Book: ENGAGING INDIA
(Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb)
Author: Strobe Talbott
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.
Pages; 268 Price:
Dr Afzal Mirza
America's former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott’s latest book Engaging India though meant to describe Indo-US relations during Clinton’s times has much to reveal about Pakistan as well. Talbott who worked for 21 years in Time Magazine as a columnist and correspondent before becoming the deputy secretary of state had old association with Bill Clinton being his contemporary in Oxford days when the later was a Fulbright scholar there in late 1960s. It seems both of them shared a common fascination for India triggered by history books read by them.“ I remember him toting around Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli for several weeks in the fall of 1969 and talking about it in pubs and in the kitchen of the house we shared. Then same year he read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India for the first time,.” writes Talbott about Clinton. Again Talbott’s wife Brooke Shearer also stayed with an Indian family in 1968 when she visited India sponsored by Experiment in International Living. So India was close to Talbott’s heart when he took over as the deputy secretary of state. But the problem was that to the chagrin of Clinton administration India carried out nuclear tests in 1998. The situation was worsened by the fact that India kept their preparation for the tests so secret that CIA or any other American agency could hardly get a clue of it. Thus it was a great set back to the technical superiority of American intelligence. Talbot writes that the whole administration turned against India and wanted to clamp stringent sanctions. India justified its tests by pointing to its two neighbors “China an overt nuclear weapons state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962 and Pakistan a covert nuclear weapons state that had committed aggression against India three times and that continued to sponsor terrorism in Kashmir.” Talbot responded to the occasion by developing direct rapport with Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh from whom it appears that Talbot is enormously impressed. That is why the back flap of the book carries a picture of the two. The purpose before Talbott was that having accepted the fact that India was a nuclear power the efforts should now be directed to bring round India to sign NPT or CTBT.
The dust had not yet settled after Indian tests that Pakistan also announced its intention to retaliate with their own nuclear blasts. The most stressed man at this juncture was Clinton who did not want that Pakistan should follow suit. Thus the administration planned to prevail upon Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif not to go ahead with his plans to explode its nuclear devices. Talbot has described details of the administration’s efforts towards this end. While he describes in details the discussions he had with Jaswant Singh who skillfully sold the BJP government’s point of view to his American counterpart but it hardly satisfied Clinton and his close circle of advisers. Now when they come to know that Pakistan was also preparing to effectively reply to Indian tests they came into action. Talbottt writes, “ Clinton telephoned Nawaz Sharif the Pakistan prime minister, to whet his appetite for the planes, huge amounts of financial aid and a prize certain to appeal to Sharif--- an invitation from him to make an official visit to Washington. Sharif was not swayed.’ You can almost hear the guy wringing his hands and sweating,’ Clinton said after hanging up” Having failed to evince any reply from Sharif Talbott was directed by the president to visit Pakistan and make the case to Nawaz Sharif personally. An invitation to their visit could only be obtained through the good offices of Gen. Jahangir Karamat. Which according to Talbott proved that ‘ the civilian leaders were in a state of confusion perhaps discord and the military called the shots in Pakistan.’ In Pakistan they first met foreign minister Gohar Ayub and foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad who did not agree to American proposal. Shamshad to the disliking of Americans was more vocal. He writes, ’The people of Pakistan’ added Shamshad Ahmad ,’ will not forgive those in this room if we do not do the right thing. “Then they meet General Karamat, the favorite of Talbott and all other authors (from Zinni to Tommy Franks). “ He heard us out and acknowledged the validity of at least some of our arguments….His government was still wrestling with the question what to do….There was more generally Karamat talked about his country’s political leadership a subtle but discernable undertone of long-suffering patience bordering on scorn.” Briefing them with the historic Indian attitude towards Pakistan Karamat assured them that “ given the political, military, historic and economic stakes involved the Pakistani government is carefully weighing what to do.” Then they met prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Talbott writes, “ What we got from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was a Hamlet act, convincing in its own way----that is I think he was genuinely feeling torn—but rather pathetic….On this occasion he seemed nearly paralyzed with exhaustion, anguish and fear. He was literally just as Clinton had sensed during their phone call---wringing his hands. He had yet to make up his mind but he said,’ I am an elected official and I can not ignore popular sentiment.’” When Talbott revealed to Sharif the Clinton plan of ‘dramatizing’ the world’s gratitude to him during the latter’s visit to USA if he just refrained from testing Nawaz Sharif asked Talbott, “Will Clinton promise to skip India on his trip and come only to Pakistan?” There was no way he could promise that but he told Sharif that Clinton would recalibrate the length and character of the stops in Delhi and Islamabad. He writes,” Sharif looked more miserable than ever.” Kashmir came up repeatedly during the meeting and Nawaz Sharif told him that Kashmir and not nuclear issue was at the core of the tension between India and Pakistan. Talbott did not enjoy his dealings with Shamshad and goes on to write,” Towards the end of the meeting Sharif asked every one but me to wait outside. Shamshad seemed miffed. He glanced nervously over his shoulder as he left.” Sharif told him in privacy that if he did as they wanted the next time “you came to Islamabad you would find yourself not dealing with a clean-shaven moderate but and Islamic fundamentalist ‘with a long beard.’” Pakistan went ahead with its tests and when Talbott broke the news to Clinton ,”He scowled, looked down at floor and silent for what seemed a long moment, ’That’s bad’ he finally said shaking his head ,’real bad. Those folks have got a kind of genius for making a bad deal worse’. Clinton said that he wanted to get into that situation there but that would be harder now..
Talbott writes that Nawaz Sharif a number of times asked Clinton to mediate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan as America did between Israel and Egypt but Clinton would express his inability saying that for mediation both the parties should approach the mediator. In this case India was not interested. But it seems that Clinton was definitely interested in easing out situation between the two nuclear neighbors as he mentioned to his advisors. They had a solution of the problem by dividing Kashmir along the LOC and giving more autonomy to Indian –held Kashmir. Clinton might have personally helped in its solution but according to Talbott, Kargil episode was yet another event that disappointed Clinton enormously. He has written in details what happened between Clinton and Nawaz Sharif on that occasion under the heading From Kargil to Blair House. He writes about the Lahore Summit between Vajpai and Sharif and Musharraf’s elevation as Chief of Army Staff in these words,” It quickly became apparent that the new chief of the army staff Parvez Musharraf had even less regard for Sharif and the civilian leadership than his predecessor Karamat. In particular Musharraf found the Lahore Summit galling” About Kargil he writes,”The American Government followed the conflict with growing alarm which could easily become a nuclear cataclysm…Tony (Zinni) warned Musharraf that India would cross the LOC itself if Pakistan did not pull back. Musharraf professed to be unimpressed. Back in Washington the administration let it be known that if Sharif did not order a pullback we would hold up $ 100 million IMF loan that Pakistan sorely needed….. We did not know whether Sharif had personally ordered the infiltration above Kargil (doubtful) reluctantly acquiesced in it (more likely) or not even known about it until after it happened (possible). But there was no doubt that he now realized that it was colossal blunder.”
Talbott writes that “through our ambassador in Islamabad Sharif begged Clinton to come to his rescue with a plan that would stop the fighting and set the stage for a US-brokered solution to Kashmir,” In reply to Sharif’s phone call Clinton said that he would consider it only if Pakistan first unilaterally withdrew. ”The next day Sharif called to say that he was packing his bags and getting ready to fly immediately to Washington--- never mind that he has not been invited. ‘This guy‘s coming literally on a wing and a prayer ,’said the president,” Sharif was not given the proper protocol and was received by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and brought to Blair House who informed the Americans that ‘they should be prepared to deal with a man who was not just distraught about the crisis but terrified of the reaction from Musharraf and the military if he gave in to American pressure.’ Talbott suggested to the president that if Sartaj Aziz and Shamshad would participate in the meeting it would not be a productive so president should have a two to one meeting with Sharif attended by one aide of Clinton. In the meeting instead of relenting Sharif made matter worse by linking withdrawal from Kargil with solution of Kashmir dispute .Talbott writes that Clinton came as close to as I had ever seen blowing up in a meeting with a foreign leader. But after giving him a lecture on history Clinton switched from “chastising Sharif for the reckless stupidity of Kargil to complementing him on his earlier contribution to moment of diplomatic promise.” “Having listened to Sharif’s complaints against United States he had a list of his own and it started with terrorism. ..Clinton had worked himself back into real anger—his face flushed. ..Sharif seemed beaten, physically and emotionally. He denied he had given any orders with regards to nuclear weaponry and said he was worried for his life.” The meeting however ended on a happy and friendly feeling on Clinton’s part after Sharif signed the press note “ As the president and his advisers were leaving Blair House Shamshad Ahmad scurried after Sandy with alterations he wanted in the text. Sandy kept walking and said briskly over his shoulder ,’Your boss says it’s okay as it is.’” (End)