ISLAMABAD - A retired Pakistani nuclear scientist has claimed that former Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 military adventurism in the Kargil region of divided Kashmir failed in part because the North Korea-aided, nuclear-capable Ghauri missiles he wanted to deploy then had a faulty guidance system.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the scientist said that during the Kargil crisis of May-July 1999, Musharraf, who was then army chief, “wanted to deploy Ghauri missiles, but air went out of his balloon when the top general in charge of the missile program told him the missile had a faulty guidance system.”
Over a year earlier, on April 6, 1998, Pakistan had carried out what it described as a successful first test of the intermediate-range ballistic missile, developed by Khan Research Laboratory with North Korean assistance.
Even Musharraf, who witnessed that Ghauri launch as a local corps commander, had been led to believe it was a success then, according to the nuclear scientist, who until recently had long been closely associated with the country’s nuclear and missile programs.
The truth, he said, is that the ballistic missile failed to reach its predesignated impact point in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan and its debris could not be found — something that would have undermined the missile’s deterrent effect if it were made public.
Military experts and strategists have pondered why Musharraf, immediately after he became chief of the army staff in October 1998, began planning the ill-fated incursions across the volatile Line of Control in disputed Kashmir, sparking the worst outbreak of fighting since the India-Pakistan war of 1971 even though he knew Pakistan could not prevail in an all-out conventional war with its neighbor.
During the May-July 1999 conflict, the two sides fought a two-month limited war in Kargil that led to over 1,200 fatalities and added to fears of a nuclear showdown before then-U.S. President Bill Clinton helped broker a ceasefire and Pakistani withdrawal.
Musharraf’s gamble in Kargil has since been interpreted by many as an effort by Pakistan, aside from gaining a tactical advantage by occupying dominating positions in the Kargil Heights, to test the deterrence value of its nuclear weapons.
The untold story, according to the scientist, is that Musharraf was unaware of the Ghauri missile’s faulty guidance system even as he oversaw the covert occupation by Pakistan troops and mujahedeen “freedom fighters” of the inhospitable, snowbound outposts in Kargil that the Indian Army had vacated for the winter.
He said Musharraf only learned the truth in March 1999 from Lt. Gen. Zulfikar Khan, who then commanded the army’s Combat Division.
Musharraf then ordered another Ghauri test, which took place on April 14, 1999, just three days after India tested its Agni-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile and several weeks before India detected the extent of the Pakistani side’s penetration in Kargil.
But this test also failed, with the missile overflying its target and falling across the border in the Sistan region of southeastern Iran, the scientist said. It, too, was publicly declared a success, however.
The scientist’s remarks were corroborated by two other nuclear scientists and another knowledgeable source who confirmed that the two missiles tested in 1998 and 1999 both failed to impact at the predesignated points in Baluchistan.
While Pakistan claimed the Ghauri missiles were designed and produced indigenously, they were actually Nodong missiles supplied by North Korea and re-engineered in Pakistan to extend their strike range.
The scientist claimed that after the second test, North Koreans were invited to a meeting at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, where they were confronted with the fault in their technology.
“The North Koreans started talking left and right but were told to open their eyes and take care of the guidance system in their Nodong missiles,” said the scientist, who was privy to the meeting.
Musharraf, he said, initially wanted to return the Nodong missiles to North Korea, from which it had imported 40 in knocked down condition in the mid-1990s. But then the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission undertook to replace the guidance with that of the country’s Chinese-aided Shaheen missile, he said.
Last Nov. 28, the improved version of Ghauri was test-fired and the government — true to form — declared it a success. Soon afterward, however, it was found to have exploded in midair and rained metal debris over parts of Sindh Province.
Pakistan’s disgraced nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, whose laboratory develops nuclear warheads for Pakistan’s missiles, concedes there was a row about the Ghauri’s accuracy.
But he ridicules the assertion that Musharraf wanted to return them over their faulty guidance system, saying, “What difference does it make if a nuclear-tipped missile falls 1 km left or right of the predetermined impact point?”
Khan claims Musharraf merely sought to return them because Pakistan had insufficient funds to pay back what it owed for them.
The Kargil crisis happened in the wake of six nuclear tests carried out by Pakistan in May 1998, which triggered sanctions against the country and led a drastic fall in foreign exchange reserves.
Pakistan suffered a serious military and diplomatic setback after successful Indian military action and intense international pressure forced it to unconditionally pull back behind the Line of Control as part of the U.S.-brokered ceasefire.
In his autobiography, published in 2006, Musharraf called it a “myth” that the two sides had come to the brink of nuclear war during the conflict and dismissed as “preposterous” speculation that Pakistan was preparing for a possible nuclear strike on India then.
“I can also say with authority that in 1999 our nuclear capability was not yet operational. Merely exploding a bomb does not mean that you are operationally capable of deploying nuclear force in the field and delivering a bomb across the border over a selected target,” he wrote.
Critics of Musharraf’s action often refer to the Kargil conflict as a “misadventure,” saying it was badly conceived and executed, while he wrongly assumed the world would sit back idly.
Instead of considering the Kargil as a blunder, Musharraf, who has been living in exile since quitting politics in 2008, claims it actually brought the Kashmir issue back into international focus and helped pave the way for a solution.
However, tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which have fought three wars since partition in 1947, two of them over Kashmir, has remained high since the Kargil conflict.