The bungle in Kargil

Print edition : June 19, 1999

The crisis in Kargil has its origins in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's failure to comprehend the strategic consequences of Pokhran-II and its political blindness and failureto act on military intelligence warnings.

THE spring of 1998 saw the reinvention of George Fernandes as Field Marshal. Fernandes' new image as a hands-on Defence Minister, suitably dressed in combat fatigues and located on the Siachen heights, was carefully manufactured for television. He was a fitting representative of the defence policies of the new, supposedly nationalist regime that had taken power in New Delhi. The saffron-model Defence Minister visited the forward lines to shore up morale, despatched recalcitrant bureaucrats to the darkes t, dingiest basements of the Ministry of Defence, and finally fixed his bayonet to charge the evil dragon threatening India's security - China.

It has taken just over a year for Field Marshal Fernandes and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition he represents to lead India to its most embarrassing military debacle since the war of 1962. Weeks after Fernandes proclaimed that Pakistani intruders would be evicted from Kargil "within two days", Indian soldiers continue to pay with their lives for the failures of their political and military leadership.

Defence Minister George Fernandes pays homage to Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and five jawans, whose mutilated bodies were handed over by Pakistani authorities, in New Delhi on June 11. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's political blindness to Pa kistan's post-Pokhran-II objectives in Kashmir has had serious military consequences for India.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Two principal sets of failures shaped the crisis at Kargil. The principal one of these was the political failure to comprehend the consequences of the nuclear tests at Pokhran last May. Pokhran's many implications for the future of Pakistan's strategy on Jammu and Kashmir were left unanalysed, a consequence of the Hindu Right's bizarre ideological fictions on a nuclear India. The second failure, military negligence, grew directly from the Union Government's unwillingness to accept that the real world ex isted. Hard information was passed over because it failed to form part of the BJP's post-Pokhran vision of India's transfigured relationship with Pakistan.

Union Home Minister Lal Krishan Advani was the first BJP figure to make explicit the linkages between the Pokhran tests and the future of Jammu and Kashmir. On May 18, 1998, days after the Pokhran-II series of tests, emerging from the Government's first major policy meeting 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 finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem . Islamabad has to realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world" as a consequence of the Pokhran tests. Although "we adhere to the no-first-strike principle", Advani continued, "India is resolved to deal firmly with Pakis tan's hostile activities."

Artillery guns fire at positions occupied by Pakistani irregulars and troops in the Kargil sector on June 6.-SAURABH DAS / AP

Several secondary BJP leaders followed in their leader's footsteps, with former Union Minister Madan Lal Khurana inviting Pakistan to join battle "at a place and time of its choosing". Such machismo evaporated rapidly after Pakistan's own nuclear tests a t Chagai, but the ideas which generated it continued to shape policy. Pakistan military strategists clearly understood Pokhran offered them an opportunity to force a conventional military conflagration in Jammu and Kashmir and ensure international interv ention on the issue. India's security establishment, by contrast, largely refused even to engage with this possibility. In some senses, it could not. To acknowledge that the Pokhran tests had been a strategic misjudgment would have been to admit the absu rdities of the BJP's core politics.

Under pressure from the United States, both the Pakistani and Indian governments began what has come to be known as the Lahore Process in February 1999. At the outset, it was clear that the Indian Government was considerably more desperate than the Pakis tani Government for results from the dialogue. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's famous 'half hug' greeting at the Wagah border stood in sharp contrast with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee's soap opera mawkishness. The absence of the Pak istan Army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf at Wagah, too, made clear that the military establishment he represented was less than enthusiastic about the new dialogue. But the BJP-led coalition, desperate to mitigate pressure from the U.S. and to claim credi t for at least a diplomatic achievement at a time of profound domestic political discontent, closed its eyes to the warning signs.

On a visit to the forward lines on June 13, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with Fernandes, Chief of the Army Staff Gen. V.P. Malik, Governor G.C. Saxena and soldiers at an Indian Army position in Kargil.-SAURABH DAS / AP

THIS political blindness to Pakistan's emerging objectives had several military consequences. In the autumn of 1998, shelling by Pakistani troops along the Line of Control escalated to levels unknown since the war of 1971. Kargil town was devastated, and 17 civilians lost their lives. In a desperate effort to ensure that the conflict did not escalate, the Indian Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V.P. Malik, was instructed to ensure that his troops did not respond to Pakistani fire with heavy calibre guns, i ncluding 155-mm Bofors howitzers. Pakistan Army analysts drew the obvious inference. If India was unwilling and unable after Pokhran to risk an escalation along the Line of Control (L0C) despite deliberate provocation, larger enterprises could now be con sidered by Pakistan's military establishment.

Events from August 1998 underlined the absence of a strategic paradigm within which Pakistan's post-Pokhran objectives could be read. Highly placed sources told Frontline that in the second half of 1998, shortly after credible reports emerged that Pakistan-backed terrorists had acquired shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the then Air Force chief, S.K. Sareen, offered the use of Jaguar aircraft with photo-reconnaissance kits for surveillance. Perhaps driven by a misplaced sense that Jamm u and Kashmir was the Army's exclusive concern, Malik declined the offer. Both Vajpayee and Fernandes, the sources said, believed that intelligence inputs on the SAMs were fictitious. While the SAM story may perhaps have indeed been dubious, events after Pokhran should themselves have made the case for heightened surveillance.

Had the use of Jaguars been institutionalised last year, the first movements of Pakistani irregulars and troops across the LoC would almost certainly have been picked up early. And for reasons which have still to be explained, no preparations appear to h ave been made in the Kargil area even for the kind of shelling seen in 1998. Had the Zoji-La Pass not opened early this year, India would have faced serious logistics and troop problems in Kargil. While Malik bears some responsibility for these failures, he was facing his own problems. All through last year, sources say, the Army chief's repeated calls for upgrading India's signals intelligence capabilities and for the introduction of new direction-finding and interception facilities ran into a wall of disinterest in the Defence Ministry. The new equipment that Malik asked for arrived late, and in very small quantities.

An Indian Army convoy carrying reinforcements for troops on the forward lines negotiates the Zoji La Pass. There is growing evidence that certain top military and strategic officials were responsible for some of the early reverses suffered by the forc es on the Kargil front.-KAMAL NARANG

Through this period, the Research and Analysis Wing's (RAW) Aviation Research Centre (ARC), too, proved hostile to requests for border-area surveillance, saying that it needed political clearance for such use of its 40-aircraft fleet. The aircraft are de signed to fly at extremely high altitudes in order to avoid detection. In general, clearance for their trans-border use never came. Within Jammu and Kashmir, the ARC had proved more cooperative. In October and November 1998, just as training for the Karg il offensive was under way at Olthingthang, ARC aircraft were stationed at Jammu to verify reports that large numbers of terrorists had gathered on the mountain heights of Doda. The photographs obtained, sources told Frontline, were "extremely use ful". But no flights were carried out along the LoC, presumably because the ARC was not ordered to do so.

WHAT this set of events makes clear is that in the wake of Pokhran, there was no cogent understanding of the new strategic opportunities for Pakistan. After the initiation of the Lahore Process, the political establishment in New Delhi and an often-plian t military leadership concurred that Pakistan's sustained aggression in Jammu and Kashmir would now be slowly subverted. Pressure from the U.S. and business interests were among the many reasons offered for why Pakistan would choose to ignore the best o pportunity it had in two decades for an international initiative on the future of Jammu and Kashmir. For the BJP, Lahore was set to form a major election issue, one that would both prove its diplomatic credibility and secular credentials. Whenever facts subverted its claims on Lahore, these facts were simply despatched to the Union Government's wastepaper baskets.

Predictably, Defence Ministry officials in New Delhi responded with disdain when reports first came of a major offensive being planned by Pakistan in the Kargil area. As Frontline reported in its June 18 issue, the Leh station of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) sent out two specific warnings in the third week of October 1998. The young head of the Bureau's Leh office said in his first report that a group of over 350 irregulars were being trained at two camps adjoining Pakistan's forward headquarte rs at Olthingthang. The group, his report made clear, planned to cross the border in April 1999. The Leh office's second report pointed to the use of remotely piloted photo-reconnaissance vehicles being used by pilots along the Srinagar-Leh National High way.

A "half hug" from Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for Vajpayee at the Wagah border on February 20. After the initiation of the Lahore Process, the Indian political establishment and military leadership were lulled into believing that Pakistan's a ggression in Jammu and Kashmir could be neutralised with quiet diplomacy.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

More corroborative evidence was to follow. Maps of the Srinagar-Kargil road were found on the body of Ali Mohammad Dar, the Hizbul Mujahideen's supreme commander for the Kashmir Valley, after he was shot dead by the State police's Special Operations Grou p on August 9 last year. The arrest of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Azhar Shafi Mir by the Border Security Force on December 20 threw up more intriguing evidence. Mir said he had been tasked to sabotage the Kangan-Leh route, an act that would have prevent ed Indian troop reinforcements and artillery from reaching Kargil after the April attack. No piece of this evidence was conclusive, but any dispassionate observer would have sought to take precautions on its basis. None were taken, as the Union Governmen t continued to be taken for a ride by Lahore.

FERNANDES' post-Kargil pronouncements illustrate that the BJP's strategic establishment was taken by surprise when combat broke out in early May. On May 14, eight days after Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia's patrol had disappeared and at a time when Indian reco nnaissance parties were encountering a plethora of Pakistani positions, Fernandes visited Leh for a meeting of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. He described the shelling that had broken out in Kargil as "sporadic", and said the Indian Army was "well prepared" to deal with the situation. A day later, in New Delhi, he promised that the intruders would be evicted "in 48 hours". One day later, a news agency reported from Dhanbad that Fernandes had claimed that the Army "had cordoned off the a rea entirely" and that India's military objectives in Kargil would be realised "within the next two days".

Given that the Indian Army had just commenced pumping in additional troops, a charitable interpretation of the Defence Minister's pronouncement would be that it was a wilful misrepresentation of the truth. The less-generous explanation was that neither h e, nor the Ministry of Defence, had bothered to find out just what was happening in Kargil. Nor, it is now evident, did anyone else in the BJP. The first meeting of the apex Cabinet Committee on Security was called only on May 25, a day after Jammu and K ashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah visited New Delhi to beg the Prime Minister to take the Kargil issue seriously. It was only after this meeting that the Prime Minister recovered from his Lahore trance to realise the situation in Kargil was "war-like ". More than 50 soldiers were dead by then.

Fernandes now attempted to cover up the errors of his Ministry and the BJP's defence establishment. On May 29, he claimed that Indian troops had flushed out infiltrators from the Drass sub-sector and "restored the sanctity of the Line of Control". This w as completely untrue. On May 28, the Defence Minister attempted to defend the BJP-led coalition government's handling of the Lahore Process by seeking to exonerate the government's dialogue partner, Nawaz Sharif. "In this entire episode," Fernandes said on television, "the Pakistan Army has hatched a conspiracy to push in infiltrators, and the Nawaz Sharif Government did not have a major role. The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), which we know initiates such activities, has not played any role."

These bizarre claims were debunked when the documents that Fernandes based his claims on - a surveillance tape of conversations between Pervez Musharraf and his Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz - were made public in New Delhi on Ju ne 11. The conversations offered little insight into the role of the ISI in the Kargil affair and made clear that the Pakistani political establishment was well briefed on the affair. But what was even more disturbing was the use of classified intelligen ce material to serve a domestic political agenda. Fernandes' purpose in using the conversation between Musharraf and Aziz was not to further India's strategic objectives, but to defend the political position of the BJP-led coalition.

The confusion within the government snowballed as criticism of its handling of Kargil grew. On June 1, Fernandes made his infamous offer of safe passage for Pakistani irregulars and troops back to their side of the LoC. "Get your troops out of our soil," he proclaimed, "or watch them being thrown out." If Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz "wants to discuss how the intruders are to leave, we can discuss their safe passage." The Prime Minister, apparently oblivious to the outrage that Fernandes' state ment had provoked, endorsed this position while commissioning the INS Mysore in Mumbai on June 2. "We can discuss their safe passage if such a request was made," Vajpayee said. "It could be considered." Both statements, despite subsequent denials, served a purpose. They suggested that the diplomatic forces set in place in Lahore offered potential for the resolution of the military conflict in Kargil.

INDIA'S war to regain the Kargil heights had its origins not in simple military errors, but in a larger process of self-delusion set in place with the nuclear tests at Pokhran. Pokhran opened the space for Pakistan to attempt to gain ground in Jammu and Kashmir through international intervention for the first time since 1971. The tests, however, had a curious narcotic effect on India's security establishment, leading it to ignore Pakistan's new objectives in the face of strong intelligence evidence and analytical input. Lahore was not a new beginning in India-Pakistan dialogue, but a desperate response to the international pressure brought to bear on India after the Pokhran tests. The BJP-led coalition was so desperate for the success of the Lahore Pro cess that it indoctrinated itself with the belief that the Wagah bus ride had been an unmixed triumph.

Bandar kya jane adrak ka swad, goes the Hindi saying: how can a monkey know that ginger tastes good? Without a paradigm within which it could comprehend or engage with the new circumstances which emerged from the spring of 1998, the BJP-led coalit ion government could do little to address Pakistan's new offensive in Jammu and Kashmir. Sadly, there are few signs that it has learned from the events of this May. The real danger now is that, pushed to the wall, the right-wing government in New Delhi c ould launch into an election-eve military adventure. The consequences of such a course are too grim to contemplate.

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