While perhaps the most limited of Indo-Pak wars in terms of scale and range, the Kargil War of 1999 remains among the most significant—militarily, politically and diplomatically. This can be attributed to many reasons.
Most significantly, it was the first war between the two powers after they had both gone nuclear, prompting international attention. The course of the war and the years thereafter marked important shifts in foreign policy of not only India and Pakistan, but also international observers like the United States and China. Domestically, Kargil came at a time of political churn, and was India’s first ‘television war’, broadcast in real time, across the nation.
From his vantage in the thick of the action, General VP Malik, Chief of Army Staff at the time of the war, chronicles his account of the events in his book, “Kargil—From Surprise to Victory.” The book, according to the General, is not only an account of the war, but also an attempt to set the record straight on several of its aspects, and draw important lessons for India’s defence and foreign policies in the future.
While Kargil would go down in history as a military victory, it is important to recognise that it started out in a series of failures of Indian intelligence, surveillance, patrolling and civil-military engagement.
The war came at the heels of the Lahore Declaration between Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, seen as an important confidence building measure between the nations. The Declaration, among other things, reaffirmed the countries’ commitment to the sanctity of the LoC and International Borders, and their resolve to solve all issues bilaterally, including Kashmir. Even here, however, it is notable that in spite of heavy lobbying, India couldn’t push for a mention of cross-border terrorism in the Declaration.
That notwithstanding, visuals of the Indian Prime Minister travelling by bus across the border, being received with great fanfare and signing the declaration with his Pakistani counterpart were telecast across the world. To the international community, this was reassurance that the two newly nuclear powers would exercise restraint and responsibility, seen as a great win within as well as outside the Indian political establishment.
Later however, documents and accounts would reveal that by the time the Lahore Declaration was signed, preparations of a large-scale infiltration across the LoC were already underway in Pakistan. Only a few days after the Declaration was signed, Pakistani Army General Pervez Musharraf flew across the LoC in a helicopter to meet the advance elements preparing for “Operation Badr”—Pakistan’s codename for the infiltration of Kargil. His message to the army was clear. They were not to be carried away by the Lahore Declaration. Soon it would be time for war.
Indian intelligence agencies—the Intelligence Bureau and the R&AW remained oblivious to the large-scale mobilisation of Pakistan’s forces, procurement of weapons, deployment across the LoC, and eventually, infiltration into Indian territory. General Malik highlights the larger inadequacies of Indian intelligence brought to the fore during the Kargil Conflict. Heavy bureaucracy, lack of expertise and investment and their lack of coordination with the military served as major barriers in effective anticipation and preparation for potential conflict. The proximity intelligence agencies shared with the political establishment of the day meant that the “leadership gets the intelligence it wants.”
Reports of the agencies, through 1998 and the first half of 1999, categorically dismissed any scope of Pakistan preparing for large scale military conflict. The political and economic situation in the country at the time was unviable, they argued, to launch an offensive across the border. The Indian leadership had other reasons to believe that war was not in sight for the foreseeable future. Transparent elections and a resumption of normalcy in Kashmir meant that jehadi militancy and cross-border terrorism had significantly reduced. The Lahore Declaration and the emergence of both countries as nuclear nations further indicated that they would exercise restraint. War at this stage, for Pakistan would be irrational, unstrategic and foolish.
Ironically, some of these very reasons formed the bedrock of Pakistan’s rationale to attack. Infiltration in Kargil would enable the military and the ISI to revive militancy and separatism in the Valley, put the international spotlight back on the issue and bring India to the negotiating table in a weaker position, they reasoned. Pakistan believed that nuclear deterrence would prevent India from responding aggressively to their intrusion, particularly given India’s policy of restraint. India would more likely give up land than run the risk of a nuclear war, giving Pakistan immense gains in spite of not actually fighting a full-fledged conventional war, one that they knew they were likely to lose.
The prevailing circumstances were further exacerbated by the Indian intelligence’s obsession with cross-border terrorism and jehadi militancy. Military power was also considerably sucked into fighting this proxy war of Pakistan-backed separatists. As a result, most intelligence reports of the time focused solely on militancy, not on the formal Pakistani military. This, Pakistan would use to their advantage, disguising their uniformed soldiers as untrained terrorists while sending them across the LoC. The world was made to believe that the Pakistani establishment had no involvement in the infiltration, planned and launched by terrorists. Even Indian intelligence hankered after the jehadi facade, presumably to save face. This would severely handicap the military in the initial weeks of the conflict, preventing them from mobilising at the scale they would against a nation's military. Such a response to a handful of terrorists, as they were perceived, wouldn’t be acceptable either domestically or internationally.
The first intelligence report that finally noted that it was Pakistan’s armed forces were prepared for war came on June 14, 1999, a full month into the war.
General Malik also acknowledges lapses on the part of the military’s surveillance and patrolling, with several Army posts sending “No Intrusion” Certificates to the Headquarters many weeks after Pakistani soldiers, in the guise of terrorists, had occupied important mountain peaks and features in the area, setting up temporary settlements.
It was this lack of coordination, absence of accountability and general disillusionment that pervaded the civil and defence leadership in the initial days of the Kargil Conflict. Pakistan had not only caught the Indian military off guard, but also managed to deceive them for much longer. Lack of well-developed surveillance infrastructure and weapon radars also impeded India’s capability to assess the extent of intrusion. Soon however, the ‘militancy’ mask of the Pakistani aggression was blown, due to close observation, documents and diaries recovered from enemy soldiers and a tapped phone call between Musharraf and a Pakistani Chief.
What, then, worked for India?
VP Malik attributes India’s eventual victory to the concerted efforts in political, military and diplomatic spheres, tactful response while exercising restraint, and exemplary leadership and courage of Junior Officers in the forces.
The most defining aspect of India’s response was the coordination and synergy among the three wings of the military, as well as between the military with the political leadership of the time. This is significant in a system notoriously hampered by bureaucracy, petty rivalries and games of one-upmanship. Malik highlights that lack of coordination among the arms of the military was the norm, up till Kargil, particularly in the absence of a central coordinating officer like the Chief of Defence Staff.
While it was hostility and suspicion between military and civil establishments, particularly fractions between VK Menon and then Chief of Army Staff Thimmiah that lost India the war in 1962, it was close coordination and communication between the two that led to success in Kargil, Malik argues. The military operations were marked by constant political oversight, but considerable autonomy granted to the military, often personally from the highest levels of government—Prime Minister Vajpayee, NSA Brajesh Mishra and the likes. The flip-side, Malik points out, is that political leaders often exercise restraint, as in the case of Kargil, where the Army and Air Force weren’t permitted to cross the LoC, even to clear Pakistani intrusions very close to the border. Such restrictions become especially difficult when the adversary has an army that supersedes its political establishment, and is in complete control of its operations, as is the case with Pakistan.
Just as significant was the coordination among the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. When the Army launched Operation Vijay, to evict all Pakistani intrusion across the LoC, the Air Force started Operation Safed Sagar, and the Navy, Operation Talwar. In spite of considerably difficult terrain, the Air Force played a significant role in engaging intruders with bombs and rockets, intercepting their supply lines, collecting intelligence and providing logistical support to Indian troops. The Navy for its part, deployed ship to patrol the sea off the coast of Gujarat, conducted surveillance operations and remained operationally ready to intercept Pakistani oil imports at any time, sending alarm bells ringing at Islamabad.
The entry of the Navy and the Air Force into the fray sent the message to Pakistan that India was determined to completely clear its side of the LoC, even if that meant conventional war. The world was forced to take note that the intrusion at Kargil was not just another Indo-Pak skirmish.
The turning point in the Kargil conflict, Malik says, came with the recapture of Tololing, an important peak overlooking the Srinagar-Leh Highway that had been captured by Pakistan. On June 17, the Indian military brought an intense five-day operation to a close by capturing Tololing and clearing Pakistani intrusion in this region. This was the first post India was able to recover, giving it a foothold in the enemy’s defensive layout to clear other intrusions from here. The Battle of Tololing would go down in lore as the most pivotal battle of the Kargil War, studded with the heroism of the likes of Major Rajesh Adhikari and Major Vivek Gupta.
After Tololing, Pakistani posts began to fall. The desperation of Pakistan became evident soon thereafter. It offered to send its Foreign Minister to Delhi, engaged more intensely with the establishment in India, and rushed to seek the aid of foreign powers such as the US.
On July 4, Indian Forces dislodged intruders from Tiger Hill, among the last posts Pakistan had been able to hold on to. Little doubt over the outcome of the war was left.
Malik also highlights the important moves India makes diplomatically during the period. Intensive engagement with the world was required to prove that it was not terrorists but Pakistani soldiers who had planned and executed an intrusion into Indian territory—breaking the terms of the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration. While asserting its right to protect its borders, India also had to strategically play the role of the more restrained, responsible power, strengthening its credentials as a trustworthy nuclear country.
The United States, till the time of Kargil had at best maintained a balanced relationship with both countries, with Pakistan having received military aid from America in the past, and cementing its position as a major “Non NATO Ally”. With the Kargil War however, a marked change in foreign policy became apparent. The USA recognised Pakistan as the aggressor, with Congress adopting a resolution recommending the suspension of loans from international financial institutions to Pakistan until it withdrew its troops to its side of the LoC. European nations took similar stances, while Pakistan’s “all weather ally” China, refused to intervene and urged Pakistani forces to show restraint.
On July 4, President Bill Clinton agreed to meet a desperate Nawaz Sharif appealing for American intervention under two conditions—that Pakistan withdraw, and that America will not interfere in the Kashmir issue. At the meeting, Pakistan would commit to peace in the region, and de-escalation with India.
While Pakistan played up the July meeting between Clinton and Sharif as its reason for retreat, Malik argues that this was not the case. Just that morning, the recapture of Tiger Hill had almost decisively marked Indian victory. To attribute its defeat in Kargil to international factors was myopic, insensible and a blatant attempt by Pakistan to discount the Indian war effort. Not just the international community, but Pakistan’s own civil society and political opposition would see through this, continuing to describe Kargil, as, among other things, ‘Pakistan’s biggest blunder and disaster.’
Malik is cautious to indulge in binaries of victory and defeat. As the conflict at Kargil was seen drawing to a close, discourse in India shifted to the impending elections, given that the Vajpayee government had lost the trust vote in Parliament. Malik highlights that even while operations in Kargil were still underway, the focus of the political establishment shifted away, leaving the military to fend largely for itself in the last leg. Kargil became an election issue, with the government and the opposition playing political football, significantly demoralising the military. After Kargil, committees are set up to analyse the lapses and suggest reforms. Many of their recommendations, however, remain unfulfilled till today.
Defence procurement continues to be a slow, tedious process, ridden with inertia, insufficient budgets, lackadaisical government officers and a perpetual fear of scams. Civil military engagement—particularly between the Army and the Ministry of Defence—remains an issue, as does politicisation of the armed forces and their achievements. In issues of arms purchase, foreign policy and strategic affairs, the military leadership is barely consulted, resulting in communication gaps and misunderstandings. The Army is often needed to rein in internal disputes, communal riots, natural disasters and terrorism under control, with the central issue of defence of international borders often taking a backseat in the face of these politically compelling domestic issues. Issues of modernisation, coordination and people management in the forces leave a lot to be desired.
Malik argues that Kargil has demonstrated that intense, limited conventional war is possible, even likely, between hostile nuclear neighbours. While the threat of a war large in scale, extent and mobilisation may have considerably reduced, even brought down to nil, limited conflicts that require operational readiness, well developed technology and strategic planning are only slated to increase. If India wants to be fully prepared, he argues, it must act now.