Condoleezza Rice’s new memoirs contain some interesting details about recent crises in India-Pakistan relations. But her silence on the peace process they undertook in 2004-07 is unfortunate.
The disclosures about the landmark U.S.-India nuclear cooperation accord that are contained in Condoleezza Rice’s new memoirs of her service in the Bush administration, No Higher Honor, have been widely reported. Less noticed are the interesting nuggets about two signal episodes in the recent arc of India-Pakistan relations. The first is the egregious assault upon the Indian parliament while it was in session by Pakistan-based jihadi groups in December 2001, which in turn precipitated a serious military confrontation that lasted for most of 2002. The second is the spectacular November 2008 terrorist strike in Mumbai that is often regarded as “India’s 9/11.”
The 2001-02 standoff was the first nuclear crisis of the 21st century. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government came under tremendous domestic political pressure to respond forcefully to the attack. A similar assault two months earlier on the Kashmir state assembly had caused him to warn the United States that India would be forced to take matters into its own hands if Washington could not convince Islamabad to keep in check terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan. He termed the December attack “the most dangerous challenge so far to India’s national security” and vowed that “we will fight a decisive battle to the end.”
To back up its demands that Islamabad crack down on the militants, India went on a vast war footing, including deploying three strike corps along the border with Pakistan, which reacted with a massive counter-mobilization. In short order, some one million soldiers were arrayed in combat readiness posts on both sides of the border.
Rice recounts that the Bush administration had a difficult time assessing the likelihood of war. The Pentagon believed Indian military moves were to be expected and did not by themselves indicate that an attack was imminent. The CIA, however, concluded that Indian retaliation was inevitable. Washington also received reports that New Delhi was moving nuclear-capable Prithvi ballistic missiles to the border area. Rice recounts that in the closing days of 2001 Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s national security adviser, told her that war fever was rising in the Indian government.
Following diplomatic interventions orchestrated by Washington and London, the standoff seemed to be winding down when a terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir in May 2002 re-inflamed passions. Vajpayee thereafter traveled to the Line of Control in Kashmir where he chillingly instructed Indian troops “to be ready for sacrifice. Your goal should be victory. It’s time to fight a decisive battle. We’ll write a new chapter of victory.” Concerned that tensions were reaching a boiling point, Washington and London evacuated their embassies in New Delhi (though curiously the U.S. embassy in Islamabad was not vacated).
At this point, according to Rice, Mishra urgently called her to say that “I cannot contain the war lobby without some help.” She adds:
Making it clear that he was acting on his own, he asked that the President [George W Bush] make a statement, which he [Mishra] could use internally to try to hold the line.
Acceding to this request, Bush issued a public statement calling on President Pervez Musharraf to do more to rein in militants and then telephoned the Pakistani leader to underscore the message. Following renewed U.S. diplomatic intervention, tensions abated significantly by the summer months and the crisis concluded anticlimactically by October.
Were New Delhi and Islamabad actually on the precipice of war? Much remains unknown about Indian decisionmaking in the crisis. Rice chalks up the reduction of tensions “to the good work of Brajesh Mishra.” Yet not all Indian leaders believed war was imminent. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, for example, has denied that New Delhi was actively contemplating offensive military operations.
Moreover, the window of opportunity for Indian action rapidly closed after January 2002 as Pakistan quickly repositioned forces that were guarding the border with Afghanistan to shore up its eastern flank. For all of the heated rhetoric caused by the May 2002 terrorist attack in Kashmir, senior Indian military officers apparently realized that the likelihood of battlefield success had markedly declined in the intervening months.
The Mumbai terrorist strike that took place in the fall of 2008 was more horrific and brazen than the one that sparked the 2001-02 crisis. In the intervening years, the Indian army had unveiled the Cold Start doctrine which aims to deter Pakistani support for attacks like the one in Mumbai by threatening swift and forceful military retaliation.
Rice states that Washington feared that the doctrine would be implemented in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. According to her, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, reported that “there is war fever here. I don’t know if the prime minister can hold out.” Asif Ali Zardari’s fledgling civilian government in Islamabad was also spooked by a hard-hitting telephone conversation Pranab Mukherjee, then serving as Indian foreign minister, had with his Pakistani opposite number. Alarmed that India is on the warpath, Islamabad frantically began calling on China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates for diplomatic support.
Worry also started to gnaw at Rice when Mukherjee proved hard to reach by phone. She writes: “Is he avoiding my call because they are preparing for war? I wondered. It still didn’t make sense, but it was India and Pakistan, and anything could happen.” When the Indian at last returned her call, he is taken aback by Pakistan’s frenzy. He is in his parliamentary district campaigning for upcoming elections, he explains. “Would I be outside New Delhi if we were about to launch a war?”
A central question in the Mumbai episode is why New Delhi reacted with what can only be described as remarkable forbearance instead of renewed military confrontation as in 2001-02 or with the retaliatory offensives envisioned in the Cold Start doctrine. Rice attributes the quiescence to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s determination to avoid war. Indeed, some analysts have observed that compared to Vajpayee’s BJP government that controlled decisionmaking in the 2001-02 crisis, Singh’s Congress Party is more reflective of the preference for military restraint over risk-taking that is ingrained in Indian strategic culture. While the Cold Start doctrine was promulgated during the BJP’s tenure in power, the succeeding Congress government has taken pains to distance itself from the concept.
But more seems to have been at work than just party ideology. For all the effort on Cold Start, Indian military leaders reportedly told the government after Mumbai that the armed forces were ill-prepared to go to war. Indeed, in a February 2010 cable to the State Department, Timothy Roemer, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, assessed that the strategy “may never be put to use on a battlefield because of substantial and serious resource constraints.”
Rice notes that she became fatigued by the crisis-prone nature of India-Pakistan relations. So it is even more striking that she omits all but fleeting mention of the intensive back-channel peace process New Delhi and Islamabad undertook in 2004-07. Although the negotiations ultimately collapsed in the face of Musharraf’s domestic political problems, they may have come tantalizing close to defusing the perennially-inflamed dispute over Kashmir.
Rice’s silence is unfortunate. The talks are a significant counterpoint to arguments that the nuclearization process in South Asia has only served to foment greater tension and conflict. And they may also hold relevant lessons for the peace dialogue the two governments are currently embarked upon.