The Pokhran-Kargil connection

Print edition : June 19, 1999

THE hostilities raging in Kargil between India's armed forces and an undetermined number of "infiltrators," that is, well-trained irregulars and troops sent, supplied and supported militarily by Pakistan across the well-recognised Line of Control (LoC), could escalate into a major crisis for the two countries. This, in fact, is likely to happen if political sobriety and good sense do not assert themselves - and prevail - in Pakistan and if the Indian Army does not, fairly quickly, achieve tangible re sults on the ground, in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain. What is clear amidst the conflicting claims is that Pakistan's shockingly undetected push across the LoC with fargoing politico-military objectives was daringly conceived, cunningly t imed and skilfully executed; that in both military and political terms, it sprang a nasty surprise; that its results pose a live threat to the territorial integrity of India; that it has already imposed a punishing cost on India, especially in terms of s oldiers' lives, and this cost is likely to rise distressingly; that the infiltrators are strongly positioned, fanatically motivated and well supplied; that they are set, but dispensable pieces in a deep game; and that it will be months before India's pro claimed military objective, the liquidation or driving back over the LoC of the Pakistan-sponsored force, can be accomplished. What raises the stakes enormously for India is the possibility of the Kargil crisis intensifying and escalating during the run- up to the thirteenth general election, due in September 1999. The Bharatiya Janata Party may be fantasising about a 'Falklands factor', but continued mishandling of, and the fall-out from, the Kargil crisis will, in all likelihood, seal the communal part y's fate in the big contest ahead.

The origins, development, handling, implications and lessons of the Kargil crisis have been discussed at length, and usefully, in political forums and the media in India, even if the tone of much recent newspaper coverage has been propagandistic, and eve n shrill. But one aspect of the crisis has clearly failed to get the attention it demands - the connection between the crisis brought on by Pakistan's adventurist push across the LoC and BJP-triggered nuclear weaponisation in India and Pakistan. This re al connection is explored and analysed in Frontline's Cover Story.

To quote from Praveen Swami's insightful lead article: "Two principal sets of failure 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 man y implications for the future of Pakistan's strategy on Jammu & Kashmir were left unanalysed, a consequence of the Hindu Right's bizarre ideological fictions on a nuclear India... Pakistan military strategists clearly understood Pokhran offered them an o pportunity to force a conventional military conflagration in Jammu & Kashmir... 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 bee n a strategic misjudgment would have been to admit the absurdities of the BJP's core politics... This political blindness to Pakistan's emerging objectives had several military consequences..."

One of the political tenets that became entrenched in the BJP's strategic thinking after the Pokhran-II and Chagai nuclear explosions was that Indo-Pakistan relations had become more assured, more predictable and more stable. Various ideologues and perso nages belonging to the BJP-led camp, notably Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and K.C. Pant, publicly articulated this belief as received wisdom. Vajpayee's late-twentieth-century embrace of deterrence theory went to the extent of making the astonishi ng claim on the floor of the Lok Sabha, on March 15, 1999 that "the nuclear weapon... is the kind of weapon that helps in preserving the peace." This was no rhetoric; the political belief played the same role as blinkers so far as India-Pakistan relation s were concerned.

Nuclear deterrence has become increasingly discredited. The reasoned objections pressed against deterrence theory by some of its major former practitioners, notably General George Lee Butler who used to be the head of the U.S. Strategic Command (for an i nterview with him, see Frontline, June 18, 1999), enable us to understand, at least to a useful degree, why the Kargil crisis arose, why it was not averted, the calculations behind it, why it is in a dangerous process of escalation, and why more s uch crises could surface, unexpectedly, in India-Pakistan relations. They enable us to appreciate that instability, not stability, will be the determining element in South Asia's security, if nuclear weaponisation is not checked and rolled back.

IT has long been the Pakistan state's interest to portray Kashmir as a flashpoint and to use this to internationalise the issue. What is interesting is that some real deterrents to this course seemed to operate prior to Pokhran-II and Chagai. Following n uclear weaponisation, Pakistan has been emboldened to raise the stakes - at a time and place of its choosing. The Kargil crisis is not the result of some creeping 'infiltration'; it is the outcome of a calculated decision to push extensively across the L oC in the vicinity of Kargil, undo a notable Indian gain made in the 1971 conflict and guaranteed in the 1972 Simla Agreement, militarily and politically challenge India's control over J & K, and threaten to cut off Ladakh from the rest of the State. The onus of preventing escalation while at the same time not losing territory or strategically advantageous positions rests with India.

Thus, India's options are curtailed while the Pakistan state and Army are free to raise the stakes and escalate. The latter can also raise the tempo of the proxy war in the knowledge that, under conditions of nuclear weaponisation, India needs to remain committed to non-escalation of the crisis into a full-blown conventional conflict, in which Pakistan is likely to find itself at a disadvantage. The disturbing truth is that Kargil could well be the first in a series of crises and confrontations provoked by chauvinistic elements in Pakistan that might oblige India to respond with a reduced, if not foreclosed, set of options.

Infiltration from across the border into J & K in the season when the snow melts is not exactly a new phenomenon. Nor is the 'Kargil fixation' of the Pakistan military a secret to the Indian armed forces and intelligence set-up. In fact (as Praveen Swami points out), in the autumn of 1998 Pakistan's shelling along the LoC "escalated to levels unknown since the war of 1971" and Kargil town itself was attacked, virtually with impunity. On the other side, the BJP-led government, which has a loose cannon in charge of Defence, has been a victim of its own hype following bus diplomacy and the modest results achieved during the Indian Prime Minister's visit to Lahore. The deeply flawed Lahore exercise, which was characterised chiefly by the failure to take th e minimum steps necessary to ensure non-deployment of India's and Pakistan's nuclear weapons and to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weaponisation in South Asia, naturally led to complacency and political blindness.

There has been a fair amount of public discussion of the 'intelligence failure' in the context of the Kargil crisis. Actually, from the information published in the press (and especially this magazine), there seems to have been no dearth of intelligence on Pakistan's military preparations and intentions vis-a-vis J & K, and the Kargil sector in particular. The real failure came in the interpretation of intelligence, both specific and vague. The deficiencies in the work of the intelligence machine ry, of the armed forces as well as of the other agencies of the government, and the gross failure to interpret intelligence correctly constitute reasons to worry deeply, especially if we realise that deterrence theory assumes, at the very least, an effor t in intelligence and surveillance that is far more demanding than that associated with conventional military strategy. The costly failure to anticipate the Kargil crisis demonstrates how far India, which claims to be a nuclear weapons state able fully t o take care of its security, is from meeting such demanding requirements in the field of intelligence and surveillance.

MANY arguments have been put forward, before and after the Lahore exercise, on why Pakistan would be willing to work towards maintaining deterrence and stability in the South Asian security context, and would not undertake any military adventure. Claims that peace, in terms of preventing major conventional conflicts, has been assured in the sub-continent have become stock-in-trade with the champions and apologists of India's nuclear weaponisation, especially following the first successful foreign secret ary-level meetings and the Lahore exercise. Kargil seems to demonstrate precisely the opposite: given nuclear weaponisation, escalation is built into a bilateral situation marked by tension, animosity and distrust; a crisis can escalate into a convention al conflict; and a conventional conflict poses the risk, unless very great care is exercised, of going out of control and escalating further. The belief that nuclear weaponisation will lead to the prevention of conventional conflicts, both major and mino r, is clearly unfounded. As General Butler warns (interview in Frontline, June 18, 1999): "Whatever the relationship between India and Pakistan, there is bound to be a dynamic between them now with a nuclear dimension that wasn't there earlier. It 's a new element... the great challenge that these two nations face is to understand how this new element intersects with all the little flames down here that keep the pot boiling... they may not be within your control." The Kargil crisis underlines the imperative of acquiring the political capability to manage "war-like" crises so that they do not escalate into conventional conflicts, given the background of both India and Pakistan claiming operationalised nuclear weaponisation.

Finally, deterrence theory requires the ability to influence the other side in terms of perception and psychology. In the words of General Butler: "Fundamental in my critique is, in the final analysis, it is not what you think that deters, it is what you r opponent thinks. And we never knew what he thought. So there is an absolutely fundamental flaw in the psychology of deterrence. And that is, you are not in charge of it, it is your enemy. If your enemy is totally isolated and alienated from you, how ca n you pretend to think you know what his thoughts, his intentions and his motivations are?" An important feature of the Kargil crisis is the complete failure to understand the thoughts, intentions and motivations of decision-makers in Pakistan. What is t he real motivation behind Pakistan's actions and their timing? Which sections within the Pakistan establishment are truly responsible for the daring adventure? How far will they go in this crisis and what lies ahead, militarily and politically? There hav e not been, and are unlikely to be, any kind of clear answers to these questions. As Fernandes, Vajpayee & Co. have famously demonstrated in their pronouncements, confusion is the norm, clarity the exception.

India, its people and its brave soldiers battling the Pakistan-sponsored 'infiltrators' in the high mountains in the Kargil sector and paying with life and limb, surely do not deserve this.

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