Covering up the truth

Asif Ezdi
Monday, February 04, 2013

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.

The ‘revelations’ made in recent weeks by retired lieutenant general Shahid Aziz on the Pakistan Army’s involvement in the Kargil war of 1999 have added little to our knowledge of those events. But they have served to focus attention on our failure to hold our leaders accountable for their mistakes and misdeeds.

While Nawaz Sharif has remained silent on Aziz’s account of the Kargil operation, Musharraf has predictably denied any responsibility for the fiasco and denigrated Aziz, a former confidante, as a “characterless” person. According to Musharraf’s version, as given in his memoirs In the Line of Fire, the army had kept Nawaz Sharif and the political leadership briefed before and during the operation. But Nawaz displayed a “total lack of statesmanship” and made no serious effort to rally the country in the face of the massive Indian response to our local military action.

Although Pakistan was fully prepared to hold its dominating positions, Musharraf asserted, Nawaz was “demoralised” by international diplomatic pressure and agreed to unconditional withdrawal. “It remains a mystery to me,” Musharraf wrote, “why [Nawaz Sharif] was in such a hurry.”

Following Aziz’s allegations, Musharraf has again claimed that the Kargil operation was a “big success militarily,” and that if Nawaz Sharif had not sought US diplomatic intervention, Pakistan would have “conquered” 300 square miles of Indian-held territory in Kashmir. As Musharraf puts it, “Nawaz lost on the political front what we had won militarily.” This claim has been contradicted by Ziauddin Butt, the head of the ISI at the time, who Nawaz later appointed army chief in an abortive attempt to sack Musharraf. According to Ziauddin, Musharraf had actually pleaded with Nawaz to find a diplomatic way to enable the army to extricate itself from the imbroglio in which Musharraf had pushed it.

Musharraf’s assessment that Pakistan could have retained the “conquered” territory without India provoking a wider war also betrays very poor judgment; as does the assertion he makes in his book that the Indians “overreacted” to Pakistan’s occupation of the Kargil heights by bringing into action their air force, four divisions and a heavy concentration of artillery and resorting to “mass attacks” to dislodge our troops. Those who launched the Kargil operation clearly made a huge error in making the assumption that India would shrink from escalating the fighting, if doing so became necessary to reverse Pakistan’s occupation of positions that threatened the vital supply line to Siachen.

Nawaz Sharif, of course, has a very different story to tell. His complaint has been that he was deliberately kept in the dark by Musharraf. Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali also claimed last week that he possessed evidence to prove that Musharraf withheld information about the operation from Nawaz. These claims have been contradicted, at least partly, by Aziz. His information, he says, is that the prime minister was “not kept totally in the dark.” The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It is very likely that the army informed Nawaz in general terms of the planned operation but withheld the details in order to preserve its secrecy. That precaution was likely considered necessary because Pakistani politicians are notoriously incapable of keeping national secrets. Besides, it seems that Nawaz failed to comprehend the scale of the operation and to foresee its likely political and diplomatic costs.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Kargil was an event of earth-shaking importance in our history. It gave India a convenient tool in its campaign to portray the policies of the Pakistani government as a source of instability in the region; it had a negative impact on international support for the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination; it led to the toppling of a government which, though ineffectual and incompetent, had been elected democratically; and it paved the way for nearly a decade of military rule. The country is still feeling the negative impact of the reckless adventurism of Musharraf and his co-conspirators, and their lust for power. And yet those responsible have not been held accountable.

An inquiry into Kargil is necessary not only to apportion responsibility and bring the guilty to justice. It is needed also to overhaul and streamline our decision-making structures and processes to make them more rational and attuned to public opinion. In the case of Kargil there was a disconnect not only between the political leadership and the military high command but also between different branches of the armed forces and within the army.

A handful of top generals drew up a foolhardy plan of operations on the basis of mistaken assumptions and were able to put it into action without let or hindrance, in the process bringing the country to the brink of full-scale war. The political and military leaderships were not only out of sync, they were actually conspiring to sack each other while the country was locked in a bloody conflict against a sworn enemy. A more unfavourable domestic environment for mounting a major military operation is hard to imagine.

In the Charter of Democracy signed in 2006 by Benazir and Nawaz, the leaders of the PPP and the PML-N agreed that a commission should be set up to affix responsibility for Kargil. But the PPP-led government has taken no action to fulfil that promise. Aziz’s statements on Kargil have now had the effect of again putting the issue in the spotlight and revived the demand for an independent inquiry. Yet, there is also widespread scepticism over what an inquiry commission on Kargil can achieve. These doubts are not unwarranted, given the experience with the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission and, more recently, with the Abbottabad Commission.

All the copies of the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report, except one, were destroyed under Bhutto’s orders and its recommendations were never acted upon. Parts of the report were declassified in 2000, but only after it was leaked to an Indian magazine. Published thirty years after the events that it dealt with and with most of the major actors having vanished from the scene, it aroused little interest.

It is unlikely that the fate of the Abbottabad Commission report will be very different. It was set up in May 2011 to ascertain the facts and determine responsibility regarding the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the US raid that killed him. The commission handed over its report to the prime minister last month.

None of its findings and recommendations has been divulged. But according to an unnamed senior government official quoted by a British newspaper, the commission has cleared the government and the military establishment of involvement in Osama’s presence on Pakistani soil. The government source also said the commission had spent more time considering the US raid and had concluded that stealth technology used by the US had enabled them to enter Pakistani airspace without being detected.

This is not surprising. One member of the commission, a former lieutenant general, had in fact publicly and categorically “exonerated” the military establishment of all responsibility for sheltering Osama, in a radio interview given shortly after the panel was set up and at a time when the commission had just begun to collect evidence. As he put it, he had “not an iota of doubt” on this.

Inquiry commissions have mostly been set up in Pakistan not to find the truth but to cover it up, especially when top leaders or the military establishment are suspected of being involved. There are now unconfirmed reports that the main conclusions of the Abbottabad Commission were informally cleared by the military before being finalised and that the final version was not seen by all its members. All this does not augur well for the credibility of investigations carried out by officially appointed commissions of inquiry into the failings and wrongdoings of the government or of the military.