Journalist | Writer | Analyst
President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Defence had sought to defuse India-Pakistan tensions in 1990. But was there really a nuclear danger, as Seymour Hersh claimed?
10 November 2006
When Robert M. Gates came calling
New Delhi : Robert M. Gates, the man named by President George W. Bush as his nominee for the next U.S. Secretary of Defence, is a consummate Beltway insider with an extensive record of service within the American intelligence establishment going back at least three decades. A deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Reagan Presidency, Mr. Gates also served the older Bush White House first as Deputy National Security Adviser under Brent Scowcroft and then as Director of the CIA.
During the Reagan administration, Mr. Gates was accused of establishing clandestine military links between Washington and first Iran and then Iraq. In South Asia, however, he is perhaps best remembered for the `mission’ he undertook to Pakistan and India in May 1990 during a time of military tension between the two neighbours. In a subsequent retelling by Seymour Hersh in New Yorker magazine, the U.S. envoy is said to have helped avert a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, a claim that has been challenged by former officials in both countries as well as in the U.S.
In the spring of 1990, the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir was in full flow. Concerned by Pakistan’s decision to maintain the forward deployment of troops deployed near the border for the Zarb-e-Momin military exercises conducted at the end of 1989, India decided to send two tank units to the Mahajan range in Rajasthan for “training” purposes. Although none of these military deployments on either side were of any real offensive significance, the situation began to deteriorate after a series of fiery declarations by Benazir Bhutto, who was Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time, and V.P. Singh, who was Prime Minister of India. Ms. Bhutto spoke of a “thousand year war” to “liberate” Kashmir while Mr. Singh told the country to be psychologically prepared for military conflict and warned Pakistan that it would not last “even thousand hours of war”.
It was in this context that the Bush (Sr.) administration decided to despatch Mr. Gates on a peace mission. Travelling first to Islamabad on May 20, 1990, he met President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg and counselled restraint. In New Delhi, he met Mr. Singh, the External Affairs Minister, I.K. Gujral, as well as Raja Ramanna, who was Minister of State for Defence. Two week after his return to Washington, the crisis de-escalated.
According to Hersh, the U.S. had picked up evidence that Pakistan was on verge of deploying its nuclear weapons during the crisis and it was this fact which made the Gates mission all the more urgent.
But scholars such as Devin Hagerty as well as officials who were present at the time dispute this. General Beg himself denies Pakistan had a fully assembled weapon at the time.
According to Indian analysts, there was a `nuclear’ dimension to the Gates mission but it was not quite what Hersh claimed. In 1989, when the Bush administration confronted Ms. Bhutto with evidence of Pakistan’s weapon-grade uranium enrichment programme, she undertook to suspend the programme.
In exchange, the White House continued to certify that Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons. Early in 1990, however, the CIA and NSA received intelligence that the enrichment programme had been re-started, perhaps in the context of increasing tension with India.
“In my view, Gates went to Pakistan to tell them the U.S. knew what was going on and that if they didn’t stop, the U.S. President would no longer certify that they didn’t have the bomb”, says K. Subrahmanyam, the well-known strategic analyst. Later that year, this is precisely what happened, and the Pressler Amendment cutting off aid to Pakistan kicked in for the first time. “Certainly, when he came here he didn’t even mention the N word at all,” Mr. Subrahmanyam recalls.