Books | A Cost Too High

Many lessons from the Kargil conflict of 1999 remain unlearned

A SOLDIER’S DIARY: KARGIL THE INSIDE STORYIn one sense, the Kargil operation was a plus. Not in terms of the victory, but because of the crucial lessons that come out of it. Army Headquarters and the defence ministry realised just how ill-prepared we were and just how vulnerable the lack of proper equipment left us. In terms of proper equipment, the lesson has clearly been learnt. Over the last three months, adequate high altitude equipment and clothing have started flowing in, making life a little easier for the officers and men who now have to guard a new stretch of inhospitable border.

But there were other lessons that were as, if not more, crucial, relating to the total lack of intelligence gathering. Some advanced intelligence gathering equipment like electronic sensors, radars and night vision devices have been ordered and will arrive, but the main problem we faced was with human intelligence. The various intelligence agencies responsible, from RAW to Military Intelligence, failed in their primary job: to alert the country to an intrusion by hundreds of enemy soldiers. It was an intelligence failure of Himalayan proportions and a number of brave men paid for the lapse with their lives.

This is clearly the most crucial lesson of the war: that we had fought a critical, difficult battle in an information void. There was little if any intelligence even halfway through the battle. 14 JAK Rifles were told they were up against ‘a handful of mercenaries.’ They counted 240 regular army soldiers walking back across the LoC at Kaksar one the withdrawal was announced. Such disinformation caused untold damage. If we did not know the numbers, and were always underestimating, this meant we were also constantly underestimating their weapon-holding capabilities. We officers all agree on the need to upgrade our electronic surveillance. In retrospect, now that the battle is officially over, we also realise the lack of a proper joint intelligence apparatus at the national level.

Officers at Northern Command tell me that there is hardly any coordination between the plethora of different agencies: Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau (IB) and RAW, all of which are active in Kashmir. While RAW had failed to give any information pertaining to the build-up at the border; IB had passed on information, which is now being pushed under the carpet. As early as June 2, its director, Shyamal Dutta, had penned his signature to a note, which went right up to the prime minister and our DGMO, regarding a build-up in the sector. It had also talked of increased helicopter activity at Skardu, but our officers in Delhi now say that IB has a habit of sending such notes all the time.

Moreover, there is so much distrust between the agencies. IB’s staff in Kashmir reports to its head office in Delhi. Seldom, as we officers in CI Ops will confirm, is this information shared at the local level. The distrust is evident in the meetings of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar. There were, according to officers present, constant arguments and differences in perception. IB and RAW are already accusing 15 Corps of underplaying the number of militants and mercenaries who infiltrated the state. Finally, Corps decided to put on record the various intelligence inputs from all the agencies.

An exercise unearths the fact that the note that Shyamal Dutta sent on June 2 stayed at the DGMO’s office. The information was not even communicated to Northern Command or to the Joint Intelligence Committee. The explanation given later: IB notes are very general in nature and basically an attempt to cover up for any failures. Hence, all their notes invariably mention that infiltration is expected from Kargil and Rajouri and Poonch and Uri and Kupwara.

Commanders of all units have listed the lack of information as one of the major drawbacks of Operation Vijay. Brigadier Aul states quite categorically in his report that the initial intrusion in the Drass sector was noticed by 16 Grenadiers only on May 8. When the Brigade was shifted rapidly from the counter insurgency grid to conventional operations, the information regarding the enemy strength and disposition was vague. Then, the intrusion was not even considered a serious matter and it was felt that the intruders could be evicted with ease.

The report submitted by 56 Brigade in emphatic. It says: “In view of the failure of various intelligence agencies to detect the intrusion till as late as May, there was a total vacuum as far as operational intelligence was concerned. The initial misdirection and slow progress of operations can be attributed to the scarce intelligence available about the enemy disposition and their state of preparedness. The holding formation (16 Grenadiers) could also not provide much intelligence about the terrain conditions and layout of features held by the enemy. For operations launched in the initial stages, no time was given for recce, planning and preparation. This was possibly due to incorrect intelligence assessment and pressures to evict the intruders as soon as possible. This resulted in low confidence of battalion commanders and company commanders in achieving the objectives assigned to them and therefore very little could be achieved in the initial stages… The units were not aware of the area under shelling while moving into the sector.”

The report continues: “Information of terrain in Mushkoh and Drass was vague… Intelligence is an important factor in operations. To maintain surveillance over a large frontage in inhospitable and difficult mountainous terrain and to fight a successful defensive/ offensive battle in high altitude area, there is a need to gain constant information about the enemy and the terrain in the area of operations. A plethora of sources that have now become available provide a large amount of information, which needs to be analysed in detail. Staff should be capable of collecting, collating and interpreting information and disseminating it to the troops in a near-real-time frame. The present set-up is not designed for this and requires being reorganised for sources indicated below:

Specialist troops trained to operate in glaciated/ high altitude terrain with specialist equipment/ vehicles for gathering information should from an integral part of the formation. There would also be a need to equip these troops with snowmobiles. It is preferable to integrate local scout battalions having an intimate knowledge of the terrain with the formations.

Electronic surveillance: suitable electronic surveillance means like unattended sensors and radars with day and night surveillance capabilities should be introduced to identify concentration/ movement of troops and gun positions.

Satellite pictures of high resolution and aerial photographs should supplement intelligence gathering to facilitate sound planning at the formation/ unit level.

Electronic intelligence resources are presently centralised at the Corps level. These must be decentralised to the Division level.

The enemy had catered for air defence capability in the form of 12.7 mm guns and stinger missiles. This degraded air strikes and movement of our own hepters (helicopters) close to enemy defences to quite an extent. Troops must therefore be provided with air defence capabilities. SAMs and Twin Barrel AD guns will greatly enhance the limited air defence capability of an infantry battalion.

For movement of tactical loads and heavy guns and ammunition to forward posts, hepters (helicopters) should be made available.

Another lesson, which our commanders must never forget, is that it is no longer enough to just train for counter-insurgency operations. We had all been cast in that mould and had great difficulty in switching to conventional warfare. What 14 JAK Rif’s report says holds good for each one of us: “Adequate time should be given for conventional training of troops in CI Ops. The mere statement that training should be conducted while on CI duties does not suffice.”

The preponderance of artillery fire and the use of Bofors in the direct fire role proved to be a battle–winning factor. Direct firing of Bofors paid heavy dividends in terms of unsettling the enemy as well as raising the morale of our own troops.

Our success in various operations in attributable to our junior leaders. It is essential to maintain a very high quality of training.

Adequate special clothing and mountaineering equipment was not available but grit and determination enabled the troops to brave subzeroes.

Feint attacks divided the enemy attention and prevented him from sending reinforcement to threatened areas.

If any confirmation was needed of the abysmal intelligence failure, it has now been provided by the report of the Kargil Review Committee chaired by K. Subrahmanyam. Placed in Parliament, the report details the critical failure in intelligence. None of the agencies involved, particularly the RAW, provided the slightest warning of possible intrusions.

The report also confirms that the intrusions took place much earlier than the army brass was willing to admit at the time. The report states: “Reconnaissance parties comprising officers started crossing the LoC in late January/ early February. They established a first line of administrative bases within a limited distance across the LoC in February… Care was exercised by the intruders to move only in the gaps between the Indian winter posts and to avoid detection by Winter Air Surveillance Operations (WASO)… WASO helicopters and operational reconnaissance flights repeatedly flew over them as is evident from one of the diaries captured in Mushkoh Valley. A combination of factors prevented their detection: camouflage clothing; helicopter vibrations which hampered observation, opportunity for concealment on hearing the sound of approaching helicopters, and peace time safety requirements of maintaining a certain height above the ground and a given distance from the LoC. Since the effort was largely to detect infiltration, most flights flew along valleys and not across the ridge. All these factors made the WASO patrols of negligible value.”

The report has been highly critical of all the intelligence-gathering agencies and recommended an overhaul of the entire systems. The government has accepted the suggestion, but whether the required changes and intelligence overhaul will happen on the ground is debatable. Without a drastic improvement in coordination and proper surveillance equipment, the kind of operational failures that I have detailed through the pages of this diary will continue to take place.

In fact, the operational failures which cost so many lives were not even within the ambit of the Kargil Review Committee. With the Pakistan Army continuing to infiltrate across the border and the loss of additional soldiers to such attacks, the issue of operational failure acquires added urgency.

Maybe this diary will expose those responsible. But who will pay the price? My overwhelming fear is that the sacrifices of so many brave soldiers will have been in vain….

By Harinder Baweja
Roli Books, Pg 143, Rs 395


Call us