Express Illustration | Sourav Roy
Express Illustration | Sourav Roy

Lessons from Kargil, a quarter century later

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)

On the 25th anniversary of the commencement of Operation Vijay, I feel it’s time to energise the national conscience and institutionalise memories of the eventful time. We are referring to the year 1999, when the Pakistan Army’s ambitions, out of sync with reality and lacking any sense of military clarity, led it to a catastrophic military operation. This was an attempt to capture some Indian territory in the high-altitude district of Kargil to pressure the Indian Army to vacate Siachen glacier. It resulted in horrific casualties for both armies.

Such events tend to be forgotten by the following generations. Till an emotional connection exists, relatives and associates revel in the heroism of our resistance, the tenacious fight-back and unwillingness to give up an inch of national territory. Yet,  we are notorious for harbouring convenient memories. A quarter century later, not many will recall the events of May to July 1999 and how India turned the tide after being initially surprised by the rogue Pakistani action.

There are lessons from Kargil and other such Pakistani misadventures that need to be enshrined in such a way that Pakistan never risks them again. Understanding our adversaries is the key. There are some characteristics which the Pakistan Army and its leadership possess that may never change; the Indian public needs to be aware of these. The Pakistan Army is an entity independent of civilian control. The generals govern without being in government, thus remaining shorn of responsibility for their actions. These actions may never be in consonance with national interests. They are often executed to satisfy personal ego and without ‘thinking through’ the full impact and implications of their actions.

To take an example from the current situation, any intelligence analysis that takes Pakistan’s ongoing economic woes and impact of climate change to draw conclusions on the near impossibility of it triggering something of a tactical, operational or strategic nature to gain some advantage over India would be unrealistic. Options drawn with application of rational military thinking fly in the face of historical irrationality, which has usually been the nature of the Pakistani military doctrine. Yet, it may also be incorrect to imagine intrusions and occupations that are given the imaginary colour of ‘Second Kargils’. This became an obsession with some senior commanders of the Indian Army for many years, but is thankfully well behind us. We just need to be alert and our vigil needs to be professional at all times, not only in campaigning seasons.

By creating shadows of intrusions and mass infiltration on the LoC, what Pakistani military commanders managed to temporarily achieve was a defensive approach in some Indian military minds. Even Jamaat-ud-Dawah leader Hafiz Saeed borrowed a leaf from Pakistan’s disinformation when, in 2011, he directed his cadres to attempt mass infiltration into Kashmir in suicide mode, in an effort to impose caution on us and cow us down. Fortunately, this was quickly overcome, but it’s a trend that can always return if irrationality is applied by the Pakistan Army once again. Quid pro quo of higher intensity against Pakistan Army action is what quiets the Pakistan Army, and the Indian Army must always cater to that. Lower levels of creeping calibration as response rarely help.

As a practice, the Pakistan Army does not realistically document challenges at the LoC and lessons from Indian response, because it would reveal the reality of its own irrational adventurism, the lack of professionalism and also unnecessary bravado that ends in no achievement. In the absence of information, there is thus a propensity for future generations remaining ill informed, misled by misinformation relating to such bravado. The flip side is that it is also to our advantage, as subsequent generations of Pakistani officers and soldiers will rarely be aware of the ferocity of Indian responses at the LoC. Nothing, of all that has happened on the LoC in the last 50 years and more, has been adequately documented on our side, too. Such documentation can act as a deterrence in the minds of the adversary, projecting clearly the potential of all adventurism meeting inevitable doom.

General Pervez Musharraf had a personal grudge about his abortive efforts at Siachen glacier in his capacity as the commander of the Pakistan Special Service Group and how the Indian Army neutralised all his efforts in 1987-88, denying even a toehold on Saltoro Ridge. In 1999, as he planned his operations against the Indian Kargil Brigade, the Lahore Yatra came as a spoiler. His obsession about the Kargil-Siachen link got the better of him and he triggered the occupation of the winter-vacated positions of the Indian Kargil Brigade. Fortunately, Pakistani authors such as Nasim Zehra and Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail of the Pakistan Air Force have called his bluff and adequately castigated him in the public domain.

What has been insufficiently documented and brought to notice of the current generation of media and civil society in Pakistan is the great bluff about the status of Siachen glacier. It needs to be told and retold to the current generation of Pakistan civil society how its army unnecessarily triggered the crisis by attempting cartographic aggression and sending patrols and mountaineering expeditions into an area over which it clearly did not have jurisdiction. When India put counter-claims to project the Saltoro watershed, a Pakistan military adventure was correctly anticipated by India. During 1978-84, claims and counter-claims flew until India obtained confirmed information that Pakistan was about to launch an occupation on or around April 19, 1984. We beat Pakistan by six days, launching Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984 and occupying the glacier and the Saltoro Ridge that virtually guards the glacier from the west and south.

The Pakistan Army ensured a perception that it still occupies Siachen. A second loss of perceived territory after East Pakistan (Bangladesh) would not have made it very popular. It has stuck to the narrative and the people of Pakistan believe Siachen is in their hands. The Army makes films to show how it is occupying Siachen while being miles away from the landmark glacier.

In the end, it is all about information and getting it to the right quarters. The effect of it will be even more telling 50 years later.

(Views are personal)


Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) | Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir