The US’ concerted efforts in 1990 to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan when the two countries purportedly were on the brink of a ‘nuclear war’ remain underappreciated. On multiple occasions, Washington has helped the two nuclear-armed neighbors maintain peace amid such a hostile environment.
After India amassed troops and weapons on the border with Pakistan in 1987, speculation was rife about a nuclear war between the two countries. About 600,000 Indian troops had been mobilized in the western sector by New Delhi, under ‘Operation Brasstacks’, the aim of which, according to India, was to “test and experiment the new concepts in warfare”.
But those claims were later dismissed by experts, saying the threat of war had alerted the defense establishment into conducting such exercises.
Fortunately, the timely intervention by the US helped calm the tension, while preventing miscommunication between the two countries, which avoided a war.
Almost three years later, in 1990, the two countries were again on the brink of a major war. India had reportedly, once again, moved armed battalions to the border in Rajasthan, along with a huge arsenal of weapons and army equipment.
Concerned about the activities of armed groups in Kashmir and Punjab, in early August 1989, the Indian government decided to increase the number of its forces, which consisted mainly of paramilitary forces, with infantry battalions also added later.
On April 12, 1990, the Pakistani daily Dawn reported that General Aslam Baig had told his corps commanders that 100,000 invading Indian troops had been deployed within 50 miles of the Rajasthan border. He was referring to Indian Army units engaged in winter exercises in the Mahajan area, where India had extended their troop presence, according to Pakistani officials.
The government informed the parliamentary committee that the Pakistani armed forces were on high alert. One Pakistani newspaper quoted General Aslam Baig as saying that “there is a serious threat posed by the Indian Army”.
Pakistan also started corps-level military exercises in the same part of the border with India under the name ‘Zarb-e-Momin’. The large-scale exercise involved the deployment of three field corps, two armored brigades, two artillery divisions, along with one air-defense division of the Pakistan army. It was considered the largest military exercise the country had ever undertaken.
According to Steve Cohen, co-author of the book, Four Crisis and the Peace Process and a prominent American expert on South Asian affairs, “The Indian force may have taken retaliatory action in response to the military exercise by Pakistan. Instead of returning to safe havens, Pakistani reserve forces were stationed in places from where a swift attack could be launched across the international border.”
On March 29, 1993, American magazine New Yorker published a piece of shocking news, headlined ‘On the nuclear edge’, written by Seymour Hersh. Although the news came three years after the peaceful resolution of the military crisis, on-the-record interviews with Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates and senior CIA officials at the time boosted Hersh’s reputation.
In the interview to the magazine, CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr had said, “It was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced since I’ve been in the US government. It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban missile crisis.”
Hersh gave a sensational color to the events of the military crisis, which were downplayed by a number of experts at the time. He claimed that Pakistan had already deployed its tank division near the Indian border in view of the aggressive military line-up before Robert Gates’ visit to New Delhi and Islamabad and that Pakistan had secretly placed its nuclear forces on high alert.
Role Of US Military Attachés
Colonel Sandrack, who was the US military attaché during 1990, left from the US embassy in New Delhi on a secret visit to Hisar, in Haryana, near the border. In those days, Hisar was hosting the Indian Army division and the forces which were to attack Pakistan.
Colonel Sandrack set out on a mission to obtain intelligence, and he had the direct permission of General VN Sharma, who was the Chief of Army Staff at the time. At the request of the US Ambassador William Clark in New Delhi, the Indian Army Chief allowed a team of US military attaches to visit the Indian border states where the Pakistani military feared that India would send troops to attack Pakistan, and had deployed tank divisions.
The Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, known for its specialized research on nuclear non-proliferation, in December 1994 convened a meeting of US civilian and military diplomats who were working in New Delhi and Islamabad during the January-April 1990 military crisis in the region.
The purpose of inviting the US military attaches and ambassadors stationed in New Delhi and Islamabad during this period, in particular, was to understand the realities of what was happening at that time when the tensions were at the peak.
Washington had a key role to play in ending the military crisis, so these officials had a lot to say at the meeting. The Henry L. Stimson Center published all the conversations that took place at the meeting that year, which are available on the Internet.
At a 1994 conference in Washington D.C., hosted by Henry L. Stimson, Colonel Sandrack confirmed, “We visited the siege, the city where the Indian Armored Division was stationed. After that we went to Bikaner, but there we did not see any military movement on the highway. In both cantonments, we did not see any military equipment being prepared for installation on the border. Then we set off for the military training area of Mahajan where we only found tanks.”
Winter is the time of year when the armed forces of both India and Pakistan conduct military exercises. On the Indian side, the location of such exercises is near the town of Bikaner in Rajasthan, which faces Pakistan’s Multan on the opposite side of the border, located near the Indian region of Mahajan.
The distance between the two sides is 100 to 120 km. “These exercises were considered normal, but from our point of view, the most unusual thing was the deployment of troops in Kashmir and Punjab,” he said.
“The deployment of troops to India between 1989 and 1990 was huge, but there is no evidence that heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery were moving. Our estimates and evidence are in line with the Indian statement that the increase in troops towards India was to prevent cross-border incursions.”
The US military attaches stationed in New Delhi and Islamabad were engaged in a concerted effort in Pakistan and India to gather this intelligence. In India, the team was led by Col. Sandrack, while in Pakistan, Col. Donald Jones was leading the mission.
The teams set up a network of military experts, which was given responsibilities by Washington, to not only track any offensive military alignments or weapons installations on either side of the border but to report any such news immediately.
The teams were briefing US ambassadors in their respective countries on a regular basis and liaising with each other to get a full picture of the military tensions between Pakistan and India during February, March, and April 1990 and report them. This was at a time when the activities of armed groups were gaining momentum in Kashmir.
In a 46-page text of a meeting hosted by the Henry L. Stimson Center, US ambassadors and military attaches described their experiences with military activity on both sides of the border.
The ambassadors noted how the information contributed to US efforts to reduce misunderstandings, suspicions, and tensions between the two rival countries. The intelligence details collected by the US military attaches were sent simultaneously to Washington, New Delhi, and Islamabad. It was these intelligence-gathering missions that paved the way for the arrival of US Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates in the region to avoid military tensions in South Asia.
Col. Donald Jones, a former military attaché, who was stationed in Islamabad at the time, told the meeting that he had traveled from Kashmir to Karachi in Pakistan in February 1990 to find out if there was any military activity. According to him, there was an area of 50 to 75 km only around Lahore where military activities were taking place.
Col. Donald Jones, addressing a press conference, said: “The analysis of our two embassies in Islamabad and New Delhi was that neither side had any intention of war. Our only concern was the occurrence of any incident anywhere on the border that had nothing to do with this issue but would lead to war between the two countries.”
According to experts, there were a number of factors contributing to the rise in tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors at the time. One of them was the withdrawal of Russia from Afghanistan, which made the Pakistani military proud since they had played a role in it.
Therefore, the ‘Zarb-e-Momin’ exercise was an expression of Pakistan’s strength. One of its messages was that Pakistan was fully prepared to infiltrate Indian territory, which caused panic and anger among the people on the other side of the border.
According to then-US Ambassador to Islamabad, Robert Oakley, quoted by the BBC, some people within the Pakistani military had begun to think they had mastered the skill of organizing and controlling armed militants (proxy operations). Although that formula was successful against the Russians, in the past, it had failed against India in Kashmir.