Strategic follies

Print edition : June 19, 1999

EVEN as Indian soldiers make their way up the Kargil heights, there is growing evidence that certain top military and strategic officials were responsible for some of the early reverses. Officials appear to have failed to respond to changed circumstances after the Pokhran tests of May 1998 and persisted with outdated military deployment procedures.

Highly placed sources said that high-altitude positions in the Drass sub-sector, where some of the worst fighting in the region has occurred, were held through the winter until 1982. The Border Security Force (BSF) was in charge of the Drass sub-sector u ntil that year. Even positions such as Marpo La at 5,353 metres and Sando at 4,268 m were occupied by BSF jawans, although temperatures in the Drass area dropped below -65 Celsius.

A new political and strategic environment appears to have led the Army, which replaced the BSF here in 1982, to conclude that no purpose would be served by holding on to high-altitude pickets in winter. Despite growing border tensions and regular artille ry exchanges in the Kargil area since 1997, an imaginative inertia ensured that there was no review of the 15-year policy. Had troops been positioned on Marpo La and Sando through the winter, the latest intrusions could have been detected early. Also, In dian troops would have then held commanding positions, making it difficult for Pakistan to supply its positions on Tololing, the Tiger Hills and the Mushkoh Valley.

Interestingly, the BSF appears to have continued with its pre-1982 strategy in areas it was assigned in the Kargil area. BSF personnel remained on the Bravo One post on Chorbat La through the bitter winter. Positions over 4,500 m at Alpha Tekri and Punja b Tekri, both in the Kargil sector, were also maintained. Had BSF jawans not been at Chorbat La, Pakistan's effort to cut off Turtok by moving a brigade down the Mian Langpa gully may well have met with success. BSF jawans at Chorbat La have faced sustai ned fire but have repulsed attacks with the aid of hardened high-altitude troopers from the Ladakh Scouts.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, Army regiments to which the BSF's companies are attached chose not to stay at their positions in the winter. The 3 Punjab Regiment, to which the BSF company at Chorbat La is attached, does not for one appear to h ave held any other post in the area. While the soldiers and officers of the regiment can in no way be held responsible for this, their top brass clearly have some answering to do. Military officials disregarded, among other things, warnings issued by the Intelligence Bureau's Leh office in the third week of October last year of an incursion in April by at least 350 irregulars from Pakistan's Kargil area forward headquarters in Olthingthang.

One key reason for the military misjudgment appears to have been the excessive dependence of some top Army officials for their military assessments on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government's perceptions of the Lahore Process. Indeed, there are several recent instances of senior officials finding politics more interesting than army work. In March this year, military officials in New Delhi had issued a document they described as a "concept paper", calling for military representation at all l evels of civilian government in Jammu and Kashmir from the district level to the tehsil level. One reason cited for this was that it would infuse discipline in the administration. Mercifully, the proposal was shot down after a protracted rearguard action by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

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