While army convoys had continued to ply throughout Pakistan's daily bombardment of Drass village and other points on NH 1A, it had not been considered prudent to allow civilian traffic to ply on the the highway till Tiger Hill was finally cleared and direct observation of the road was denied to the enemy. With the fall of Khalubar, Point 4812 and Point 5000, operations in this sector gained momentum.
Soon the preparations were complete and the stage was set to launch coordinated infantry-artillery assaults to re-capture the ridgelines under occupation by Pakistani intruders. The military fight back launched by the Indian army against heavy odds under some of the most trying and challenging terrain and climatic conditions is without parallel in the annals of military history. No army in the world had ever done so much; no army in the world could be expected to do more.
The initial progress in evicting the Pakistani NLJ-forces from their high mountain perches was slow and casualties were high. Attacks by India’s infantrymen involved an arduous climb over 70 to 80 degree steep tree-less slopes over thousands of feet of rugged mountainous terrain at heights above 15,000 feet under accurate artillery and machine gun fire. Each step forward in the rarefied atmosphere, braving icy blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, was a feat of endurance. Each soldier was weighed down by a 30 to 40 kg backpack. At most places specialised mountaineering skills were necessary and assault teams were led by specially trained and equipped teams.
As the weary attackers gained ground, they were subjected to withering small arms fire. Whatever ground was gained the first night had to be held till the next night in full view of many Pakistani posts before the attack could be resumed under the cover of darkness. Gradually, the resolve of the attacking infantrymen and the damage inflicted by the artillery began to take its toll both physically and psychologically on the NLI soldiers. Radio intercepts began to reveal a picture of mounting Pakistani casualties and crumbling morale. However, Pakistan’s GHQ continued to keep the Prime Minister and the nation in the dark and kept the farce of a mujahideen victory. When the final denouement came, the shock far the Pakistani public was that much greater.
On 10 June 1999, the Pakistan army returned the horribly mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers. These brave men had been taken prisoner by the Pakistanis, tortured in custody to the point of death and their bodies had been mutilated. The whole nation was shocked. There was no expression of regret or apology from either the Pakistani political and diplomatic establishments or from the military hierarchy. “Such conduct”, said Mr Jaswant Singh, then India’s Minister for external affairs, “is not simply a breach of established norms, or a violation of international agreements; it is a civilisation crime against all humanity; it is a reversion to barbaric medievalism”. No other single incident served to solidify Indian resolve as much as this gross violation of the Geneva conventions.
The first major ridgeline to be re-captured was Tololing in the Drass sub-sector on 29 May 1999. The Tololing ridgeline was the closest to NH 1A and its early clearance was an operational priority. Point 4590 on this ridge was captured on 13 June 1999. Point 5140, the highest feature on the Tololing ridge, was captured after almost 20 days of bitter fighting on 20 June 1999, after a simultaneous, multi-directional attack was launched by columns from three different infantry battalions. After this successful battle, the enemy’s domination over of NH 1A was considerably degraded.
Battle for Tiger Hill
The capture of the Tololing complex paved the way for assaults to be launched on the Tiger Hill ridgelines from several directions. In the space of a few days, Point 4700, Knoll and Three Pimples were captured. After a series of multidirectional assaults, preceded by accurate and sustained preparatory bombardment by the IAF and artillery, in some of the most bloody fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, the famous Tiger Hill and Point 4875, another dominating feature to the west of Tiger Hill were recaptured in the first week of July 1999, even as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Washington to negotiate an honourable end to the conflict
Pakistan’s resistance in the Dress sub-sector was all but over. The enemy attempted to launch some counter-attacks but these were resolutely beaten back. Mopping up operations continued for several days and, simultaneously, the Srinagar-Leh highway was once again thrown open for civilian traffic. While army convoys had continued to ply throughout Pakistan’s daily bombardment of Drass village and other points on NH 1A, it had not been considered prudent to allow civilian traffic to ply on the the highway till Tiger Hill was finally cleared and direct observation of the road was denied to the enemy. With the lifeline to Leh once again safe, the army could concentrate on other areas that had been relegated to a lower priority. Victory in the battle for Tiger Hill marked a turning point in Operation Vijay.
While the nation’s attention was riveted on the fighting in the Drass sub-sector, steady progress was being made in the even more challenging Batalik sub-sector despite heavy casualties. Point 5203 (5203 is the height of the mountaintop in metres; approximately 17,200 feet) was captured on 11 June 1999. Moves to interdict the lines of communication of the intruders were extremely successful in this sector. Khalubar was recaptured on 6 July 1999, after a daring assault led personally by the commanding officer of the Gorkha battalion. The enemy was also evicted from the Points 4812 and 5000 same night. Many enemy soldiers were killed and large quantities of arms and ammunition were captured. These gains were significant as the enemy had been well entrenched and the upper reaches of the high mountains were still snow-bound.
With the fall of Khalubar, Point 4812 and Point 5000, operations in this sector gained momentum. In hard-fought assaults, the Jubar Heights and Point 4268 were recaptured the next day. Simultaneously, operations to re-capture Points 5287 and 4957 had also been under way and these fell on 8 July 1999. Wireless intercepts revealed that the morale of the NLI troops had crumbled completely and that they were no longer capable of putting up a sustained fight. Within the next few days, further attacks were pressed home and Pakistani posts in the ‘ Batalik sub-sector fell quickly one after the other. Thus, Pakistan’s attempt ate posing a threat to Ladakh through the Batalik and Haneefuddin (Turtok) sub-sectors also ended ignominiously.
Lessons from Kargil
Nawaz Sharif accepted India’s terms and conditions in a meeting with President Bill Clinton on 4 July 1999 and the Pakistan army vacated the remaining areas by mid-July, though with bad grace. On 26 July 1999, the Indian DGMO declared that all intrusions had been finally cleared. The victory of Kargil was achieved at high cost. Almost 500 of India’s brave young warriors made the supreme sacrifice and many others were injured and maimed for life. The nation must never forget their selfless devotion to duty in the face of daunting odds. In the ultimate analysis the ill-planned intrusions prove to be Pakistan’s greatest strategic blunder. It is a defeat the Pakistan army will take a long time to forget.
What, then are the lessons of the Kargil conflict? Undoubtedly, the first and foremost lesson is that the Pakistan army can never again be trusted. Indeed, it can. be relied upon to constantly explore newer and still more devious options to sustain what is views as its low-cost, high-payoff proxy war to destabilise India and wrest Kashmir by any means. The next important lesson is that India must stop relying solely on the blood and guts of its infantrymen to ensure its territorial integrity. Advanced technology can and must be exploited to enhance reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities.
Artillery firepower had made a substantial contribution to the victory in Kargil. The Bofors 155 mm howitzer had headed the honours list and further investments need to be made in guns of this calibre and in their ammunition. Other long-range weapons such as Smerch multiple rocket launchers must also be acquired expeditiously to add to the firepower punch. And, finally, with a wily adversary always plotting and scheming against it, India must keep its powder dry.