Pakistan's Strategic Blunder at Kargil

Ten years ago, in the summer months of 1999, Pakistan’s army had launched an ill-conceived military adventure across the Line of Control (LoC) into the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and had threatened India’s territorial integrity. By infiltrating soldiers of the Pakistan Army in civilian clothes across the LoC and physically occupying ground on the Indian side, Pakistan had added a new dimension to its ongoing ‘proxy war’ against India. Pakistan’s provocative action compelled India to launch a firm but measured and restrained military operation to clear the intruders. Operation ‘Vijay’ was finely calibrated to limit military action to the Indian side of the LoC and included air strikes from fighter-ground attack (FGA) aircraft and attack helicopters of the Indian Air Force.

Why did Pakistan undertake a military operation that was foredoomed to failure? Clearly, the Pakistani military establishment had become frustrated with India’s success in containing the militancy in J&K to within manageable limits and could not bear to see its strategy of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’ evaporating into thin air. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government appeared to be inclined to accept India’s hand of friendship, in keeping with the mood of popular opinion within Pakistan, and was committed to opening up trade, liberalising the Visa regime and encouraging people-to-people, cultural and sports contacts.

Though it did not feature in so many words in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, the acceptance of the concept of the LoC as a permanent border between India and Pakistan was gaining currency. It was in such a scenario that in an act more of desperation than strategic planning, the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate decided to launch an organised intrusion into the militarily vacant remote areas of the Kargil district to once again ignite the spark of militancy and gain moral ascendancy over the Indian security forces. Unfortunately for them, they failed miserably in this endeavour.

The strategic aim of the Pakistan Army in engineering these intrusions under the facade of Kashmiri militancy was to provide a fresh impetus to the flagging Jihad and again attempt to focus international attention on the Kashmir issue. In the Dras, Mushkoh Valley and Kaksar sectors the military aim was to sever the Srinagar-Leh National Highway (NH) 1A to isolate Kargil district and cut India’s lifeline to Leh, with a view to eventually choking supplies and reinforcements to Indian troops holding the Saltoro Ridge west of the Siachen Glacier.

Another military aim in these sectors was to open up a new route for infiltration over the Amarnath Mountains into the Kashmir Valley and the Doda region south of the Pir Panjal range. In the Batalik and Turtok Valley area, which adjoins the Siachen glacial belt, Pakistan attempted to establish a firm base with a view to eventually advance along the Shyok Valley to cut the only road link to India’s Siachen Brigade. As an aim plus, the Pakistani Army had also planned to physically occupy some territory on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil district to use as a bargaining counter subsequently, particularly to seek an Indian withdrawal from Siachen Glacier.

The Indian military strategy was to immediately contain and limit the intrusions, prepare for and evict the Pakistani soldiers from the Indian side of the LoC and, finally, enhance surveillance, patrolling and deployment, where necessary, to ensure that the Pakistan Army is denied the opportunity to launch such a venture again. Army Headquarters realised that maximum available firepower would need to be employed, including that of the artillery and the Indian Air Force, by way of coordinated preparatory bombardment to reduce the combat potential of the enemy’s posts and break the enemy’s will to fight before infantry battalions could launch physical assaults to regain each position.

The Indian Army launched some of the fiercest attacks in the annals of military history to take back high altitude mountain peaks from the aggressors and was completely unrelenting in its resolve to evict every intruder from Indian territory. The Pakistan Army disowned its dead soldiers and refused to take back many bodies, particularly in the initial stages.

Facing an impending military defeat, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Army chief, is said to have pleaded with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, to rush to Washington and request President Bill Clinton of the United States to broker a ceasefire. Pakistan then agreed to pull out its troops from Kargil unconditionally. As a face saving device, Pakistan’s widely anticipated pull back was couched in euphemistic terms. The Pakistan government announced that it would “appeal to the Kashmiri freedom fighters to pull out from their positions in Kargil,” – the same so-called mujahideen over whom it had repeatedly emphasised that it had no control! On July 26, 1999, the Indian Army declared that all Pakistani intruders had been evicted from Kargil district.

The most important lesson that India must learn from the Kargil imbroglio is that the inescapable requirements of national security cannot be compromised. Successive governments in Islamabad have sought with varying degrees of intensity to destabilise India, wreck its unity and challenge its integrity. In international politics, the policy of mutual friendship and co-operation with one’s neighbours has to be balanced with vigilance. A neighbour’s capacity to damage one’s security interests should never be underestimated, leave alone disregarded.

India must remain on guard against such sinister operations being launched in future by the vengeful and devious military leadership of Pakistan that has a hate-India mindset and the mentality of primitive warlords. It would be futile to hope that internal instability, international pressure or economic compulsions will dissuade the Pakistan Army from embarking on such ventures in future. The government must tell the Pakistani leadership that there is a limit to India’s patience and tolerance and that India will consider harder options if there is no let-up in the relentless proxy war being waged from across its western border by the Pakistan Army and the ISI.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).