Vijay Diwas: Remembering the Kargil Conflict after 20 years

Pakistan’s plan for operations – with its discrete intrusions along the jointly agreed and demarcated LOC- was to to seize territory, to cut off India’s primary logistics life line to Leh and the Siachin Glacier from NH1A to keep its military forces fed and equipped – in those northern reaches of J&K.

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Soldiers celebrating victory after the Kargil war in 1999. (Agency photo)

By Maroof Raza

On 26th July 1999, India had announced and end to hostilities in the Kargil sector after Pakistani forces were evicted from those icy heights, by the Indian army. It was an act of betrayal, that had caught the Vajpayee government by complete surprise, since earlier that year Prime Minister AB Vajpayee had visited Lahore in February 1999, to build better ties with Pakistan. The Lahore Declaration that was signed between Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, had re-affirmed a commitment to peaceful co-existence, specially so as both countries had in 1998 become nuclear powers. Thus the Indian establishment was initially at a loss to explain how all this good will had gone up in smoke with the Pakistani intrusions. The culprit of this deceit however – as written accounts now prove – was essentially the then Pakistan Army Chief, General Parvez Musharraf along with three other generals.

Pakistan’s plan for operations – with its discrete intrusions along the jointly agreed and demarcated LOC- was to to seize territory, to cut off India’s primary logistics life line to Leh and the Siachin Glacier from NH1A to keep its military forces fed and equipped – in those northern reaches of J&K. Cutting it off on the vital national highway and would strangle Indian forces for want of supplies, leading to, what they had hoped would be an Indian withdrawal from Siachin and Leh.

It is said that the plans for the Kargil operations had been suggested by the Pak army brass first to President Zia in 1980s and then to Benazir Bhutto in the 1990’s, 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 taken also by surprise since he was informed by General Musharraf once the operations were already under way in April 1999!

In fact Pakistan’s other two services and the ISI were also brought into the picture at this late stage (in April) when the intrusions had already 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. 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 apparent intrusion! This was rebutted by India, with over 70 maps, that clearly showed the LOC, as agreed and signed by both countries upon following the Suchetgarh agreement of 1972.

India’s intelligence agencies – who must be held responsible for the huge goof-up that lead to the Kargil fiasco- continued to push the line that it was a Mujahideen operations on the icy heights around Kargil for quite some time, and later used the Indian media( that lives off the handouts of DPRO, MoD) to project this as Indian army’s failure. The army works on intelligence inputs provided by Intelligence agencies, and thus it was our national failure to assess the Pakistani intent and build up. 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. 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 only Mujiadeen and freedom fighters that were there on the LOC, to liberate Kashmir from India. But what were they trying to liberate in those freezing mountain tops is anybody’s guess!

Many Pakistani officials and commentators stuck to this line long after the operations were launched by the Indian Army to evict the intruders. Interestingly this was also echoed by the Indian establishment until the end of May 1999, when the Indian army’s units engaged in operations against the Pakistani 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 Pakistan’s MO Directorate, that was asked to prepare an operational briefing about an operation that was already underway!

Also both the Pakistan air chief as well as their navy’s leadership were brought on board after the intrusions. 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 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 specially with the efficacy with which the Mirage fighters engaged targets along the LOC, despite so many constraints.However, what finally took Pakistan and the world by surprise was the severity of India’s military response and the sheer determination of Indian troops to evict about 2500 Pakistani intruders over 160km area along the LOC. But took over 500 Indian lives.

America 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 black mailed and insisted that only a complete Pakistani withdrawal would be acceptable to the US. And Vajpayee’s decision to limit Indian military operations only upto the LOC, was really the turning point in India’s favour. The LOC which Pakistani generals under Musharraf had gone to challenge eventually became sanctified, and the US thereafter accepted it as the de-facto Indo-Pak border in Jammu & Kashmir. And it was after this conflict that the US began to turn away from Pakistan towards India. In Pakistan, the blame game for the fiasco let 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.

(Author is a military affairs commentator. Views expressed are personal)

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First published on: 25-07-2019 at 18:01 IST