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O Untimely Death:

The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98


By Chris Oakley

Part 1


inspired by the story "Hell’s Door Opened" by David Atwell



When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the collapse stirred a glimmer of hope that the threat of global nuclear war which had hung over the human race throughout the Cold War might finally disappear once and for all. Yet while the demise of the world’s leading Communist power did substantially diminish the likelihood of a global atomic conflict, it unfortunately left the door open for the possibility of regional nuclear war in any one of dozens of flashpoints across the earth. One of the most volatile of those flashpoints: South Asia, where India and Pakistan had been at odds with one another almost from the hour Britain partitioned the two countries in 1947.

India had set off what it described as a "peaceful" nuclear test explosion in 1974; ever since then, it had been widely believed-- if not yet conclusively proven --that this explosion had been just the first step in a long-term concerted effort by the Indian government to gain a nuclear weapons capability. Pakistan had little doubt that its eastern neighbor and frequent adversary in war was seeking to acquire its own nuclear bomb; this prompted the Pakistani government to start a nuclear weapons development program that its leaders hoped would give them the tools they needed to counter the suspected Indian atom bomb threat.

In the summer of 1996, in a frantic last-ditch effort to thwart Pakistan’s ambitions of joining the nuclear club, India launched a pre-emptive invasion of Pakistan with the objective of locating and forcibly dismantling the Pakistani nuclear program’s test facilities. However, the Indian military gambit would ultimately backfire on those who had sponsored it...


The match that lit the fuse for the 1996-98 Indo-Pakistani war was actually struck in October of 1995, when pro-Pakistani militants in Kashmir launched a guerrilla uprising aimed at forcing India to pull its troops out of the region. The insurrection originated in Kashmir’s Kargil section, leading foreign correspondents to dub it "the Kargil rebellion". There was considerable evidence of a connection between the Kargil rebels and the Pakistani government; indeed, it would later be discovered that the uprising had largely been masterminded by one of the Pakistani army’s senior generals.

This alone could have been enough to trigger armed hostilities between New Delhi and Islamabad, but in March of 1996 added fuel was poured on the fire when Indian intelligence agents reported to their superiors that an underground nuclear device had been successfully test-detonated in northwestern Pakistan and the Pakistani armed forces were starting to build nuclear warheads for their missile inventory. In the wake of these developments, India made the decision to start testing and building its own nuclear warheads in a determined effort to keep pace with its neighbor and long-time regional foe.

After making little headway in the early months of their fight against Indian troops in Kashmir, the Kargil rebels opted to up the ante by taking the guerrilla war to the Indian home front in the most dramatic way possible. On June 30th, 1996 Kargil suicide bombers blew up the Indian parliament building in New Delhi, leaving 58 dead and 147 injured. Whether or not the attack was sanctioned by the Kargil insurgency’s Pakistani sponsors is still a matter of conjecture-- not to mention fierce debate and innumerable conspiracy theories. But it made little difference; the Indian people and their leaders thirsted for vengeance and were willing to go to any lengths to get it. Within 36 hours after the bombing India had severed diplomatic relations with Pakistan and India’s prime minister had convened a special session of his cabinet to get their recommendations on what his next move should be.

The cabinet’s unanimous conclusion was that he could not wait one more minute before taking action to stop Pakistan from expanding its fledgling nuclear arsenal or increasing its support for the Kargil uprising. At 10:30 AM on the morning of July 3rd, the Indian army got the go-ahead to send troops over the Indo-Pakistani border and Indian air force jets started bombing major tactical and strategic targets on Pakistani soil. For the fourth time in its history and the first time since 1971, India was at war with Pakistan.


For President of the United States Bill Clinton, the outbreak of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only was Clinton still being sharply criticized for his handling1 of the 1993 US intervention in Somalia and his lack of will to oppose the genocide which took place in Rwanda a year later, but he’d also come under increasing condemnation for his policies regarding the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the latest spate of political unrest in Haiti. There was a growing consensus among Congressional Republicans-- and a surprisingly large section of the Democratic wing of Congress-- that Clinton’s foreign policy wasn’t doing very much to help American interests overseas, that it might in fact actually be greatly hurting  those interests.2 All of this, combined with the seemingly neverending chain of domestic scandals that had dogged him since his 1992 run for the White House, was undermining his hopes of gaining a second term.3

Indeed, disenchantment with the Clinton Administration’s early overall performance in the White House had been a major factor in the 1994 midterm Congressional elections, when the Republicans trounced the Democrats in dozens of critical House and Senate races. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the landslide that had turned the balance of power on Capitol Hill in favor of the GOP was Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. From his newly attained bully pulpit, Gingrich took every opportunity to berate Clinton for mistakes both real and perceived; he regarded the conflict between India and Pakistan as proof that Clinton’s foreign policy was making the world a more dangerous place.

Kansas senator Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee at the time the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War broke out, also touched on the theme of Clinton’s policies destabilizing the global situation. In a stump speech delivered shortly after the Indian invasion of Pakistan, Dole stated bluntly: "Clinton is dragging this country to the brink of World War III."4 He delved further into this theme in a TV attack ad released by his campaign two weeks into the war; the 30-second spot, which echoed Lyndon Johnson’s notorious ‘Daisy’ commercial of the 1964 presidential campaign, depicted a mushroom cloud enveloping a typical suburban neighborhood with a map of India and Pakistan showing in the background and a voice-over ominously proclaiming: "Thanks to Clinton, the nuclear bombs being built in Asia today could be exploding in our backyards tomorrow."

Clinton took to the airwaves to defend his foreign policy; he released his own attack ads accusing the Republican Party of trying to undermine his administration’s efforts to craft a workable US foreign policy for the post-Cold War world and suggesting Republican laxness on the issue of nuclear proliferation might be the real cause of the war between India and Pakistan. Vice-President Al Gore acted as the White House point man in the Senate for Clinton’s policy on the Indo- Pakistani conflict, exhorting his former Senate colleagues to back the commander-in-chief.

Clinton’s hope was to nudge New Delhi and Islamabad to the negotiating table by a carrot-and-stick approach-- the carrot being a guarantee of US economic aid to the warring countries and assistance with re-directing their respective nuclear programs towards the more peaceful purpose of providing commercial electrical power, the stick being deployment of US Navy carrier groups to the Indian Ocean as a not-so-subtle hint that the United States might decide to intervene more directly in the situation if Clinton felt it necessary.

But neither the carrot nor the stick seemed to have much effect on India or Pakistan. To the contrary, decades of simmering animosity between the two neighboring states eclipsed all other considerations in the minds of the Indian and Pakistani governments; even as Clinton was making his economic offer, Indian and Pakistani ground forces were engaged in a heated firefight near the Pakistani border town of Kasur.


The Battle of Kasur was one of the Indian army’s first major tests of its invasion strategy. With 1.2 million fighting men under its command, compared to 650,000 troops in the Pakistani army, the Indian army hoped to overwhelm Pakistan using the element of surprise and superior numbers. The Indian general staff in New Delhi was also counting on the Indian air force’s 5 to 1 edge in combat aircraft over its Pakistani counterpart to tip the scales of war in India’s favor.

Kasur’s defenders fought valiantly; even official Indian post- battle intelligence assessments of the Pakistani army’s performance conceded that "enemy forces in the Kasur area put up a determined and courageous struggle against the Indian army". But all the valor in the world isn’t of much use against an adversary who has the advantage of  superior numbers both on land and in the air and has gotten in the first punch to boot. On July 7th, just four days after Indian ground forces first crossed the Pakistani border, Kasur fell into Indian hands. So far, at least, New Delhi’s strategy seemed to be working....


To Be Continued



[1] Or mishandling, in the eyes of the Republican Party.

[2] Clinton’s inconsistent policies on US-China relations didn’t do much to defuse the criticisms of his approach to foreign affairs; while on the one hand he sent carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits to drive home Washington’s intent to continue its long-standing friendship with Taipei, on the other hand he overrode Defense and State Department objections about transferring sensitive technology to mainland China so that he could increase US-China trade and bring more Chinese cash into the United States.

[3] For that matter, Clinton had had numerous brushes with scandal before his 1992 presidential campaign. The less said about those, the better.

[4] “Dole Says Clinton Foreign Policy Responsible For Fighting Between India And Pakistan”, New York Times, July 7th, 1996.


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