Bottomline | Face the Reality

Time India accepts that the Kargil conflict was an aberration and resulted in a pyrrhic victory

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

In May, on the 16th anniversary of the 1999 Kargil conflict, Pakistan’s former army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, who masterminded the daring adventure, said that his army had ‘India by the throat’, adding, ‘ India will never forget that war.’

Much in keeping with the national ethos of undermining the Pakistan Army, Indian experts called Musharraf ‘delusional.’ With a wealth of information now available on the conflict, few paused to consider Musharraf’s remarks objectively. It would have helped to understand that, on the one hand, Musharraf did manage to take India and its army to the edge of precipice. On the other hand, with few lessons learnt, a bigger danger lurks round the corner in Ladakh, where the Kargil conflict was fought.

The conflict — a bold gamble by Musharraf — was based on two assumptions: One, the Line of Control (LC) marked on maps and signed by commanders’ of the two sides in 1972 after the Simla agreement was on small scale maps, which by existing survey facilities could deviate by two to 10 kilometres on a large modern map. Pakistan played upon this technical shortcoming of the original and existing maps when making its case that its troops, though inside territories traditionally held by India, were within the LC on Pakistan’s side in the Kargil sector of Ladakh.

Two, Musharraf took advantage of large unoccupied gaps (nearly 120km in the Kargil sector) during winter months to move his paramilitary force, Northern Light Infantry, (NLI) to forward positions, much ahead of where they should have been. As most of the LC in the Kargil sector was in high altitude (between 12,000 to 18,000 feet) terrain, as a normal practice, forward posts were held by Indian troops (that too lightly) in summer months only; in the six to eight winter months, they were left unoccupied on the assurance that the LC was agreed on maps and the ground. Moreover, as this mostly snow-bound area was assessed (since 1972) by the Indian Army to have minimal conventional threat, during summer months, when infiltration increased, posts were held mostly for ground observation purposes.

Pakistan’s case has been explained by Musharraf in his book, In the Line of Fire. He wanted to avenge the Indian Army’s 1984 occupation of Siachen by capturing unoccupied or thinly held areas in the Kargil sector. (He conveniently overlooked the fact that Siachen, unlike Kargil, was in no-man’s land in the north beyond the mutually agreed LC).

So, he ordered his local troops from the area (though listed as a paramilitary, the NLI is regular Pakistan Army with similar weapons, training and leadership) to adopt what he called ‘forward defensive posture’ under operation Badr by moving ahead of the traditional LC and preparing and occupying hardened military positions on heights well ahead (which were supported by massive firepower from the rear) during 1998-99 winter months. The NLI troops were to coordinate with terrorists still ahead in Indian territories to ensure that Indian troops were unable to get back to their original posts. ‘We wanted to dominate the areas held by the freedom fighters’ is how Musharraf put it. In his judgement, this would be a fait accompli. (Musharraf was aware that the Indian Army was woefully short of capabilities in terms of equipment, training and importantly mind-set for conventional war).

This tactical manoeuvre was to provide the Pakistan Army with major military (operational) gains. By occupying forward positions in the Kargil sector, the Pakistan Army would be able to observe and disrupt (through firepower) at numerous places India’s only road lifeline (National highway 1A) from Srinagar to Leh. This would isolate Ladakh from the Kashmir valley. Moreover, with occupation of forward locations (firm bases in army parlance) adjacent to the Siachen glacier, the road link to India’s Siachen brigade headquarters (responsible for war effort of Indian troops on the Siachen glacier) would get snapped forcing India to vacate the glacier sooner than later.

While a brilliantly conceived tactical plan, Musharraf failed to appreciate that India would fight hard to ensure that neither Siachen was severed nor Ladakh threatened. Given the necessity to maintain secrecy, Musharraf had kept the Pakistan Air Force and the Navy in the dark; and even within his army select people knew what was going on. The Pakistan military was unprepared for a total conventional war.

This was the case of the Indian military as well, with the army being least prepared. Indian’s northern command (responsible for the state Jammu and Kashmir) leadership proved a complete let down, with Army Headquarters’ performance being no better. Nine years of counter-terrorism operations in J&K starting 1990 had perhaps made the senior army leadership forget that their livelihood was to prepare, train and fight conventional war.

Face the RealityConsidering that the first intrusions (occupation), not infiltration, in the Kargil sector were detected on 6 May 1998, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 15 corps, (responsible for Kashmir valley and Ladakh) Lt Gen. Kishan Pal told the Unified Headquarters meeting (where all security forces including the army, paramilitary, state police and intelligence agencies meet) on May 14 that: ‘that the situation was local and would be dealt with locally.’ Based on this input, defence minister, George Fernandes told the media that infiltrators would be thrown out in 48 hours. And the Indian vice-chief of army staff, Lt Gen. Chandra Shekhar encouraged his boss, the army chief, Gen V.P. Malik, who was on an official tour to Poland to continue with his itinerary and not worry about the news. Even when more intelligence inputs poured in and the reality was showing up by the hour, Chandra Shekhar, in a desperate attempt to hide the army’s folly, tried hard to persuade the Indian Air Force (IAF) to provide attack helicopter support, without the knowledge of the political leadership, to hit the intruders who had dug in inside Indian territories. The air force chief, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis refused making it clear that use of airpower needed clearance from the government as it would enlarge the conflict from local to an all-out war (Tipnis wrote his only account of air force operations, called operation Safed Sagar exclusively for FORCE in October 2006).

The seriousness of the situation was realised when the IAF finally joined the army’s operation (Operation Vijay) on May 26. Between this crucial period, army units ordered to evict the intruders suffered very heavy casualties, and after the conflict, as many as 48 officers and all ranks from these units faced court of enquiry on charges ranging from command failure to cowardice to desertion.

Commenting on the period from May 16 to May 26, Malik, in his book, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory wrote that: ‘I felt that the movement of additional unit and sub-units at the brigade and divisional level had been done in haste. The hastily moved units and sub-units had neither adequate combat strength nor logistics support. They were being tasked at brigade and divisional levels in an ad hoc manner without any detailed planning.’ Maximum casualties of the official figure of 527 dead and 1,363 wounded were during this period.

Once it was evident that greater military effort would be required to dislodge the entrenched intruders, the government on May 25 allowed the use of air power with two caveats: ground and air forces will not cross the LC, and area of operations must remain restricted to the Kargil sector. Malik writes that while the nuclear weapons factor was not discussed by the political leadership during the conflict, it must have weighed on the minds of the Vajpayee government for such political instructions.

The Indian Army suddenly faced its moment of truth: it was not prepared for war. According to Malik, ‘besides weapons and equipment, the ammunition reserves for many important weapons were low.’ There were shortages everywhere, from transport fleet, to oils, lubricants and greases, to winter clothing for troops, to artillery guns and so on. The situation was so alarming that Malik, in reply to a media question on June 23, when operations were at a precarious juncture, conveyed his helplessness to a surprised nation by saying that: ‘we will fight with whatever we have.’ His comments got worldwide coverage, with Vajpayee admonishing Malik in private that he should have restrained himself. Meanwhile, bureaucrats from the defence ministry were either busy ringing up friendly nations (Russia and Israel in particular) to urgently despatch spares and ammunition, or were themselves on flights lugging heavy suitcases filled with foreign exchange to collect items themselves.

While the IAF and the navy were placed on high alert, the army’s dilemma was how to balance its forces: a capability asymmetry vis-à-vis Pakistani forces was required in the limited Kargil conflict theatre, even as concurrently a strong defensive posture had to be adopted on the entire western front to discourage the Pakistan Army from enlarging the conflict. So, Malik gambled. He moved a preponderant of artillery (firepower), which is the mainstay of any operation from other formations including strike (offensive) corps to Kargil. Malik also moved additional troops, thereby denuding capabilities of other critical theatres which became vulnerable in case Pakistan launched an all-out war. According to him, ‘nearly 50 fire units (900 guns) comprising artillery guns, howitzers, mortars and one rocket battery were employed in the area of operations.’ All 100 Bofors guns with the army were brought in Kargil.

In Musharraf’s words, ‘As few as five (NLI) battalions (6,000 men), in support of freedom fighter groups, were able to compel the Indians to employ more than four divisions (50,000 men), with the bulk of the Indian artillery coming from strike formations meant for operations in the southern plains. The Indians were also forced to mobilise their entire national resources, including their air force.’ There was panic in the Indian establishment and Musharraf seemed determined to fight it out. Then the tide turned with two events away from the scene of operations. National security advisor, Brajesh Mishra met with his US counterpart Sandy Berger in Europe on June 16 and told him that it would be difficult to leash Indian military forces for long. Dreading the nuclear factor, the US took Mishra seriously and despatched a powerful team to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with advice to withdraw his troops back to the LC. Sharif panicked and sought a meeting with President Clinton; the two met in Washington on 4 July 1999 with Sharif agreeing to withdraw his troops.

China played a powerful behind-the-scene role in support of Pakistan. During the 77-day conflict, Chinese forces did offensive patrolling in Ladakh compelling India to not withdraw its acclimatised 114 brigade troops at Dungti (3,500 troops on Chinese front) for Operation Vijay against Pakistan. Moreover, at the start of the conflict, Musharraf was in China and Chinese military official in-charge of operational support equipment including ammunition was in Rawalpindi. The inference was obvious: Chinese were ready to support the Pakistan military with war-withal (operational sustenance) alongside increased pressure on the disputed border with India.

In the aftermath of the conflict, the Indian Army raised the new 14 corps at Leh (Ladakh) on 1 September 1999, as, according to Malik, ‘we need a credible dissuasive posture in Ladakh till the LC and the Siachen dispute with Pakistan, and the boundary question with China, are fully resolved.’ This is not all. In order to occupy vacated posts which led to the Kargil conflict, 8 mountain division (12,000 troops) was told to hold, at altitudes of 12,000 feet plus, the entire Kargil sector round the year. As 8 division was earlier doing counter-insurgency operations (CI ops) in Kashmir before getting sucked into Kargil, 30 new Rashtriya Rifles units (each with 10,000 troops) were raised to fill the void in CI grids. Thus, the Indian Army raised about 30,000 more troops from within its own resources further depleting availability of officers in units and reserves of small arms, ammunition and equipment meant for war (war wastage reserves). While unable to make territory gains in the Kargil sector, Musharraf managed to raise the burden of Indian Army by forcing its troops to hold an additional 120km of LC throughout the year.

India and its armed forces (especially the army) should have learnt two core lessons from the Kargil conflict, which, till date, remain unlearnt. One, as the Pakistan Army which controls its nation’s terms for peace and war, has enormous potential to spring (military) surprises, the Indian military should be prepared all times to fight and win a conventional war. At the political level, this implies an understanding of military power including nuclear power and how wars will be fought between adversaries holding military lines. At the military level, the need is for adequate war wastage reserves, training, mind-set and capability for joint operations in an intense all-out war.

Two, Ladakh, where the conflict was fought, is extremely vulnerable to a two-front offensive, whatever its shape and form. Moreover, Pakistan, given its strategic relationship and growing military inter-operability with China, will, unlike previous wars, have the advantage of fighting a prolonged campaign without much depletion of its operational sustenance. Given these two benefits with the adversaries, India and its military should review its two-front war objectives, which being impossible to achieve, are simply ludicrous.

A good beginning would be to accept that the Kargil conflict was an aberration (not a war) and a pyrrhic victory. India paid a heavy price for evicting terrorists and Pakistan’s then paramilitary forces from its soil. Once this reality sinks in, Musharraf may not appear delusionary when saying that he had India (and its army) by the throat.


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