The role played by US President Bill Clinton in helping end the Kargil conflict is well documented but what isn’t is Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to get the US to back its position — which flopped.
In a new book, Life in American Politics & Diplomatic Years in India published by Har-Anand Publications, Richard Celeste, the US ambassador to India between 1997 and 2001, reports a visit he received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to India, Ashraf Qazi.
“He was seeking our help to persuade the Indians to ‘cease their aggressive actions in Kargil.’ I pointed out that the Indians had held these posts for some time. Ashraf repeated the claim that civilian ‘freedom fighters’ had occupied the positions. ‘Ashraf,’ I said, ‘I’m going to let you tell me what your government wants you to tell me. But I know that it is not true and I am embarrassed for your sake. I’m your friend so I’m going to be honest with you. We know who trained and equipped those troops and we know how they are being supplied and directed. Our government cannot accept your plea’,” Celeste writes.
He goes on to add how, in a meeting with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif shortly after this, Clinton asked him to “withdraw troops” from Kargil. Then came a call from the US president to Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “That call from Clinton to Vajpayee was without precedent in Indo-US relations,’’ the former ambassador writes. Indeed, some experts mark it as a key turning point in India’s relations with the US. Celeste’s book is slated to be formally launched in September.
Celeste did two stints in New Delhi, first as an assistant to Ambassador Chester Bowles in the late 1960s and then as ambassador from 1997-2001. The second period was a crucial one for the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies, and saw a presidential visit by Bill Clinton in 2000, the first by a US President in 22 years.
In the book, Celeste reveals how that visit almost never happened because of India’s nuclear test in May 1998. The US was apparently caught off-guard by the Vajpayee government because when special envoy Bill Richardson met Jaswant Singh soon after the BJP government was sworn in to convey this apprehension, Singh, to quote celeste, used classic “obfuscation”.
“Richardson met Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh …and spelled out the Administration’s concerns regarding an Indian test.