pakistan's Kashmir policy is tantamount to questioning the very character of the state, including the justification for a large standing army.

Maulana Masood Azhar | AFP
Maulana Masood Azhar | AFP

Whether or not the war option has been shelved entirely, the events of December 2001 are bound to produce a significant shift in Pakistan's position on militancy. Signs are that support will be shifted from 'foreign' militants to home-grown mujahideen groups that are led and supported by Kashmiris. Besides tarnishing Pakistan's image on the international stage, some of the now discredited 'freelance' jihadi organisations were also involved in fomenting religious bigotry and terrorism within Pakistan.

This trend was particularly encouraged by Maulana Masood Azhar whose penchant for sectarian militancy within the country had become common knowledge. And it was perhaps Azhar's agenda that prompted President Musharraf to denounce groups that were fanning sectarian hatred in the country and also exporting terrorism. That was the line taken by the government in June 2001, proof enough that Musharraf's anti-extremist stand is not an overnight or post September 11 development. But it is only now that a plan of action against such groups is being concretised. However, there is nothing to suggest that Pakistan will abandon its Kashmir policy —unless of course there are serious advances on the diplomatic front. Given India's conduct during the Agra summit, where it flatly refused to accept Kashmir as a fundamental issue, no Pakistani leader can forsake those fighting for their legitimate right of self-determination.

Pakistan and India hoisting flags at the Wagah Border | Reuters
Pakistan and India hoisting flags at the Wagah Border | Reuters

What lies in store is difficult to predict but it seems that the current crisis may prove 10 be a watershed in subcontinental politics. The terrifying spectre of war between two novice nuclear powers could be just the wake-up call that finally forces the international community to take the region and its issues more seriously. Building on the "genuine hand of friendship" offered by President Musharraf at this month's Saarc summit, the events of December 2001 may also convince Pakistan and India that their differences can only be resolved through dialogue, not war.


This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2002 issue under the headline "Back from the brink". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer was the Herald's Bureau Chief in Islamabad in 2002. He is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.