Kargil War : Recollections
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

The Kargil war was fought from May through till 26 July 1999 across a trans-Himalayan front of about 150 km at dizzying heights of up to 18000 feet in what was the most inhospitable and unlikely battleground in history. The relatively rapid expulsion of the Pakistani forces from these areas which had been occupied by them through deception and stealth in early 1999 constituted a major military success for India. The credit for this goes largely to our soldiers - both officers and men.

This victory did not come cheap. It is estimated that over 500 Indian officers and men made the supreme sacrifice and over 1100 were wounded. The Pakistani casualty toll was much higher and easily double that taken by India.

My perspectives on the Kargil war are largely informed by my having been the Member Secretary of the Kargil Review Committee set up in end July 1999 to review the events leading up to the conflict and to make recommendations to safeguard national security against such armed intrusions. Given this remit, the Committee did not look at how the conflict was handled post 26 May 1999.

My appointment as Member Secretary of the Committee was driven by the fact that I was Secretary, National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), and as such not only had security related responsibilities but also had the requisite staff and office resources to effectively service the Committee's requirements. Had the Committee been left to itself to fend for its office and staff resources it would not have been able to complete its work as expeditiously and efficiently as it did with the support of the NSCS. In fact, this model of utilising the capacities of the NSCS for security related work became a trend setter. It was thus also utilised as the secretariat for the Group of Ministers set up for reviewing the national security system and over the years took the lead in many cross cutting security related issues on which there was diffidence of one or another institution to take the lead.

The Committee functioned in a spirit of openness and transparency. It not only engaged in debate within itself but also with those in the strategic community including even officers in the NSCS who were helping out in its work. This was in large measure due to the persona of its other constituents notably the late Mr K Subrahmanyam, the Chairman, and doyen of India's strategic fraternity, the meticulous Lt Gen KK Hazari, former Vice Chief of Army Staff, and the late Mr BG Verghese, one of our most respected and versatile journalists. One would be remiss in not also mentioning the role of the National Security Advisor, namely Mr Brajesh Mishra, in enormously facilitating the task of the Committee. As a result of his whole hearted support the entire national establishment opened itself to freely interacting with the Committee and to answering all its queries. Furthermore, he gave the Committee a complete carte blanche in developing the report as it pleased and without the slightest interference. Indeed, even though he knew in advance through me that the Committee had decided to recommend that the office of the NSA and the Principal Secretary to PM should not be occupied by the same person as done by him, he made no effort to effectuate any change in the recommendation.

The Committee consciously desisted from wasting time and energy in fixing responsibility on individuals, choosing instead to work in a cooperative mode with all concerned to tease out the lessons that could be learnt from the Kargil experience. In the process it had in depth interactions with scores of political leaders including the highest in the land, military personnel at all levels, intelligence officials, relevant civil servants, journalists etc. It also made a number of field visits particularly to Jammu and Kashmir including the area of operations. On the basis of this arduous and extensive exercise the Committee published its report on 15 December 2015 - less than five months after having been constituted. Credit must be given to the Government for having made this report public as this was not the norm at the time and as there were some things in it which did not sit well with the Government. The report was also tabled in Parliament. It is, however, a pity that the voluminous annexures and appendices to the report were not made public by the Government despite the Committee's request that this should be done with appropriate security deletions where necessary.

The main elements of the Committee's report, apart from its recommendations, included, inter alia, the nature of the Pakistani action, its authors, its motivations, our response, our so called intelligence failure, and speculation on whether or not the Kargil war could have been avoided.

Pakistani Action

Stealth, secrecy, and deception were the hallmarks of the Pakistani intrusions in the Kargil. The exercise, accordingly, was undertaken with virtually no movement of additional formations from outside the sector and with no extraordinary dumping of stores and ammunition. It also involved only around 2000 men across a front of about 150 km in shallow depths of 5-9 km. Movement of these personnel was undertaken in deep winter, viz from January to April 1999, when patrolling by our forces was virtually impossible and when some posts were traditionally vacated. Finally, the Pakistani forces came in fancy dress masquerading as militants in order to create the fiction that the action was being undertaken by freedom fighters and not by the Pakistani Army.

The Kargil intrusions were part of a plan formulated in the 1980s but never executed. The author of this exercise was Gen Musharraf who had been made COAS by Nawaz Sharif in October 1998 over the heads of two other Generals. Even within Pakistan knowledge of the operation was confined to a small coterie of Generals around him on a need to know basis. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy were kept in the loop. It is uncertain as to how much Nawaz Sharif knew, though the Committee took the stand that "the balance of possibility suggests that he was fully in the picture." It further asserted that he was at least aware of the broad thrust of the plan when he welcomed Mr Vajpayee in Lahore in February 1999.

Clearly the Pakistani intrusion was well planned and executed and it completely surprised India. By end April, the Pakistani forces had occupied all the high points across a 150 km front without detection. Furthermore, even after detection in the second week of May we believed that what we confronted were militants and not the Army. It was not till a few weeks later after active engagement that we realised that what we were up against were not militants but the Pakistani Army. It is true that there were some militants amongst the Pakistani infiltrators but these were in the nature of support elements. It was estimated that the bulk of the intruders were regular soldiers and the militants were no more than, perhaps, 30 percent of the total force.

I may mention that as Chairman Joint Intelligence Committee, I came to know that something was afoot in the Kargil Sector only in the second week of May when officials from two intelligence agencies claimed that they had reports about ingress of Pakistani intruders into India. This contention was vehemently denied by officials from two other intelligence agencies. While these agencies were in the process of arriving at a reconciled position the matter became public. In retrospect, we know that the Army had some information of the intrusions in the first of week of May itself though it assessed these as a militant and not a Pakistan Army intrusion.

Pakistani Motivations and Assumptions

Pakistan's Kargil adventure was motivated by the desire to internationalise the Kashmir issue as a nuclear flashpoint and encourage third party intervention; to alter the LC and use the areas captured as a possible trade off against Indian positions on Siachen; to interdict the Srinagar Leh road; and to provide a fillip to the insurgency in Kashmir.

The main assumptions behind this move were as follows:-

  1. Early third party intervention would take place in Pakistan's favour thereby enabling it to retain possession of the areas captured by it enabling it to bargain from a position of strength.
  2. Its nuclear capability would obviate any larger Indian riposte across the International Border (IB) or even the use of air power.
  3. India would not be in a position to mount a swift and resolute response due to a variety of factors.

In the event, these assumptions were off the mark barring possibly India not countering with a cross IB retaliation and its restrained use of air power.

If Pakistan took India by surprise in terms of its occupation of the Kargil heights by stealth, India equally took Pakistan by surprise with its swift and effective retaliation, compelling it to vacate aggression. Indeed, if one looks back over time, this was not the first time that Pakistan underestimated the firmness of Indian response. This happened in 1947, it happened in 1965 when we crossed the IB, it happened during the 2016 surgical strikes and it happened at Balakot. Miscalculations by Pakistan about the Indian reaction occur in part because its military is fairly contemptuous about "Hindu" India's ability to respond firmly and in part because India has usually reacted with caution and restraint even to the most serious provocations like the 1993 or the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

India's Response

After initial detection of the intrusions in the second week of May, Indian response was prompt and effective. A comprehensive set of actions was initiated to establish contact with the intruders, to fix the extent of the incursion and to contain it. Adequate troops and firepower were moved in. It was, however, only after some encounters that we realised that the bulk of the intruders were regulars. By the last week of May it was decided to also deploy the IAF, though it was restricted from crossing the LC and thus made to operate in a strait-jacket. Appropriate covering moves were also undertaken by the Army along the IB and the Western fleet was augmented by elements from the Eastern fleet not only to keep Pakistan from further mischief but also placing it on notice that India was intent on ensuring that it pulled back. Pakistan's efforts at negotiating were rebuffed and the message given was that it must first vacate aggression. India's firm and unequivocal moves were well understood and respected by the international community. In the event, they secured Pakistan's total retreat from the positions occupied by it on Indian soil by 26 July 1999.

I may mention that through the course of the Kargil conflict, the NSCS as well as a NSAB sub-group were separately providing inputs to Government of the actions we needed to take. There was considerable anxiety that dislodging the Pakistan Army from the Kargil heights through frontal action would not only be time consuming but would also be costly in terms of the casualties we would take. Accordingly, the NSCS suggested that India should open another front either along the LC or the IB in order to impel Pakistan to vacate its aggression in the Kargil Sector. The NSAB sub-group, on its part, recommended heavy air bombardment of Pakistani forces across the LC. In the event, neither of these suggestions gained traction and we engaged in a conventional slugfest with Pakistan in the Kargil Sector, taking heavy casualties. However, we got them out much sooner than anticipated due to the valour of our Armed Forces and good leadership. The diplomatic factor was, no doubt, at the back of the minds of our leadership which, perhaps, rightly felt that the diplomatic support that India enjoyed would diminish if we crossed the IB or even the LC.

India's so called Intelligence Failure

Through the Kargil conflict and its aftermath, much was made of India's so called intelligence failure both in terms of the long delayed detection of the intrusion and in terms of the fact that for a long time we felt that the intrusion had been undertaken not by the Pakistan Army but by militants. It is, of course, a fact that India was caught unawares and to that extent there was a failure of intelligence. But due consideration should be given to the fact that detection of such an intrusion was extremely difficult in the absence of high quality surveillance equipment and inability to mount effective patrols due to extreme weather conditions.

Furthermore, the intrusion was virtually impossible to foresee as it defied logic being a high-risk-low-reward exercise which carried within it the seeds of its own defeat and to which prudence militated against. High risk, because having been launched in the height of winter it was prone to heavy weather related casualties, which in fact occurred as evident from the diaries of captured Pakistani soldiers. Also early detection of the intruders and their consequent elimination was always a probability which, luckily for Pakistan, did not happen. Low reward because the intrusion could not possibly have been sustained for meaningful follow up action as it was carried out by a relatively small number of troops from within the sector in order to avoid detection. Induction of formations from outside the sector would have entailed detection but not doing so resulted in the intrusions having a limited shelf life. Finally, sustainability of such an intrusion required an enormous logistic effort which Pakistan could not deploy in stealth. Accordingly, Lt. General (Retd) Ali Quli Khan, one of Pakistan’s most professional generals, while dubbing the Kargil War as the "worst debacle" in Pakistan's history, went on to state that its "conception and planning at the highest level had been poor—in fact, so poor that the only word which can adequately describe it is unprofessional. We all know that the main duty of the high command is to ensure that with their meticulous planning they create conditions whereby their junior combatants can fight easily. This was certainly not done at Kargil. It is also fairly obvious that the Kargil Operation was not conceived in its totality... and brought ignominy to Pakistan.”

As far as the Committee is concerned it primarily held the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) responsible for the intelligence failure as it had not detected a change in the deployment of battalions in the area, and more specifically, the addition of one battalion to the force level normally deployed there. It held Military Intelligence (MI) responsible to a lesser extent for not detecting the intrusion on the grounds that it should have been able to pick up the forward moves undertaken.

Could Kargil have been Avoided?

The Committee felt that Kargil could have been prevented had the Indian Army plugged every possible loophole across the LC and guarded every square inch of territory. This was naturally not done as it would not have been cost effective militarily or politically. Above all, the Army must never be used as a border guarding force and should only be used for war fighting. Using it in a border guarding role will diminish it and adversely affect its war fighting capability.

Recommendations

The Committee made around two dozen recommendations. The single most important one of which was to undertake a thorough review of the national security system in its entirety by an independent body of credible experts.

This recommendation was accepted forthwith and a Group of Ministers chaired by the Home Minister was constituted in April 2000 to undertake the review of the national security system in its entirety. In order to facilitate their work, the Group of Ministers set up four task forces chaired and peopled by experts from outside the system to make recommendations in areas of intelligence, internal security, border management, and higher defence management. On the basis of the inputs submitted by the four task forces, which took into account the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee, and following detailed discussions with them and lengthy internal deliberations, the Group of Ministers submitted a report containing around 350 recommendations barely a year after it had been set up. This exercise constituted the most exhaustive review of the Indian security system ever undertaken. The CCS, in its meeting of 15th May 2001, accepted all these recommendations barring those pertaining to the setting up of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

This was unfortunate as the appointment of a CDS would have made for much more effective defence management. Specifically, a CDS would have provided single point military advice to government, administered the strategic forces, promoted greater "jointness" in the armed forces, and enhanced the efficacy of the planning process through intra and inter service prioritisation.

It is my clear impression that Prime Minister Vajpayee himself had nothing fundamentally against the setting up of a CDS but was prevailed upon to postpone a decision in the matter by elements in the Congress which were against it. Accordingly, he made known to us that a decision on this issue must await a political consensus in the matter. The aversion of the Congress to the CDS became evident as the subsequent UPA governments stymied all efforts to revive the idea. It is, therefore, ironical that the Congress manifesto today calls for the setting up of a CDS. One hopes that the Modi Government 2.0 would now bite the bullet and set up a CDS absence of which detracts from the optimal performance of our defence forces.

Implementation of the Group of Ministers recommendations were monitored by the NSCS on a quarterly basis and around 50-60 percent were implemented. Had all the recommendations been implemented with sincerity and despatch, India would have been much more secure than it is today. Specifically, we would have a populace and ruling class more disciplined and committed to the national cause, better policing, and better control on illegal migration, narco-trafficking, money laundering, and gun-running. We would also have more effective media management, better grip on crime and the coercive elements of state power notably the police, and the paramilitary forces, and the military would be better equipped and more effective. Indeed, I am convinced that had all the recommendations been implemented 26/11 would never have happened and the many other terrorist incidents which have since occurred would have been avoided.

Specifically, coming to the other recommendations made by the Kargil Review Committee, some were implemented and some were not. Some that were implemented include the setting up of an exclusive tech-int organisation modelled on the US National Security Agency which took the form of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), establishment of a Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), acceptance of a two stream approach - civil and military - for downloading and analysing imagery, acquisition and development of high quality Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and satellites, integration of the Armed Forces Headquarters with the Ministry of Defence, and the establishment of an institutional mechanism which took the form of the Intelligence Coordination Group for the purpose of coordinating the work of the intelligence agencies as well as tasking them and evaluating their functioning.

Notable amongst the recommendations not implemented was the call for reduction of colour service from 17 to 7-10 years and diversion of the released manpower to the paramilitary formations, enhanced defence outlays, publication of a white paper on India's nuclear weapon programme, publication of authentic accounts of the 1965 and 1971 wars as well as of the Kargil Conflict, review of information policy to develop structures and processes to keep the public informed of vital national issues, the undertaking of credible measures in J&K to win back alienated sections of the population, and the adoption of a declaratory policy that violation of the LC's sanctity would meet with retaliation in a manner, time and place of India's choosing.

In conclusion, on the 20th anniversary of the Kargil War, there could be no better tribute to the gallantry of our brave hearts than for the government to re-dedicate itself to India's safety and security. Towards this end, it would be well advised to undertake a comprehensive review of the progress achieved in the implementation of the recommendations made for security reform over the years, address the areas of difficulty where it has not been possible to implement these recommendations, and chart a plan of action for the future.

(The author is a former Deputy National Security Advisor. Presently he is a top member of the VIF fraternity)


Image Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/books/photo-stories/books-about-the-kargil-war/photostory/65147872.cms

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