How the U.S. could have saved 225,000 lives and $4 trillion

Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

Twelve years ago, on July 4, 1999, even as the U.S. was celebrating Independence Day, the White House was quietly but hastily preparing to receive Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Blair House for an unscheduled meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The White House was predictably concerned -- (furious, is the insider account) -- since U.S. intelligence had picked up signals that the Pakistani Army, which had just been evicted from Indian territory, in what is referred to as the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil War, was putting out a veiled nuclear weapon threat.

The Pakistan army was in effect using its nuclear weapons to subtly intimidate both India and the U.S. to bolster its war termination objectives.

The greater ignominy for PM Sharif was that he was totally in the dark about these nuclear-related developments, which were being handled by his army chief -- the flamboyant and feckless General Pervez Musharraf -- who was to later overthrow the civilian PM in a coup. An insider's account of the Blair House meeting, which was revealed later by a senior Clinton aide, recounts the U.S. president confronting a very agitated and nervous Pakistani PM with the evidence that the White House had gathered.

Finally, closure on the Kargil War was facilitated by this meeting and the Pakistan army was actually let off the hook, as it were, and given an exit route from the very provocative, high-risk adventurism that General Musharraf had embarked upon.

In later years, after deposing PM Sharif, the Pakistan army under General Musharraf laid the entire onus and blame for the Kargil fiasco on a hapless civilian leadership. This was possible mainly because the U.S., led by the White House, chose to both condone this nuclear transgression by the Pakistan army and begin a policy of appeasement of Pakistani generals that was to become even more apparent after the enormity of 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. Soon thereafter, the U.S. led by President Bush was at war -- in Afghanistan, then Iraq and later the Af-Pak region. Currently, President Barack Obama is cashing in on the elimination of Osama bin Laden to declare his war termination plan -- and the withdrawal of U.S. troops will begin from end-2011.

In the interim, a Brown University report has estimated that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will cost the treasury upwards of $4 trillion -- and that the total number of lives lost to date is in the bandwidth of 225,000 to 258,000.

It is the view of this column that had the U.S. arrived at a more objective and rigorous assessment of the July 4, 1999 Blair House meeting and the kind of deviant fervour that was driving the Pakistan army, the events that followed may have had a different contour and trajectory.

At the time, the U.S. was not unaware of the scourge of terrorism impelled by religious radicalism and related militant Islamic ideology. It had experienced the attack on two U.S. embassies in east Africa in August 1998; preceded by the 1993 attacks near the CIA HQs and the first attempt on the World Trade Centre.

Preliminary investigations at the time -- 1993 and 1998 -- had revealed linkages with Pakistan and its terror infrastructure -- and most vitally, the links with the Pakistan army and the ISI. Yet, the U.S. and its vast security bureaucracy supported by myriad think tanks and eminent analysts were burnishing a different narrative that exonerated the Pakistan army and offering less than effective policy options to their political leadership.

Appeasement was the order of the day and the magnitude of this path-dependency error, apropos the Pakistan army and its covert strategy of supporting terror culminated in 9/11; the cold-blooded murder of Daniel Pearl and Benazir Bhutto; the November 2008 Mumbai attacks; the Osama bin Laden charade and the world is still counting.

Would a different call in 1999 have averted these events? Could 225,000 human deaths have been averted? If the Pakistan army had been firmly admonished by the U.S. for its reckless adventurism, would that country have been different?

Currently, the Pakistan military is believed to have been widely infiltrated by Islamists -- which facilitated the audacious attack on the naval base in Karachi -- and GHQ Rawalpindi has just arrested its first serving brigadier for right-wing terror links with a group in the UK. Concurrently there are reports about Pakistan cranking up its nuclear inventory and it is estimated that by 2020, Pakistan will be the fourth largest nuclear weapon power -- after the U.S., Russia and China.

Another July 4 is upon us and a $4 trillion tab will challenge the U.S. leadership and burden its citizens. A more holistic and honest policy review of the last 12 years going back to Blair House is called for, even as Hillary Clinton prepares for her mid-July visit to the troubled South Asian region.

(This article first appeared in the Reuters on July 3, 2011)
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