The Need To Remember Kargil


Even as India’s attention focuses on the ceasefire at the LoC/IB and the suspension of operations in Jammu and Kashmir’s hinterland, social media is abuzz with the remembrance of Kargil of 1999. Various acts of valour form the deserving narrative of honour. However, it is the big picture, the collective one, which is rarely explained or examined in the public mind. An informed idea of what really happened at the lofty heights in mid-1999 will help India’s current generation and many more to appreciate some of the nuances of how Kargil really occurred and how it was handled. Indian military literature on this is limited but currently, opinion in Pakistan is having a field day.

Two recent books have discussed and exposed issues concerning the Kargil episode. Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani journalist, has released her book ‘From Kargil to the Coup’, and there is ‘The Spy Chronicles’, a joint effort by two former Chiefs of India’s and Pakistan’s premier intelligence agencies, which has some discussions relating to the misadventure. Zehra calls it the handiwork of a clique of generals and not of the Pakistani army. She terms it a disaster because it undermined the honest efforts of the Lahore Agreement of February 1999 which attempted to overcome some of the mistrust arising out of the nuclear tests of May 1998. Comments of Pakistani panellists at some of the book’s launch events reveal Pakistan’s continued mindset. One of them stated that Pakistan owed no apologies to India for Kargil because India, too, deceived Pakistan on Siachen and did not follow the Shimla Agreement while occupying it. A consensus opinion was that the planning and execution in isolation was a disaster and made the operation an adventure rather than an aimed and planned effort. In fact, a Pakistani general believed “had there been proper planning and full logistical support, the operation could have delivered the desired results of clogging the support line of India in Kashmir”. Nawaz Sharif also came under criticism for his unplanned rush to Washington and yielding to Bill Clinton’s pressure to vacate the remaining intrusion. Obviously, little regret and even lesser remorse make up Pakistan’s opinion on Kargil.

Asad Durrani, former DG ISI, in the jointly written book, ‘The Spy Chronicles’ expresses his perception that Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s DGMO was obsessed with the Kargil plan which was rejected by then PM Benazir Bhutto. The opportunity came when Musharraf was elevated to the position of the Pakistani army chief. How much of this intent and plan was known to his then mentor, Nawaz Sharif, will always remain cloaked in doubt, an issue also inconclusively analysed in Zehra’s book. However, 1998-99 provided the opportunity for the execution of the plan through the winter. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Lahore Bus Yatra on February 21, 1999, offered scope for enhanced deception.

A brief explanation will clarify many of the issues above. The road from Srinagar to Leh enters the Ladakh sector after crossing the Zojila pass. Along the 100-km distance from Zojila to Kargil, major segments are overlooked by Pakistani posts across the LoC at a short distance. In winter these were vacated every year as were the Indian posts opposite them. Beyond Leh, a road leads into the Nubra Valley across the Ladakh range; the Army’s base camp is housed here for the defence of Siachen glacier. The Indian occupation of the latter in a coup de main operation in May 1984 put Pakistan at a huge strategic and psychological disadvantage. Musharraf, as a younger officer with Pakistan’s Special Forces, was known to have personally led failed assaults to evict the Indian Army from the Saltoro Ridge in 1987. The Kargil plan was a classic employment of manoeuvre which envisaged choking the Zojila-Leh road by an early winter occupation of vacated posts of both Pakistani and Indian armies, preventing the logistics resupply of Ladakh (and thereby Siachen) by interdiction and making the Indian Army’s defence of Ladakh untenable. An alternative supply artery to Leh existed from Pathankot via Manali but it was comparatively fragile and undependable due to heavy snow accumulation and road closure for extended periods. Discovered quite accidentally in May 1999, the Pakistani intrusion at the Dras and Kargil heights did embarrass the Indian Army whose attention was focused on the Kashmir Valley and south of Pir Panjal where militancy was fast spreading. It was as much an intelligence failure as an ‘intellect failure’ as India did not ever assess the nuisance potential of Kargil in a low-intensity war. Without an idea of the extent and depth of penetration, India attempted to locally restore the situation. When that failed, it inducted additional troops with 8 Mountain Division, then deployed in North Kashmir, to take on the mantle of restoration. The restoration operations fought at lofty heights were based upon company and platoon battles against entrenched Pakistani troops with some valorous feats by Indian junior soldiers and officers. Initial support by the Indian Air Force was helpful but difficult to execute. Later medium artillery (Bofors) became the backbone of fire support. Having recaptured a large chunk of the intrusion, India allowed diplomacy to play its role; that saw Sharif’s rush to Washington.

Kargil’s impact on the Valley was indirect as large tracts of North Kashmir were vacated and progressively occupied by our troops from elsewhere. It may never have been Musharraf’s intent, but this situation provided the space for a spurt in terror activities in Kashmir, including the infamous suicide ‘sneak attacks’ (sometimes erroneously called fidayeen). Kashmir witnessed the highest casualties among civilians and soldiers/policemen in 2001 and the tenuous situation on the counter-terror grid remained in place almost till 2003.

A major lesson emerged from Musharraf’s failed exploits – that initiation of operations could be brilliant but without an accompanying termination plan suited to various contingencies, success would invariably be elusive; he underestimated the resilience of the Indian Army and its sense of honour as had many of his predecessors. In her book, Zehra quotes a Pakistani major – “We said a two rakaat prayer of gratitude to Allah,” once Pakistan’s decision to vacate the remaining occupied heights was announced.

Siachen was the actual reason for the Pakistani misadventure at Kargil. When people today question the Indian Army’s continued insistence on remaining deployed at the Siachen glacier, as against mutual withdrawal along with the Pakistan Army, they need to be reminded of two things. First, in military standoffs trusting the adversary is suicidal, just as Kargil’s annual winter vacation exemplified. Second, if Siachen is to be vacated, it will only be one army which will withdraw. Unknown to the Pakistani people and largely to the Indian public, the Siachen is firmly in India’s grip with no Pakistani presence which can even glimpse the glacier.

This article is written by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), The author commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir. This article has been posted with the author’s permission. Views expressed are personal.

The article was first published by DNA.