Print edition : July 03, 1999

Indian troops make considerable progress in Kargil, but it seems improbable that the war will end even after the intruders are pushed off the hills.

Karim to Afzal: "Their Army has reached very near us. We need more men. Our water and ammunition is also running low."

Afzal to Karim: "Remember Allah's name."

Karim to Afzal: "I'll worry about Allah later! Right now I need reinforcements."

- excerpts from intercepts of conversations between Pakistan-based commander Afzal and field commander Karim in the Kargil area.

FOR two nights, the sound of Pakistan artillery shells exploding around Kargil died down. The impromptu ceasefire was, perhaps, intended to signal Pakistan's pacific intentions to the massed ranks of the Indian and foreign media brought in on an Army-organised tour on June 22. Hours after the journalists left Kargil, the first shells landed on the abandoned village of Baroo, which Pakistan's military evidently believes to be the headquarters of the 121 Brigade in Kargil. Through the night and the next day, the fire continued with metronome precision. And as if to make up for lost time, Kargil's main bazaar was shelled on June 25, the first deliberate targeting of its civilian population.

But if it at first seems that little has changed in Kargil, India's battle to evict Pakistani irregulars and troops from the area is gathering momentum. The capture of the sprawling Tololing heights ahead of Drass marks the first major Indian victory in the Kargil war. Thirteen Pakistani troops were killed when the men of the Rajputana Regiment stormed their way up the 4,590-metre lower summit of Tololing, and a further nine were killed when the highest 5,140-m feature was finally cleared. The operations followed more than five weeks of sustained Indian artillery fire on Tololing, a bombardment that minimised casualties on the near-impossible summit assault. Above all, the assault made clear to the poorly acclimatised and sometimes demoralised troops that war in the high Himalayas could be won.

Although Tololing has been captured, the battle in the Drass area is far from over. Initial air and ground surveillance had suggested that upwards of a hundred Pakistani troops and irregulars were deployed in the area. No one is entirely certain just how many of these were killed during the battle for Tololing, since several combatants' bodies are believed to have been dragged back to Pakistani positions. There is a disturbing possibility, however, that at least some of the Tololing survivors have regrouped east of the area for a fresh attack on the national highway. On June 19, Indian troops moving up the Churkyat Shung nullah (drain) from the Thasgam roadhead came under heavy fire from a Pakistan-held position on a 5,025-m peak east of the Tololing area.

Similar battles have been erupting west of the Tololing feature, where Indian troops are battling to regain control of the Sando nullah which offers access to the crucial forward position on the Line of Control, the 5,353-m Marpo-La Pass. Control of Marpo-La would help cut off access to the Mushkoh Valley to the west of Kargil. Informed sources told Frontline that Indian troops had so far made significant progress in attacking Pakistan-held positions on the 5,062-m peak from where Indian troops moving down the Sando nullah had been pinned down. Having captured 5,062-m peak, soldiers would then have to begin the final assault on Marpo-La, which air reconnaissance suggests has been heavily fortified by Pakistan.

Indian soldiers fire a 155-mm artillery gun in the Batalik sector.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

There is little hard information so far on the progress of Indian military operations in the Mushkoh Valley itself. Securing the valley is a crucial requirement to cut off the possible movement of Pakistani irregulars into Kashmir and Doda. The valley opens Sonamarg, from where mountain passes offer access to Kishtwar and Doda through Pahalgam, and empties through the Talel Valley and the Kabol gully into Gurez at its western end. As long as Pakistani irregulars and troops are not evicted from the Mushkoh Valley, army strategists will have to contend with the nightmare scenario of Indian positions in Gurez being sandwiched by a fresh Pakistani thrust from the west. Troops of the 79 Brigade, responsible for operations west of the Tingel nullah above Holliyal, have been operating with intense air support, but the precise number of positions they are engaging is unknown.

Batalik, west of Kargil, has seen the most bitter fighting in the region so far. The area is, broadly, dissected by three major nullahs draining south from the Line of Control (LoC). The furthest to the west of these is the Gurgudu, heading north from Batalik town towards one of Pakistan's largest positions on the LoC, Shangruti. A minor drain, the Urdas Langpa, separates Gurgudu from the Garkhun nullah. To the east of Garkhun is the third of the Batalik mountain streams, the Yaldor nullah. This nullah heads north from Dah to the village to which it owes its name, and on to Pakistan-held Muntho Dalo at 5,065 m. Muntho Dalo has functioned as the headquarters of Pakistan's Batalik operations, the hub from which troops and supplies are moved forward.

Muntho Dalo came under a massive air attack on June 24, and Indian Air Force officials claim much of the centre was obliterated. The attack should aid Indian troops moving up the Yaldor nullah, the area of Batalik in which progress has so far been the most rapid. Ahead of Yaldor village, troops will have to vacate Pakistan positions on the 4,821-m Kukerthang and the 5,103-m Tharu before reaching the LoC ahead of Muntho Dalo. Given that Pakistan now holds the high-altitude positions that Indian troops vacated last winter, the push up the Yaldor nullah will involve great courage. On June 10, troops of the 12 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry and the Desert Scorpions paracommando unit which took a Pakistan-held position found themselves sandwiched by reinforcements sent down the mountains.

Progress up the Garkhun nullah has been even more difficult. Soldiers moving up to the villages of Kha Baroro and Baroro face fire from at least three major Pakistan-held positions on the Jubbar hills rising west of the nullah, on peaks 4,827 m, 4,938 m and 4,280 m high. In addition, Pakistan's positions at Kukerthang and Tharu can direct fire east and ambush patrols down the Garkhun nullah. Finally, Indian soldiers attacking Pakistan-held positions down the Gurgudu and Garkhun nullahs can be observed by the Shangruti post, enabling precise artillery and mortar fire. Army officials say they had at first planned to push down the Gurgudu and Garkhun nullahs simultaneously, before meeting below a 4,927-m peak to cut off Pakistani supply routes. Alternative operational plans are now being considered for these areas.

Loading shells at Thesgam village in Batalik sector on June 27.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Interestingly, villagers at Garkhun claim that they were among the first to detect Pakistani irregulars and troops in the area. In late April, villagers told Frontline, shepherds from Garkhun and Yaldor saw men dressed in Pathan outfits on the Kukerthang heights. Most of Yaldor's seven families spend their winters in Garkhun, moving up with their livestock as the snows melt. "Nobody actually saw anybody with guns," one villager says, "but we did run into people with binoculars. They would wave at us to move away." Garkhun residents claim to have told Army officials on May 3 of the intrusion, but say that the patrol sent to investigate only moved up the nullah without searching the heights.

KAKSAR, east of Kargil, has again seen some progress in the face of crippling odds. The 5,299-m peak along the LoC, below which Lt. Saurabh Kalia is believed to have been ambushed and then brutally murdered along with his six-member patrol, is now the scene of bitter battle. Informed sources told Frontline that soldiers on peak 5,299 are now engaged in virtual hand-to-hand combat. The Indian Army's efforts to push towards its forward position at Bajrang Post are met with heavy fire from Pakistan's LoC forward picket on peak 5,108 m, and from pickets occupied this summer on the 5,284-m peak.

Progress down the nullah in efforts to evict Pakistan's positions in Kaksar has, however, been relatively slow. In the absence of a clear ridgeline route as an alternative to a push through the nullah, which is vulnerable to ambush, at least some military officials have been arguing for an attack from behind the Pakistan side of the LoC. Such movement, officials argue, would be the most effective means to evict Pakistani irregulars and troops from the Kaksar area, without imposing unacceptable losses of Indian soldiers' lives. The last reported casualties from Kaksar came on June 21, when three soldiers of the 4 Jat Regiment were killed in Pakistani artillery fire. Pakistan also appears to be reinforcing its positions in the area, suggesting that further Indian forward movement may be relatively slow.

ELSEWHERE in the Kargil sector, Pakistan's efforts to evict Indian positions that were held through the winter have been unsuccessful. The stretch north from the Border Security Force's (BSF) Chhannigund headquarters to the LoC has remained secure, albeit under heavy artillery fire. Positions above the Kirkit Chu nullah, held through the winter, appear to have deterred Pakistani irregulars and troops from attempting an incursion into this sector. It now appears clear that the Army's failure to review its policy of vacating high-altitude positions last year opened a window of opportunity for Pakistan. High-altitude positions held by the BSF at Chorbat-La, now reinforced by troops from the crack high-altitude Ladakh Scouts, have contained efforts by Pakistan to push troops down the Mian Langpa gully.

Defence Minister George Fernandes with the three Service chiefs, (from left) Chief of the Naval Staff Sushil Kumar, Chief of the Army Staff V.P. Malik and Chief of the Air Force Staff A.Y. Tipnis, at the all-party meeting convened on June 28.-V. SUDERSHAN

Critically, the pressure of the Indian offensive in most sectors is clearly beginning to tell on Pakistan's irregulars and troops. The near-total radio silence observed in the first phase of the Pakistani offensive has given way to often hysterical missives. Indian intelligence operatives active in Skardu, Pakistan's rear headquarters for the Kargil area, report that the local hospital is overflowing with injured irregulars and soldiers. While it is difficult to verify such reports, given the lack of independent media access to the region in Pakistan, most analysts concur that its army and irregular combatants have suffered upwards of 300 fatalities in the Kargil war. As reinforcements would increasingly have to engage with Indian troops on recaptured heights, this figure is certain to rise sharply in the weeks to come.

Pakistan, however, seems determined to continue with its efforts to push reinforcements into the Turtok area through the Mian Langpa. Indian combat jets and artillery have been attacking new Pakistani positions that appeared near the LoC around the peak at 5,270 m.

The new Pakistani positions appeared in the same area where the bodies of Captain Hanif-ud-Din and two soldiers, ambushed in the course of an area patrol a fortnight ago, still lie.

Pakistan has been attempting a secondary thrust up a stream draining south from the LoC into Mian Lungpa gully, the Karu Bar. The stream offers access to the Indian side of the LoC near one of the most spectacular heights of the entire Kargil area, the 6,040-m Dolmibarak peak.


A militant prepares to fire at an Indian position near the Line of Control.-COURTESY: PAKISTAN TODAY

JUST what shape the Kargil war will take from this stage, however, remains unclear. A sound but conservative strategy of pushing up the mountains slowly, building up strong positions at each stage, would suggest that the complete destruction of Pakistan-occupied positions would take upwards of eight to 12 weeks. Whether the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government would be willing to go into a general election with Pakistan continuing to hold territory on the Indian side of the LoC is unclear. There is also growing pressure from Army and Air Force officials for limited strategic action against positions on the Pakistan side of the LoC in order to minimise Indian casualties in the push up the mountains. The possible outcomes and consequences of such actions are unclear.

With Pakistan's political establishment being under the firm control of the military and the religious right, the prospect of a negotiated end to its offensive in Kargil seems unlikely. Pakistan's artillery offensive along the entire length of the LoC, and the international border in Jammu, indicate that its military establishment is determined to escalate the conflict further. It seems improbable that this war will end even after Pakistani irregulars and troops are pushed off the mountain heights.

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