Kargil: A Win of Diplomacy or War? – The Secret back-channel of ‘Vijay Diwas’

Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Nawaz Sharif. Source: asiatimes.com

Hopefully, we are done posting ‘Kargil Vijay Diwas’ status and stories to again glorify the bloodshed of 1,103 soldiers (407 Indian soldiers and 696 Pakistani soldiers). ’20 years of victory’ is how the Indian government, media and people portray it, and the movie Lakshya is enough to fill every Indian heart with patriotism through its bravery laced story. However was it a victory in war or a victory in back-channel diplomacy? Let us recall the chronological facts of the conflict first before understanding the back-channel negotiation. 

A brief Timeline (1999)

On 25th May, Indian Army identified 600-800 infiltrators.

On 27th May, Lt K Nachiketa pilots the MiG27 fighter aircraft to target Batalic Sector, however during his second attack his aircraft was attacked by an American ‘Stinger’ (surface to air missile)

31st May, the then Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee declares war-like situation.

1st June, Defence Minister George Fernandes offers ‘safe passage’ to intruders.

US holds Pakistan responsible for the dispute, 3rd June- Pakistan hands over Lt K Nachiketa as ‘goodwill gesture’.

10th June, Pakistan returns mutilated bodies of Indian soldiers

13th June, Indian army captures Tololing peak which changed the course of the war

15th June, US urges Pakistan to pull-off forces.

20th June, Indian troops capture point 5140 signaling complete Tololing victory.

23rd – 27th June, US General visits Islamabad and urges Sharif to retreat.

4th July, Indian army captures Tiger Hill and Nawaz Sharif meets US President Bill Clinton in Washington and he is asked to pull back the forces.

11th July, Pakistani infiltrators start to retreat, and India recaptures all peak.

12th July, Nawaz Sharif publicly announces to give diplomacy another chance.

14th July, Operation Vijay, as it is named, is declared successful

26th July, War comes to an end officially.

Kargil has surely been glorified as ‘victory of war’ because for the media, the use of diplomatic term ‘limited conflict’ was a military jargon. Undoubtedly the Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives for national security, the mutilated bodies sent by Pakistan to rage India was surely an instigation of war; but do we want to glorify the bloodshed? Do we want to make it exemplary that our people are dying? Shouldn’t the government be more reasonable by revealing the back-channel diplomacy used to stop the conflict? The articles discuss the unnecessary deceive by the government and the less talked diplomatic victory.

Just a few hours ago news channels published that during a commemorative function in New Delhi; Prime Minister Narendra Modi said

“Kargil victory was the victory of the bravery of our sons and daughters. It was victory of India’s strength and patience. It was victory of India’s sanctity and discipline. It was victory of every Indian’s expectations”. Well, certainly it was a victory of India’s ‘patience’ to secretly have telephonic conversations with the USA making sure that it doesn’t support Pakistan during the conflict.

A.G. Noorani writes that the government lied, first since it panicked due to the crisis and second to reap political advantage out of it. The Kargil dispute is an instance of intelligence failure on the part of India.

During the winter, as a routine, Indian and Pakistani troops used to vacate the Line of Control to avoid the chilling weather. In April 1999, however, the Pakistani army did not vacate and started to capture the region. The Indian army, completely unaware, was informed by a local shepherd Tashi Namgyal about the suspicious activity.

The Secret Deal

What happened on the battlefield is known by all; however, the secret exchange of conversations is unknown. The media was prevented from covering the conflict, and the diplomatic conversation was done secretly along with the fires on the battle-ground. India and Pakistan both are parties to the ‘Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War’ (1949). It envisages a role for third parties; either for States as “protecting powers whose duty it is to safeguard the interests of the parties to the conflict” or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A news media message with a Colombo dateline July 18, 1999, reveals about the ICRC arranging “a deal between both sides allowing safe passage for civilians and relief supplies.” Either the government could have stuck to its offer, or it could have pursued the aggressor’s contempt to diplomacy. The government, however, was secretly doing the former.

From June 1st to July 11th, along with the bloodshed, mediation was taking place. A document of surrender was signed by both the parties as stated by former Chief of Navy Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. It was through secret calls and envoys that the troops were asked to withdraw, making it a military negotiation by the two nations with nuclear power and international support.

On 18th June, Vajpayee sent emissaries to Pakistan which was disclosed only on 1st July. The Director-General of Military Offices from both the nations met at Attari on 11th July and the news was disclosed after around a week. The Pakistani troops started retreating on 14th July and Vajpayee Ji hurriedly gave the ‘good news’ to everyone. On 19th July it was revealed that Indian emissary R K Mishra and Pakistan’s Niaz Naik kept visiting Islamabad and New Delhi respectively during the whole Kargil conflict. The persuasion of US and G-8 countries and conversation with Pakistan kept happening during the whole conflict when Vajpayee Ji was making a public statement that “no talks with Pak until they withdraw forces”. The right-wing organizations took the opportunity to declare that they will remove Pakistan from the globe and it is the time of ‘finishing off’ the enemy.

US intercession during the Kargil War was a marked change from its previous indifference to South Asia. Even in the post-Cold War era, prior to the Clinton Administration, South Asia remained low on the priority scale for the US as they had no vital interests in the region beyond the prevention of a full-scale conflagration. Still, their hand in this circumstance was forced by the presence of nuclear weapons and the early recognition that the situation in Kargil had the makings of a full-scale India-Pakistan war. Pakistan—confident of its special relationship—attempted to influence the US and the international community more generally to intervene and mediate the Kashmir issue. Contrary to these efforts, however, once the veil of confusion concerning the nature of the crises was lifted and Pakistan’s culpability and provocativeness evident, US crisis management strategy exhibited three main characteristics: 1) de-escalation, 2) Kashmir as a bilateral issue, and 3) Pakistan is the aggressor and therefore India’s position in the crises must be backed.

The US was clear in terms of informing Indian leaders that their moral high ground and ubiquitous international support as a victim of Pakistani aggression was predicated upon a continued commitment to strategic restraint. For this reason, India chose to take avoidable casualties and incur material loses that could have been avoided by crossing the LOC. This also elicited a virtual absence of “aggressive nuclear signalling” by India despite its strong military campaign. Further, to breed trust in its relationship with India, the US maintained a high degree of transparency in its crisis management approach. “It regularly shared information of its dealings with Islamabad with Indian leaders, thus allowing them to judge the US role for themselves and recognize Washington’s genuine inclination to act as a supporting force. 

Political Advantage?

“Why can’t New Delhi be upfront and say that to save the lives of our soldiers, a comprehensive agreement has been worked out for the withdrawal of the Pakistanis? Is it because elections have already been announced in India and a ‘military vijaya’ for the BJP will look better than a mutually accepted pull-out?” Amit Baruah of The Hindu (July 14) nailed these falsehoods to the counter.

India understands the importance of perception management and shaping international perception according to its political advantage to influence people’s opinion. The most important lesson that Pakistan learned from Kargil is that Kargil-like operations have high political costs, especially in terms of Pakistan’s international reputation. As all the interlocutors indicated that because Pakistan feels that its diplomatic, political, and military options are highly restricted, however, its best option is to continue attempting to push India for negotiation through the low-intensity war in Kashmir. It is in this context that Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are seen to remain critical and, for all the reasons adumbrated earlier, are only likely to grow in significance for Pakistan.

While the Kargil conflict was a strategic failure by Pakistan, it revealed the intelligence failure of India as well. More than the Indian and Pakistani envoys visiting each other’s nations, it was USA’s involvement that made peace. The longtime ally of Pakistan was not ready to support the Pakistani aggression for apparent reasons and thus Bill Clinton advised both the parties to negotiate. “In private, South Block bureaucrats admit that the role played by the U.S. was much more than what other countries did…. Few Indian officials deny that the Kashmir dispute has been internationalized. But they argue that by doing so New Delhi has benefited as most world powers have sided with it.” The sacrifices made for the nation should be saluted; however, Kargil was a victory of negotiation which redefines the international relations despite the fact that USA’s involvement was an unnecessary plan.

The piece was initially written for Statecraft

Sugandh Priya Ojha

Sugandh Priya Ojha is the co-founder of a political consultancy startup. She is also an IR professional and a polyglot with interest and experience in Political Analysis, Culture, International Security and Climate Governance.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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