The truth about Kargil

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

WHY do Indians and Pakistanis find it so difficult to face the truths about their past and their present misdoings? The battles in Siachen (1984) and Kargil (1999) each inspired a propaganda barrage, which was demeaning. We rightly criticise reports by "embedded" correspondents during the Iraq war. But Sankarshan Thakur and other contributors to Guns and Yellow Roses: Essays on the Kargil War recorded how the media failed the nation, official obstruction apart. Pamela Constable of The Washington Post angrily contrasted facilities she had enjoyed in other war zones. "Here, however, I was trying to cover a conflict I could neither see nor hear." She censured the press. "The country's leading newspapers and magazines embarked on an unabashedly pro-government campaign to outdo each other in sensational and sentimental coverage of the war." Others recorded how stories of mutilation of corpses by Indian troops were "killed".

Daniel Lak of the BBC commented on the television's disgraceful performance. "Colleagues have even told me of TV news editorial meetings where senior people ordered the injection of more fervent nationalist points of view into correspondent's frontline reports."

As this writer recalled, former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit repeatedly contradicted himself on P.V. Narasimha Rao's wrecking of an accord on Siachen in November 1992. Lt. Gen. V.R. Raghavan, who served as Director-General of Military Operations until 1992, could not bring himself to acknowledge the facts available in records and even misrepresented a press release ("The Siachen impasse", Frontline, September 22, 2002).

For long we did not have a comprehensive Pakistani version of Kargil. We have one now by none other than the Director-General of Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, Shireen M. Mazari, one of Pakistan's most distinguished commentators on strategic and diplomatic affairs. While Raghavan's book covers the Siachen conflict only to end with Kargil, Shireen Mazari's discussion of the Kargil conflict begins with Siachen.

Her effort is intended very largely to convince Pakistan's sceptical intelligentsia on three points. First, that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was very much "in the loop" on Kargil. He had been thoroughly briefed by the Chief of the Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf. Secondly, the Kargil operation was necessary and legitimate. Thirdly, it was not a military failure but was botched up by Sharif's panicky visit to President Bill Clinton on July 4, 1999. Shireen succeeds in the first and fails on the rest.

The last but one paragraph of the book reveals her aim. "Another damaging result of Kargil has been use of the Pakistan military as a scapegoat not only by the Indians and American analysts, but also by elements within Pakistan's political elite and civil society. There is an increasing attempt to undermine the institution of the military and place it at odds with civil society and myths about Kargil continue to be bolstered to that end."

The book has a useful chronology (March 1998-June 2003) of India-Pakistan relations, painstakingly compiled by Fahmida Ashraf, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute, and other informative appendices. The sketch maps illustrate the author's thesis graphically.

The author acknowledges: "This book would not have been possible without the help and support of many people - both professionally and emotively. To begin with, the idea would not have moved to fulfilment without the support given by President Musharraf to the idea of access to all manner of data and information. Given the tradition of secrecy within the civil and military bureaucracy of Pakistan, this approach was a tremendous breakthrough for a researcher... . The Monterey's Kargil Project people provided the initial stimulus through their bias embedded within their guise of an `objective' appraisal."

This is a reference to the Kargil Project of the Centre for Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, which held conferences in which former officials of India and Pakistan participated. They included General V.P. Malik, COAS during the Kargil conflict, and Mushahid Hussain, Minister for Information in the Nawaz Sharif Cabinet. The second conference was held in New Delhi in September 2002. This year the Government of India refused to permit Pugwash to hold a meeting in Goa in October on security issues.

The author adds: "The military hierarchy in Pakistan conceded to my request for data and access to interviews to try and understand what Kargil was really all about... . The present access to data provided to me has been the result of consistent requests and discussions at different levels of the military hierarchy. The methodology used is premised on interviews, military documents/reports as well as open literature on the subject. The focus of the study is limited primarily to understanding the military aspects of Kargil and its political dimension. The political aspects were partially known to me since I was part of the media team working with the Minister of Information at the time of Kargil... In any case, in my view, it is the military aspects that are of prime interest and concern for this study, especially since most of the misperceptions relate to these" (emphasis added, throughout). In any case, Sharif's Cabinet was not in the know.

Mazari blames the Centre for Contemporary Conflict's Kargil Project for misperceptions of Pakistan's policy. "Further misperceptions were created about Kargil when an unofficial, conjectural version of Pakistan's Kargil position was published by a retired Army official, who at the time had his own axe to grind with the military government in Pakistan." This is a reference to Brigadier Shakat Qadir's article "An Analysis of Kargil" in RUSI Journal (April 2002). He was a participant in the Monterey Conference.

LET us begin at the beginning. "Under the Karachi Agreement it was clear (sic) that Siachen Glacier formed part of Baltistan in the Northern Areas of Pakistan." She does not, however, cite the provision of the India-Pakistan Agreement, signed in Karachi on July 27, 1949, defining the ceasefire line in Kashmir, which made this "clear". It said simply that the line would follow from the last point "thence north to the glaciers". It was never demarcated. Not even after the Suchetgarh agreement of December 11, 1972, defining the present line of control. The next day Swaran Singh, Minister for External Affairs, revealed its details. The line was to run "eastward joining the glaciers". However, the agreement itself said it must run "thence north to the glaciers".

Mazari asserts: "Even Indian writers like P.L. Lakhanpal conceded this position when he included Owen Dixon's report to the U.N. in 1950 in his book Essential Documents and Notes on the Kashmir Dispute. Dixon had, in his report, pointed out that Siachen Glacier fell within Pakistan's Northern Areas. When Pakistan signed its border agreement with China in 1963, the alignment of the ceasefire line was seen as linking NJ 9842 with the Karakoram Pass - a distance of 91.3 kilometres."

All the three assertions are belied by the record. First, if the United Nations Mediator Sir Owen Dixon's report had, indeed, treated Siachen as part of the Northern Areas, the Government of Pakistan would have proclaimed that from 1984 onwards no sooner the Siachen conflict erupted. If he did not, Lakhanpal's inclusion of the report in his compilation is no concession at all. Lakhanpal did not reproduce the report in full; only its concluding portion (paras 95 to 108; Essential Documents; International Publications, New Delhi, 1958; pages 220-224).

There are, however, two excellent compilations, both published in Pakistan, which reproduce the report in full. One is The Kashmir Question edited by K. Sarwar Hasan for the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (1966) and the other by the Government of Pakistan, which publishes all the three reports of the U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan and mediators from Gen. A.G.L. McNaughton (1949) to Gunnar Jarring (1957) and Frank Graham (1958). There is not a line in the Dixon report to support the author's claim. Secondly, maps drawn unilaterally help little, as India realised in its boundary dispute with China. The Information Division of Pakistan Embassy in Pakistan published in 1963 a map of Kashmir, which correctly showed the ceasefire line as terminating at NJ 9842. It did not stretch 91.3 km away to the Karakoram Pass in the east.

Siachen was a no-man's land, which both sides had been reconnoitring. Lt. Gen. Jahan Dad Khan, Commander 10 Corps reproduces in his memoirs Pakistan Leadership Challenges (Oxford University Press, 1999; page 226) his assessment to the GHQ in 1983 that "next year India is most likely to pre-empt the occupation of the main passes of Baltoro Ridge". India reached there before Pakistan could. Confidence was in short supply between Indira Gandhi and Zia-ul-Haq. Else, an accord on preservation of the status quo ante could have been reached. As Col. (retd) Pavan Nair writes: "The genesis of the Kargil intrusion lies in the Siachen or rather Saltore occupation which upped the ante and was a clear violation of the Simla Agreement in letter and spirit. Mrs. Gandhi, the architect of the agreement, would have known this but she took the decision in the national interest based on incorrect military advice." He also holds: "Let China keep the Shaksgam Valley - it was never in our possession."

Kargil was a reckless retaliation. Three factors were at work - Siachen, India's reversal in 1998 of the decade-old agreed principle of mutual withdrawal from Siachen and Pakistan's desire to punish India for blocking its road in the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, across the Kishenganga river (Neelam to them) by constant bombardment. The then Foreign Minister Sartaz Aziz, a gentleman to his fingertips, emphasised the last factor in an interview to this writer in January 2002 in Islamabad (vide the writer's article "The truth about the Lahore summit", Frontline, March 1, 2002). "What was the origin of the Kargil conflict?" He replied "nobody" knows and proceeded to cite the Neelam Valley factor.

It was a grave miscalculation. Unlike Siachen, there was a defined LoC in Kargil. The year 1999 was election year in India. The successful summit in Lahore in February 1999 invested the adventure with the element of deceit. India's response took Pakistan by surprise, as did foreign reaction. "The international attention focussed on the Kargil conflict took Pakistan by surprise - especially since Pakistan saw it as yet another tactical operational exchange similar to others along the LoC, but which incrementally escalated as a result of India raising the military, political and diplomatic ante. The former happened when India introduced Bofors guns and the Indian Air Force, and the diplomatic ante was upped by India claiming that it had been betrayed in the wake of Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February 1999. The United States and its European allies also portrayed Kargil as a dangerous `adventure' on the part of Pakistan, given the nuclearisation of the region."

Shireen Mazari does a service by exposing two lies - one by Benazir Bhutto and the other by Nawaz Sharif - and an American boast. Benazir claimed, characteristically, that she had rejected such a plan by the Army when she was Prime Minister. General Jehangir Karamat, the COAS, refuted her. "In a telephonic on-the-record interview in February 2003, he emphatically declared that he had never been presented with a `Kargil Plan'. According to him, what had happened was that in 1997, with the interdiction of the Neelam Valley Road by India, the Pakistan Army `had looked at all the possibilities of putting pressure on India and it was felt that the best place to respond to the Neelam Valley Road interdiction was along the Dras-Kargil Road with direct and indirect fire, which we did. For the direct fire we had to move weapon systems, and so on, and make the required adjustments, which we made'." It is a sound rule never to accept even the opposite of what Benazir says to be true.

Nawaz Sharif's denial of his role in the affair, if true, reveals his own unfitness to be Prime Minister. "He received a number of briefings relating to developments along the LoC in 1999, beginning with a briefing in Skardu on January 29, and one in Kel on February 5, which specifically related to the interdiction taking place in that sector from the Indian side of the LoC. The ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] gave him a briefing on March 12, 1999, while the Military Operations (MO) Directorate at GHQ gave him briefings on May 17, 1999, June 2, 1999, and June 22, 1999. On July 2, 1999, there was a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) where a briefing was given on Kargil by the Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. A further meeting was scheduled for July 5, 1999. So it is clear that, as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif was very much in the decision-making loop regarding Kargil. However, on the afternoon of July 3, 1999, Sharif and Clinton spoke on the phone and only two other people were present at the time - Cabinet member Chaudhry Nisar and Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif (the Prime Minister's brother). It is after this exchange between Clinton and Sharif that Sharif made his dash to Washington."

This brings us to an essay on "American diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House" by Bruce Riedel, Clinton's Special Assistant for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in the National Security Council. This shrill account of the Clinton-Sharif encounter has Riedel as an important participant but reveals him as one ignorant of South Asian realities.

He wrote of "disturbing evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment" on July 3. The next day, "there was more disturbing information about Pakistan preparing its nuclear arsenal for possible use. I recommended that he (Clinton) use this only when Sharif was without his aides." Riedel would have us believe that Clinton asked Sharif whether he ordered "the Pakistani nuclear missile force to prepare for action."

If no such orders had been given, Riedel's account of the encounter would stand exposed as a figment of his imagination. Exposed as false it has been by an impeccable source, Gen. Malik. "The only canard debunked at the time of the Monterey Conference in May 2002, was the assertion central to Riedel's thesis. First, Mushahid Hussain, who had been Pakistan's Minister for Information at the time of Kargil, denied Pakistan ever having readied its nuclear-tipped missiles for action at the time of Kargil. This was followed by the statement of General V.P. Malik, who was the Chief of the Indian Army at the time of Kargil, that there was no truth in the Riedel assertion of Pakistan readying for a nuclear fight. As he declared, if there had been any such development, the U.S. would have informed India and that India's own intelligence would have also picked it up." Significantly, Riedel's essay was published when India-Pakistan tensions were at an all-time high.

Riedel was among those Dennis Kux interviewed for his book The United States and Pakistan 1947-2000. His account of the Clinton-Sharif talks does not mention Riedel's "nuclear arsenal" (page 353).

The core of Mazari's thesis is that since the Simla Pact India had been violating the LoC and planning something bigger still. Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February 1999 was "a camouflage to military plans in the making". Even Pakistani officials never made this charge. The Kashmiri mujahideens' role is woven in.

There was in Islamabad such a steady flow of official denials of the Army's role that a noted Pakistani defence specialist could not help asking why the Director-General of the Inter-Services Press Department, the Foreign Office spokesman and the Minister for Information briefed the press since the Army was not involved in the affair but only the Kashmiri "mujahideens".

Now the Army's role, long denied, emerges to the fore. "As the intelligence assessments about the suspicious movements of the Indian military in the late 1998-early 1999 period, started looking more credible, the high command of the Pakistan Army asked FCNA (Force Command Northern Areas) to evolve a plan to deny the Indians any adventurism/incursions along the LoC... Having been alerted to intensified Indian moves in the Shaqma Sector, HQ 10 Corps, on instructions from the Military Operations (MO) Directorate, directed FCNA to carry out a realistic assessment of the situation and to take defence measures in order to forestall Indian designs and avoid being caught off-guard. FCNA planned a defensive action with integral troops... . The operation was undertaken at the end of March 1999 after confirmation of Indian designs." Why did Sharif not complain to Vajpayee about Indian troop movements?

There was no grand design, Mazari repeatedly asserts. "The use of Northern Light Infantry clearly showed that the Kargil operation was seen by the Pakistani military planners simply as a tactical operation to pre-empt further Indian adventurism in the Dras-Kargil sector. Hence the occupation by the NLI of the watershed along the LoC. However, given the nature of the terrain, the possibility of some of the NLI troops crossing the LoC, albeit at shallow depths (500-1000 metres) cannot be ruled out." The delicacy is stunning.

Pakistan evidently did not reckon with India's diplomatic and military responses as it ought to have, realistically. No Indian government could possibly have acquiesced in Pakistan's adventure. She claims that India's "raising of the military ante in Kargil created a major imbalance for India in terms of its overall position along the international border with Pakistan, which prevented India from opening an all-out war front. India also inducted air and aviation into the combat but could not get a decisive military result. At the same time, Pakistan's intent of keeping the Kargil operation limited was reflected in the fact that Pakistan did not respond to the use of the IAF by calling in the PAF... one of the problems that worked to Pakistan's disadvantage was that it got sucked incrementally into a larger military operation by India with the latter's induction of reinforcements, the Bofors guns and use of the IAF. Pakistan had not anticipated this since its objective was simply to pre-empt suspected Indian military actions along the LoC. In any case, from the Pakistani perspective, no grand strategic Kargil plan was envisaged... ."

She realises that "once India had amassed its forces along the LoC and because of political miscalculations, or lack of calculations by Pakistan, the whole Kargil episode was turned into a politico-diplomatic victory for India."

On one point Mazari deserves credit. She fairly recalls that on June 26, 1999, Pervez Musharraf publicly "referred to the possibility of a Nawaz-Clinton meeting on Kashmir". This was three days after he had met Gen. Zinni, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. CENTCOM. "According to military sources, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had, before leaving for Washington, already directly communicated to the military leadership to begin withdrawal from some of the forward posts, showing that he had already had some communication with the Clinton administration - the content of which was not revealed to any Cabinet member or military leader." Only once, on June 3, was Kargil discussed at a Cabinet meeting, Mushahid Hussain disclosed.

Mazari claims that there was a military stalemate and India was desperately looking for "a face-saving third party intervention against Pakistan". The author's conclusion is simple. Nawaz Sharif panicked though he had the upper hand. "The Cabinet was not informed of the dash to Washington - let alone be consulted. This has been verified from many sources, including Information Minister Mushahid Hussain... in discussions with some of the other members of the Cabinet at the time, it was clear that, barring one or two members of the Prime Minister's kitchen cabinet, no one was informed and certainly no one was consulted...

"In this connection, in a meeting with COAS, General Musharraf, in September 1999, I had asked him whether he had known what was going to happen in Washington and he stated that all he was told was to come to the airport as the Prime Minister was going to Washington, and so all he could say to him was to get the best deal possible. As one who had openly critiqued the Washington deal, I asked General Musharraf why he went along with it so wholeheartedly - as he seemed to do when he accepted an invitation to accompany Sharif for Umra soon after his return - as it did Pakistan's image much damage militarily and politically, with no gains at all? General Musharraf simply stated that he did not want people to start rumours of civil-military differences, given how tense and critical the situation remained."

According to the author, Sharif snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. "Had the Kargil tactical operation been allowed to sustain itself for a few more weeks (till the end of August 1999) most military analysts I spoke to felt it would have led to a Pakistan-India dialogue - if Sharif had not dashed to Washington and given in to U.S. pressure. After that, the NLI suffered heavy losses in the withdrawal and India got a green light to commit all manner of aggression against Pakistan... ."

The Army is exonerated completely. The blame is put on Sharif exclusively. "By the end of May 1999, there was a total disconnect between the political government and the strategic planners, as a result of which no offensive formations were moved to the front which sent a clear signal to the Indians that Pakistan was in no mood to fight a war."

Her only consolation is that Kargil proved that "Pakistan could sustain a limited military encounter in conventional terms in the face of India raising the conventional ante, and still prevent India from opening an all-out war front along the international border". Were India to take steps to redress this, Pakistan would surely act to perpetuate its advantage. However, a suicidal arms race is on, any way.

Mazari has not a word about the famous Musharraf-Aziz tapes of May 26. The text of the transcript of their phone conversation is reproduced as one of the useful appendices to the collection of able essays edited by Maj. Gen. Ashok Krishna and P.R. Chari. They provide a good corrective to the Mazari thesis.

The chapter containing their conclusions rejects conventional wisdom: "Realism would also suggest that India be pragmatic and not make a fetish of bilateralism in conducting its foreign relations with Pakistan in the light of its Kargil experience. The results are important, not the modality. Not that India has been consistent about shunning mediation. It accepted the World Bank's intervention to arbitrate the Indus Waters Treaty (1960), and Soviet mediation to conclude the Tashkent Agreement (1966). India itself helped in mediating the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963, so its obsession with bilateralism being the cornerstone of its foreign relations with Pakistan is excessive."

They squarely pose the question whether Pokhran II deterred Pakistan from the Kargil venture and answer it in the negative. If anything, "India found itself deterred in crossing the LoC to attack Pakistan's operational bases in Skardu."

Maj. Gen. Ashok Kalyan Verma's thesis is a mirror image of Mazari's - the politicians lost at the conference table what the Army won on the battlefield. It is simplistic to the core but is widely shared by many of our journalists and former diplomats and soldiers.

Kargil was not Pakistan's fourth war on Kashmir as some of our writers claim. A fair assessment of the episode is made in Colonel Brian Cloughley's excellent book A History of the Pakistan Army (Oxford University Press, Karachi; pages 435, Rs.500). He was Deputy Chief of the U.N. Military Observers Group in Kashmir. "The illegal incursion into Indian-administered Kashmir in early 1999, undetected by Indian forces until 6 May, was an aberration on the part of Pakistan. The aim of the operation has not been enunciated, and it is doubtful if it will be ever revealed - perhaps because the whole affair just seemed a good idea at the time, and got out of hand.

"Analysis of the logistics of the incursion has drawn western observers to the conclusion that planning and preliminary operations began during winter 1998/99, with movement of mujahideen from camps in Afghanistan for further training by the Northern Light Infantry around Skardu, and considerable movement by the NLI and other Pakistan Army troops in the areas of Astore, Skardu, the Deosai Plains, and forward to the Line of Control (LoC).

"I have walked and climbed in the precise areas in which movement across the LoC took place, in the course of a two-week visit to 3 NLI, based at Gultari in the Shingo Valley... Although the line is not marked on the ground it is described fully in a document dated 11 December 1972 and soldiers would find little difficulty in establishing where it runs vis-a-vis map and ground. It is incorrect to claim that the line is indistinct. There can be no plausible claim made that the intrusion was in some manner justified because there is dubiety or confusion as to the line's location."

While Shireen Mazari's book is an extremely useful exposition of the Pakistani viewpoint, one can only regret that she allowed patriotic fervour to override the claims of objectivity.

The Kargil Conflict 1999: Separating Fact from Fiction by Shireen M. Mazari, The Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad; pages 162, Rs.350.

Kargil: The Tables Turned edited by Maj. Gen (retd.) Ashok Krishna, AVSM and P.R. Chari, Manohar; pages 341, Rs.700.

Kargil: Blood on the Snow by Maj. Gen. (retd.) Ashok Kalyan Verma, AVSM, Manohar; pages 227, Rs.475.

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