Remembering Kargil 1999: Pakistan’s Strategic Blunder

On July 26, 1999, the Pakistan army finally retreated from the heights it had surreptitiously occupied on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the early summer months of the year – that is, the posts from which it had not been pushed back by the Indian army after 50 days of gallant fighting. With that well-earned victory, Operation Vijay came to an end. The day is observed as Kargil Vijay Diwas.

The Pakistan army’s offensive was an ill-conceived military adventure across the LoC into Kargil. It violated the Shimla Agreement of 1972. By infiltrating its regular soldiers in civilian clothes across the LoC and physically occupying ground on the Indian side, the Pakistan army added a new dimension to its ten-year old 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. It included air strikes from fighter-ground attack (FGA) aircraft and attack helicopters of the Indian Air Force on the posts established by the Pakistan army. Artillery firepower played a key role in paving the way for India’s brave infantrymen to take back the occupied heights inch-by-bloody inch.

Why did Pakistan undertake a military operation that was foredoomed to fail? Clearly, the Pakistan army and the ISI – who together form the deep state -- 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 out 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, their plans were foiled quickly and they failed miserably in their 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 militancy – wrongly called Jihad – and again attempt to focus international attention on the Kashmir dispute. In the Dras, Mushko 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 advancing along the Shyok River 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. The Pakistan army was particularly keen to seek the withdrawal of Indian troops from the Siachen Glacier conflict zone. 

The Indian army Chief General V P Malik’s counter strategy was to immediately contain and limit the intrusions, prepare for and evict the Pakistani soldiers from the Indian side of the LoC before the end of the summer and, finally, enhance surveillance, patrolling and deployment, where necessary, to ensure that the Pakistan army is not tempted to launch a similar venture ever again. 

The Indian army headquarters realised early that attacking up the steep high-altitude mountains would not be easy. It was appreciated that maximum available firepower of the artillery and the IAF would need to be employed by way of coordinated preparatory bombardment to degrade 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.

Infantry battalions of the Indian army launched some of the fiercest attacks in the annals of military history to take back high-altitude mountain tops from the aggressors. Despite daunting odds, they were completely unrelenting in their resolve to evict every Pakistani intruder from Indian territory. It is to the credit of India’s fearless soldiers that a tactical reverse could be turned so quickly into a resounding victory. To its everlasting discredit, 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, pleaded with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to rush to Washington and request President Bill Clinton of the United States to broker a ceasefire. Clinton read out the riot act to Sharif and Pakistan 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.” They were the same so-called mujahideen over whom it had repeatedly emphasised that it had no control! 

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 military leadership of Pakistan that continues to have a hate-India mind-set and plays a larger than life role in Pakistan’s polity by playing up the bogey of a threat from India. Under General Raheel Sharif the Pakistan army has been once again begun to repeatedly violate the cease-fire along the LoC and has increased its efforts to infiltrate trained terrorists into J&K and other parts of India. 

There is unlikely to be any let-up in the relentless proxy war being waged from across its western border by the Pakistan army and the ISI. It would be futile to hope that internal instability, international pressure or economic compulsions will dissuade the Pakistan army from embarking on what former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal has called its “composite strategy” of pursuing “dialogue and terror” simultaneously. 

The government must firmly tell the Pakistani leadership that there is a limit to India’s patience and tolerance. While continuing to engage the Pakistan government diplomatically, India must at the same time adopt pro-active offensive measures to inflict punishment on the Pakistan army and the ISI with a view to raising the cost of waging a proxy war. The government must also ensure that the Indian armed forces make up their weapons, equipment and ammunition deficiencies quickly and keep their powder dry.