Panellists at a candid discussion on the Kargil conflict in 1999 at the second Islamabad Literature festival on Sunday said that it was an avoidable adventure and lessons should be learnt from it for better coordination between the civilian government and the military.
Two unresolved questions on whether the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was briefed on Kargil and secondly whether it was a sensible military operation or an adventure were hotly debated.
Journalist and anchorperson Nasim Zehra, who is researching the Kargil conflict, was of the opinion that no apologies to the Indians for Kargil were needed as the Indians had violated the Simla agreement by occupying Siachen in 1983-84. She said Pakistan was looking for ways to get back. She also wanted to remove the myth that the Pakistan Army was behind the Kargil episode and said it was a clique of generals who had planned it.
This adventure was a disaster because Pakistan had behaved in a wise manner after the nuclear tests in 1998 and within 100 days of the tests by both India and Pakistan, the two countries were talking to each other. She said the Lahore meeting was going in the right direction but Kargil undermined all that.
Riaz Khokhar, former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US at the time of the Kargil war, said the context is very simple, Kargil is an offshoot of the Kashmir dispute and the Siachen conflict.
The Siachen adventure of India set a precedent that it’s a free for all. The Kargil war is a controversy and the debate is on whether it was a sensible military operation or an adventure and how much did the Prime Minister know about it, he said.
A lot of people say he was partially briefed but did not comprehend the implications. The military, however, claims he was well-briefed. Even a book by the Indian general V.P. Malik says that Mr. Sharif heard from Mr. Vajpayee about Kargil, he pointed out.
Mr Khokhar said it was an avoidable adventure and he was at the receiving end as he was posted in the US at that time. He said he was called by officials in the US State Department and there was pressure for Pakistani troops to get out of the area they had occupied.
“Somehow one of the biggest mistakes we made was not developing a credible narrative. Nobody was willing to accept our narrative,” he said. The American view was that the Prime Minister was properly briefed but didn’t comprehend the major implications.
“Pakistan was seen as an irresponsible country and we haven’t been able to erase that stigma,” he said while the Indians were smart and added an element of terrorism. As a result Pakistan faced a serious situation though Musharraf claimed victory in his book and said it was an attempt to internationalise the Kashmir issue. He said this happened but in a negative sense. The question of whether Mr. Sharif was properly briefed and did he comprehend has not yet been adequately settled and the jury is still out on how much Prime Minister knew, he added.
Ms. Zehra said the Prime Minister didn’t know and while meetings were held, it was not as if he was briefed. The first time Mr. Sharif got to know was when Mr. Vajpayee called him. She said she had asked for a meeting with Mr. Sharif then since it was clear in Pakistan that this was more than just a skirmish on the Line of Control. She asked him why he wasn’t telling people that.
“Your heart goes out to the soldiers who were willing to give their lives - they needed better leadership,” she said. India’s nuclear tests triggered a response from Pakistan and the Kargil adventure didn’t make sense on multiple fronts, she pointed out. The other question was if the Prime Minister should have rushed to the US.
Decision-making in Pakistan was the key thing and the Army and the civil government need to be on the same page, she said and ultimately the decision has to come from the elected Prime Minister. She recalled that one of the generals who was present at the meeting at the ISI headquarters then, had said military maps were shown and he had said even for him it was difficult to understand those maps and the Prime Minister wouldn’t understand them. The PM has to take some responsibility, be aware and on top of things and decide, which way to go, she added.
Ms. Zehra said she had access to people in the Foreign Office and the PM.
“When it [the conflict] ended I was left embarrassed by the journalism – a lot of people bought the narrative that it was the mujaheedin but it was the Pakistan Army,” she said.