How betrayal in mountains led to army's revenge

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The Independent Online

THE EYES of Pakistan officers light up when you mention Kargil. The mountain war over desolate bunkers atop 15,000ft peaks and ridges in Kashmir this summer they see as one of the great military feats of the post-war era.

THE EYES of Pakistan officers light up when you mention Kargil. The mountain war over desolate bunkers atop 15,000ft peaks and ridges in Kashmir this summer they see as one of the great military feats of the post-war era.

Pakistan took India by surprise and for two months a few hundred Pakistanis kept 60,000 Indian troops, backed by bombers, at bay. But for Pakistan's military, Kargil was a tactical triumph within a strategic vacuum.

Pakistani troops masquerading as mujahedinIslamic warriors supposedly only supported by Pakistan from across the Line of Control - Kashmir's ceasefire line - could have held the Indians at bay indefinitely. But in any larger context the war made no sense. As a flagrant intrusion into Indian territory, in a region recognised as the world's new nuclear flashpoint, it was madly dangerous, and brought down the condemnation of the world. It risked plunging the region into full-scale war and gained Pakistan nothing.

This ugly truth Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, acknowledged at the White House on 4 July, when he said mujahedin on the Indian side of the Line of Control would be told to withdraw. It was the dawning of sanity, but for Mr Sharif and Pakistan's latest, bungled experiment in democracy, it was also the beginning of the end.

Last night Pakistan saw the final act of the drama as the chief of army staff, General Pervez Musharraf, the latest in a long line of threatening figures Mr Sharif has sacked, sacked the prime minister instead. Before announcing the "dismissal" he first clamped military rule on a nation which has had 23 years' experience of it since independence in 1947.

Mr Sharif is believed to have given the go-ahead for the Kargil adventure in November or even before. But it became clear that no exit strategy had been devised. The army obeyed orders and the mujahedin came down from the mountains and dispersed, with none of the battle honours and public sentiment accorded to Indian heroes of the conflict.

Reaction to the humiliation was initially limited to speeches and small demonstrations by Islamists, but instead of dying away, anger increased, fuelled by the economic slump. Mr Sharif responded brutally, ramming through laws against strikers and demonstrators.

Coup rumours had been swirling as the government and military sought to apportion blame for Kargil and solicit support from the US, which said it "would strongly oppose any attempt to change the government through extra-constitutional means".

This warning was in vain. General Musharraf was the second army chief sacked by Mr Sharif in a year. While his predecessor, General Jehangir Karamat, went off and played golf, General Musharraf seized his moment.

For Pakistan, Mr Sharif's demise will make little difference to the democratic fabric of the nation, so thoroughly was it plundered during his term. He came to power with a big majority but saw enemies everywhere. Every entity in which flickered the flame of independent thought he set about quenching.

As long as he confined himself to the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, both sentenced to jail, he did little damage to his popularity. But military humiliation combined with the slump was too much.

The danger in days to come is that the army has been infected by Islamic extremism, and officers at all levels regard jihad with India as Pakistan's legitimate goal. If General Musharraf moves quickly to mollify international opinion and announces his intention to restore democracy, the world will be relieved. Otherwise, the phrase "rogue state" will take on a terrifying new resonance.

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