It is said that the plans for the Kargil operations had been suggested by the Pakistani Army brass first to President Zia in the 1980s and then to Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s.
‘Kargil Vijay Diwas’ on 26th July marks the successful eviction of the Pakistan Army’s intruders across the Line of Control after the Kargil conflict of 1999. The conflict was the result of a Pakistan Army led intrusion across the demarcated Line of Control (LoC) which was agreed upon at Suchetgarh in 1972, by both India and Pakistan after the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Since then, it had remained a ‘de-facto’ Indo- Pak border in what was earlier the state of J&K and is now the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. General Musharraf, then the Pakistan Army chief in 1999, chose to defy the sanctity of the LoC, by a deceitful military operation. It not only took India by surprise, many in the Pakistani establishment but also the US, that saw it as an irresponsible act of brinkmanship by a nuclear weapon state. The spin that General Musharraf gave to the operation – that it was the Mujahideen occupation of territory in J&K – was dismissed, after evidence emerged of the Pakistan Army’s role in the intrusions (with some dressed as Mujahideen).
Pakistan’s plan for operations – with its planned and discrete intrusions along the jointly agreed and demarcated LoC – was (a) to seize territory on the Line of Control that had come to be a ‘de-facto’ Indo-Pak border over the then state of Jammu and Kashmir, and defy its sanctity, (b) to dominate by artillery and mortar fire the vital national highway NH 1d, that connected Srinagar to Leh via Kargil. This closure of logistic supply lines, Pakistan had hoped would eventually get Indian troops around the Siachen glacier, to vacate their tactically sound positions. And (c), to occupy some of the enclaves along the LoC that Pakistan had lost to India, in the 1971 war. Plans for such an operation had existed in the Pakistan Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi since the 1980s. But these were dismissed as dangerous and escalatory when they were presented to President Zia ul Haq and later to Benazir Bhutto. The architect of this deceitful operation in 1999 was General Musharraf, who claimed later that he had briefed prime minister Nawaz Sharief about his plan.
But as Nawaz had little time for details, cautioned Musharraf about any escalation, and left it to the Army. The Kargil intrusions across the LoC in the summer of that year was initiated by Musharraf and a few of his close associates like the Pakistan Army vice-chief and the GoC FCNA. It took everyone by surprise, and most of all India’s PM, AB Vajpayee and his close associates, as he had gone all the way to Lahore as a mark of goodwill to Lahore in February 1999, to build better ties with Pakistan. It is said that the plans for the Kargil operations had been suggested by the Pak Army brass first to President Zia in the 1980s and then to Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s, but they both refused to go along with it considering it too dangerous. Nawaz Sharif on the other hand has come in for criticism for the conflict being initiated within months of his landmark peace deal with Vajpayee. But to be fair to the man, he was also taken by surprise after he was briefed by General Musharraf once the operations were already underway in April 1999! As an aside, it must be brought out that General Musharaf was also keen to avenge his failures, as a Brigadier in the 1980’s, to dislodge Indian troops from the Saltoro ridge that dominates the Siachin glacier.
In fact, Pakistan’s other two services and the ISI were only brought into the picture at this late stage (in April) when the intrusions had taken place across the LoC. It has been argued that Nawaz Sharif was perhaps unable to comprehend the full implications of what Musharraf and his team of confidants had initiated. Some observers have suggested that it was his limitations with the English language that did not allow him to comprehend the gravity of the situation! However, his two prominent Ministers, Sartaj Aziz (for Foreign Affairs) and Mushahid Hussain (for Information), were later seen to be aggressively pushing the military’s line, that the LoC wasn’t clearly defined in that area, and hence the intrusion! This was rebutted by India, with over 70 maps that clearly showed the LoC, as agreed and signed by Lt General’s Prem Bhagat and Hamid Khan on maps in Suchetgarh in1972.
In New Delhi, India’s intelligence agencies – that must be held responsible for the huge goof-up that eventually led to the Kargil conflict – continued to push the line that it was a Mujahideen operations on the icy heights around Kargil, and the Indian media, bought their narrative that it was the Indian Army’s failure of ‘intelligence’. Where the Indian Army can be blamed was that the Army’s units under HQ 3 Div, in the Dras-Kargil sector, didn’t do the aggressive patrolling they should have. For a long time, Pakistan’s official line following the intrusions – once they were discovered by Indian troops (apparently after being alerted by a local shepherd) – was that it was Mujahideen and freedom fighters that were there on the LoC, to liberate Kashmir from India. But what they were trying to liberate in those freezing mountain tops is anybody’s guess! Militants rarely hold ground and that too at icy heights of over 16,000 feet, since they prefer to create impact with their attacks on urban areas and mostly on Government forces and buildings.
Many Pakistani officials and commentators stuck to this line long after the operations were launched by the Indian Army. However, reports about the conflict now show that even the ISI (the nodal agency that controls all Mujahideen groups in Pakistan) was brought into the loop by General Musharraf at a much later stage, as was the Pakistan Army’s Military Operations (MO) Directorate that was asked to prepare an operational briefing of an operation that was already underway! The Pakistan air force was briefed much later and then it also backed off from this dangerous misadventure, as one Air Marshal said it will either lead to them all being court-martialed or martial law. In fact, their chief of air staff had apparently stated that in the event of an Indian response leading to an all-out war, the Pakistani air force would be unable to effectively assist the Pak military’s ground operations. They simply lacked the capabilities to do much in altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet.
In fact, this was also the reservation expressed by the then Indian air chief, until General VP Malik, the Army chief, was able to convince him that the IAF could alter the course of operations if they became more involved. This eventually proved true especially with the efficacy with which the Mirage fighters engaged targets along the LoC, despite so many constraints- like identifying what were the Indian held positions and Pakistani positions on those icy peaks – as fighter jets fly at high speeds and for pilots to read the markings of the LoC on maps and then to correlate them with the ridges and mountain tops is a near-impossible task. But the IAF pilots proved their mettle once again, despite the absence of specific aircraft for high altitude warfare, as did their and the Army’s helicopter pilots. As was the courageous tenacity of India’s military commanders – especially battalion and company commanders – despite their hasty deployments with little acclimatization and lack of modern weapons and equipment to fight in those mountains. A belated Indian attempt to buy snow boots for our soldiers had little success, as Pakistan’s Army had bought 50,000 pairs of snow boots from the European market! But this did not deter the Indian Army, they fought with what they had, and how.
Stories of the exceptional gallantry of the Indian Army have inspired many books and films as they went from peak to peak – once they got going – capturing Pakistani held positions in the Mushkoh, Dras, Kaksar and Batalik sectors where Indians suddenly learnt how many peaks like Tololing and Tiger Hill matter to our soldiers who turned the snow in those areas red with their blood. Wounded soldiers are known to have refused evacuation as it took four soldiers to bring down stretchers carrying one wounded soldier. Some died due to this delay, but they didn’t complain. For them, the accomplishment of the task to their Units mattered more. It is how the Indian Army trains its men in its culture of ‘duty and country’ first.
However, what finally took Pakistan and the world by surprise was the severity of India’s military response. The huge Bofors guns were dismantled into three parts and carried to the few higher heights so as to hit the withdrawing Pakistanis, who knew beyond a point that the Indian Army was going at them with hammers and tongs.
But the eviction of about 2,500 Pakistani intruders over 160 km area along the LoC, took 527 Indian lives and left 1363 wounded. Some have asked if it all was worth the cost? Yes, it was, and for good reasons.
Beyond the grit and courage of India’s junior and mid-level military leadership that went into battles against enormous odds, the Kargil conflict had driven home the message to Pakistan that India will not tolerate adventurism, under their umbrella of nuclear weapons, and that there was still room for a short – sharp conflict if Pakistan dared to challenge India’s territorial front. And to the world, the message was that though India honours and respects agreements, it will respond at places and times of its choosing if required, and its armed forces can be trusted to carry out their orders even if the attention of political leadership in India is divided, as was the case in those summer months of 1999, as Mr Vajpayee’s government had to fight an election! Even then, the Indian Army and air force adhered to Mr Vajpayee’s firm orders not to cross the LoC, at a great cost sometimes. Perhaps there was a lost opportunity to capture some Pakistani territory, to bargain later within negotiations since Pakistan had set out to reclaim the Turtuk area in 1999.
All through the conflict Americans continued to fear that if pushed beyond a point, the Pakistani Army might use its newly acquired nuclear weapons. This was also the veiled threat that Nawaz Sharif had given to President Clinton when he made the uninvited trip to Washington on 4th July 1999. But Clinton refused to be blackmailed and insisted that only a complete Pakistani withdrawal would be acceptable to the US. In fact, Vajpayee’s decision to limit Indian military operations to only undertaken up to the LoC, was really the turning point in India’s favour. The LoC which Pakistani generals under Musharraf had gone to challenge was eventually sanctified, and the US thereafter accepted it as the de-facto Indo-Pak border over (the then state of) Jammu & Kashmir (now J&K and Ladakh). In Pakistan, the blame game for the fiasco led to a stand-off between Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf and then the coup that brought Musharraf into power. Ironically he was subsequently accorded respectability as the self-appointed President of Pakistan when Vajpayee invited him a year later to visit Delhi and for the Agra summit.
However, the substantial geo-strategic outcome of the Kargil conflict was the turning away of the US from Pakistan as Washington concluded it as irresponsible and unworthy of a partnership. The US thus chose to support India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries, and thus legitimised India’s nuclear status. Moreover, the US began a new set of engagements with India, with its Defence, Trade Technology Initiatives that has grown by leaps and bounds. India has since 2005 bought US military hardware worth USD 20 billion, some that have been useful on the LAC against China recently, with a number of Indo-US foundation military agreements that do provide India US satellite inputs and other intelligence and cybersecurity assistance. It has also led to the 2+2 dialogues between the Indian defence and foreign ministers and their US counterparts. The visit of these US Secretaries (equal to Indian ministers) – defence secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin and now Antony Blinken – from the new administration of President Joe Biden is proof of this enhanced partnership between India and the US. And in many ways, the Kargil conflict has led to it all.