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The story of how Nawaz Sharif pulled back from nuclear war

On Saturday, Nawaz Sharif swept to victory in Pakistan's parliamentary elections, capping a frantic election season and handing the former prime minister a sufficient number of seats to assemble what is likely to be a far more stable government than his country has witnessed in recent years.

But observers of Pakistani politics in the United States are likely to wonder what Sharif's election means for the troubled relations between the two countries. And one paragraph in the New York Times write-up of Sharif's victory offers a clue:

He first came to American attention during Pakistan's tense confrontation with India in 1999, when the possibility of a nuclear conflict was averted thanks to mediation by President Bill Clinton.

In a mere 30 words, the Times reviews an episode that brought the world about as close to nuclear war as it has come since the Cuban missile crisis. And Nawaz Sharif, the man about to assume power in Pakistan, was one of the central characters in that drama.

In the spring of 1999, the Pakistani army, without notifying then-Prime Minister Sharif, crossed the Line of Control and seized strategically vital outposts in the Kargil district of Indian-controlled Kashmir. India had abandoned the mountainous outposts for the winter, and moved swiftly to retake their territory when they realized what had happened. The ensuing conflict became known as the Kargil War.

Abandoning its Cold War ally, the United States identified Pakistan as the belligerent and threatened to cut off a much-needed IMF loan package in an effort to force Islamabad to withdraw to the Line of Control. Wedged between the Pakistani military and the White House, Sharif flew in desperation to Washington for a tense July 4 meeting. Fearing for his life, he brought along his wife and children.

On the morning of the 4th, Clinton's advisors convened to inform Sharif that American intelligence had gotten wind of Pakistan's plans to mobilize its nuclear weapons. If Clinton decided to recognize Pakistani territorial gains, India would surely escalate the conflict, risking a nuclear response from the Pakistanis. If Clinton managed to get Sharif to retreat to the Line of Control, nuclear war would likely be averted, but Pakistani military leaders would probably depose Sharif at their first chance.

Sandy Berger, the U.S. national security advisor, told Clinton that he was heading into the single most important meeting with a foreign leader of his presidency. The goal was to get Sharif to retreat but give him sufficient political cover to hang on to power. "If he arrives as a prime minister but stays as an exile," Berger told Clinton, "he's not going to be able to make stick whatever deal you get out of him."

After a back-and-forth between the two leaders, Sharif asked to meet privately with Clinton. Alone with Sharif and Bruce Riedel, a National Security Council official taking notes, Clinton informed the prime minister of the Pakistani military's nuclear preparations (Sharif seemed surprised) and threatened to issue a statement pinning the blame for the conflict on Pakistan if Sharif refused to pull his forces back. According to Riedel's account of the meeting, Clinton compared the situation to the Cuban missile crisis and asked Sharif if he realized what would happen if even one bomb were dropped. Sharif finished Clinton's sentence for him, noting that it would be a catastrophe.

Out of options and having realized that Clinton would never recognize Pakistan's territorial gains, Sharif beat a hasty retreat and agreed to withdraw his forces. The only political cover he secured was a commitment from Clinton to take a personal interest in the 'Lahore process,' which was aimed at resolving the India-Pakistan border dispute. But that was all he got. Nuclear war was averted, and Clinton secured a diplomatic victory.

Three months later, Sharif was deposed and eventually exiled by the man who ordered Pakistani forces into Kargil: Pervez Musharraf. Now Sharif is set to return to power, while Musharraf is under house arrest.

It's a remarkable reversal of fortune for two men who very nearly started a nuclear war.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

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