WAR IN KARGIL

Print edition : June 05, 1999

The infiltration by well-armed Pakistani irregulars and troops across the Line of Control and their entrenchment in the Kargil sector have created a war-like situation in Kashmir.

ON May 5, as summer set in on the Kargil heights, the 121 Brigade sent out its first reconnaissance patrol into the Kaksar area. The patrol's job was essentially to see whether the snow had retreated enough to allow troops to reoccupy their high-altitude summer positions along the Line of Control. Lieutenant V. Kalia and five soldiers went out into the mountains, never to return. Radio Skardu in Pakistan reported that Kalia was captured, but there has been no word of him since. Neither have the bodies o f the other members of the patrol been sighted. Days later, a second patrol made up of a Lieutenant and eight soldiers vanished in the Batalik area. It later transpired that the officer and one soldier died bravely covering the retreat of the other six s oldiers.

It was to take the best part of a fortnight for the Indian Army to realise just how serious the situation was. Fresh sightings of tents and makeshift rock and ice bunkers kept coming in, until it became clear that Pakistani irregulars and troops were occ upying upwards of 70 positions on heights along the National Highway. Two helicopters engaged in low-altitude surveillance were hit by ground fire on May 14, while a third narrowly escaped damage. Reports emerged of Pakistan having moved units of a briga de up the Mian Langpa gully to supply positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Chorbat-La and Turtok. Similar supply routes were active into the Muskoh Valley, which leads into the Kashmir Valley.

An array of Indian artillery guns in the Kargil sector prepares to pound positions held by Pakistani infiltrators.

Defence Minister George Fernandes, for one, was unperturbed by these developments. In an early statement, he assured Indian citizens that the Pakistani occupation would be vacated within 48 hours, an assertion that can only be described as monumentally o btuse. 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant General Kishan Pal, a highly regarded soldier, was less blase. Nonetheless, he described the occupied areas as "unheld", arguing that the heights occupied by the Pakistani irregulars and troops were of little strategi c importance. "If I don't take notice of them," he told Frontline, "it will make no difference. If they come off the heights in the summer, they will be slaughtered. And if they don't leave them in the winter, they will freeze to death."

This institutional mentality generated disorganised scrambles to attack the Pakistan-held positions, leading to heavy casualties. Irregulars and troops on the heights picked off Indian soldiers as they pushed their way up the mountains to cut off Pakista ni resupply routes, hoping to starve the positions of ammunition and food. Then, Pakistani irregulars received artillery support from across the border. By the third week of May, massive artillery duels had broken out along the length of the Line of Cont rol in the Kargil area. Troop morale fell, as soldiers felt they were being pushed up the mountains without the existence of a broader paradigm of how the Indian Army would inflict corresponding damage on Pakistan.

In Hunzi Ghund in Pakistani territory, Pakistani soldiers gather pieces of an Indian MiG-27 jet fighter.

It was only on May 25 that the high-powered Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) met for the first time, following desperate appeals by a team of Jammu and Kashmir officials led by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. The visit followed hard intelligence that a group of at least 70 insurgents had used the Muskoh Valley route to cross into Sonamarg, and from there to Doda. By then it was also clear that conventional infantry tactics had proved inadequate to evacuate the threat from Pakistan. While troops had, displaying exceptional valour, succeeded in pushing their way up mountain ridges, resupply lines remained open in several areas. Three brigades of additional troops had been moved in by then, and plans to send in a reserve division were in place, but it was clear that unacclimatised troops moving up the mountainside would suffer unacceptable losses. The decision to use air power seems to have been made at this first meeting of the CCS.

THE war in Kargil, despite the use of combat aircraft, seems set to be a long one. Pakistani irregulars and troops have been vacated from lower heights in several areas, but resupply lines elsewhere remain open. And although the Indian Army has occupied several ridge-lines in the Drass, Kaksar and Batalik areas, the Muskoh Valley, Turtok and Chorbat-La remain problematic. Officials estimate that some 300 irregulars and troops have been killed, but there has been no physical verification of these claims so far. The Indian Army initially believed that some 350 men held positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control, but those figures have been revised upwards on more than one occasion. And, as the recovery of the identification papers of Abdul Ayub of the Fourth Northern Light Infantry brigade illustrates, the Pakistan Army continues to be directly committed in Kargil.

What shape events will take from here is unclear. There is a need for introspection on why Kargil snowballed into a grave embarrassment for India in the first place. "The real problem will come once we get the Pakistani forces out," said one Army officer . "We're now going to have to hold these heights through the winter. It will be like a second Siachen."

An Indian Army helicopter on a reconnaissance mission in the Drass sector.

Contrary to the Defence Ministry's claims, there is evidence of a serious intelligence failure leading to the Kargil conflict. And in a larger sense, Kargil appears to be just one event set off by the forces unleashed after last year's nuclear tests at P okhran, with more to come in the not-too-distant future.

AZHAR SHAFI MIR, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative, was arrested by Border Security Force (BSF) troopers in the Poonch area on December 20, 1998. What he told his BSF interrogators was enough to arouse an unusual interest in both the Intelligence Bureau (I. B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Mir said that he had tired of a long career as a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen foot soldier and had set up shop as an auto-rickshaw driver in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. His vast experience i n Jammu and Kashmir, however, led Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to push him back into the State. In mid-1998, he was picked up on fabricated charges of rash and negligent driving. Mir was now offered a simple choice: to spend time i n jail or to head back into India.

By August 1998, Mir was completing his training in a camp on the Munshera-Gilgit road. The camp, he said, housed 110 Hizb-ul-Mujahideen recruits, of whom some 30 were Pakistani and Afghan nationals. On September 1, 1998, five sections from this camp were launched across the Line of Control at Athmuqam. Each section was armed, among other things, with a heavy machine-gun, four grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper rifles fitted with night-vision devices. Mir, afraid of the waiting guns of Indian forces, led his section back into Pakistan. He was forced back again in October across the Lolab Valley, this time with a stern warning that cowardice would mean death.

An Indian Army post in Drass, which was destroyed by a Pakistani mortar.

Mir's group was in itself unexceptional, but its objectives were startling. It was tasked, in the words of his interrogation report, "to cause extensive damage to the Bandipore-Gurez road, and to ensure the isolation of the Army Division in Gurez so that a full-fledged front could be opened against them. Similarly, the group would cause extensive damage to the Kangan-Leh road to prevent vital supplies from reaching forces in the area." This left little to doubt. It served terrorists in the Gurez area li ttle to cut off the Indian Army's 28 Division, since those soldiers would continue operating against them locally. The objective, clearly stated, was to prevent reinforcements from being moved from the Gurez area and elsewhere into somewhere on the Kanga n-Leh road.

Somewhere on the Kangan-Leh road could only have meant the Drass and Kargil areas. Maps of these areas had been found on the body of Ali Mohammad Dar, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander killed in Srinagar by the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group on August 9, 1998. And there were other reasons to arrive at this conclusion. Intelligence operatives based in Leh had, in October, passed on reports that 350-odd irregulars were being trained in two camps in the general area of Olthingthang, Pakis tan's forward headquarters in the Kargil sector. The Leh reports specifically stated that the groups were to be infiltrated into the Kargil area in April this year. Shortly afterwards, further reports emerged from Indian intelligence in Leh warning that Remotely Piloted Vehicles, airborne surveillance platforms, were being used by Pakistan to monitor the Leh-Kargil area.

This body of information was received by the Ministry of Defence in the third week of October 1998. The Ministry's bureaucrats were evidently unmoved. Through the winter the RAW's Aviation Research Centre (ARC) carried out no regular surveillance flights along the Kargil sector, for reasons it best understands. Nor did the Indian Air Force send up aircraft for high-altitude reconnaissance on the snow-bound mountains. The Army, in turn, did not begin Wide Area Surveillance Operations, using its Cheetah h elicopters, until it became clear that Pakistani troops and irregulars had indeed occupied heights along some 250 km of the Srinagar-Leh National Highway. In the light of the intelligence information available, the failure even to monitor the Kargil sect or with special intensity seems inexcusable.

At the Bhisiana Air Force base in Bhatinda, military honours for Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, whose body was handed over to Indian officials on May 28.

TROOPS elsewhere in Jammu and Kashmir did, indeed, sense trouble. Highly placed sources told Frontline that the possibility of a limited conventional engagement with Pakistani forces was discussed during the war game exercises that the Army's 15 C orps carried out in February. Indeed, troops of the 19 Division moved up the heights in Uri by March, an unusually early period for such mobilisation. It is unclear whether the 121 Brigade in Kargil was instructed to execute such manoeuvres and it failed to do so, or the need for such mobilisation was simply not felt. The scapegoating of the 3 Division's Corps Commander, V.S. Budhwar, and of 121 Brigade Commander Surinder Singh will serve no purpose. Contrary to reports in The Asian Age, both rem ain at their posts, but their operational authority has been curtailed. Nonetheless, serious questions remain to be answered.

While no one expects India's security establishment to act as an oracle, the fact is that it should have expected trouble. Northern Command chief Lieutenant General H.M. Khanna made the extraordinary admission on May 29 that Pakistan's aggression in Karg il was "unexpected". This, he said, was because Pakistan had been "talking peace while preparing for war". A Cover Story in Frontline (March 26, 1999) on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of the summit meeting in Lahore in February be tween Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee had argued that expectations of an emerging peace were flawed. The Lahore summit, Frontline recorded, had "set in play forces whose course is yet unknown. But it seems increasingly improb able that this play will have a happy ending."

Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa of the IAF, in custody in Pakistan after the MiG-27 he was piloting was brought down by a Pakistani missile.

The article further noted that "most security officials in Jammu and Kashmir are deeply concerned about the summer to come. Intelligence officials point to nightmare scenarios, including the possibility of large-scale massacres of Hindus in Jammu leading to communal retaliation, and an escalation of exchanges across the Line of Control escalating to a point where international intervention becomes inevitable." Officials whom Frontline spoke to this spring were responding to an analysis of intelli gence information, the detailed content of which has now broadly become available. Their bosses in New Delhi were presumably too busy to pay attention to field reports.

THE prospect of a renewed Pakistani attempt to force events in Jammu and Kashmir had sharpened ever since the ill-conceived nuclear tests at Pokhran last year. The tests ensured that any generalised escalation along the Line of Control would bring about international intervention, Pakistan's long-held objective. India's strategic options in Jammu and Kashmir and its ability to make an adequate conventional response to Pakistan's offensive were thus sharply limited. Pakistan could now act secure in the k nowledge that any military engagement along the Line of Control would work to its benefit. Any military reverses it would suffer would be minimal, since India would not be able to engage the Pakistan Army outside Jammu and Kashmir.

On May 18, 1998, shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government's first major policy meeting on Jammu and Kashmir, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani made explicit a linkage between the Pokhran tests and India's strategic position. Perhaps no India n politician has made quite such a profound error of judgment on Jammu and Kashmir. Advani argued that India's "decisive step to become a nuclear weapon state has brought about a qualitative new state in India-Pakistan relations, particularly in find ing a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem. Islamabad has to realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world."

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. Shortly after Pokhran-II, he made a statement explicitly linking India's nuclear status and the Kashmir issue.

It did. The expensive and bloody campaign in Kargil is the result of Pakistan's cogent comprehension of just what the Pokhran tests meant for the future of Jammu and Kashmir. Indian soldiers are now paying with their lives for the crimes of a disorganise d and effete security establishment. And as this summer goes on, more lives could be lost. Security planners are concerned about the prospect of a second Pakistani incursion in the Uri-Gurez region, where troop strengths have been weakened following rede ployment in Kargil. Artillery fire has been exchanged in these areas; there have also been exchanges of small arms fire along the international border to the south. There is also the prospect of a serious escalation in violence within the State if larger numbers of Afghan and Pakistani terrorists are pushed in. Finally, with the Lok Sabha elections coming up, if more combat aircraft are lost the Union Government will be under tremendous pressure to retaliate against Pakistan.

The self-proclaimed defender of national unity, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has led India to its most serious crisis since the war of 1948. The end of the fighting in Kargil most certainly will not mean the beginning of peace.

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