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Brass Tacks and Kashmir: India-Pakistan Military Crises in the 1980s

A crisis between India and Pakistan erupted between November 1986 and March 1987 after India launched the largest-ever military exercise in the subcontinent, called Operation Brass Tacks. The exercise took place in the desert area of Rajasthan, a few hundred miles from the Pakistani border, and included nine infantry, three mechanized, three armored and one air assault divisions.

Pakistani analysts interpreted Brass Tacks as a threatening exhibition of conventional force and responded with maneuvers of its own near India’s state of Punjab. International concerns spiked when Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan was quoted as saying in March 1987 that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb. U.S. diplomats sought to diffuse tensions between the two countries to prevent a nuclear war. Before the end of the decade, India and Pakistan would again nearly come to war over military exercises, prompting the intervention of Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates.

William Clark, Jr., interviewed by Thomas Stern in January, 1994, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the East Asian Bureau from 1986-1989. Grant R. Smith was interviewed by Charles Stu Kennedy in March, 1999; he discussed his time as the office director for India , Nepal, and Sri Lanka from 1985-1988. Robert B. Oakley, who served on the National Security Council, focusing on Mideast and South Asia affairs from 1987-1988, was interviewed by Kennedy and Thomas Stern in July 1992.

To read more about India, Pakistan, or about a 1998 India-Pakistan nuclear confrontation, please follow the links.

India thought that the Pakistan division was where it wasn’t

Grant R.Smith, India, Nepal Sri, Lanka Office Director 1985-1988

SMITH: There were problems between India and Pakistan, and there was a period in 1987 when there was a crisis between the two called the “Brass Tacks Crisis.” Brass Tacks was the name of an exercise that the Indian Army was doing in the desert, the desert being near the Pakistan border. I think it was the largest exercise that they’d ever done.

The Pakistanis saw this exercise, the massing of troops for this exercise as a threat in itself, and you had the beginning of a buildup, a mobilization on either side. It began to remind us of 1914. And this is actually in the public domain…

There was a problem of a very hard-nosed Indian Army chief of staff who was making a point by doing this. There was a problem of poor intelligence on each side. At one point during the exercise, the Pakistanis, in reaction to the exercise, either took one of their armored divisions out of garrison or it didn’t return to garrison when it was supposed to.

The Indians didn’t know where that division was. They thought it was at a point which was very threatening near the Indian border. In fact, it wasn’t there. It was back farther, protecting various axes of potential entrance. But you had the Indians thinking it was over here and reacting to that, so that the Pakistanis were reacting to the Indian exercise and the Indians are reacting to what they see as this Pakistani division moving to a place where it wasn’t.

We at the time…were very low-key in our response. Herb Haggerty was the Pakistan country director. I was the Indian country director. We both had a good deal of confidence in the two sides’ ability to manage this situation, because you don’t have small governments there without a history of rational thinking, without structure, without procedures. All of this you had there, certainly on the Indian side, very democratic. Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, and we were pretty confident that this was something that the two sides could manage themselves.

So the U.S. public statements were very low key. We later learned that things in India were not quite as well managed as we though they were. As I recall, in Pakistan they were fairly well managed. Zia was still president there, and they were fairly well managed, but on the Indian side Rajiv (seen right) was operating with a bit of a kitchen cabinet, not coordinating fully within his own government….

The Deputy Assistant Secretary, and I’m not sure he was there all the time, was Robert Peck, and he was very much involved in Afghanistan, which of course was hot at that time. The principal deputy assistant secretary was Arnie Raphel, who did sign off on many of these things, but Herb and I pretty much did it ourselves. It was unlike the case in 1980, when you had the Gates Mission go out and everything.

In this case, we were very low key. We did send messages, and we did go so far as to try and deal with the problem that India thought that the Pakistan division was where it wasn’t. We didn’t tell the Indians where it was, but we did tell them that it wasn’t where they thought it was. So to the extent that we could influence the situation based on our own intelligence sources (overhead satellites), [we did so]….

We couldn’t provide them with pictures, but we could provide them with some oral statements that were somewhat reassuring. We heard from them at a conference that was held to look at this crisis that [information] did help defuse things.

We did that by messages out to our ambassadors, not by special missions, but by using the ambassadors on the ground. We had John Gunther Dean in New Delhi and Dean Hinton in Islamabad, two of the grand old men of American diplomacy. It was handled, as I said, at a much lower level; and ultimately they talked to each other, and a military delegation came over from Pakistan, and they negotiated a phase-down….

We only learned later what was going on. This was a period when we were very taken with Rajiv Gandhi, who was very engaging and said the right things. It was only later on that we began to realize that not only do you have to have somebody who says the right things, but he has to have control and he has to be able to accomplish things, be able to pull people together to do things.

Rajiv didn’t always do that as well. He tended to work through something of a kitchen cabinet, and that’s the kind of thing that can cause problems.

“The more alarmist reports from their own intelligence services were exaggerated”

Robert B. Oakley, National Security Council- Mideast and South Asia 1987-1988

In late 1986 or early 1987, the Indians and the Pakistanis had become involved in the Indian military exercises called “Operation Brass Tacks” which could have turned into a major conflagration, or at least a serious confrontation. (Oakley is seen at left.)

Each started a series of maneuvers, which did not end when they were supposed to. In fact, both sides began to buildup infantry and armor along their border. Finally President Zia and [Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi managed to diffuse the tensions by agreeing to meet at the border and watch a cricket match together. That stopped the maneuvers on both sides, which was a wise move.

We helped that process a little by providing intelligence to both sides which showed that the more alarmist reports from their own intelligence services were exaggerated. When one of those alarmist reports was made and there was increased concern we would get our intelligence apparatus to check it out and usually found that the situation was not nearly as dire as originally described.

We would not divulge precisely what the actual situation was, but we would deny that their reports were accurate. I think that helped to reduce the tensions.

“Thousands showed up and reminded one of the larger Nazi demonstrations”

William Clark, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of the East Asian Bureau 1986-1989

I found that the Kashmir dispute was heating up on an exponential curve. The Indians were surprised by this development; they had not expected Kashmir to loom so high on the “problems” list. I was told upon arrival that Kashmir was not the principal potential flash point, but the Punjab was.

It in fact turned out to be 180 degrees different, as it is still today. I also found that Mrs. [Benazir] Bhutto was making inflammatory speeches; the Pakistanis were training insurgents; the Indians were mishandling their side of the border. It was a real mess.

This all must be viewed against a background of 1987 events when the Indians decided to run a humongous military exercise named “Brass Tacks,” which the Pakistanis read as a prelude to an invasion. When it came in the winter of 1989-90 for the Indians to run their annual military exercises in the Majahan training range, the Pakistanis responded by publicly denouncing these exercises as a disguised effort to prepare the Indian Army for an invasion. The Pakistanis brought some of their forces near the border.

It should be noted that both India and Pakistan have strike forces whose location is well known to the other side. No rational war plan would leave those forces unused; they were highly mechanized and well equipped. Neither the Pakistani nor the Indian strike forces were moved from their normal locations.

But the Indians did move some lightly armed contingents into Kashmir, which has been the breeding ground for all of the wars that those two countries have fought. That Indian move seemed to cause a reaction from the Kashmiris who started to move some of their men into more aggressive positions.

Bhutto went to Muzaffarahabad to hold a large rally; thousands showed up and reminded one of the larger Nazi demonstrations. She called for a violent liberation of Kashmir, which was taped and broadcast throughout India. Not only was it broadcast, but it was done over and over again continuously. That wasn’t well received in Delhi and the Indians of course responded in kind. It was obvious that tensions were building up.

Oakley and I set up a hot line between the two embassies. This enabled us to check out rumors that were springing up in both Islamabad and Delhi, which we would check out and report back to the other what the actual facts were. This enabled us to keep the governments to which were accredited informed with real facts, rather than street gossip. I think both India and Pakistan began to rely on our reports and I believe our efforts laid the ground work for the Gates visit.

By the spring of 1990, I had already made many contacts in the military. General Sharma, the commanding officer of the Indian Army, whom I mentioned earlier, had gone to school with his Pakistani counterpart before partition. I told you before that he opened up his maps to us and let us see where his forces were and later allowed my Defense Attaché to verify the information.

Bob [Oakley] was doing the same thing with the Pakistanis so that the two of us had a pretty good idea of the state of readiness of both sides and through that, I believe, also understood motivations. We concluded that neither military was preparing for war, but we were much more concerned with the emotional fervor that the politicians had raised on both sides of the border which might eventually force the military to take actions it wasn’t prepared for or, as far we could see, was really anxious for.

“The hot air went out of the balloon!”

Washington, from its long distance, was much more alarmed and decided to send [Assistant to President George H.W. Bush and Deputy National Security Advisor Robert] Bob Gates (seen right) to try to calm the ardor. .. Gates was well informed and had absorbed all the information that we had sent in. I knew what Bob [Oakley] was going to tell him and before Gates even landed in Delhi. Bob and I had a conversation over the secure phone so that I knew what had happened in Islamabad.

So Gates was well prepared for his Indian visit and was able in the few hours that he was in Delhi to see the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who had a lunch for him, as well as the Defense Minister with General Sharma.

Gates went first to Islamabad, then came to Delhi. In Pakistan he told the government that it had to stop fomenting unrest in Kashmir. In Delhi, he said that he had obtained agreement in Pakistan to close 31 training camps. The Pakistanis later denied ever having made such a commitment. The Indians appreciated that and soon the tensions were diffused. The hot air went out of the balloon!

In Delhi, Gates dealt with a curious man, V.P. Singh, the Prime Minister, who was a minor Rajah. I made a mistake once telling Karan Singh, who would have been the Maharajah of Jammu in Kashmir, that I thought the Prime Minister was one of “his group.” I was quickly reminded that Maharajahs and Rajahs were different and separate and that V.P. was only a “small landlord.”

In any case, V.P. was a very introspective man and interested in bringing some reform to the age-old Indian caste system. Gates had a good meeting with him as he did with the Foreign Minister. The Defense Minister was a little more difficult, but fortunately Sharma was there and he did most of the talking.

The meetings were very small, which also made them more effective… Both the Indians and the Pakistanis took the Gates visit as the rationale to calm tensions. It enabled them to back down without losing face.