What the Kargil war teaches India about its national security

Twenty years ago, on May 3, 1999, local shepherds reported seeing some Pakistani intruders on the Indian side of the Line of Control in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). On July 26, 1999, the Pakistan army was pushed back by the Indian army from the last of the heights it had surreptitiously occupied. With that well-earned victory, Operation Vijay came to an end.

The Pakistan army's offensive was an ill-conceived military adventure. By infiltrating its regular soldiers in civilian clothes across the LoC and physically occupying ground on the Indian side, the Pakistan army had 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 and included air strikes from fighter-ground attack (FGA) aircraft and attack helicopters of the Indian Air Force. 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 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.

Though it was not stated in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, acceptance of the concept of the LoC as a permanent border between India and Pakistan had begun to gain currency. 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.

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 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 aim 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.

The Pakistani army had also hoped to physically occupy some territory on the Indian side of the LoC to use as a bargaining counter subsequently, particularly to seek an Indian withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier conflict zone.

The then 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 denied the opportunity to launch a similar venture again.

The Indian army headquarters realised early that attacking up the steep high-altitude mountains would not be easy. It was 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 degrade the combat potential of the enemy's posts and break the enemy's will to fight before infantry battalions launched 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 the high-altitude mountain tops occupied by the aggressors. Despite daunting odds, they were completely unrelenting in their resolve to evict every Pakistani intruder from Indian territory.

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 remaining troops from Kargil unconditionally.

The most important lesson that India learnt from the Kargil imbroglio is that the essential requirements of national security should not be compromised. Successive governments in Islamabad have sought with varying degrees of intensity to destabilise India, wreck its unity and challenge its integrity and this is unlikely to change.

In international politics, the policy of mutual friendship and cooperation 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 Pakistan's vengeful and devious military leadership that continues to have a hate-India mindset and the mentality of primitive warlords.

The new government must firmly 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. The government must also ensure that the Indian armed forces make up the deficiencies in their weapons, equipment and ammunition quickly and keep their powder dry.


The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.