'We did fairly well'

Print edition : August 14, 1999

In March 1998, with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition poised to take power in New Delhi, Lieutenant-General Krishan Pal made one of the most dramatic pronouncements on strategic policy in Jammu and Kashmir ever made through the State's deca de of terror. Discussing Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, the Commander of India's key 15 Corps, headquartered in Srinagar, argued that "the only real solution is that you have to be tough with the other side." "To deter Pakistan from exporting terrorism," he asserted, "we have to raise the cost level for them. We have to say, 'if you do not stop sending terrorists here, well, we know where the camps across the Line of Control (LoC) are and we will attack them'. Despite the fact that the camps are across the LoC, we should be able to destroy them. We must have that kind of will. We should be able to go across and strike them."

In the wake of the Kargil crisis, the many ironies of Lt.-Gen. Pal's propositions, which were later to form a leitmotif of the BJP-led government's "pro-active" polemic on Jammu and Kashmir, are only too evident. At the end of a year of this "pro-active" policy and the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, Pakistan succeeded in occupying and holding, for over eight weeks, some 1,500 square kilometres of Indian territory, and increasing the violence in Jammu and Kashmir to levels that are unprecedented in almost thr ee decades. Krishan Pal, a highly regarded officer, is now himself on the firing line.

In this exclusive interview to Praveen Swami, Pal fiercely defended the Army and the defence establishment in particular, against the charges of misjudgment, negligence and poor leadership levelled against it. The campaign on the Kargil heights, h e said, illustrated "generalship unparalleled in the history of warfare." Most important, he said that the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan would, irrespective of the events in Kargil, lead to a long-term de-escalation of conventional tensions in the region. However, in his first major interview after the end of the Kargil crisis, the 15 Corps Commander made it clear that further conventional confrontations could be anticipated in the short-term. Excerpts:

At the start of the Kargil war, you and other senior Army officers believed that the numbers of infiltrators were considerably lower than what they actually turned out to be and were optimistic that they could be evicted in a short period. Was this a n error of judgment and intelligence, as your critics allege?

For one, no such assessment was ever made by me. An assessment is always made once the picture becomes clear, and the picture was not clear at that stage. In the initial stages, the inputs came from various sources, primarily as far as the military is co ncerned, from the fire contact our troops made with the forward positions of the Pakistan attack, and from physical observation. In-depth contact with the enemy's positions obviously takes some time. You have first to destroy their forward positions or b ypass them, which can be a slow process.

So, to expect that right from the day go, from the moment our patrol observed two people at one place and seven at another place in the Batalik sector, we should have a full assessment of things is not practical. In this particular case, because of our s wift action it took us about a week to ten days before a clear picture of the situation emerged. In fact, it was a dynamic situation, and our assessments kept on changing. Our assessments had to be fluid because the enemy reinforced at several places. So , it is simply unfair and incorrect to expect our first assessments to be our final ones.

Our final assessments were made when our front-line contacts and photo surveillance provided detailed inputs that tallied. I remember that around May 17 I had a good degree of clarity about just what was going on. I distinctly remember making it clear, w hen I first briefed the press in Srinagar on May 19, that the depth, extent, logistic support, fire support and magnitude of the intrusion left no doubt in my mind that it was a Pakistan Army-backed operation. That statement should leave no one in any do ubt about what our assessment was. If anybody believes that the Army underestimated the situation, they are wrong. Our first patrol was ambushed on the night of May 8. If, in ten days, I could come to the assessment I did, I think we did fairly well. Of course, if someone had asked me the exact number of intruders at that stage, that may have still involved an element of conjecture.

There is considerable talk about having to hold all the posts on the LoC in the Kargil sector through the winter. In fact, the Border Security Force says that its forward positions were held through the winter in Chorbat La and the Chhanigund area. I ndeed, all the forward posts seem to have been held through the winter until about 1987. In the light of the artillery exchanges that began in 1997, was there some laxity on the Army's part in this regard?

If the BSF is saying this - and I do not know if it is - this is a complete distortion of facts. In fact, these areas have never been held, not just from 1987 but right from the beginning. As such, the question of vacating does not arise. You can vacate a place only if you are holding it. And if someone says they are a great force, that is just half the story. We also held positions on the Hathimatha feature and others through the winter.

One of the posts being talked about, for example, is the Bajrang post in Kaksar.

This is a misnomer. There is no post called Bajrang. There is just a feature the troops have named Bajrang. There is no post there. It is just like Tiger Hill is called Tiger Hill. It doesn't mean there is a post there. There never was anybody there.

So, all the posts were manned through the winter?

Well, there are some "winter vacated posts" from which we pull people out. And there are some "winter cut-off posts" where people stay. But I made it clear on May 19 that not a single post in the 15 Corps zone has been taken by Pakistan. Pakistan moved i n and occupied areas which have been "unheld" for the last 50 years. This distortion and confusion are very unfortunate.

The other big area of controversy is, of course, intelligence. Local officials of the 121 Brigade say that there were intelligence inputs about such an intrusion and these were ignored. Is that correct?

That is again, you know, misleading. The documents which are being quoted are misleading. This will come out soon. This was a totally unexpected development. There were no reports from any quarter about an intrusion or attack by Pakistan. If somebody wan ts to say that he warned that 500 militants were being trained in Skardu, and to link that report to what happened, this is totally far-fetched. The militants who are being trained in Skardu can come to Kupwara or any other place. Anyway, in this case th ere were no militants, only regular troops.

You will recall that in March, I had discussed with you the possibility of Pakistan planning some form of conventional conflagration using its newly obtained nuclear parity in order to force the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue. In that sens e, was India too relaxed about the consequences of Pokhran-II?

No, quite the contrary. After the nuclear status was acquired, it stood to reason, both military and strategic reason, that any possibility of a conventional conflict will decline.

But is that really the case? The great powers fought a number of conventional engagements, and in some cases even border skirmishes. Have the chances of Pakistan using its nuclear power status as a shield against any conventional reprisal by India in creased?

Well, I would not like to comment on that, but that is not my understanding. The real reasons for this particular misadventure Pakistan embarked upon will come out in due course. But I don't think it has anything to do with the nuclear scenario. Perhaps the linkages are more with the proxy war it is waging in Kashmir. That seems, to me, to be more plausible. What has happened seems similar to what Pakistan did in 1947 and 1965, when it used the facade of Mujahideens and Kabailis. The tactics are identic al, too, with what was done in Afghanistan. There too, this fiction of the Taliban was created when the entire world knew that it was the Pakistan Army which was fighting.

My question is, would Pakistan have risked the Kargil adventure had the risk of a full-scale conventional war still existed?

That may have been a miscalculation. Pakistan may have underestimated the resolve of the Indian Union.

Do you now think that any further enterprises of this kind by Pakistan can be anticipated in the near future?

The point is, we cannot rule it out. In fact, knowing the past record of the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, we should be prepared for such things. Pakistan is not going to stop. It wants to carry on with a low-cost war which imposes g reater burdens on us. I have always said that unless we raise the costs for Pakistan, in whatever way we choose, it will be very difficult to stop this. It is lucrative for Pakistan militarily and strategically. Why should they stop?

Finally, what lessons do you think Pakistan will learn from this? There is a great deal of euphoria about the Indian victory, but at the end of the day, did Pakistan not succeed in tying several Indian brigades down, expending relatively little in th e process?

Now, I will correct your proposition in a larger, overall proposition. You are working on the premise, the presupposition, that only a few thousand Pakistani troops were involved. In fact, Pakistan used between 10 and 11 battalions for this entire aggres sion. This is definite, a conservative figure if anything. I am one hundred percent sure of this. Up to 11 battalions, including the Special Services Group commando battalions, were used.

Now, contrast this with the number of troops I used in the attack. I did not use even twice the number of the attacking force, 22 to 23 battalions! The other day, we were working out just how many battalions we had used, and the number was just 16 or 17 battalions. What we did was to concentrate our forces at the point of incision, step-wise. That is how we succeeded.

You know, there is another misconception that is going around. There is no doubt that our younger officers have done a great job. They led the attack from the front. But has anyone paused to ask why the morale is so high in 15 Corps, and why the soldiers are bubbling with enthusiasm? On Tiger Hill, my commanding officers, some of whom are quite old, were right there with the boys. Ravinder Nath, Joshi, Chakravarty, Bajwa, these officers climbed up the mountains with my boys. This was generalship unparal leled in the history of warfare. Talk to people who know what this kind of warfare is all about.

The amount of fan mail I am getting from retired Generals is an eye opener. My officers did an outstanding job in strategy and planning, in giving direction to the operations. Look at the innovative use of the Bofors gun. It is unknown in military histor y for 155-millimetre guns to have been used for direct firing at a 12 km range. Who thought of this? What I will say is that this effort by some journalists to drive a wedge between junior and senior officers is misplaced. Why were the youngsters putting their life on the line? Because they knew that they were working to the best plans. Those plans succeeded.

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