Two months ago, as fighting raged between Indian and Pakistani forces in the disputed province of Kashmir, American spy satellites revealed a new and alarming development hundreds of miles to the south: In the desert state of Rajasthan, elements of the Indian army's main offensive "strike force" were loading tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment onto flatbed rail cars.
India, it seemed, was preparing to invade its neighbor.
At least in the short term, President Clinton helped avert that prospect during his widely reported Independence Day meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who agreed after hours of tense discussions to withdraw the forces that had triggered the flare-up in early May.
But the full dimensions of the crisis are only now coming to light. According to senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, the latest conflict over Kashmir came much closer to full-scale war than was publicly acknowledged at the time -- and raised very real fears that one or both countries would resort to using variants of the nuclear devices each tested last year.
"This is one of the most dangerous situations on the face of the earth," said a senior administration official who closely tracks the issue. "It was very, very easy to imagine how this crisis . . . could have escalated out of control, including in a way that could have brought in nuclear weapons, without either party consciously deciding that it wanted to go to nuclear war."
The danger is far from over. The two sides continue to trade artillery and machine-gun fire across the so-called line of control, which divides the rugged Himalayan province between India and Pakistan. On Friday, India claimed that Pakistani forces -- or their guerrilla surrogates -- continue to occupy positions on the Indian side of the line, in defiance of Pakistan's pledge to withdraw.
"This could reverse itself quickly," a White House official acknowledged.
Clinton's short-term success, moreover, follows major setbacks for U.S. efforts to contain the nuclear threat in South Asia. The administration failed to anticipate the five underground nuclear tests that India conducted on May 11 and 13, 1998, or to prevent Pakistan from conducting five simultaneous tests of its own two weeks later.
Similarly, while both countries sought to placate Washington after the tests by indicating a willingness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the administration has been unable to persuade them to do so.
Against that backdrop, said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the president's apparent success in defusing the latest crisis over Kashmir represents "a tactical victory in this overall strategic loss that we've suffered."
Cirincione and other analysts acknowledge that Clinton and his senior foreign policy advisers handled the crisis with skill. Besides averting the immediate threat of a wider war, they say, the administration may have nudged both India and Pakistan toward a resumption of the so-called Lahore process -- talks between New Delhi and Islamabad that began when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a symbolic bus journey to Lahore, Pakistan, in February.
For those and other reasons, White House officials were eager to tell the story of Clinton's involvement in defusing the crisis and contacted a Washington Post reporter to offer interviews on the subject. Additional detail was provided by Pakistani and Indian officials as well as outside experts.
Especially since last year's nuclear tests, U.S. officials have kept a wary eye on Kashmir, a flash point of conflict between the two countries for half a century.
Still, the first reports of renewed fighting along the cease-fire line did not attract much attention in Washington. The two sides routinely ratchet up their military operations in the spring, when weather conditions improve, and besides, administration officials were preoccupied with the air campaign against Yugoslavia.
On May 9, however, Pakistani-backed infiltrators grabbed the attention of U.S. intelligence analysts when they blew up an Indian ammunition dump near the front-line city of Kargil, destroying 40,000 to 50,000 artillery rounds in a tremendous blast. It soon became clear that up to 700 Pakistani-backed troops -- either Muslim militants, regular army soldiers or some combination of both -- had seized positions on the Indian side of the cease-fire line at altitudes as high as 17,000 feet.
The incursion marked the first time since 1965 that Pakistan had taken and held positions in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and it put the infiltrators in a position to call in artillery strikes on Highway 1A, a major supply route for Indian forces encamped on the desolate Siachen glacier.
Even more ominous than the situation in the province, however, was what was happening elsewhere in India and Pakistan. The Indian army was making defensive preparations along India's main border with Pakistan, and armored units intended for offensive use were leaving their garrisons in Rajasthan, in northwest India, and preparing to move, according to U.S. officials with access to classified intelligence data. Military leaves were canceled nationwide.
"It was precautionary," Naresh Chandra, India's ambassador to Washington, said of the military preparations outside Kashmir. "We were always sure from our side that we would not do anything that would enlarge the conflict on the line of control or the international border."
That is not how the Indian moves were interpreted in Washington, however.
U.S. officials noted that as Indian soldiers continued to come home in body bags and lurid tales of alleged Pakistani atrocities filled Indian newspapers, India's strongly nationalistic ruling party -- the BJP, which faces reelection in September -- was coming under intense domestic political pressure to adopt a more forceful response. They feared that if India failed to dislodge the Pakistani infiltrators in Kashmir, it might open a second front that could engulf the two countries in a full-scale war.
They also noted that within a few weeks of the first Indian preparations, Pakistan too began to prepare offensive units.
Whether either country would have resorted to nuclear weapons is, of course, pure speculation. U.S. officials refused to say if there was any evidence that either country was preparing to do so. Both India and Pakistan, however, are widely presumed to have produced "weaponized" versions of their nuclear devices that could be delivered from airplanes.
U.S. officials say they could easily envision a scenario under which Pakistani forces, overwhelmed by India's much larger army, could find themselves backed into a corner that could tempt them to play their last and most devastating card.
"There wasn't any question that this thing could have gone to a high level," said a U.S. official who closely followed the crisis. "That's what scared us."
The intelligence warnings set off a frantic diplomatic scramble at the highest levels of the Clinton administration. The president himself was intimately involved in the crisis, dispatching letters to the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in early June and staying in regular telephone contact with each during the weeks that followed. The thrust of Clinton's message was that each side should show restraint and respect the "sanctity" of the line of control.
In mediating the conflict, U.S. officials said, they strove to maintain "transparency" -- that is, to keep both sides informed of their actions -- in order to allay Indian fears that Washington would tilt toward Pakistan, a close military ally throughout the Cold War. By mid-June, U.S. officials were making it clear that they regarded Pakistan as the aggressor, leaking evidence that Pakistani regular troops were behind the incursion.
Sharif appeared to be looking for a face-saving exit. During a visit to Islamabad on June 25, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of the U.S. Central Command, had received "fairly clear" assurances from his Pakistani counterparts that their forces would withdraw from the Indian side of the line, according to a senior administration official.
But U.S. intelligence analysts saw no evidence of a pullout. On Thursday, July 1, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the administration's point man on South Asia, cut short a vacation in the Hamptons and returned to Washington to deal with the crisis.
On July 3, Clinton called Sharif, "basically to see what's happening," the official said. It was then that Sharif asked to meet with the president. An hour later, Clinton called back and invited Sharif to come to Washington the following day. But Clinton also made clear to Sharif that the meeting had to produce "a positive result," the official said; anything less could "accelerate the downward spiral."
In the end, the president got the commitment he was looking for. By mid-July, Pakistani forces began to withdraw.