The Story of Kargil


In the summer of 1999, a 73-days military conflict was fought at Kargil unveiling new insights into an asymmetric conflict wherein opposing combatants employ markedly different resources and strategies in order to maximize their advantages and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. Kargil is situated at 2704 meters above sea level, 204 km east of Srinagar, 234 km west of Leh, and is the second largest urban center of Ladakh and the headquarters of the district that shares its name. The confrontation was manifestation of a 50 year-old Kashmir dispute that remained limited in terms of time, geographical area, and weaponry. The operation at Kargil was planned meticulously by the top Pakistani army establishment in a bid to capture the deserted heights in the Valley left by Indian army during the inhospitable weather conditions and then taking control of the vital Srinagar-Leh highway. The Pak army contemplated that by capturing the strategic heights they will be in a commanding position to get the status of the Line of Control (LoC.) altered. Pakistan army however, underestimated the response and repulsing of India, which with Indian air strikes became too vehement to be restrained by the Pakistan army as the bunkers at the outstanding heights were holed up in the and their logistic support was cut off. Moreover, the international pressure was too paramount to be overlooked by Pakistan.

The whole area of Kargil belonged to Pakistan. It was captured by India in the war of 1965, but restored to Pakistan under Tashkent Agreement. In the 1971 war, Kargil was again occupied and retained by India by dint of force. Thus categorically speaking, the seeds for the 1999 operation along the Srinagar-Dras-Somat-Kargil-Dungul Leh highway were planted way back when the Indian Army High Command had ventured to lance across the 1949 UN Ceasefire Line in Kashmir and renamed it as the Line of Control in December 1972. In 1984, India violated even the LoC and sneaked into Siachin, part of the northern areas of Jammu and Kashmir, when our top brass was caught off-guard as it was deeply involved in reigning the country at the cost of their strategic and professional acumen and capability. Militarily and economically, for India, the Siachin campaign is much more costlier estimated to be more than Rs. 7,000 crores (70 million rupees) to maintain its hold on the useless Siachin Glacier heights where the confrontation between the two hostile armies is like fighting of two bald men over a comb”. Even the Indian media admit that the Indian losses in Siachin and Kashmir are unprecedented and higher than even the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. However, holding the Siachin Glacier is important to India, to support her long-term strategy in the area by cutting off the land-route between Pakistan and China. To occupy the Siachin Glacier, India violated the Line of Control in Kashmir as well as the Simla Agreement that she refers to at oft-times. When India moved her troops into the Siachin Glacier area a decade ago, India was unambiguously the aggressor but it did not evoke much interest in the western capitals. But as soon as the Kargil expedition threatened India’s hold on the Siachin Glacier, America and the Western world instantly rushed to her aid.

Kargil operation was downright an upshot of the Kashmir dispute. Kashmir is both cause and consequence of the India-Pakistan conflict and conundrum. From historical, geographical, cultural and strategic point of view, Pakistan could not remain aloof from the question of liberty of over 13 million people of Kashmir. Hence Pakistan has always been obliged and committed to support the Independence movement of the downtrodden people of Kashmir and get the issue resolved as soon as possible so that they could get their right of self-determination. Kashmir has contributed to the overall dispute between India and Pakistan, observes an American Journalist, Stephen Philip Cohen, in several way. The military establishments on both sides of the border insist that control over Kashmir is critical to the defense of their respective countries. The Indian army, echoing nineteenth century British geopolitics, claims that giving up the mountainous Kashmir would expose the plains of Punjab and Haryana, and even Delhi, to foreign (in this case, Pakistani) attack. The Valley is strategically important because of the communication links that run through it to Ladakh and to Siachin, where the Indians and Pakistanis remain frozen in conflict. The threat to Kargil, in 1999, was more serious than Siachin, because it overlooked the already perilous road from Srinagar to Siachin and Leh. Pakistan has a quite different view of Kashmirs geopolitics. Its strategists point out that for years the major access roads to Kashmir led through what is now Pakistan, and that the proximity of the capital, Islamabad, to Kashmir makes it vulnerable to an Indian offensive along the Jhelum river. Further, Pakistanis argue that the inclusion of Kashmir would give it a strategic depth that Pakistan otherwise lacks. . . Finally, Kashmir is the source of many vital South Asian rivers, including the Indus and the famous five rivers of the Punjab: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. . . The second Kashmir, found in the minds of politicians, strategists, and scholars, is a place where national and sub-national identities are ranged against each other. The conflict in this Kashmir is as much a clash between identities, imagination, and history, as it is a conflict over territory, resources and peoples. Competing histories, strategies, and policies spring from these different images of self and other.

The people of Kashmir have been fighting against Indian occupation for the last 51 years. Exceedingly disappointed with the fate of the UN resolution that guaranteed their basic right for freedom and the Indian Governments deceitful tactics and later on their claim of Kashmir as their atoot ung, the Kashmiri Muslims started their freedom movement against all the means and powerful machinery of coercion, aggression and regimentation of 700,000 Indian troops. As Pakistans nuclear weapons capability grew, the sub-conventional war in the valley kept escalating. The uprising in Kashmir turned out to be more persistent when the Kargil heights were occupied and held intrepidly by the freedom fighters who took the Indian troops by surprise and beat them with strategic ramifications. India’s sharp reaction to the Kargil operation was based on three major factors. Firstly, there was a change in the tactics, as instead of the usual hit-and-run tactics of the guerrilla fighters the Kashmiri freedom fighters were for the first time holding ground and defying the Indian army to attack and suffer losses. Secondly, they were interdicting the Srinagar – Kargil – Leh supply route that provided the main logistics support for the Indian troops holding the Siachin Glacier. The Indian troops at Siachin ran short of fuel for heating and ammunition Supplies, as for winter they couldnt stockpile during the few summer months. Thirdly, the Indian elections were not far off and the present caretaker Indian government was earnestly keen to take advantage of the Kargil situation to gain some extra seats.

As usual, our freedom fighters successfully attempted a direct and frontal approach to this extra-ordinary military operation. With an abiding faith in their ability to make deep inroads and cut off road arteries, they showed their mind-boggling skills realizing that the poorly led strong Indian army being too busy killing and kidnapping innocent Kashmiri civilians, had not still occupied the high ground (18,000 to 21,000 feet) India had captured during the 1971 war. The Freedom fighters changed their tactics and entrenched themselves above the road which links Srinagar to Leh in Indian occupied Ladakh. By taking the heights overlooking Kargil and Drass the freedom fighters had placed the Indian army at a tactical and strategic disadvantage. The Kargil sector extends to about 150 km, with Drass at one end and Batalik at the other. The intrusions of freedom fighters covered over 100 km of the Kargil sector. Tactically the heights were difficult to clear. Strategically forced to concentrate troops at Kargil for the safety of Siachin, India had unbalanced herself. Kargil is at the extreme end of two vulnerable supply routes. By concentrating 30,000 troops there, other areas were denuded where freedom fighters activity had increased, as in the Kashmir valley and on the Srinagar-Jammu road. India was so much baffled that at first it denounced the freedom fighters as Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistani infiltrators. These accusations found a favorable response in the Western press. As India’s military position in Kargil did not improve, the freedom fighters were re-classified as Pakistan Army personnel. This was a crude attempt to cover up Indian Army’s operational failures in Kargil and to catch the attention of the West. India succeeded in both her objectives. The armed confrontation in Kashmir was certainly a source of some concern to the world community as both sides have nuclear weapons though the fighting was restricted to shelling across the Line of Control. The warriors had occupied areas that were not held by Indian troops. The main targets for Kargil Operation were to a) Occupy approximately 700 sq km area on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil-Turtuk Sector, b) Interdict Srinagar-Kargil-Leh Road, c) Capture Turtuk and cut off Southern and Central parts of Siachin Glacier Sector, and d) Intensify freedom fighters activities in J&K

It was extremely astonishing for Indians how a number of Indian intelligence agencies–RAW, SSB, Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Kashmir Police, etc., operating along the cease-fire line utterly failed to spot the concentration of Freedom fighters on one mountain range above the Dras-Kargil road. It was enigmatic how the strong Indian army, after 30 days of skirmishes with a band of few hundred freedom fighters entrenched on one mountain had to scout around the world for artillery and other ammunition as there was headline in the Indian Express of June 3, 1999: “India shops abroad for ammunition”. It was further amazing that India had to deploy a force of 50,000 soldiers in an attempt to dislodge a lightly armed band of a couple of hundred freedom fighters, a mind boggling ratio of 250 to 1, bogged down on the ground despite the passage of one full month of combat under Indian Air force and artillery cover.

Intriguingly, the freedom fighters, gave a tough time to the Indian troops repulsing their repeated efforts to regain territory for more than seventy days. Since India was a victim of intrusion, and exercised maximum restraint, it was determined to get the intrusion vacated. Like an injured serpent Indian forces were vicious in their attacks and were desperately wanted to open a war front of its choice elsewhere in Azad Kashmir or on the international border with Pakistan in order to avoid bloody artillery duels, which were growing day by day. India employed about two divisions (including about 250 artillery guns) on the Kargil front, and mounted 1,200 fighter and 2,500 helicopter sorties. Consequently, the supply routes were cut off by aerial bombings. Military operations cannot be managed without adequate logistics support and effective arrangement of enforcements. Unfortunately that support and ample enforcements, which are needed on regular basis, were not properly arranged with the result that Pakistan had no alternative but to call a truce also due to the cumulative American presure. The Prime Minister of Pakistan met the U.S. President on July 4, 1999 and agreed to use his influence with the freedom fighters to stop the fighting in Kargil and withdraw from the heights cutting off India’s strategic supply route from Srinagar to Kargil. In the joint statement signed by President Clinton and the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif it was once again agreed that concrete steps would be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control in accordance with Simla Agreement. The War ended on 26 July 1999 when all Pakistani troops were finally evicted from our side of the LoC.

Thus the ending of the tactical maneuver failed to produce positive results though according to a prominent general-turned-analyst, the top brass believed that they had almost forced India to concede to negotiations with Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute and would have succeeded had the army been allowed to continue on its tactical adventure. The crux of the mater is that the Army secretly planned and started the execution of this operation without considering all its pros and cons. They did not bother even to inform the premier of the State about what they were going to do and give him enough time to proceed with diplomatic move and take into confidence the people of Pakistan. Neither he could gain moral support of brotherly and friendly countries like Arab and China. On the other hand, India concentrated on a diplomatic offensive to isolate Pakistan and succeeded owing to her economic potential as a market for world goods particularly in purchase of military hardware. Furthermore, India helped to create war hysteria in their country by whipping up the so-called threat and not only threatened Pakistan to cross the Line of Control but also moved troops to the Pakistan border.

In Pakistan, issues like Afghanistan, Indo-Pak relations, Kashmir and nuclear capability are areas of special concern to the military. The political leadership- when there is a civilian government – is either not briefed adequately or finds it difficult to assert on such matters. This is historical, almost traditional, and is expected to continue for an indefinite period. According to some independent analysts, Gen. Musharraf was over-assertive at the expense of the credibility of the elected political leadership. He didnt expect that this operation could ultimately boomerang on Pakistan. Mr. Azhar Abbas said in an article in the May (1999) issue of the Herald, the monthly journal of the Dawn group: The assumption here (in Pakistan) is that India cannot respond to this kind of (covert) warfare with a conventional attack on Pakistan…. Several retired Army officers believe that the new Army Chief is far more assertive than his predecessor (Gen. Jehangir Karamat) and, in the event of the Nawaz Government taking issue with the new doctrine, is unlikely to bow out as easily as Karamat. This points to troubled civil-military relations in the future….” The article concludes: Skeptics are already warning that in the guise of changing threat perceptions and bailing out the (internal) system, the Army may only be searching for a new power-sharing formula after the dissolution of the infamous Troika. If the Army’s new doctrine is, indeed, little more than the quest for a new power-sharing arrangement, it is time for the Nawaz Government to disillusion the Army….If the Government fails to do that, in the words of Dr. Eqbal Ahmad (a highly-respected Pakistani analyst), this change of threat perception can cost us, in the long run, our entire future.” As in the past, Pak military-bureaucratic elite saw it as a threat to its importance, supremacy and status in the national power structure. By launching the war in Kargil, it was able to assert its authority and also revive national and international interest in the J&K dispute. According to a top army source, the Kargil operation was planned months in advance and kept a top secret that was confined to a very few top army officers. The Pak Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Chief of General Staff (CGS), Director General Military Operations (DGMO), GOC 10 Corps and GOC Force Commander Northern Area (FCNA) who was made overall anchorage of operations in the Kargil sector were the only ones aware about the actual operation. Even the Corps Commanders were not kept in picture. It suggested that only an “in principle” concurrence without any specifics be obtained from the Pak Prime Minister. The Pak army thought that the operation would help in internationalizing the Kashmir issue.

The Pakistani public was also taken in by the confounding news reports of the press that played rather heinous role in relating fabricated stories of valiant victories on the battlefield by which the nation was elated and electrified but then all of a sudden was shocked and dismayed and depressed when it felt humiliated and betrayed as if somehow the Pakistani political leaders had grabbed defeat from the jaws of military victory. In an article published in The News, a commander of the Pakistani based Muhajideen told the reporter that their plan was first to take “Kargil, then Srinagar, then march victorious into Delhi.” On May 7, 1999, The Nation abruptly reported a huge attack from India, and claimed that it had been repulsed. It said that Indian forces had launched an unprovoked attack in the Shyok sector, and that “valiant Pakistani troops, displaying traditional courage and determination to defend every inch of the country’s territory, thwarted the attack in which a large number of intruders were killed and several others injured. The Indian Army withdrew in disarray and even failed to retrieve the bodies of its soldiers….” Captions like “Kargil: Revenge for 71” bewildered the nation that was quite unaware of the real facts that ultimately boomeranged on Pakistan. Perhaps it might become a revenge for 71, had the top brass not been over-assertive and not planned the operation behind closed doors. It is a pity to say that even the Air Marshal was not taken into confidence. That is why he refused to take action when in the absence of Pak Air Force, Indian air force deployed its MIG 21, 23 and 2 Mirage 2000 aircraft and M.I.17 gunship helicopters and not only Cluster bombs but even chemical bombs were used with their devastating effect. Though there had been no mentionable advancement of the Indian army despite the innumerable daily sorties by 100 fighter planes and their continuous shelling for more than a month, yet for how long could the freedom fighters resist indiscriminate shelling of Indian Air Force while there was no counter attack of the Pak Air Force?

Although Indias case on Kargil was flimsy, India succeeded to gain the favor whereas Pakistan failed to bring round the world opinion and even our close allies, like China and the Arab countries, to fully support its viewpoint. Pakistan and China have common security concerns as well, but it is apparent that our diplomatic corps has not done well. There is no denying the fact that the failures and mistakes made in Kargil are still unknown to the innocent citizens who repeatedly suffer mental shocks when their high and sanguine hopes are dashed to the ground. We have to follow a piece of advice posed by Hegel and Toynbee that access to information about past mistakes and successes and their consequences can guide decision makers and citizens as they chart a course into the next millennium between diplomacy and disaster.

The Kargil war, fought on a limited scale, at the turn of the century, however, was not altogether a flop or failure as the Indians impress upon the world. It left a deep impact; its lessons are indeed imperative and may be taken as a useful input when we discuss future Indo-Pak relations, or peace and stability in South Asia:

  • The Indians should not take lightly the competence and capability of the Pak Army and must remember that they were caught napping on the heights of Kargil. And in Siachin as well the Pakistan Army is giving a good account of itself.
  • Now there is no denying the fact that the resistance movement in Kashmir is a national movement, and there is no way out but to admit this fact. In the recent past, India tried its best to raise a smoke screen on the issue, but the battle of Kargil has dispelled it once for all. M. J. Akbar, the Editor of an Indian paper Asian Age, in his article “The Blind Hawks of BJP”, published on June 5, 1999 writes: “Pakistan does not have to take Kashmir to the United Nations; it is already there. Its job is only to activate forcefully.” Brahma Chelleney, the columnist of another Indian daily Hindustan Times, writes in its issue of June 2, 1999, under the caption “Blundering on Kashmir”: “From Nehru to Vajpayee a short-sightedness has sired mistake after mistake on Kashmir. It was not Pakistan that internationalized Kashmir but Nehru…….If the international attention on Kashmir after the sub-continents overt mechanisation was a diplomatic bonanza to Islamabad, Kargil is a diplomatic coup for it. It puts Kashmir on the front burner.”
  • Indias frenzied military preparedness is being slated by all the sagacious elements. Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire expressed his disgust saying: “Is it not insanity that India’s Government currently the third or fourth most powerful military machine in the world continues to waste so many resources on militarism while so many of their people are in need of the basic necessities of life? Yes, it is insanity”.
  • India spent nearly Rs 30 crore (US$ 6.9 million) per day during the Kargil War. Pakistans expenditure would have been fairly close to that.
  • Indians, after Kargil, have started taking greater interest in national security matters with the result there was a 28 per cent increase in the defence budget soon after the War, and about 10 per cent increase in the year 2001.
  • The Pak economy is also under tremendous pressure after Kargil. It was forced to cap its defence budget. The reduction of Pak defence budget, however, is unlikely to have any significant impact on the Indian defence budget. India is likely to maintain its defence expenditure between 2.5 to 2.75 per cent of its GDP in the foreseeable future to meet modernization demands of its armed forces.
  • No major breakthrough can be expected on Kashmir dispute in the coming years unless both the countries are prepared to change their stance. This was the fourth war over the dispute of Kashmir, not counting the ongoing skirmishes in Siachen Glacier area. That makes it crystal clear that the Kashmir problem cannot be resolved militarily by Pakistan or India. Kashmir issue is not a conflict between Pakistan and India only. It involves four parties and it can be settled with the participation of all these four parties to it, viz.: India, Pakistan, the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the UN and the world community at large. At Tashkent, Simla and then at Lahore unrealistic attempts were made to convert this four-party issue into a bilateral one between India and Pakistan. It was bound to fail. Neither Tashkent Agreement led to any solution of the Kashmir issue nor did the Simla Agreement pave way to it, while the Lahore Declaration failed to take off. Mr. Vajpai himself admitted that the road to Lahore has led to Kargil. (The Asian Age, London, June 15, 1999, p.20).
  • The biggest casualty of the Kargil War, apart from 1,200 lives lost on both sides of the LoC, was trust and confidence in Indo-Pak relations, which is after a period of three years on the top of agenda. The two nations took two years to travel the high road from the Kargil War to the Agra Summit that ended on a jarring note, unable to agree to an acceptable joint statement.
  • General Musharraf is generally held accountable for the failure of the Kargil Operation. But his stand on Jammu & Kashmir to the media and world forums with his suave, clever articulation and repeated assertion was highly appreciated in and outside the country. For the time being it could not gain a tactical victory but now seems to bear fruit in the shape of the Indian governments willingness for a dialogue on Kashmir and the package of confidence building measures already offered by them.
  • After all, the main objective that was behind the Kargil Operation seems to be acknowledged that the best course of action would be that Indians come to the negotiating table without so many ifs and buts and sort out ways and means to solve the Kashmir problem and establish peace between the two countries on permanent basis. And it must be remembered that neither dramatic gestures nor a few meetings between the top leaders, neither visits of celebrities nor cultural exchange can considerably lead to any success. The so-called CBMs, which are now again in prevalence, have been mentioned in every agreement, including Tashkent Agreement and Lahore Declaration, but they are merely cosmetic in nature and lack substance. Confidence and friendship can emerge only when the forcible occupation of Kashmir by India comes to an end and India gives up its stance of wrong-headedness over the region and agrees to negotiate on the equality basis otherwise the reference to these CBMs in vogue would be nothing but pretentious double-talk.