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India and Pakistan on the Brink: The 1998 Nuclear Tests

In May 1998, India conducted its first nuclear bomb tests since 1974 at the Indian Army Pokhran Test Range. Known as Pokhran-II, the tests involved five detonations and were followed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declaring India a full nuclear state. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power in the 1998 elections with a platform promising to be “openly nuclear” and challenge Pakistan’s control of parts of Kashmir. After the Indian detonations, American diplomats attempted to dissuade Pakistan, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, from following suit. Fifteen days after India’s tests, Pakistan conducted six underground nuclear tests at the Chaghi and Kharan test site.

The nuclear tests were swiftly met with international condemnation. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the tests and renewed efforts to pressure the two countries to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By law, the United States was required to impose immediate economic sanctions on both countries. U.S. intelligence was also sharply criticized for failing to detect the preparations for the test. Several other nations reacted with their own sanctions and condemnation.

Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth served as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs from 1997-2001. Dean Rust was Director of the State Department Nuclear Proliferation Bureau from 1999-2005. Thomas W. Simons, Jr. served as Ambassador to Pakistan from 1996-1998.  They were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 2001, December 2006, and July 2004 respectively.

You can read about India’s 1974 nuclear test.


“The nuclear tests in May came as a surprise to the U.S. government”

Assistant Secretary Karl Inderfurth

INDERFURTH:  The new Indian government had been formed in March 1998, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. I went to India with UN Ambassador Bill Richardson shortly after the new government took office. Bruce Reidel, my counterpart on the National Security Council staff, was with us….

We had good meetings, including with the new Prime Minister, and let the Indians know we wanted to move ahead in our relations. We then went to Pakistan and met with Prime Minister Sharif. He expressed some concerns in his assessment of the new Indian government, said a government led by the BJP party was likely to be more “aggressive.”… That was in April.

A month later, the new Indian government went ahead with a series of five nuclear tests. We had not been given any advance warning.

We had urged that the new government continue to exercise nuclear restraint. We received what we took to be expressions of assurances in this regard. Clearly what we had in mind was not exactly what they had in mind. The nuclear tests in May came as a surprise to the U.S. government.

That morning, May 18, 1998, I convened my senior staff meeting at its usual time, 8:40. At 9:00, my special assistant came into the room to say that there was a report on CNN that India had tested nuclear weapons. I asked if my secretary could get Ambassador Celeste on the line in New Delhi. He was not there, but the DCM, Ashley Wills, got on the phone.

I said, “Have you heard the CNN report?” He said, “Yes, we’ve just been given a notice by the Indian government that they have successfully completed a series of nuclear tests.”

This was a seismic event in more ways than one! It set into motion a whole series of events and activities that dominated our attention for the next year and a half. One of my first efforts was to respond to Capitol Hill. I testified before both the Senate and the House. Sanctions were required under law, by the Glenn Amendment, and the President imposed them on India immediately after the tests. [Congress in 1977 adopted the Glenn Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which prohibits U.S. assistance to any non-nuclear weapon state (as defined by the Non-Proliferation Treaty), that conducts a nuclear explosion. The Symington and Glenn amendments did not apply retroactively to India or Pakistan.] Economic assistance, any military activities, support for international loans for India were all turned off.

We also embarked very quickly to try to persuade Pakistan not to follow suit. President Clinton was on the phone with Prime Minister Sharif on five separate occasions making it very clear that he recognized that Pakistan would be under great pressure to test, but that Pakistan’s interests would be better served not to and that if it did not, the U.S. was prepared to respond with a number of important steps in Pakistan, including lifting the Pressler sanctions, resuming economic assistance, and reviving our stagnant military relationship.

So, a very attractive package was put together to try to dissuade Pakistan from following suit. [Note: In 1985 Congress adopted the Pressler Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. This amendment bans most economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless the President can certify on an annual basis that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear device and that U.S. aid would reduce the risk of Pakistan possessing such a device. The U.S. continued to certify Pakistan’s non-nuclear status until 1990.]

The President and the Secretary directed the Deputy Secretary, Strobe Talbott, to travel to Islamabad to meet with Sharif and try to persuade him not to take that fateful step. I traveled on that trip….

We met with PM Sharif and other officials, including the Army Chief of Staff, General Karamat. They listened to us. They did remind us that when Bruce and I had been in Pakistan recently with Bill Richardson they had said, “Don’t be too enthusiastic about this government.” We had to go to the ‘woodshed’ on that one. But we made the best case we could that Pakistan should not go ahead with testing, that that was exactly what India wanted Pakistan to do, thereby imposing U.S. sanctions on both countries.

I think there was one more phone call between the President and Sharif and then Pakistan conducted its own series of six nuclear tests. What one does, the other will follow suit. So Glenn amendment sanctions were now imposed on Pakistan on top of their already existing Pressler sanctions, so they were now doubly sanctioned.

“I will say that there was also a policy failure”

In response to this, the President and Secretary decided to designate Strobe as the U.S. interlocutor with Indian and Pakistan on non-proliferation and security issues, to see if there was some way to bridge our profound differences. A series of meetings were initiated – we called them dialogues – with the Indians, with Jaswant Singh, who became Foreign Minister while these talks were underway, and Shamshad Ahmad, the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan.

We had more than ten rounds of these discussions in various locations trying to see if there was some way to sort through our respective concerns, ours about their nuclear and missile programs and non-proliferation, theirs about their security “compulsions.” For the next year and a half we met in Delhi, Islamabad, Washington, Frankfurt, Rome. We met with the Indians and Pakistanis separately.

This was a very intense discussion we had, especially with the Indians, and one that we should have had before. This was the first time that the U.S. government was willing to commit itself to that kind of comprehensive discussion. Our hope was to see both governments agree not to test any further and to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty, which was already being discussed in Geneva; to put into place more stringent export controls so that there would be no possibility that their nuclear and missile technology would be exported or there would be any leakage to other countries; and finally to exercise maximum restraint not to deploy their nuclear capabilities.

These became known as the “four benchmarks,” which flowed from resolutions that had been passed by the UN Security Council after the May tests and the June G-8 meeting in London. A fifth benchmark was to encourage these two countries to address the issues that were dividing them, including Kashmir.

The fact that we did not know of the test was seen by many as an intelligence failure. We spend a lot of money for satellites that are supposed to be watching for things like this. You don’t conduct a nuclear test without substantial preparation. The Indians, however, were very skillful at deception, camouflage netting, not communicating about the upcoming test. All of these things were part of making sure that they had total secrecy and they achieved it.

But I will say that there was also a policy failure. The BJP government, in its election manifesto, had spoken about inducting the nuclear option. They never said in black and white, “If we form a government, we will test nuclear weapons,” but there was enough in their manifesto, enough in their history of support for India’s nuclear weapons program, that this should not have come as an out-of-the-blue surprise.

Previous Indian governments had walked up to the decision to test and then backed off. Sometimes we had known they were thinking of testing and, in at least one case, our ambassador went in and said, “We know what you are about to do and we really think that that would be a bad idea.” We didn’t have a chance to say that explicitly with the new government of Prime Minister Vajpayee. They made a quick decision as soon as they were in office to test and they did it, and Pakistan responded.

Fortunately, neither government has tested since. Both have said that they will not be the first to resume testing. Pakistan has said that it is prepared to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India appeared to be on the verge of doing so just before the Clinton Administration left office. Now, the new Bush administration says it is opposed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So, I’m very concerned that this is going to unravel. We’ve reached the point where we may have seen an international ban on nuclear testing by all countries. We may now lose that accomplishment.

“India is on the wrong side of history”

Dean Rust, Nuclear Proliferation Bureau

RUST:  For the next two years, 75% of my work was focused on trying to deal with this. One person dealt with the political aspects of the issue, and I dealt with the nuts and bolts of the sanctions that U.S. law mandated in the aftermath of such nuclear tests. Remember that in 1996, a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty had been signed, so these Indian and Pakistani tests were a severe blow to that treaty, to nonproliferation in general, and of course to the prospects of stability in South Asia not to mention increasing the risk of regional nuclear war. Of course, the Indians used the “threat” from China as the primary reason for going nuclear, but most analysts with ample knowledge of India realized this was all about prestige — getting a seat at the table with the big boys.

ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency] was constantly pushing State to take a more condemnatory stand against these tests and to set a precedent that would help to discourage others from following suit. [Deputy Secretary] Strobe Talbot was the lead man for [Secretary] Madeleine Albright, and our senior people were meeting with Strobe about twice a week. The State regional officials were always trying to minimize the sanctions.

And of course the Commerce Department didn’t want this event to have a substantial impact on U.S.-Indian trade. They argued: “Yes, we would have preferred they not acquire nuclear weapons, but both countries are friends. The horse is out of the barn; they’re not going back. So what good is it to impose comprehensive sanctions, particularly since we will just lose trade opportunities to other countries.” So it was a constant fight, particularly with Commerce and inside the State Department.

After the dust settled, we got very strong support globally for political condemnation of these tests. The P-5 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council] Foreign Ministers met in Geneva in June 1998 to issue a strongly worded statement; the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution of condemnation and that established benchmarks for India and Pakistan to remedy the serious damage done to international security by these tests.

And the EU, Japan and Australia also adopted a wide range of political and economic sanctions; and the support of these countries also led to a delay and/or denial of non-humanitarian loans to India and Pakistan from international financial institutions.

Even the President was pretty strong there for a while because he said, “India has done the wrong thing. They are on the wrong side of history.” I remember that quote very well. The U.S. and Russia were substantially reducing their nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Cold War, and yet the Indians moved to become a nuclear weapons state. Of course the Pakistanis, despite considerable international pressure, followed a few weeks later.

This solid wall of disapproval and punitive actions did not last very long, unfortunately. The Clinton Administration itself had already begun, before May 1998, an effort to overcome the decades long estrangement in our bilateral relations with India. And after six months or so the furor over the tests died down, and there was considerable pressure from the Congressional Indian caucus, State regional officials, and South Asian NGO’s to relax the sanctions.

Some of this occurred before Clinton left office, but they all disappeared after 9-11-2001 for obvious reasons.

“Neither country was looking outside”

Ambassador Thomas Simons

SIMONS: The collapse of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 deprived India of its main foreign partner. And that included a big military supply relationship; it included an economic assistance relationship; it included a trade relationship. All that kind of just shriveled away. So just as Pakistan was kind of left alone… when we applied sanctions in October of 1990, and a year later India in the midst of a full-fledged economic crisis was left at home alone by the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

And I think that that eventually led to the nuclear explosions of 1998. Because neither country was looking outside; more and more they were taking national security decisions based on domestic, political compulsions, as they put it in South Asia….

India exploded its nuclear weapon in May of ’98 because it was in the political platform of the newly elected government led by the BJP, a Hindu nationalist government. [Prime Minister of Pakistan] Nawaz Sharif responded after 17 days of strenuous U.S. efforts to back him off, and he responded because he was convinced — and probably correctly — that if he did not explode the Pakistani weapons in response he’d be kicked out. I mean his own elites would kick him out of office. The pressure was building that high….

The issue that made us care about Pakistan in any serious way at all was the nuclear issue…. Not all but most of our intelligence assets were concentrated on it. The one thing that brought the U.S. Government up alive and would bring [National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger to Islamabad in the first month of my tenure was the Pakistani nuclear program. And then we were worried about the Indian program too. Just before I came we got intelligence information that the Indians were going to explode. This was in ’95. And [Ambassador to India] Frank Wisner mobilized a kind of an international campaign to keep them from doing it. And they did refrain from doing it.

But by 1998, with the BJP winning an election and coming to power at the head of a coalition, a nuclear explosion was in their platform, and they exploded. In retrospect, not a super successful explosion, but an explosion. And our job then became to try to prevent the Pakistanis from following suit. We knew much more about their program than we knew about the Indian program because we’d had better relations. That’s one of the penalties: when you have good relations with the Americans they know a lot about you. And so we knew, it turned out kind of to the day, how long it was going to take them to get ready to explode out there in Baluchistan in Chagai Hills. And so we set to work to convince them to hold off.

When the Indians exploded I was on vacation in Bukhara in Uzbekistan, and I spent an extra day visiting Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarqand before they absolutely ordered me back to Islamabad. I took three planes. The first was from Tashkent to Sharjah in the Gulf, and it was full of hookers, Slavic and Central Asian hookers with their pimps, going to the Gulf. Then I went from Sharjah to Karachi, and that plane was full of businessmen. And then I went from Karachi to Islamabad, in a plane full of bureaucrats like me, just in time to shave at the military airport as the U.S. official plane with Strobe Talbott and his team rolled onto the runway. And we went into meetings trying to convince the Pakistanis not to explode.

“If you don’t explode, we’re going to explode you”

It was very clear that Nawaz Sharif had no appetite for a nuclear explosion. As he said to us, “I wish we could drop these bombs into the Arabian Sea.” But he was under tremendous pressure from his hawks, and it was a nationalist government. The Islamists were certainly on board because it was very anti-Indian to explode.

And so [Deputy Secretary Strobe] Talbott went home and got to work trying to put together a package of carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives, that would keep the Pakistanis from it. I kept in touch with all the instances. I remember a conversation with Nawaz Sharif’s brother, who was Governor of Punjab, Shabhaz Sharif, whom I’d worked with well. And I said, “You know, Shabhaz, you’re finally paying the price, the penalty for 50 years of not educating your people. Because this is rampant nationalism, it’s chauvinism out of control.” And he said, “You’re right.” But they were under that pressure.

The key meeting, the Chief of Army Staff later told me, was on the 21st of May in Lahore, which is Nawaz Sharif’s home base. It was organized by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and there came to meeting a bunch of nationalists including Majid Nizami, the old-time owner and leader of Pakistan’s great nationalist newspaper chain, Jang. Jang means war; so Pakistani’s greatest Urdu paper’s named “War.” The Nation is an English-language version. And in that meeting he evidently screamed at Nawaz Sharif, “If you don’t explode, we’re going to explode you.” So probably by the time we got our package together the die had already been cast.

But we came in with it the night of the 27th. We gave it to them in Washington, and I got a copy and took it into the Prime Minister’s residence the next morning, just as everyone was meeting… for the decision. I think the decision had probably already been taken. But I waited out there by myself while my paper was passed in. I later asked the Chief of Army staff what his impression had been. He said, “I told the Prime Minister that this is very, very substantial; these are very substantial assurances from the United States.” Because the military’s position, which I also kept track of, was that it was for the Prime Minister to decide…. It really was not the military pushing for it. They weren’t sure it was a good thing….

In terms of Pakistani politics… the President at this point was a figurehead of Nawaz Sharif. So he didn’t play as part of the troika. So it was really the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff. And the Chief of Army Staff… believed that Pakistan had outgrown military rule. He believed Pakistan had developed too much for the military to run things. Of course the next year the military came back into power for another nine years. But anyway, his view was that Pakistan was too sophisticated, too complex for the military to run. And running things also didn’t help the military, whose job was to defend against the military threats, not to run the country. In other words, the political responsibility is bad for the military’s core mission….

And so his position, the Army’s position — although there were people in the Army who were rabid for explosion –…for Nawaz was that he had to take the decision, and we will do whatever you decide and support you. So I think that’s progress in terms of democracy. I mean, you know, it didn’t take, because it was 2008 before they returned to democracy, and now it’s 2013, and the government elected in 2008 has just completed its term in office for the first time in Pakistan’s history. So there’s a basis for democracy of some kind in that country, and it showed then.

“The key outcome of that crisis was that they learned”

But then of course they exploded and we applied sanctions. We applied sanctions to both India and Pakistan, and as in 1965, because Pakistan is smaller, our sanctions hurt them worse, which the Pakistanis remember. But then began two long processes. One process had us kind of going with the flow and learning to live with the fact that these two countries were nuclear weapon states even though they had not signed the nonproliferation treaty…. We’ve been working with that ever since.

I mean we’ve developed a new relationship with India. But it’s a relationship still based on that exception. And after 2011 we developed a new relationship with Pakistan because of the War on Terror. But it’s not quite that all is forgiven. We still don’t approve of their being nuclear weapons states….

It took them four long years and coming very close to war before each figured out what it meant to be a nuclear weapon state. In other words, it was not automatic. It was not simply the acquisition of nuclear weapons that made the strategic situation in South Asia stable.

First, it gave them the courage to negotiate. That was during Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in February 1999. It then gave the Pakistanis the courage to be stupid, by occupying those heights at Kargil above the Indian supply lines in Kashmir during the winter while the Indians had withdrawn. And the Indians responded by driving uphill in the spring of 1999, and really giving every sign that they were going to go over into Pakistani hill territory and really start a war, to the point where Nawaz Sharif had to flee to Washington on July 4th, 1999, and get a very flimsy assurance of personal interest in Kashmir from President Clinton, as his cover to pull the troops back. So they were very close to war there.

Then after 9/11… in December, Musharraf, by then the military dictator, turned against the Taliban, but he also wanted to continue to support the Kashmir freedom fighters and the Islamist organizations that had havens in Pakistan. And they were afraid of losing his support, so they attacked the Indian Parliament in Delhi in December of 2001….

A lot of people felt that nuclear weapons will never be used. Even though Pakistani doctrine, like our doctrine during the Cold War, is that if the integrity of the country is being threatened in a conventional war, we reserve the right to use nuclear weapons. That was the U.S. doctrine during the Cold War because of Soviet conventional superiority. Well, that’s still the Pakistani doctrine today (and for the analogous reason).

But these guys, I mean these freedom fighters, who were now afraid of losing their meal ticket and their political support, wanted to provoke a war that would force the Pakistan government to firm up its support. India mobilized 750,000 men up on those hills against a quarter of a million Pakistanis. A million men eyeball-to-eyeball on high alert for 10 months. That’s dangerous.

And we, as an unsung accomplishment of the first Bush Administration, we organized a worldwide diplomatic effort to keep that from happening. I mean we had people going into both Delhi and Islamabad through that whole year of 2002 saying, “Don’t pull the trigger, don’t, you know, don’t do it.” And finally, they figured out ways to justify stand-down politically.

But the key outcome of that crisis, which was a very dangerous crisis because they were both nuclear and didn’t know what it means to be nuclear, was that they learned. Indian elites finally — large chunks of them, I mean there are still outliers who talk about limited war — but most Indian elites came to the conclusion, which is the right conclusion, that threatening Pakistan with a conventional war or fighting a conventional war against Pakistan is of no strategic advantage to India. I mean they don’t want more Muslims, and they can’t take all of Pakistan. So don’t start.

The Pakistanis, I think, came to the conclusion…– and there are still outliers who think they can bleed India on Kashmir – but most of the Pakistanis, I think including the military, came to the conclusion, which is the right conclusion, that fighting a sub-conventional war against India in Kashmir…, a guerrilla war using freedom fighters in Kashmir, is of no strategic interest to Pakistan. Because they’re not going to take it back that way.