Kargil 99: Recalling the challenge

There is yet speculation that the lessons of Kargil have not manifested sufficiently to prevent India being strategically surprised. Eastern Ladakh 2020 is often quoted.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Amit Bandre)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Amit Bandre)

Yesterday was Kargil Vijay Diwas. It marked the day when the intrusions into the Kargil sector of Ladakh by the Pakistan Army in May-July 1999 were finally defeated and all Pakistani presence on our side of the LoC was eliminated with the restoration of status quo ante. In the course of that achievement, 527 good Indian warriors were killed in action and over 1,100 were wounded, no mean price. Operation Vijay commenced with issues with respect to the synchronisation of operations by the Indian Army with the Air Force (the latter even named their action differently, Operation Safed Sagar), displaying poor jointmanship by all; it’s a problem that has not left us in 22 years. The experience of Operation Vijay also shattered whatever little trust existed between India and Pakistan. It is not that we trusted the Pakistanis with all that was happening in J&K. Yet, Pakistan’s political leadership welcomed former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore just a few months before the intrusions were discovered. A two-track relationship with Pakistan had existed for long. On the one hand, we fought at many parts of the LoC and suffered Pakistan’s proxy war but at the same time, unwritten agreements remained rooted to some form of trust in other areas; Kargil was one of those. For Pakistan, it is an area at a limb where it would always be stretched to fight. Classically it is served by ‘exterior lines’ on the Pakistan side while on the Indian side it is maintained by ‘interior lines’. Pakistan should always have been happy to keep the area quiet lest India commenced threatening the Gilgit-Baltistan segment from that flank, forcing an out-of-proportion deployment by Pakistan. It would be at the cost of other strategically important areas. But then it was none other than Musharraf in the seat of the Pakistan Army Chief. He was ambitious, ruthless and a tad roguish. We did not cater for that while continuing to keep Kargil defended with the traditional old style of extended defence.

Musharraf risked it without thinking through the operation. Keeping the political leadership and the other Services in the dark, the Pakistan deep state planned an operation where the initiation probably created a romantic vision of the Pakistan flag fluttering at Srinagar. However, the conflict termination part remained non-existent. Musharraf’s basic aim was to evict the Indian Army from Siachen by severing the Srinagar-Leh road communications in the Kargil sector, making logistics and resupply impossible. What Musharraf never calculated was the patriotic fervour and regimental passion with which the Indian Army warriors would throw themselves against his Northern Light Infantry troops at the dizzy heights where the attacker’s superiority ratios demanded 9:1 deployment. The Indian Army did it with much less, but units pressed into offensive operations continued the attritional attacks over many days, defying all norms that are applied in such operations.

Most analyses these days dwell on the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) recommendations and ascertain what is yet left to be implemented. That too is a must but should not take away the sheen from the positive narratives of the resilience shown by the nation as it came back from a disastrous situation to overcome the odds. There are many aspects that the younger generation and those beginning to take an interest in the nation’s strategic affairs need to know so that they continuously investigate and learn more about one of the most turbulent challenges India has ever faced. The KRC report is an important reference for that investigation.

In 1999, Pakistan was concerned about flagging militancy in Kashmir and the possibility of the international community losing interest in it. The nuclear tests of 1998 had brought Pakistan to nuclear parity with India, thus emboldening it to risk a conflagration. Considering the Pakistan Army’s diluting power within that country’s polity and its ever-present desire to be the ruler, Musharraf could not allow Vajpayee’s India-Pakistan peace process to seriously take off. That is when the tradition was set. It is also why we had a Pathankot immediately after a surprise visit by PM Modi to Lahore in December 2015. If Musharraf achieved any part of the aim of his operation, it was in the Kashmir Valley. Militancy and terror revived and a new phase of suicide attacks commenced in July 1999. North Kashmir, suddenly denuded of the 8th Mountain Division, awaited the arrival of fresh troops and the raising of Kilo Force (Kupwara). Infiltration from PoK through Lipa, Neelam and Tangdhar intensified. The area got so heavily infested with terrorists that for the next few years, we were battling and neutralising them in droves. In 2001, 2,100 terrorists were killed, the highest in any year of the 30-year proxy war.

Why was the Indian strategy so attritional that we pushed attacks frontally or from just the flanks, reinforced initial failure and did not sufficiently use air power? The rear of the adversary was hardly used to place blocks, prevent reinforcements or cut off resupply. Usually, a combination of approaches proves successful. The political authority had imposed a term of reference that the LoC would not be crossed under any circumstances. This restricted maneuverability for ground troops and the Air Force, which then had to make runs only parallel to the LoC. The political leadership’s predicament was perhaps never fully appreciated. A year after the overt nuclearisation of both nations, the risk of a major conflagration was not something palatable. In fact, this aspect of Indian restraint was very avidly used in the diplomatic domain by the Indian government to place Pakistan on the defensive, leading to  Nawaz Sharif rushing to Washington to plead for ceasefire.

There is yet speculation that the lessons of Kargil have not manifested sufficiently to prevent India being strategically surprised. The example of Eastern Ladakh 2020 is being often quoted. There are many ways suggested by experts to overcome the issue of strategic surprise at the borders. In my opinion there are two important aspects that need implementation. First, a National Security Strategy document needs to be drafted and fully discussed in Parliament, chapter by chapter, to raise the concern for military security. Second, when the political community is well-versed with military strategic affairs, the involvement of all stakeholders will rise. Bi-annual war games and model exercises for selected members of the political community is one way. The National Defence College at Delhi is tailor-made to do it and recommendations for this already exist.

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

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