THAT the Kargil adventure was ill-conceived, if not downright foolish, was becoming clear, albeit slowly, even to the congenitally blind and benighted.

That consequently Pakistan, swallowing its pride and not a few of its brave and gallant words, would sooner or later have to mount a retreat was also becoming clear, especially after Niaz Naik's secret visit to New Delhi which was a desperate bid to get India to agree to some kind of a deal which would provide a face-saving way out for us.

But that the climbdown when it came would be so headlong and ill-judged, and that in the process it would leave in tatters the last shreds of national pride, should take even prophets of doom by surprise. A script written by a college of cynics could not have equalled, let alone excelled, the singular performance of the Heavy Mandate in Washington.

It is not a question of interpreting the hidden meaning of the Washington statement. This statement is a model of clarity which nails Pakistan's humiliation to the mast and leaves nothing to the imagination. If it is still being proclaimed as a great step forward to resolve the Kashmir dispute, it only confirms the view that in Pakistan brazenness is always the last resource of a floundering government.

To repeat the first point, at issue is not Pakistan's retreat. Given the nature of the Kargil adventure, the fact that in planning it the army high command substituted fantasy for a sense of reality, Pakistan had no option but to effect a roll-back eventually, whatever armchair Rommels might say to the contrary. As a feint aimed at embarrassing the Indian army, the Kargil operation could have made some sense. As an attempt at permanently occupying the Kargil heights it was madness if only because no country, whether India or Pakistan, would tolerate such a naked trespass into territory under its control. At issue is the manner of our retreat as agreed to by our great helmsman.

Even when it finally dawned upon Pakistan's Bismarcks and Napoleons that the Kargil intrusion was a blunder, there was no reason to panic. Pakistan still had options before it which, if sensibly exercised, could have brought about a withdrawal with a minimum loss of national dignity. We could have settled matters with India and told it that a mistake had been made which we were willing to undo provided (1) there was a scaling down of hostilities along the Line of Control and (2) that India did not make it a point to crow about our discomfiture. This would have been far preferable to the course actually adopted.

But this would have required a measure of statesmanship, a quality of which there has been not the slightest evidence in Islamabad since this crisis erupted. So Pakistan's war leadership did what flowed naturally from its basic instincts: go cap-in-hand to Washington and agree to an extraordinary statement which commits us to undo our Kargil folly.

A pathetic sop sweetens this mini-Munich: a pledge from the American president that once concrete steps have been taken to restore the Line of Control - that is, once we have undone our folly - he will take "a personal interest" in encouraging India and Pakistan to resume bilateral discussions. Only a leadership with no idea of national pride and dignity can suppose that an empty pledge such as this is sufficient recompense for the blood of our martyrs.

A more complete negation of Pakistan's stand, and a more complete vindication of India's position, is hard to envisage. Yet official drum-beaters and Pakistan Television, that weary performer forced to dance to every government's tune, are trying to sell the agreement sealed at Blair House, Washington, as the greatest diplomatic triumph since the Congress of Vienna.

The people of Pakistan are not surprised. They are stunned because this is not what they had been led to expect. The two surprised parties must be Clinton and Vajpayee. When Nawaz Sharif telephoned Clinton and requested an urgent meeting, the American president, who is no one's fool, must have realized in a flash that it was all up for the Pakistanis. But is it far-fetched to suppose that even he must have been taken aback by the eager enthusiasm of the Pakistani leadership to cave in and put its signature to a one-sided document.

By the same token, Vajpayee too must have been taken by surprise. The Indian army, despite the successes it has scored, was not having an easy time of it in Kargil and Drass. Dangerous terrain, an elusive enemy and heavy casualties are not things an army likes. Imagine then the sense of relief in New Delhi when Clinton called to say that the Pakistani leadership was about to execute a volte face and all it demanded in return was that he (Clinton) should give this turnaround his blessing. A bang turning to a whimper: to this time-worn phrase a fresh meaning has been given.

The Tashkent and Simla accords look like victory parchments by comparison. Ayub Khan did not suffer humiliation at Tashkent. Even if the Tashkent agreement went down badly in Pakistan because official propaganda, always a curse in this country, had raised popular expectations to fever pitch, it was a fair agreement between two countries which had fought each other to a standstill. At Simla on the other hand, Pakistan was at a grave disadvantage because it had suffered a humiliating defeat at India's hands. Yet even in the shadow of that disaster Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to his enduring credit, managed to preserve what remained of Pakistan's honour. The Washington statement defies understanding. For such submission wherein lay the compelling necessity?

Why has this happened? The answer is simple. Pakistan has suffered a failure of leadership, a failure of vision and, most important of all, a failure of nerve. When the crunch came the politico-military leadership could not take the heat.

Will explanations be demanded for this shambles? It is safe to say no because post-mortems of this kind are not in the Pakistani tradition. The government's spin machine will go into over-drive, as it has already, in a bid to paint the Washington capitulation as a Roman triumph. The Bismarcks will cover for the Napoleons and the Napoleons for the Bismarcks.

To be sure, Pakistan's fighting men will feel betrayed. The Kashmir cause itself has received a mortal blow. But then who cares. Greater disasters in our history have gone unsung. The humiliation of Kargil too (or is it the humiliation of Washington?) will soon be forgotten.

Even so, is there nothing to be done? To begin with, all the models of the Shaheen and Ghauri missiles, and all the replicas of the Chaghi hills, which adorn our various cities, should be put on board the best of our naval cruisers and, in a solemn midnight ceremony, dumped far out into the waters of the Arabian Sea. If this crisis has proved anything, it is that the possession of nuclear weapons does not confer immunity from the taking of stupid decisions.

Furthermore, the prime minister and the army chief, if they can help themselves, should not say anything for a while: no explanations, no brave statements. The people of Pakistan can do without salt being poured over their wounds.



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