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O Untimely Death:

The Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, 1996-98


By Chris Oakley

Part 4


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



Summary: In the first three episodes of this series we reviewed the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani  War, the first engagements of the war itself, the early effects of the war on China’s relationship to the combatant nations, and the bold Indian gambit to hasten the war’s end by capturing Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. In this segment we’ll look at the Indian army’s post-Operation Amritsar efforts to crush the Kargil insurgency and the fourth Indo-Pakistani war’s impact on the 1996 US presidential elections.


They were formally known by the bland designation "Unit 8", yet there was nothing bland about their assigned mission. They were one of the Research and Analysis Wing1’s most skilled black ops detachments, and they were infiltrating Pakistan for the express purpose of killing the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. ISI was widely blamed for instigating the Kargil insurgency and keeping it going, and the prevailing viewpoint among the security establishment in New Delhi was that getting rid of the ISI director would go a long way towards cutting the insurgency off at the knees.

Prior to being recruited to assassinate Major General Nasim Rana, the ISI director at the time the fourth Indo-Pakistani war broke out, Unit 8 had been known primarily for acts of sabotage against Pakistani military communications facilities and blowing up Pakistani munitions stores. They’d seldom been used for hit jobs, but when they were they usually did such jobs with lethal effectiveness; a leading defense and counterintelligence affairs magazine has estimated that among thirty-eight unexplained deaths of Pakistani military and intel officers that happened during the first year of the Fourth Indo-Pakistani War, at least six and possibly as many as ten can be linked either directly or indirectly to Unit 8.

Knowing they would be arrested or worse if they attempted to approach Rana en masse, the members of Unit 8 approached the ISI’s headquarters in small clusters, timing their movements as far apart as possible in order to avoid being detected or arousing suspicion from ISI security personnel. Once they were inside, they waited for the right moment to make the hit on General Rana; they were equipped with everything from garrotes to Uzis for this purpose. As Rana was leaving his office to meet with one of his deputies for a briefing on the latest developments in the Kargil rebellion, one group of Unit 8 operatives took out Rana’s bodyguards with silencer-equipped pistols while another tackled Rana himself and stabbed him through the heart with daggers. The ISI director was dead within seconds; their mission complete, the agents of Unit 8 made tracks out of the building for a prearranged extraction point where an Indian army helicopter disguised with Pakistani air force markings would be waiting to bring them home to India.

When the news of General Rana’s murder broke early the next day, the initial theories were that the ISI chief had been the victim of either a botched coup attempt or a raid by Muslim extremists on ISI headquarters. It would be months before even a vague hint emerged that his demise might have actually been linked to Unit 8....


...and in the meantime, the Kargil uprising Rana had helped to instigate would find itself like a ship without a rudder. Without Rana’s direction, the Kargil insurgents’ attacks began to lose focus, making it easier for Indian occupation forces in the Kargil region to fend off those attacks. Supplies slowed down to a trickle as security lapses among the rebels enabled Indian air force fighter jets to find and destroy many of the convoys the insurgents had relied on to keep them going.

Yet in spite of these handicaps, the Kargil rebels kept up their fight to drive Indian occupation troops out of the region. And just a few days after General Rana’s assassination, one of the insurgent cells pulled off a major tactical victory, destroying an Indian army munitions dump southeast of the town of Skardu in a suicide bombing that left 22 Indian soldiers dead and 58 others injured or missing. The Skardu attack led to a shakeup in the senior staff at the Indian occupation forces’ headquarters in Leh.

Thousands of miles from the Kargil region, President Clinton was feeling the Indo-Pakistani war’s impact on his bid for a second term. When he first launched his quest for re-election, it looked like a strong domestic economy and relative tranquility abroad might permit him to cruise past whatever challenger the Republicans might throw his way; as his handling of the conflict came under increasing criticism, however, GOP nominee Bob Dole was able to close the gap on him so that the two candidates were almost neck-and-neck on the eve of Election Day.

The balloting would turn out to be the closest seen in a U.S. presidential contest since the JFK-Nixon showdown in 1960. Not until 1:04 AM on the morning of November 6th, 1996 was Clinton finally named the winner; in fact, through much of the night of November 5th and the early morning hours of November 6th the possibility of a recount loomed as a nightmare scenario for both Clinton and Dole. Even after he had been confirmed as the victor, Clinton would be unable to claim any kind of definitive mandate from the voters; his failure to secure any sort of quick resolution to the Indo-Pakistani mess, combined with the persistent rumors about his personal indiscretions, had turned off a sizable portion of the electorate and made even some of his supporters wonder if he was still up to the job. And it certainly didn’t do much to help his political standing when, shortly after he was sworn in for his second term, rumors(and evidence) began to surface of an illicit affair between him and one of his White House interns.

The intern scandal, coming as it did on top of so many other past indignities and following on the heels of the Whitewater controversy, constituted a distraction for the Clinton White House at a time when it could least afford one. His domestic critics pounced on the intern affair as proof that he wasn’t fit to occupy the Oval Office; within a matter of weeks after the first allegations were made about Clinton’s indiscretions, Republicans in Congress had started calling for a full-scale inquiry into his suspected improper behavior. In this atmosphere it would be hard for him to keep an eye on the escalating bloodshed in the Indo-Pakistani border regions.

Thus the White House was caught off-guard when, in early March of 1997, the Pakistani army launched a four-pronged assault against the Indian battlefront in Pakistan. The new offensive, known as Operation Leviathan and intended to drive Indian ground forces out of Pakistan once and for all, came just about the time when conservatives in the US Senate and House of Representatives were demanding that the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to probe Clinton’s attempts to cover up his affair with the intern. Distracted by what the tabloids were by now referring to as "Intern-gate", the commander-in-chief had little time or energy left over for dealing with the latest escalation in hostilities between Delhi and Islamabad.2


Operation Leviathan’s most important objective, aside from pushing Indian troops out of Pakistan, was to reopen some of the Kargil rebel supply lines which the Indians had closed off in the aftermath of the Rana assassination. The Pakistani general staff knew that the harder it was for the insurgents to obtain what they needed to conduct their rebellion against Indian rule, the smaller the chances were that the insurgency would achieve its goals. Already ISI headquarters had begun hearing disturbing reports that some of the insurgents were throwing down their guns and giving up the fight; there were even rumors a few had switched sides and started collaborating with their former Indian adversaries.

Such rumors gained credence two weeks into the Leviathan campaign when a pair of BBC correspondents followed up on an anonymous tip and traveled to Syria to meet with a former Kargil guerrilla commander who had long since become disillusioned with the cause and left the region just after the assassination of General Rana. Over the course of his interview the ex-insurgent made a number of comments that led the BBC reporters to suspect India’s Research and Analysis Wing was engaged in a secret propaganda offensive to "turn" as many Kargils as it could to the Indian side and sow dissension within the ranks of the guerilla forces. Their hypothesis was further corroborated when the chief of staff for the Pakistani army held a press conference to present papers which Pakistani ground forces had captured as they battled to push the Indians back to the India-Pakistan border; some of those papers bore the stamp of the R & A Wing and made passing references to a secret radio transmission outpost in the Kargil hinterlands. The proverbial ‘smoking gun’ confirming the existence of an R & A Wing psychological warfare campaign to lure Kargil guerrillas over to the other side came in the form of a Pakistani air force reconnaissance photo showing a fairly sophisticated radio complex in the heart in the heart of the Indian army’s Kargil occupation zone; satellite surveillance quickly determined that the complex was broadcasting on frequencies known to be used by Indian military and intelligence services as part of their psy-op strategies.

Using those frequencies to home in on its location, Pakistani air force jets bombed the complex on April 4th, 1997 and wiped it off the map, dealing India’s efforts to crush the Kargil rebellion a blow from which they would not easily recover. Morale among the Kargil insurgent forces and the Pakistani regular army soared; in the days immediately following the air strike, the flow of supplies to the Kargil rebels would steadily increase as Indian occupation forces began to fall back in the face of increasingly aggressive Pakistani forces and previously closed supply routes were re-opened by the Pakistani army. Soon new recruits were flocking to the ranks of the insurgent forces and some of those who had contemplated giving up the fight decided to stay with the rebel army...


To Be Continued



[1] India’s chief external intelligence bureau.

[2] In fact, in a gaffe that would later come back to haunt him, Clinton erroneously told reporters at a White House press conference that Operation Leviathan was an Indian campaign.

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