Even as India evicted the intruders, Pakistan Army had the last laugh
It is not easy to define victory in war. Unlike earlier times, when the enemy, battlefield, political objectives and military aims were well-defined, wars now are amorphous in all aspects. Victory then meant that the enemy is routed so thoroughly, its military so demoralised, that it will not have the will for further mischief. This is no longer true. Pakistan’s 1999 Kargil adventure is a prime example of the new age war. Both India and the Pakistan Army (PA) called it a victory with logic to support their viewpoints.
Ahmed Rashid, the celebrated Pakistani author of the 2000 bestseller ‘Taliban’ vehemently disagrees with his army which insists that Kargil was a victory for them. Convinced that most Pakistanis and the world think that the war was a humiliating defeat for Pakistan, Rashid paid a price for his dissention. Writing in his latest book, ‘Pakistan on the Brink’ he says that he was banned from the Pakistan Army (PA) run National Defence University, where he had been lecturing for 15 years, by General Musharraf as he held different views on the army’s policies. The ban on him remains under General Kayani.
My reaction to Rashid’s ban is mixed. A professional army, which I think the PA still is, should have had magnanimity to listen and not disregard an invited international celebrity. Also, Rashid should have appreciated the other side’s viewpoint as well. For instance, while welcoming the Indian position, I am inclined to agree with the PA standpoint that Kargil was a victory for them. Writing in my first 2002 book, ‘The Defence Makeover: 10 Myths that Shape India’s Image’, I had argued that Kargil war was not a victory for India. Here are my reasons which Rashid may want to consider.
At the operational level, let alone the Pakistan military, even its regular army did not join the war. It was Indian armed forces (army and air force) pitted against ISI-supported irregulars (terrorists) and its paramilitary force (Northern Light Infantry). The big takeaway for PA was that it perfected the art of fighting irregular and regular wars simultaneously. Called a paramilitary force, the NLI, unlike Indian paramilitary forces, is commanded by army officers on deputation and has the army ethos. In previous wars of 1947-48, and 1965 over Kashmir, the PA had first waited for the success of its irregulars before launching regular forces. The results were not good. After the Kargil war, Musharraf formally inducted the NLI into its regular infantry, and importantly, called terrorists his first line of defence (read offence). Given the operational utility of battle-tested terrorists in a war with India, the PA cannot be expected to sever its ties with them as long as India remains the existential threat.
The other advantage for the PA was that it raised the peacetime surveillance burden on India. India’s 8 mountain division (over 10,000 troops), a reserve for conventional war, is now perched on the Kargil heights in high altitude areas round the year. Holding posts on the linear treacherous ridge line, these troops will have a limited operational availability in war with Pakistan. This is not all. During the war, despite a shortage of acclimatised troops, the Indian Army (IA) did not consider it wise to pull-out its acclimatised 114 infantry brigade at Durbok in Ladakh facing China for combat with Pakistan. This implies that in a war with Pakistan, the IA will find it difficult to use its dual-tasked formations (two-and-half divisions) from the Chinese to Pakistani front. The knowledge that India fears a substantive Chinese reaction in a war with Pakistan in a future conflict will help both allies plan hostilities optimally.
At the higher level, Indian political leadership was worried about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and hence resisted pressure to cross the Line of Control to take the war into enemy territories. This established Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ credibility; that PA is capable of exercising its nuclear option.
For India, the Kargil war was about evicting intruders. The war was fought on Indian soil, and all associated with national security got exposed abysmally. In this respect, the war was a monumental let-down. The intelligence failed, the army leadership was caught napping and unprepared for war, the air force had little idea and wherewithal for combat in mountains, the chiefs of staff committee meant for successful air-land battles was found unworthy, and the political leadership was pushed against the wall. It had no choice but to get intruders out of India’s territories. No one in the Indian establishment had an iota of idea of how to run a successful campaign if the nuclear-armed PA had joined the war. It was India’s good luck that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif blinked, and of course paid a heavy price. Various committees and task-forces set up after the war by the Vajpayee government to comprehensively review the national security edifice were meant to figure out how to fight a successful war with Pakistan.
Finally, most Indian analysts concluded that eviction of terrorists (under US pressure) meant that LC had been sanctified, suggesting its acceptance as de-facto border. This would be a grave miscalculation. A LC by definition is a military held line which can be shifted by whichever side has the capability. Given close ties between the two non-status quo allies, we have not seen the last of the Kargil surprise. I am not sure if India has drawn correct lessons.