The war was India’s first televised one, with pictures of the battlefront beamed live to drawing rooms.
It took the lives of 527 good soldiers, with over 1,100 others wounded, to regain what was inadvertently lost without a shot being fired at the Kargil heights in May-July 1999. Famously known as “Operation Vijay”, it was a series of attritional battles fought by the Indian Army at heights of 16,000-18,000 feet to evict the Pakistan Army’s intrusion across the Line of Control on a frontage of almost 130 km. There are many dimensions of this conflict with Pakistan and the dearth of literature leaves little for the public to satisfy its urge to know more. The 20th anniversary of the conflict (or war) is as good an occasion as any to revive these memories and examine why as a nation we failed to prevent the intrusion, leading to such intense military action that had to be undertaken.
The war was India’s first televised one, with pictures of the battlefront beamed live to drawing rooms. It helped generate tremendous empathy for soldiers nationwide. While the present is a moment in which we need to express our empathy for the families of martyrs and renew our pledge to look after them, it is equally a time for professional introspection. This professional commentary in no way trivialises the tremendous sacrifice of those who lost a son, brother or husband; every Indian respects them.
In the brief space here it’s important to focus on the issues of why, how and what next. Kargil happened because of the ambitions of the then Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and his small coterie of officers, keeping then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and the other two service chiefs in the dark. What rankled him and many in his army was the fact that the Indian Army had beaten them to the occupation of the Siachen Glacier and Saltoro Ridge in April 1984, a fact that was never admitted to the people of Pakistan, or the media there. Gen. Musharraf in his avatar as a special Forces commander in 1987 made numerous attempts to secure a toehold on Saltoro but was beaten back by determined Indian soldiers. He observed that the Indian Army's vulnerability lay in its extended logistics tail,which went back to Jammu and Srinagar via Manali and the Zojila Pass respectively. The Upshi-Manali-Pathankot road was as it is an unstable artery capable of only limited maintenance. The Srinagar-Zojila-Leh-Base Camp axis was at its weakest at the Zojila-Kargil stretch of 120 km. It is here that it could be dominated if a Pakistani intrusion across the LoC was made. It would mean major constraints for the Indian Army in maintaining Ladakh, and by implication Siachen, forcing the latter’s evacuation. The opportunity existed and Gen. Musharraf knew that each year in winter both armies pulled back to administratively friendlier locations due to high snow levels. In 1999, he decided to return earlier than spring to occupy the vacated heights and unheld areas, and sent his troops deeper to occupy the Indian vacated heights too to achieve his mission.
Were there any indicators of such an impending action? That’s a debatable issue, and inconclusive. However, to say there were no infirmities in the Indian defensive posture, intelligence-gathering and its analysis would be a misnomer. To begin with, the Srinagar-based HQ 15 Corps bore operational responsibility far in excess of its capability to handle. Its remit extended from the Jawahar Tunnel to Demchok and responsibility included countering the high-scale terror campaign in the Valley, the LoC’s full security from Gulmarg to Point 9842, and beyond, along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) to the Siachen Glacier. Eastern Ladakh’s Line of Actual Control (with China) was also within its responsibility. With staff insufficient for full focus on all these, a glitch could take place somewhere. And it did.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s noble effort, the Lahore Yatra, may also have lulled the security managers to a greater focus on internal security dynamics, but there were also prevalent mindsets which existed. At the far end of what is called the “exterior lines of communication”, Kargil as a choice for launch of large-scale operations by Pakistan was a virtual “no-go”, but as a stand-alone operation it was sustainable. The Indian Army’s mindset was that it would be a war or nothing — the intermediate option did not resonate as an option. That's the option Gen. Musharraf chose, although it was no great strategic or tactical choice because the response from India could not be legislated by Pakistan. The response was slow due to the uncertainty, and delayed results of initial probes fully understandable. But when the IAF and the Indian Army finally decided to forcefully evict the intrusion, they were constrained. The political directive not to cross the LoC meant the IAF would have to make runs parallel to the LoC. It also meant that the techniques of manoeuvre in the mountains through rear and flank attacks, including roadblocks, had to give way to attritional frontal assaults. The IAF found it difficult to pinpoint targets on sharp peaks, leading to the enhanced employment of Bofors guns, many in direct firing mode. There was no shortage of valour, and the leadership at all levels deserves credit. The uncertainty of the nuclear dimension, being early days after both nations became overtly nuclear in 1998 perhaps constrained PM Vajpayee in not escalating the war beyond J&K’s borders. In many ways this helped India’s diplomatic campaign and drew American support for an early vacation by Pakistan of these areas.
India was constrained by shortage of artillery ammunition and many other items of hardware, and then Army Chief Gen. V.P. Malik quipped that “we will fight with what we have”. Besides fast-track acquisition in 1999-2001, the malaise of bureaucratic hurdles and the Army’s own blunders in overcoming equipment issues have been rife. The Kargil Review Committee’s report needs to be revisited even 20 years later. Numerous pending suggestions can only be fructified under a confident political leadership, such as the one now. Among the immediate measures is the integration of the defence ministry with a strong uniformed presence oaring professional support, as in almost every major nation. In the light of new and developing threats, higher budgetary support is needed. India must remain focused upon building conventional deterrence and enhanced punitive capability against Pakistan if we have to remain free of the threat of more “Kargils” in different forms in the future.