Barely a year after the ‘war-like situation’ of Kargil between India and Pakistan, ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif has stirred up another hornet’s nest. Newspapers reported on 13 June that during a break in court proceedings at the 16th century Attock Fort, where he is detained, Sharif told reporters that he had not been informed about the Pakistan Army’s foray into the strategic Kargil heights.
Reading from a prepared statement, Sharif said: “This ill-planned and ill-conceived operation was kept so secret that besides the prime minister, even some corps commanders and the air force and navy chiefs were kept in the dark.” Had he been informed in time, he said, he would have dissuaded Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee from making that famous bus ride to Lahore, which started the “Lahore Process” of reconciliation in February 1999 before Kargil brought it down in May 1999.
Stating that it was time to inform the nation about the facts which led to the Kargil operation, he posed three rhetorical questions: who sabotaged the Lahore Declaration; who derailed the process of dialogue for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute; and who was responsible for Pakistan’s isolation in the comity of nations.
Sharif added that he had been misinformed about the losses expected during the operation. “Our loss on the Kargil heights was more than what we suffered in the full-fledged war of 1965,” he said. “Unit after unit of Northern Light Infantry were wiped out. Every passing day, Pakistan was losing posts.” Pakistan lost Tiger Hills and 1514, he said, and if the conflict had not been halted, the remaining heights would have been lost. It was the Chief of Army Staff (COAS, at present the Chief Executive) Parvez Musharraf who had wanted Pakistan to involve the USA in the issue, which was why he (Sharif) had made the dash to Washington, the ex-PM said.
A similar controversy had arisen last year, when the press reported the then foreign minister’s statement that the prime minister had not been taken into confidence by the generals on Kargil. General Musharraf had publicly denied the allegation then, insisting that Sharif had been kept up-to-date on each step, first through a briefing and later through the intermediary of the then information minister Mushahid Hussain. This was the beginning of the breach between the general and the prime minister, which culminated in the coup of 12 October 1999.
Shortly after the coup, an exclusive report in The Indian Express (12 October) made the dramatic disclosure of tape-recorded conversations between Pakistan’s COAS and its Chief of General Staff. These had been picked up by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) during the Kargil crisis, and by 1 June 1999, the Indian prime minister and members of the Cabinet Committee of Security had heard the tapes. By 4 June, “India had taken the audacious step of delivering the Musharraf tapes, along with a written transcript, to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself,” said the newspaper report, which continued, “From the Indian viewpoint, the Musharraf tapes firstly nailed Pakistan’s claim that the Kargil intrusions were a non-military affair, and secondly they made it clear that General Musharraf and his fellow commanders were dealing with Premier Nawaz strictly on a need-to-know basis.”
While The Indian Express report supports Sharif’s claims of having been kept away from the details of the tactical situation, the question arises as to why Sharif has chosen to make these disclosures now, eight months after being ousted, while facing trial for his life, and his political career apparently irreparably halted. Why did he maintain silence following Gen. Musharraf’s denial last year, and prefer to cling to power at that time? Perhaps he was just biding his time, already planning to rid himself of the troublesome COAS. But if he was as against the operation as Sharif now suggests, why did he then present medals to the ‘Kargil heroes’ and give posthumous recognitions to the ‘Kargil martyrs’?
While obviously, as BBC radio put it, this was a cornered Sharif “trying to reappear on the political front”, the former prime minister’s desperate strategy of exposing the military’s role in Kargil seems to have backfired. If anything, Sharif has fuelled even more hostility towards himself, from a public which sees him as playing into India’s hands by making such an admission. A no-win situation for the former prime minister if there was one.
Benazir Bhutto told a reporter in London a year off that a similar plan of storming the Kargil heights had been submitted to her while she was prime minister. She said she instituted a committee of defence experts to examine the plan, which concluded that while it would be easy to capture Kargil by force, it would be impossible to retain it diplomatically. The plan was dropped. If a government as weak as Bhutto’s was consulted, it is unlikely that one as strong as Sharif’s would have been kept in the dark by the army. While details of the tactical situation may not have been divulged to him, it does seem ingenious for Sharif to claim that he was completely unaware of what was happening in Kargil even while Vajpayee was heading Lahore’s way in the bus.
From a South Asian perspective, it is important — at some point — to know exactly the why’s and who’s of Kargil. Why did the Pakistani army feel the need to carry its Adventure deep across the Line of Control, to bring the fragile structure of peace-making between Islamabad and New Delhi crashing down to the ground, taking the two nuclearised nations to the brink? Who planned it, and who okayed the plans? Who knew, who did not? The answers are important so that a disaster like Kargil will not again happen, to thwart peace efforts yet again.
The situation demands an independent inquiry into the affair —a demand made by Sharif himself— because the Pakistani and South Asian people have a right to know.