A firm American demand

Print edition : July 17, 1999

What does Washington's prescription for Nawaz Sharif in the context of Kargil signify in real terms?

IF the Pakistani propaganda machine is anything to go by, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did a big favour to the United States by visiting Washington on July 4 - his primary objective being the averting of a "war" in the subcontinent. But the Clinton administration is not unaware of the fact that official Islamabad is desperately looking for ways to save its Prime Minister politically.

Whether President Bill Clinton should have in the first place given an appointment to Nawaz Sharif is one question. But in many quarters there is the conviction that the terms of the meeting were not dictated by the Pakistan Prime Minister. In fact, one argument is that Sharif had perhaps to agree to every single point raised and to sign the Joint Statement even before Clinton agreed to meet him during the long Fourth of July weekend.

Notwithstanding Islamabad's blatant disinformation campaign on the nature and scope of the three-hour meeting, one cannot ignore what was put in print by way of the 18-line Joint Statement. But things that were not said in it found their way into Pakistan's "interpretation" of the statement.

Nawaz Sharif agreed with Clinton on some crucial points. For instance he agreed that it was vital for peace in South Asia that both India and Pakistan respect the Line of Control (LoC) in accordance with the 1972 Simla Accord; that "concrete steps" would be taken to restore the sanctity of the LoC. The President urged an immediate cessation of hostilities "once these steps are taken".

The communique also goes on to say that both Clinton and Sharif agreed that the bilateral dialogue process that had begun in Lahore was the "best forum" to resolve all issues, including Kashmir, and that the President would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts "once the sanctity of the Line of Control has been fully restored."

The Pakistani "spin" was only to be expected, for the Prime Minister could not return home "empty-handed". Perhaps the photo session with Clinton at the end of the talks could have well served the purpose of whipping up the feeling back home as to how "close" Sharif was to Clinton. The "spin" came not by way of a masterful interpretation of the Joint Statement but in putting together things that were not there.

According to Pakistani officials in Washington, who gave their own "meaning" to the Joint Statement, Islamabad would use its "influence" to "appeal" to the militants, or the mujahideen; it was made to appear as though there was no commitment on the part of Sharif to withdraw Pakistani forces from the Indian side of the LoC. The Joint Statement makes no reference to any militants or the so-called freedom fighters who suddenly appeared on the Indian side; rather there is an explicit call to Pakistan to pull back its forces from the other side of the LoC in order to reduce tensions.

More than the withdrawal of forces, what was emphasised was a firm American demand for the restoration of the LoC and for respect of its sanctity.

Pakistani officials sought to appease the fundamentalists back home by saying that the mujahideen elements had achieved their objective of drawing international attention to the Kashmir issue: it is a different matter if the hardliners accepted this "compliment". Clinton's commitment to take a "personal interest" in the Kashmir issue was highlighted as yet another selling point. This certainly was stretching the agreement a little too far.

Senior administration officials say that the Joint Statement is quite clear on Clinton's stand that the Lahore Process provided the best forum to resolve all disputes between India and Pakistan on a bilateral basis. The emphasis is on the word 'bilateral'.

If the Pakistani propaganda machine harped on the gains made at the talks, U.S. officials who briefed the media focussed on Kargil. One official remarked: "... The purpose of this meeting is to address the immediate crisis which has been unfolding over the last several weeks. That is the urgency. And clearly once you have addressed this immediate crisis, there will be opportunities to address all issues, again within the context of Lahore."

Asked if the U.S. understanding of the restoration of the LoC in accordance with the Simla Agreement involved all the alterations that came to be made since the accord was signed in 1972, a senior official said: "We have read the Simla Agreement,we read the 43-page annexe which delineates the Line of Control. But this meeting today was not about the history of that agreement, or, indeed, the history of the Kashmir crisis. It is about this particular situation in Kargil with those posts that have been overtaken, and dealing with that."

WHETHER Nawaz Sharif achieved the "political cover" in his meeting with Clinton and will therefore be in a position to implement what he agreed to remains to be seen. In the aftermath of the talks there has been genuine concern in the U.S. over Sharif's capacity to implement the agreement. The impression gained by the administration is that he can pull it off, for two reasons. First, there is a perception that the opposition in Pakistan to the Washington proposal comes from the known hardline elements who would have opposed the Prime Minister, no matter what the outcome of the meeting was. Thus far the U.S. has seen little evidence of a "nation rising in protest". Initial reports indicated that even the armed forces may not stand in the way - if the statements of General Pervez Musharraf, the Chief of the Army Staff, were anything to go by.

Secondly, the U.S. administration is of the firm view that if Islamabad really wants to tell the terrorists and the mercenaries where to get off, it really can. The international community knows that these fighters, who are holed up in the mountain peaks on the Indian side, are sustained by Pakistan.

Prior to the Washington meeting, senior U.S. officials freely talked of "hundreds" of Pakistani regulars being involved in the fighting in Kargil. Pakistan's claim that it has no control over the "freedom fighters" and that its forces are not involved in the intrusions in the sector do not cut much ice with them. In fact, these claims are dismissed with contempt.

Then why should the Clinton administration look for ways to bail out Pakistan? The U.S. does not see the prospect of Pakistan formally going under in terms of its best national and strategic interest, or that of India having to put up with a failed state on its borders. The apprehensions of Islamic fundamentalism aside, Washington is mainly worried about elements in Pakistan's nuclear establishment signing on with terrorists and rogue states in the international system.

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