Kargil War 1999

Lessons from Kargil

In February 1999, when Atal Behari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India, journeyed by bus to Lahore at the invitation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, most people on the sub-continent hailed it as a bold and courageous political act of the two leaders.  It was felt that with nuclear weapons capability out of their respective closets in May 1998, India and Pakistan would be less suspicious and more transparent with each other. The conducive strategic environment and common peoples’ desire would enable their political leaders to work genuinely for confidence building measures and improvement of relations between the two nations, which, since Independence in August 1947, had fought four wars and seen several minor actions. But that was not to be. Even as Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif hugged and talked with each other, and then signed the Lahore Declaration, the Pakistan Army had already initiated a deliberate and well-planned intrusion across the Line of Control (LoC), delineated on maps as part of Simla Agreement in 1972 (Annexure 1). In May 1999, within three months of the Lahore Declaration, a limited conventional war broke out between India and Pakistan in the Kargil Sector. In the preceding winter months, Pakistan Army personnel, dressed as jihadi militants, infiltrated through gaps between Indian defences, in one of the world’s most rugged terrain, to occupy several dominating heights between the LoC and the Road (National Highway 1-A) connecting Srinagar-Kargil and Leh. The Pak Army’s initiative, taking advantage of the terrain and the extreme climatic conditions, achieved a tactical surprise but could not cope up with subsequent Indian military reaction. It failed at operational and strategic levels and thus ended with adverse politico-military consequences for Pakistan. The outbreak of war in Kargil also showed that the Pak political leadership was working out of sync with the thinking and plans of its military brass. As two former Prime Ministers of Pakistan put it, the Kargil War was Pakistan’s biggest blunder and disaster

For the Government in India, the Pak intrusion after its Lahore initiative was a serious political setback. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance had lost its majority in the Parliament in April 1999. It was now governing the country as a ‘caretaker’ Government till the next elections, which were due any time before September 1999.The Indian military had the formidable challenge of getting the Pak intrusion vacated under the most adverse conditions of terrain. This adversity was further compounded by the political mandate that the LoC should not be violated. Nuclear India’s political leadership, despite being stabbed in the back, had decided to act with restraint and maturity.

The War in Kargil

It is now fairly certain that the decision to launch Operation Badr (Pak codename for the operation) across 160 km of the LoC in Kargil Sector was taken soon after General Pervez Musharraf took over as the Pak Army Chief in October 1998. The new Chief made some quick changes in the top echelons of the Army. He brought in Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz Khan from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to take over as Chief of General Staff, without commanding a Corps, as was the usual practice. An old contingency plan was updated, and after carrying out detailed preparations during winter, the operation was launched to coincide with the melting of snow and the opening of India’s National Highway 1A linking Srinagar to Leh via Kargil.  The military objectives were to:

  1. Occupy approximately 700 sq km area on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil-Turtuk Sector. 
  2. Interdict Srinagar-Kargil-Leh Road.
  3. Capture Turtuk and cut off Southern and Central parts of Siachin Glacier Sector, and
  4. Intensify militants’ activities in J&K, which had received a setback after the State Assembly and National Parliament elections in 1997-98. 

About 1,700 men of the Northern Light Infantry (four battalions) supported by Special Forces, artillery, engineers and other combat support personnel, in the garb of militants and under a well executed cover plan, infiltrated through gaps into Indian territory and occupied mountain tops between the LoC and the Highway at several locations.

As already stated, the Indian military was mandated to get the intrusion vacated without crossing the LoC. However, it had to maintain a strategic balance and a deterrent posture all along the Indo Pak front - on the ground, air and sea - should there be a sudden escalation. A deliberate decision was taken to continue the political and military level dialogue. The politico military strategy made it clear that although India was a victim of intrusion, and exercising maximum restraint, it was determined to get the intrusion vacated. India employed about two divisions (including about 250 artillery guns) on the Kargil front, and mounted 1,200 fighter and 2,500 helicopter sorties. By the time Pakistan sued for peace and withdrawal of its troops from the area of intrusion, nearly 75 per cent intruded area, including all high features dominating the Highway, had been retaken. The War ended on 26 July 1999 when all Pakistani troops were finally evicted from our side of the LoC. During the War, 473 Indian soldiers were killed: Pakistani casualties were estimated to be over 700.   

The Kargil War, fought at the turn of the century, has been a major turning point in Indo-Pak security relations. It has left a deep impact. Its lessons are indeed important and are a useful input when we discuss future Indo-Pak relations, or peace and stability in South Asia.

Lesson No 1

A proxy or sub-conventional war in the Indo-Pak security scenario can easily escalate into a conventional war.

Pakistan, since its very inception, has built considerable expertise in militancy and use of irregulars; on their own or as an extension of the Pak Army, for war. It made its first attempt to force accession of J&K with irregular forces, supported by the Pak Army in 1947-48. The same strategy was followed in 1965, when it infiltrated irregulars and some Pak Army personnel dressed as irregulars into the Rajouri-Poonch Sector. On both occasions, however, this strategy led to a conventional war between regular forces of India and Pakistan.

Three significant developments took place thereafter. First, the successful use of irregular forces and political legitimacy to organise and conduct Jihad in the Afghan War. This was an extremely useful experience for the Pak military. Second, the acquisition of nuclear capability by Pakistan in late 1980s, which remained covert till May 1998. This capability encouraged the Pak military to conclude that a conventional war with India was not possible hereafter, and therefore, the sub-conventional could be stretched further. Third, loss of initiative to India in the occupation of Siachin Glacier.4 All these developments prompted Pakistan to make fresh attempts to annex J&K through a proxy war, on the lines of the Afghan War. During the Kargil War, the Pakistan Army took an additional step forward. Regular Army personnel shed their uniforms and dressed themselves as irregulars to intrude and fight on Indian territory.5 It made use of the ongoing irregular Jihadi militant-centred armed conflict in J&K as a deception to launch a war with regular forces.

It is a well-known fact that during the Afghan War, Pak ISI siphoned off a plethora of arms, equipment and funds, meant for Afghan rebels.6 With several million dollars of unaccounted funds, the ISI had at its disposal a large well-oiled machinery for churning out Jihad-oriented trained irregulars to be inducted into J&K. The first wave comprised infusion of extreme Islamic teachings and literature, which was followed by training to Kashmiri locals in the art of guerrilla warfare. A large number of young Kashmiris were covertly exfiltrated to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) through a porous LoC for arms training. The period from 1987 to 1989 saw an increase in violence and prolonged strikes in the Kashmir Valley and attacks on political leadership, police and para military forces. The kidnapping and subsequent release of Dr Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the Union Home Minister of India, Mr Mufti Mohammed Sayeed – a Kashmiri - in December 1989, in exchange for five top militants proved to be the last straw. The elected J&K Government under Dr Farooq Abdullah resigned in January 1990. The proxy war had truly arrived.

In April-May 1990, due to increased tension, the Armed Forces of India and Pakistan were mobilised and deployed all along the LoC and International Border (IB). A conventional war between the two countries was averted due to efforts of the US Deputy National Security Advisor, Robert Gates, who flew between Islamabad and New Delhi to reduce tension and restore some confidence.

The history of proxy war, since then, is best observed through the statistics given at Annexure. As can be noted, the proxy war has had its ups and down. The downward trend, which commenced in 1994, enabled India to hold State Assembly and Parliamentary elections in the State in 1996-97. The situation had improved considerably when Pakistan decided to launch the intrusion in Kargil in 1999. This initiative was taken because the Pak military felt confident of its success.7 The brief story and result of the Kargil War has already been covered. Unfortunately, since then, there has been a renewal of effort to fuel proxy war. The area covered by it has also been enlarged.

Despite ‘war against terror’ launched by the US and its coalition partners after 11 September 2001, India has continued to face Jihadi terrorists’ attacks on its people and its institutions. On 13 December 2001, suicide terrorists - all from Pakistan - unsuccessfully attacked India’s most venerated democratic institution, the Parliament. These terrorists were stopped and killed very close to the office of the Indian Vice President and other political leaders. This incident, once again, resulted in full-scale mobilisation and deployment of the Armed Forces of both countries. Operational readiness to go to war this time was at the highest level, since the all out war fought by them in 1971.

My aim here is not to go into the details of the decade old proxy / sub-conventional war in J&K or elsewhere in India but to establish its linkage with a conventional war. A proxy war or a sub-conventional war is part of the spectrum of conflict, which can easily escalate into a conventional war; nuclear capability notwithstanding. There may be several situations where both the ‘initiator’ (of the proxy war) and the ‘affected’ nation, are tempted to use conventional weapons and forces. The ‘initiator’ is tempted to give it a greater push with conventional forces to achieve the desired results. Such a situation occurred in 1947-48, 1965, and again in the Kargil War in 1999. On the other hand, the ‘affected’ nation, when pushed to the wall, may use its conventional forces to bring the proxy war into the open rather than fight with all the limitations of a ‘no war no peace situation’. Pakistan did so in 1971, and India was prepared to do so in 1990, and after the terrorists’ assault on its Parliament on 13 December 2001.

Lesson No 2

State sponsored terrorism, due to the nature of socio-politics on the sub-continent, is a double-edged weapon. It is like a wicked dog, which often bites the hand that feeds it.

Here, I would also like to add that state sponsored terrorism, due to the nature of social divides across the boundary on the sub-continent is a double-edged weapon. It is like a wicked dog, which sooner or later bites the hand that feeds it. India experienced it with Bhindranwale, a Sikh cleric who took to politics, and later joined hands with the Pak ISI to collect weapons and equipment in 1983-84. Militancy spawned by him in India’s Punjab with the assistance of Pak ISI lasted nearly a decade. India had a similar experience with the LTTE of Sri Lanka in 1980s. After obtaining training from India, the LTTE went against the Indian forces when, at the request of the Sri Lankan Government, they were inducted for peace keeping in Sri Lanka. Pakistan is facing that situation now after sponsoring Afghan Mujahideen and Taliban in the 1980s and 90s. These organisations were raised during the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq. Since then, elements from these organisations have been sponsored and used by the ISI for proxy war or covert actions in Afghanistan and India. This genie has now grown so big that the Pak Government is finding it difficult to rein it in and reform the Madrassas that are a breeding ground for extremists and terrorists. 

Lesson No 3

Acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan has not reduced / eliminated the probability of a war between them. A limited conventional war remains possible.

In May 1998, India and Pakistan became overt nuclear states. Indian compulsions had more to do with China than with Pakistan. Although in its security paradigm, Pakistan has been accepted as a nuclear capable state since late 1980s, it is always China that looms large over the Indian security scenario because of the humiliating Sino-Indian 1962 War defeat, the rapidly growing defence, economic capability and political clout of China, and the slow progress on settling the Sino-India border issue. Notwithstanding improvement in Sino-Indian relations, people in India perceive China to be the bigger, long term challenge.The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme has been Indo-centric from the beginning. Pakistan has sought and acquired nuclear weapons and missiles essentially to neutralise India’s conventional military superiority. Many Pakistani leaders have said in the past that the Indian conventional superiority can be neutralised, and Afghanistan type militancy in J&K initiated and nurtured, under a nuclear umbrella.9 As Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability grew, the sub-conventional war in J&K kept escalating. Its military strategy since late 1980s has been to escalate proxy war, and brandish the likelihood of a conventional war and a nuclear ‘flashpoint’, whenever India threatened to make use of its conventional force. It may be recalled that when tension between the two countries was high after the escalation of proxy war in Kashmir in 1990, Pakistan was reported to have cautioned the US Deputy National Security Advisor, Robert Gates that, in the event of a war with India, nuclear weapons might be used. During the Kargil War too, a Federal Minister of Pakistan and some others spoke about the possible use of nuclear weapons. The international community condemned these statements.

In November 1998, looking at Pakistan’s renewed attempts to escalate proxy war in J&K and recalling the Sino-Russian border confrontation in 1969, in a talk at the National Defence College, New Delhi, I stated that ‘space existed between the proxy war and Indo-Pak nuclear umbrella, wherein a limited conventional war was a distinct possibility’. This statement generated a strong reaction in Pakistan as it contradicted their prevailing military wisdom. Even in India and elsewhere, not many people took my statement seriously, till Kargil happened.

The lesson that I wish to draw from this part is that leading from a proxy war, a limited conventional conflict between nuclearised India and Pakistan cannot be ruled out. In such a situation, there will be a risk of escalation and a testing of patience, nerves and rationality on both sides. The risk is enhanced when one takes into account the lack of safety and robustness of the nuclear command and control structure on the sub-continent. Most political leaders in India do not trust General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime in Pakistan -   which has already displayed its mindlessness in the Kargil War, and towards terrorism - in the handling of its nuclear weapons. 

Lesson No 4

The imbalance in civil-military relations and lack of strategic culture on the sub-continent has an impact on Indo-Pak security relations.

There was a serious misreading of Pakistani nuclear tests in response to Indian nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998 in the political establishments of Pakistan as well as in India. In India, Pakistani reaction to go overt was anticipated, and to some extent even welcomed by some strategists. The Indian establishment generally felt that an overt and transparent nuclear capability is better than a covert or translucent capability. The former would lead to a more stable Indo-Pak security relationship. Perhaps this was also the impression in the Pakistani political establishment. This common impression led to the Lahore Summit and Declaration.

What the political and a large part of the strategic community on the sub-continent failed to perceive was that the overt and neutralised nuclear parity on the sub-continent would lead to unbridling and early escalation of the Indo-Pak proxy war by the military establishment in Pakistan. The changeover of military leadership in October 1998 in Pakistan, from a moderate to a hardliner, led to such a manifestation and launching of Operation Badr within months of the May 1998 nuclear tests.

Why did such a misreading of overt Pak nuclear weapon capability take place in India, and even in Pakistan? For this, I hold the imbalance in civil-military relations in India and Pakistan, and an absence or lack of strategic culture in both countries, responsible. In Pakistan, issues like Afghanistan, Indo-Pak relations, Kashmir and nuclear capability are areas of special concern to the military.14 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. The opposite is true of India, where the military functions not only under the political control - as it should - but also under an assertive and suspicious bureaucracy. As a result, interaction and teamwork between military and political authorities on politico-military issues is less than adequate. The Government often decides politico-military issues without adequate military inputs and discussions. A lack of strategic culture in India is well known. George Tanham wrote about it in his research paper.15  However, it must also be mentioned here that the political leadership has now started taking greater interest in national security matters, particularly after the Kargil War.

Lesson No 5

Assumption and misperceptions, a fairly consistent feature, mostly in Pakistan, have been a major cause of Indo-Pak conflicts. Greater transparency and Confidence and Security Building Measures are necessary to reduce tension and chances of a war.

In all Indo-Pak wars, there is continuity not only of objectives but also of wrong assumptions and misperceptions. Before Kargil, Pakistan had assumed that the Indian military, due to prolonged and over involvement in anti terrorist and anti insurgency operations in Punjab, J&K and North East India, was tired and not in a fit shape to fight. Its weapons and equipment were obsolete since no modernisation had taken place for more than a decade; and that there was an acute shortage of officers especially at the junior leadership levels. All this was true but only to an extent.

As mentioned earlier, my statement in late 1998 that ‘space existed between the proxy war and Indo-Pak nuclear umbrella, wherein a limited conventional war was a distinct possibility’, generated a strong reaction in Pakistan. A part of the vernacular media in Pakistan mis-presented the statement as if it was a military threat/challenge to Pakistan. In February 1999, Lieutenant General Javed Nasir, former head of the ISI, then Chief Intelligence Advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a well-known Islamic hawk, wrote a highly publicised article “Calling the Indian Army Chief’s Bluff”. The crux of that article was that the Indian Army was incapable of undertaking any conventional operation. This was not only a gross underestimation of a possible adversary but also a poor assessment and misperception. Some other assumptions and misperceptions which led to the Pakistani offensive operation in Kargil were:

  1. Nuclear umbrella allows “offensive action” without risk.
  2. International community would intervene or stop the war at an early stage.
  3. The coalition government in India, weak and indecisive, will either over-react or under-react.
  4. India is militarily weak and unprepared.
  5. Indian frustration will lead to escalation, putting the onus of escalation on India.
  6. Military operation under the garb of “Mujahideen” would focus attention on Kashmir and Pakistan would be able to claim this as a victory.

There are several such assumptions and misperceptions about the military, including nuclear capabilities, on both sides of the border even now. One of the problems is near opaqueness of matters military in both countries, which leads to considerable speculation and misreporting in the media.

In a highly tense situation, misperceptions of the adversary often lead to a war. The answer lies in greater transparency and confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) at political, and more importantly at the military level. Over the years, several CSBMs have been agreed to between India and Pakistan. However, many of them have got eroded or diluted ever since Pak sponsored militancy was initiated in Punjab and J&K. Although the war in Kargil was another major setback to the CSBMs, hot lines between Prime Ministers and Director Generals of Military Operations were often used, which helped to prevent escalation of the Kargil War.

There is yet another politico-military assumption in Pakistan, that China, its strategic ally, would intervene in an Indo-Pak war. This was so in 1965, 1971, and no doubt in 1999. Kargil and Siachen Glacier lie very close to the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The Pak COAS, its Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, all visited China during the Kargil War. But this assumption does not take into account the changed global and regional geo-strategic environment. The Chinese reaction during the Kargil War at the political level and on the ground was pragmatic and responsible. If anything, China leaned closer to India during the war. Chinese are and would be interested in the sale of weapons to their traditional strategic partner Pakistan, even in the continuation of limited tension between India and Pakistan, but it is highly unlikely today that they would consider physical intervention on the Indo-Tibet border to bail out Pakistan.

Lesson No 6

(a) Kargil War has re-established political sanctity of the Line of Control in J&K with the international community.
(b) Militarily, over the years, the defence of Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Siachen Sector, Line of Control (LoC) in the rest of J&K, and International Boundary have got linked. Any attempt to disturb status quo and re-draw the LoC or AGPL forcibly, is more likely to lead to conflict all along the Indo-Pak border.

After the first Indo-Pak War in 1947-48, in which Pakistani irregulars backed by Pak Army units attacked J&K, the two countries signed the Karachi Agreement on 27 July 1949 under the aegis of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan. The Karachi Agreement delineated and demarcated a Ceasefire Line (CFL) in J&K, which was signed by Indian and Pakistani military commanders as well as by UN Representatives. In 1965, when Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar followed by Operation Grand Slam in J&K, India retaliated by crossing the International Boundary (IB) in Punjab and elsewhere. Thereafter, fighting took place all along the CFL and the IB. Following the Tashkent Declaration, the two sides agreed to exchange the territories captured by each other across the CFL and IB and restored status quo ante.

The focus in the 1971 Indo-Pak War was on East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, although the war was also fought along the CFL and the IB on India’s western border with Pakistan.  After the war, under the Simla Agreement, both sides kept the gains they had made across the CFL. The resultant line was redesignated as the Line of Control (LoC), which was delineated and demarcated by military commanders of both countries and an agreement signed to this effect in December 1972 (Annexure 3). This was a significant transition from a ‘military line’ separating two armies through an UN arranged ceasefire in 1949 to a ‘political divide’, which could evolve into a boundary. The delineation of the LoC was done on two sets of maps, each containing 27 map sheets, formed into 19 mosaics, each sheet signed by military commanders. The LoC traverses 740 kms from the IB in the South up to NJ 9842, from which, in accordance with the unchanged definition of the 1949 Karachi Agreement, it runs ‘North to the glaciers’. After militarisation of Siachen Glacier’ area in 1984, this part of the line, North of NJ 9842, came to be known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Post Simla Agreement, there have been a few occasions when both sides made efforts to improve their tactical positions along the LoC. But there were no major incursions till the Kargil War.

  1. During the Kargil War, the Indian political aim given to the military was to get the intrusion vacated but not to cross the LoC. The international community endorsed the Indian position. The United States also insisted on restoration of the sanctity of the LoC. The joint statement signed by President Clinton and the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 4 July 1999, states the following about the LoC:
  2. “They (the signatories) also agreed that it was vital for peace in South Asia that the LoC in Kashmir be respected by both parties, in accordance with their 1972 Simla Agreement”.
  3. “It was agreed between the President and the Prime Minister that concrete steps will be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control in accordance with Simla Agreement”.
  4. “The President said he would take personal interest in encouraging expeditious resumption and intensification of those bilateral efforts once the sanctity of the Line of Control has been fully restored”.
  5. If the Kargil War had not ended as it did, the possibility of Pakistani and/or Indian forces crossing the IB could not be ruled out. In fact India had adopted a deterrent posture along the rest of LoC and the IB. Pakistan too had deployed its forces accordingly.

It is obvious that over the years, the sanctity of the AGPL in Siachen, the LoC, and the IB have got linked militarily. Any attempt by either party to redraw the LoC or the AGPL through force can lead to retaliation and escalation of conflict elsewhere. The ‘restrain’ term of reference given to the Indian Armed Forces during the Kargil War came under severe public criticism in India and might not be acceptable next time. The lesson and conclusion we may draw here is that the post Kargil durability of the Line of Control has increased. This durability, or sanctity, provides a longer-term base for a future dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Lesson No 7

Post-Kargil, agreements like the Simla Agreement and Lahore Declaration will not inspire adequate confidence.

The Pakistani Kargil initiative was a major violation of the Simla Agreement, signed by the Prime Ministers of the two countries in 1971, which had maintained a reasonable amount of stability between the two countries for long. This war repudiated two important articles of the Simla Agreement: namely that (a) the two countries will settle their dispute through bilateral negotiation and (b) the LoC will be respected by both sides and not altered. Also, the war coming so soon after the Lahore Declaration (Annexure 4) created a deep sense of betrayal and of being let down in India. It took two years and considerable pressure from the international community for Indo-Pak political level dialogue to be resumed.

No agreement with Pakistan after the Kargil War shall inspire the same confidence in India. Despite the ‘U’ turn taken by Pakistan in its policies on Afghanistan and terrorism under US pressure, the Indian public does not trust or feel confident that President Musharraf’s military regime, which initiated the Kargil War and subsequently took over  the Pakistan Government in a military coup, will remain faithful to any Understanding/Agreement with India for long.

(To be Continued)