A hoax call that could have triggered war
By Zaffar Abbas, Dawn, December 6, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Dec 5: Nuclear-armed Pakistan went into a state of ‘high alert’ last weekend and was eyeing India for possible signs of military aggression, after a threatening phone call made to President Asif Ali Zardari by someone from Delhi who posed himself as the Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Whether it was mere mischief or a sinister move by someone in the Indian external affairs ministry, or the call came from within Pakistan, remains unclear, and is still a matter of investigation. But several political, diplomatic and security sources have confirmed to Dawn that for nearly 24 hours over the weekend the incident continued to send jitters across the world. To some world leaders the probability of an accidental war appeared very high.
It all started late on Friday, November 28. Because of the heightened tension over the Mumbai carnage, some senior members of the presidential staff decided to bypass the standard procedures meant for such occasions, including verification of the caller and involvement of the diplomatic missions, and transferred the late-evening call to Mr Zardari. The caller introduced himself as Pranab Mukherjee and, while ignoring the conciliatory language of the president, directly threatened to take military action if Islamabad failed to immediately act against the supposed perpetrators of the Mumbai killings.
As the telephone call ended many in the Presidency were convinced that the Indians had started beating the war drums. Within no time intense diplomatic and security activity started in Islamabad. Signals were sent to everyone who mattered about how the rapidly deteriorating situation may spiral out of control. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was advised to immediately return to the capital from Lahore, and a special plane (PAF chief’s) was sent to Delhi to bring back the visiting Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi early in the morning on Nov 29 even when he was already booked to return by a scheduled PIA flight the same evening.
It was against this backdrop that some top Pakistani security officials briefed a few media persons on Saturday afternoon about a “threatening phone call” by the Indian external affairs minister to “someone” at the top in Islamabad. They also talked of Delhi’s decision to put its air force in a state of “high alert”, and described the following 24 to 48 hours as extremely critical. One of the top security officials even announced the possibility of shifting tens of thousands of troops from its western border with Afghanistan to its eastern frontier with India.
Sources said that during this period the Pakistan air force was at the highest alert. Among the citizens of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, who may have noticed fighter jets screaming overhead on Saturday morning, none would have known that the warplanes were mounting patrols with live ammunition. One senior official refused to call it a panic decision. “War may not have been imminent, but it was not possible to take any chances,” he told Dawn.
Intense diplomatic efforts that started late on Friday went on throughout the following day. During this period phone calls were made from Islamabad to some of the top officials and diplomats in Washington, including Condoleezza Rice, and the US Secretary of State called Mr Mukherjee and others in India in a night-long effort to understand what might have gone wrong, and to persuade the two sides to bring down the temperature.
During this time, it was also revealed, an attempt was also made by the mysterious caller, claiming to be the Indian external affairs minister, to speak to the US Secretary of State, but due to specific checks laid down by the Americans, the call couldn’t get through to Dr Rice.
These sources said that when Condoleezza Rice contacted Mr Mukherjee in the middle of the night to inquire about the reasons for hurling such threats at Pakistan he reportedly denied having any such conversation with President Zardari. The Indian minister reportedly told Dr Rice that the only telephonic conversation he had was with his Pakistani counterpart on Friday when Mr Qureshi was still in Delhi. And, according to him, the tone of that discussion was quite cordial --- a fact later confirmed by the Pakistani foreign minister at a news conference in Islamabad on Saturday.
As the international effort to defuse the tension intensified, matters started to clear up and by late Saturday evening calm began to prevail. But sources admit that those 24 hours made many people in Islamabad and Delhi and, perhaps in Washington, quite anxious. Perhaps for this reason, the Americans decided against taking any further chances, and Condoleezza Rice was asked to travel to the region to personally ensure the return from the brink.
Since then investigators have tried to track down the number from where the call was made. Some of the senior diplomats and intelligence officials are convinced the source of the mischief was someone in the Indian external affairs ministry. They base their case on the Caller ID, which established a Delhi number. On the other hand, the Indians have told the Americans that no call was made from any of the numbers of the external affairs ministry, and have hinted at the possibility of manipulation in the caller ID.
But, as admitted by a top official in Islamabad, the more serious issue was the by-passing of the standard operating procedure to put such a call through to the President almost directly without even verifying the identity of the caller. In such a situation, the procedure is to take down the number and the message, consult the foreign ministry, involve the high commission, and then to call back on the given number. The sources said none of this was done.
As a result, the hoax call to the presidency triggered a major diplomatic crisis. Since then, the authorities have reworked the procedures by putting enough checks and filters for such high-level contacts in order to avoid embarrassment in the future.