In 1998, the CIA subjected India to strict surveillance to ensure it was complying with its commitment not to test nuclear weapons. The agency used satellites, communications intercepts and agents to watch the nuclear facility at Pokhran in Rajasthan state. India could not detonate warheads, which would inevitably lead Pakistan to follow suit, without the United States knowing in advance. Or so the United States thought.
Washington went into shock on May 11, 1998, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that his country had just detonated not one, but five nuclear warheads at Pokhran. “India is now a nuclear power state,” Vajpayee declared. R. Jeffrey Smith reported two days later in The Washington Post that CIA analysts responsible for monitoring India’s nuclear program “had not expected the tests and were not on alert, several officials said. They were, according to one senior official, asleep at their homes and did not see the (satellite) pictures until they arrived at work in the morning.” U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby called the negligence “the biggest failure of our intelligence-gathering agencies in the past 10 years or more.”
Pakistan responded by testing five of its nuclear bombs on May 28. Pandora’s box was wide open, threatening mass destruction to the Asian subcontinent if the Pakistani and Indian armies squared off along the Line of Control that separated their forces in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. That happened a year later when Pakistani paramilitaries masquerading as indigenous Kashmiri rebel jihadists penetrated the Line of Control in Kashmir’s Kargil region. The Indian army confronted them, and U.S. intelligence detected Pakistan moving tactical nuclear weapons onto the battlefield. American diplomat Bruce Reidel wrote in his informative book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back, “The last war that India and Pakistan fought, over Kargil, threated to expand to a nuclear conflict.” It didn’t go nuclear, following U.S. President Bill Clinton’s demand that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif withdraw his forces. It was a close call.
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Main photo: Crowds watch the India and Pakistan guards at the Wagah Border Ceremony.