Ghosts of Kargil

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Coffins containing the bodies of six soldiers flown in from Kargil in June 1999. Hundreds of Indian soldiers paid with their lives for decisions made in the months before the war. Those responsible for the decisions walked away with medals and honours. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Coffins containing the bodies of six soldiers flown in from Kargil in June 1999. Hundreds of Indian soldiers paid with their lives for decisions made in the months before the war. Those responsible for the decisions walked away with medals and honours. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

India's former Chief of the Army Staff provokes renewed debate on the intelligence warnings prior to the 1999 Kargil War.

INDIA'S soldiers and spies have crossed swords to defend the honour of their services. At the heart of the furious debate that has broken out is a simple question: was the Kargil War the outcome of an intelligence failure? Or was it a failure of the collective intelligence of India's strategic establishment?

In his recently released book on the 1999 war, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, former Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik has asserted that Pakistan's successful intrusions were the outcome of "a major deficiency in our system of collecting, reporting, collating and assessing intelligence." India's covert services have hit back, saying they had provided successive warnings about Pakistan's offensive plans in the 11 months before the fighting broke out.

General Malik's nuanced insider account of the Kargil War focusses on the complex counterpoint of diplomatic, political and strategic issues that drove Indian decision-making. Failures of surveillance and the many controversies on the conduct of the war at the ground level constitute only a small part of the narrative. However, the furore the book has provoked necessitates a close examination of just what information India's covert services provided on Pakistani intentions - and what responses were made.

Perhaps the first and most important warning was a June 2, 1998 note, personally signed by the then Intelligence Bureau Director, Shyamal Datta. Based on intelligence provided by the Intelligence Bureau's Leh station, Datta's note warned of the training of large numbers of Pakistani irregulars in the Kargil sector, who, it said, were being prepared for a renewed wave of infiltration after the May 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran. While such preparation was not out of the ordinary, the second part of Datta's warning without dispute was unusual.

Increased Pakistani military activity, it recorded, had been noticed along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil sector, notably along posts code-named Chor, Hadi, Saddle, Reshma, Masjid, Dhalan and Langar. All these posts, it is now known, functioned as base-camps to feed the intrusion that India was to detect only a year later. Datta's unusual decision to sign the note personally indicated the seriousness with which he took this information - and the credibility of the intelligence asset who provided it.

Over the next few months, several other warnings were also issued. In July, Intelligence Bureau informants reported the deployment of M-11 missiles on the Deosai Plains and new mine-laying activities. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), for its part, said that new Pakistani troops - 164 Mortar Regiment, 8 Northern Light Infantry and 69 Baloch Regiment - had been pumped into the area and were being given special commando training. In effect, the reports suggested that a full brigade had moved in, a posture indicating offensive intent.

Even the military's own covert services made similar determination. In June 1998 the Kargil Brigade Intelligence Team (BIT) reported that ammunition supplies were being dumped and that terrorists had been seen in Skardu, Warcha and Marol awaiting infiltration through the Kargil sector. In August, the BIT and the Intelligence and Field Security Unit reported the presence of terrorists preparing to cross the LoC. Pakistani artillery flowed in as winter approached, a reversal of the normal practice.

By October, RAW was sufficiently concerned about developments to issue an express warning about the prospect of a "limited swift offensive", pointing in particular to the "constant induction of more troops from peacetime locations like Mangla, Lahore, Gujranwala and Okara into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir." Its assertion that a war was possible provoked an immediate challenge by the Director-General of Military Intelligence, and an inconclusive verbal discussion followed.

For reasons that have never been explained, RAW's next assessment made no mention of the possibility of a war. It did note, however, that Pakistan had made "some hard decisions" on maintaining an aggressive posture along the LoC. Northern Command, in its own internal assessments, recorded that November 1998 saw a three-fold increase in Pakistani troop movement in the Kargil sector when compared with November 1997. Vehicular movement doubled, while pack-animal movement increased nine-fold.

As late as November 1999, the Intelligence Bureau's Leh station issued warnings that Pakistan was "training Taliban troops who were undergoing military training as well as learning the Balti and Ladakhi language." These irregulars, the warning stated, were likely to be inducted into the Kargil sector during April 1999. While the Intelligence Bureau did not realise these `Taliban' were in fact Pakistani troops, its assessment was in general proved correct by subsequent events.

Given the sheer mass of warnings, it is hard to see what further intelligence could have been provided to India's strategic establishment on the prospect of hostile Pakistani action short of a signed order from the now-President Pervez Musharraf, who took over as Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff in October 1998. Bar one RAW assessment, no intelligence suggested that an actual war was likely, but the totality of the warnings ought to have made clear the need for an enhanced defensive posture.

In a letter to Frontline's sister publication The Hindu, General Malik argued that these intelligence warnings, with their references to infiltration and the Taliban, had led to a "jehadi militants bogey" and thus a weak and uncertain response in Kargil. Leaving aside the fact that the reports referred specifically to a Pakistan army build-up, his assertion does open a major question: confronted with warning after warning about large-scale infiltration, just what did the XV Corps do about the `jehadi bogey'?

On the ground, very little. What we do know for certain is this: mid-level commanders had in the summer of 1998 begun worrying that their defences were inadequate to deal with a serious challenge. Nothing was done. General Malik's work does not address the depressing military failures that preceded the war, perhaps for the good reason that he as Chief of the Army Staff had no direct role in them. Yet, most of those responsible walked away with medals and honours for actions that had cost lives.

Among the key documents is a January 30, 1999, letter, calling the attention of the then 3 Infantry Division Commander Major-General V.S. Budhwar, to major weaknesses in Indian defences identified in the course of the war game Exercise Jaanch. Exercise Jaanch, it stated, suggested that enemy action could render "some posts untenable". It proceeded to call for forces to be stationed permanently on Point 5165-metres, Pariyon ka Talab and Point 4660-metres - the peak that later became famous as Tiger Hill.

Colonel Oberoi's letter was written after General Budhwar failed to respond to verbal pleas for troops, made during his visit to the sector on November 25, 1998. General Budhwar, informal sources said, was dismissive of these warnings, which he saw as alarmist. It would, ironically enough, have reached the 3 Division Headquarters - and possibly the offices of the then XV Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal - at about the same time as the first reconnaissance groups of Pakistani troops occupied these features.

Brigadier Surinder Singh shared similar concerns - but for the entire sector. Paragraph 8 of an August 1998 briefing note he prepared to inform General Budhwar of what Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik would be told on a forthcoming visit to Kargil was explicitly marked "Enhanced Threat Perception". It laid out the reasons for the 121 Brigade's apprehensions, notably the movement of Pakistani troops and artillery into the sector which had concerned the Intelligence Bureau and RAW.

From paragraph 13 onwards, the briefing note detailed "Vulnerabilities (of the) 121 (I) Inf[antry] B[riga]de." It pointed out that "infilt[ration] routes [were] available through Mashkoh [Mushkoh] Valley, from Doda side to Panikhar, Yaldor and through nalas [streams]." Small detachments could be targeted, paragraph 15(b) noted, while paragraph 17 noted the existence of posts vulnerable to "rogue action". Both Budhwar and Kishan Pal, however, dismissed Surinder Singh's calls for more troops.

When actual fighting broke out in the region soon afterwards, news of the loss of Indian-held territory in offensive Pakistani action was suppressed. On February 9, 1999, troops of the 5 Para Regiment spotted movement on the top of Point 5770, a strategic height in the southern Siachen area on the Indian side of the LoC. Again, on March 4, between eight and ten Pakistani soldiers were seen removing snow from a concrete bunker to the west of the summit of Point 5770. That evening, fire was exchanged over the area.

Strangely, the Siachen-based 102 Infantry Brigade removed the officer who had reported the intrusion, Major Manish Bhatnagar, not the Pakistani troops who had occupied the position. On the eve of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan, it is likely that India had no desire to initiate a bruising exchange of fire on Siachen. The 121 Brigade, which ought to have been told that Pakistan troops had demonstrated aggressive intent in an adjoining area, was not even informed of the development.

Events in the coming weeks were even more incredible. For one, despite both the flow of intelligence on possible infiltration in the Kargil sector, troops were actually pulled out from frontline positions. Soon after the loss of Point 5770, 9 Mahar Regiment was removed from its defensive positions along the Yaldor Langpa stream and stationed at a rear position near Leh. The 26 Maratha Light Infantry, which protected the crucial infiltration route from Mashkoh to Dras, was also pulled off forward duties.

Despite the summary removal of approximately a quarter of its troops, there is evidence to show that 121 Brigade did act. Troops were withdrawn from the Mashkoh area for just 80 days in the winter of 1999, down from 177 days in 1997 and 116 days in 1998. Yaldor was left undefended for 64 days from February to April, where troops had been withdrawn for 120 days in 1997 and 119 days in 1998. Kaksar, another key area, was undefended for just 38 days, where it was left open for over 200 days in previous years.

Such responses were far from adequate, most experts agree. Like their superiors, 121 Brigade should have acted on its fears by adopting a more aggressive counter-infiltration posture.

However, the question remains: why was it that commanders in Leh and Srinagar were so slow to respond not just to the intelligence warnings that were available, but to the growing worries of their own subordinates? No clear answers to these questions have ever been offered, questions that are of enormous importance for the good reason that hundreds of Indian soldiers paid with their lives for decisions made in XV Corps and 3 Infantry Division in the months before the war.

In his letter to The Hindu, General Malik argued that no troops were withdrawn by XV Corps from 3 Infantry Division's area of responsibility. This is, without dispute, true, since 9 Mahar and 26 Maratha battalions remained around Leh. Yet, General Malik's letter does not explain why General Budhwar chose to pull back soldiers needed to guard the LoC to rear positions when both intelligence warnings and field commanders believed threat levels were escalating.

General Malik also pointed out that the headquarters of 70 Infantry Brigade was inducted into the Dras area in October 1998, suggesting that the Army was indeed taking the warnings it received seriously. However, he omitted to mention the critical fact that only its headquarters' staff, not the fighting force, had been deployed when fighting broke out in May 1999. As a result, it took several weeks before the Brigade could begin its wartime functions in the Batalik theatre.

Some coherent answers are clearly needed for the question of why troops were thinned at a time when India should have been enhancing its defences. Just why India chose to overlook the intrusion at Point 5770, or growing evidence of the massing of Pakistani formations, must also be made public. At least two historians of the conflict, Lieutenant-General Y.M. Bammi and Major-General Ashok Verma, have suggested that General Pal's counter-terrorism concerns led him to ignore emerging challenges along the LoC.

Amazingly, General Pal closed his eyes to reality even after the war broke out. At a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar on May 24, 1999, General Pal insisted that there "were no concentration of troops on the Pakistani side and no battle indicators of war or even limited skirmishes." Paragraph 4(v) of the minutes of the Unified Headquarters meeting record his claim that the "situation was local and would be defeated locally": a hideous misreading of the situation.

But for the fact that General Malik signed orders granting war medals to figures like General Pal, or the 102 Brigade commander P.C. Katoch, he would have to face no questions about these issues: neither XV Corps nor 3 Infantry Division, after all, ever asked the Chief of the Army Staff for greater resources to face the coming storm. To his credit, moreover, General Malik also intervened to end the suicidal tactics XV Corps used in an attempt to bring an early end to the intrusions.

Who, then, was responsible for the failure to assess the threat? For the full truth of what happened, historians will have to look far beyond the Army or, indeed, the covert services. Prime Minister Vajpayee had, in the winter of 1998-1999, persuaded himself that he was destined to make a historic peace with Pakistan - a delusion founded on the Bharatiya Janata Party's conviction that the Pokhran II nuclear tests had brought strategic stability to South Asia and made conventional war impossible.

"The truth about what went wrong, where and why should not embarrass anyone," said former Defence Minister George Fernandes on August 14, 2002, "and it is a must so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past." Perhaps the time has come for Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to translate his predecessor's polemic into action. A full, transparent investigation of the failures that paved the way for the Kargil War is the only way that the ghosts that still swirl over the battlefield can be put to rest.

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