In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Kargil Vijay Diwas on July 26, 2019, the first of this two-part series focused on the initiation of the Kargil conflict.
In this concluding part, I intend to bring to the public some aspects of conflict progression, the constraints on the Indian Army to clear the intrusion and, briefly, where we stand today with reference to a potential repeat of Kargil.
The relatively slow response in May 1999 towards the expulsion of the intrusion was due to the lack of intelligence on the actual spread and magnitude of the intrusion.
In the mountains at higher altitudes, small infantry forces merge well with scraggy peaks and unless probing actions actually get into contact with intruding elements, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of ingress.
There were gaps in the defences and with vacated winter posts yet unoccupied by the Indian Army, the exercise to ascertain the frontage and exact locations was a challenge.
The IAF activated and flew a number of missions, but found determination of pinpoint targets difficult due to heights it had to fly at to avoid Pakistani shoulder-fired missiles.
Shortly thereafter came the restriction preventing both the army and the IAF from crossing the LoC. The implication was that the IAF had to fly parallel to the LoC while the Army’s operations could not plan to adopt rear, and sometimes even flanking approaches, to reach the occupied heights, which stood at 16,000 to 18,000 feet.
Troops had to be redeployed from the Kashmir Valley; in fact the entire 8 Mountain Division had to disengage from the counter-terror grid, acclimatise the troops and be prepared for high-altitude assault.
This is one of the most hazardous operations infantrymen ever undertake, having to climb 6,000 to 7,000 feet from the Dras-Mashkoh valley floor to reach their objectives.
Each assault by a company of 80-100 men took the better part of a week or more to attain even a modicum of success with the threat of a counterattack always present.
En route they suffered severe privations, very limited logistical support and heavy casualties. Higher attrition occurred due to the decision not to cross the LoC and it remains a point of debate whether anything was achieved by this.
At higher diplomatic levels, it helped in securing international recognition of India’s sense of responsibility and perhaps put Pakistan on the mat.
That helped in the US decision to force Pakistan to vacate the territory not yet cleared by the Indian Army. Some may argue that it saved many more casualties that Indian Army may have suffered, if it had to recapture every single occupied post.
What needs to be remembered is that this was not a war fought by individual arms or services of the army. Logistics played a major role and the decisions to deploy 100 artillery guns for each battalion assault, along with direct firing by Bofors guns, were all game changers. It was the collective contribution of the Army and IAF, which ensured victory for the Indian forces.
At another level, the failure of the Pakistan Army to collect their dead, feigning that they were freedom fighters, left the Indian Army on a higher moral plane. Honourable burial of the enemy’s dead followed with full honours due to them.
The state of preparedness of the Indian Army to fight such a war was actually abysmal. Kargil was a relatively low priority sector with assessment of potential employment of just a brigade by Pakistan in the eventuality of a full-scale war.
That would have had different implications. A standalone operation is something else. Military wherewithal had to be collected from different locations and flown to Kargil, reserve formations had to move and acclimatise the troops.
All the while, the footprint of Pakistan-sponsored terror in Kashmir Valley and Jammu was increasing, taking full advantage of the attention focused on Kargil.
One of the earliest decisions after the conflict was to curtail the Srinagar-based 15 Corps’ responsibility to the area between Zojila and Jawahar Tunnel and hand over operational responsibility of Ladakh, including Kargil, to the newly raised Headquarters 14 Corps.
The Kargil Review Committee was set up as a consequence of the admission that all was not well with national security. The Committee did yeoman service with its recommendations and a Group of Ministers (GoM) was set up to examine the recommendations.
It’s unfortunate that even with as big a trigger as Kargil 1999, the implementation of identified recommendations of the GoM were never implemented in letter and spirit. Half-baked measures such as creation of HQ Integrated Defence Staff as against an integrated Ministry of Defence were made.
Eighteen years down the line it has not happened. The fast-track acquisitions processed by the government in 1999-2001 have never been replicated and Indian troops yet fight with the same rifles they fought with in 1999.
India is definitely better equipped to handle crises of the Kargil type but no adversary repeats his strategy. It will be another plan and another place. National security capability demands a holistic ability to assess what, where and how an adversary may target India’s security. It also demands rapid response and appropriate capability to give our forces a more than equal chance to prevent the adversary achieving his aim.
All this can at no time be at levels of hundred per cent readiness, but optimisation is always possible and that is what we should be focused upon, without turfs and without personalities.
It has to be an institutional approach, the start point of which is surely a National Security Strategy paper from the government followed by a serious debate in Parliament.