NEW DELHI: Indian and Pakistani officials both believed the other side was preparing to use nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack and the US had to “convince each side that the other was not preparing for nuclear war”, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo writes in his new book.
Pompeo writes that he learnt of the gravity of the situation when he was awakened at night during a visit to Vietnam in February 2019 to speak to his then Indian counterpart. He writes in ‘Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love’ that he led an effort along with then US national security adviser John Bolton, Kenneth Juster, then US ambassador to India, and other senior officials to defuse the tensions.
“I do not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019. The truth is, I don’t know precisely the answer either; I just know it was too close,” he writes.
There was no immediate word from Indian officials on Pompeo’s revelations in his book.
Hindustan Times detailed in a report in March 2019 how India and Pakistan came perilously close to firing missiles at each other on February 27, 2019.
Pompeo explains the background of US efforts to reduce India-Pakistan tensions following the suicide attack at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troopers. The attack was blamed on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). At the time, Pompeo was in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of then president Donald Trump’s delegation for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“I’ll never forget the night I was in Hanoi, Vietnam when – as if negotiating with the North Koreans on nuclear weapons wasn’t enough – India and Pakistan started threatening each other in connection with a decades-long dispute over the northern border region of Kashmir,” he writes.
“After an Islamist terrorist attack in Kashmir – probably enabled in part by Pakistan’s lax counterterror policies – killed forty Indians, India responded with an air strike against terrorists inside Pakistan. The Pakistanis shot down a plane in a subsequent dogfight and kept the Indian pilot prisoner,” he writes, referring to the air strike carried out by India on Balakot and the shooting down of the aircraft of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman.
Pompeo writes he was awakened to speak with his Indian counterpart, who “believed the Pakistanis had begun to prepare their nuclear weapons for a strike”. He says the Indian side informed him that New Delhi “was contemplating its own escalation”. Pompeo adds, “I asked him to do nothing and give us a minute to sort things out.”
Though Pompeo refers to his Indian counterpart as “him”, the post of external affairs minister was held at the time by the late Sushma Swaraj. However, Pompeo also writes in the book that his “original counterpart [on the Indian side] was not an important player on the Indian foreign policy team” and that he “worked much more closely with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval”. Thus, it is unclear exactly who he is referring to.
Pompeo and NSA John Bolton, who was with him in a tiny secure communications facility in their hotel in Hanoi, then contacted the Pakistani side. “I reached the actual leader of Pakistan, General [Qamar] Bajwa, with whom I had engaged many times. I told him what the Indians had told me. He said it wasn’t true,” Pompeo writes.
“As one might expect, he [Bajwa] believed the Indians were preparing their nuclear weapons for deployment. It took us a few hours – and remarkably good work by our teams on the ground in New Delhi and Islamabad – to convince each side that the other was not preparing for nuclear war.”
Pompeo writes that no other nation “could have done what we did that night to avoid a horrible outcome”. He listed the US officials who played a key role in the episode and in shaping the overall relationship with India.
“I was fortunate to have great team members in place in India, none more so than Ken Juster, an incredibly capable ambassador. Ken loves India and its people,” he writes. “And, most of all, he loves the American people and worked his tail off for us every day.”
Pompeo also mentions his then most senior diplomat, David Hale, who had served as the US envoy to Pakistan and “knew that our relationship with India was a priority”, Gen HR McMaster and Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, who also understood India’s importance.
“Although often frustrated by the Indians, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer…was a great partner working to deepen economic ties. We all shared the view that America had to make a bold strategic effort to tighten our ties with India and break the mould with new ideas,” Pompeo writes.
“The cumulative effect of our great American team and strong Indian leaders was a much-needed new level of defence and diplomatic cooperation. The re-emergence of the Quad security dialogue proved it,” he adds.