Kargil: success and complications

Print edition : July 17, 1999

THE people of India will be greatly relieved that the Kargil crisis that surfaced in May 1999, took a heavy toll of life and limb (for what, after all, has been a localised, low-intensity conflict), exposed Indian military and political weaknesses in the new era of South Asian nuclear weaponisation, and threatened for a while to escalate and spin dangerously out of control has been defused, more or less, by the Pakistan state's decision to pull back from a criminal misadventure. Despite the tactical successes that came its way initially from the twin advantage of military surprise and control of key Himalayan heights, Pakistan, it is clear in retrospect, did not have a real chance of holding Indian territory acquired through a flagrant violation of the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir. The supposed objective of cutting off Ladakh from the rest of India by breaching National Highway No. 1 between Srinagar and Leh, not to mention cutting off the Indian forces on the contested Siachen Glacier and unleashing terror and mayhem in J&K, represented sheer fantasising by the Pakistan military leadership and the political and fundamentalist co-authors of the Kargil misadventure. Given geopolitical realities, there was simply no way an India-Pakistan conflict could have ended on this particular note. Nevertheless, pressure was put on the Indian state's military and, especially, political capabilities.

A combination of operational negligence and political blindness on the Indian side facilitated the initial success of the reactionary Pakistani project of sending, supplying and supporting militarily a 1,000-plus force of 'infiltrators' made up primarily of Pakistani troops and secondarily of 'mujahideen', that is, fundamentalist irregulars or free-lance seekers of martyrdom, to occupy a swathe of mountainous Indian territory in some depth across the LoC in the Kargil area of J&K. Lessons need to be learnt from the compounded failure of intelligence, military strategy, and political leadership.

What retrieved the situation fairly speedily for India, in the first place, was the courage, heroism, initiative and sacrifices of young soldiers, jawans as well as officers, backed by barely adequate military hardware and firepower and improving strategic thinking. Secondly, the simple fact that the official Pakistani version of the military action was based on a crude fiction - the cock-and-bull story of Kashmiri 'mujahideen' fighting on their own and Pakistan offering merely moral support against a marauding, oppressor India - robbed the project of moral credibility among the people of Pakistan and internationally. On the other side, the justice and reasonableness behind India's determined military campaign to liquidate or drive out of the well-recognised Indian side of the LoC the Pakistan-sponsored force of 'infiltrators' proved to be a winning factor. Thirdly, the national decision to exercise restraint in the interest of peace, not to cross the LoC, and not to do anything that might lead to an escalation of the conflict stood India's cause in excellent stead.

But triumphalism and the temptation to "crow about our discomfiture" (to quote Ayaz Amir, a Pakistani commentator who has, in his columns in Dawn, mercilessly exposed the hollowness behind Pakistan's Kargil adventure) would be the worst possible follow-up to what has been achieved on the ground at considerable cost and sacrifice. Aside from the military and political weaknesses exposed on the Indian side, the development that should cause most political concern is the continuity, and substantial content, of U.S. involvement in the national security-related affairs of India (and Pakistan) post-Pokhran.

Political India will be making a serious mistake if it understands the "personal interest" President Bill Clinton has promised, or rather threatened (in the joint statement of July 4, 1999 with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), to take "in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification" of bilateral efforts to resolve "all issues dividing India and Pakistan, including Kashmir," to be a face-saving sop to the Pakistan government. The external, U.S.-led, pressure on India to do something about its unresolved dispute with Pakistan on the future of Kashmir is likely to intensify, not weaken, in the post-Kargil period. In a sense, this mediation by whatever name called has been going on ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government declared India a nuclear weapon state in the aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear explosions at Pokhran. The unending Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh dialogue, and the "interlocutor's" engagement at multiple levels in the shaping of India's nuclear and national security policies, suggest that Clinton's "personal interest" in the resumption and intensification of the discussion of the future of Kashmir will represent no soft option for India. It will be a continuation of the same process of putting pressure on India's sovereignty of decision-making, taken up perhaps at a higher level and with the focus now on winning tangible results on Kashmir.

Even more worrying is the implication of the factor of claimed nuclear weaponisation for any kind of conflict between India and Pakistan in the future. During the Kargil crisis, Indian political and military commentary in the media has consistently underplayed, where it has not glossed over, the seriousness of the repeatedly taken official Pakistani posture that in the event of an escalation of the conflict by India and Pakistan's national security coming under threat, the Pakistan state would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. (As a sub-text, the Pakistani Foreign Minister has gone on record with the promise of "more Kargils" in the future if India continued to block efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue.) Such statements may represent bluff and bluster, but they may not - therein lies the factor of perilous uncertainty, the virtual impossibility of anticipating and figuring out the thinking and psychology of the opponent that, among other things, renders nuclear deterrence a hollow and foolish doctrine.

These are some of the serious complications of a post-Kargil situation that India will need to face.

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