Last July, sitting in Dras in the middle of a two-day celebration of India’s 1999 Kargil military victory, I was interviewing Lt Gen K.T. Parnaik, who leads the Indian army’s northern command. Among other issues, the general, one of the seniormost military leaders of the nation, spoke candidly of the 2010 unrest in Kashmir, the presence of Chinese troops in northern parts of Pakistan, India’s ongoing efforts to improve infrastructure along the China border and, towards the end of the interview, about the growing demands for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battleground.
One sentence in the general’s elaborate answer to the question on Siachen struck me as particularly significant. “Don’t forget, Kargil happened because of Siachen. Why did they do Kargil?” he asks. “If you peruse their records, which are now out in the public, one of the major objectives of what they did in Kargil was to force us to vacate the Siachen glacier. Now, if that is their intent and that is their credibility, it is up to you to judge whether we should be really vacating the glacier or not.”
Seven months down the line, a former general of the Pakistani army, Lt Gen Shahid Aziz, who headed the analysis wing of Pakistan’s spy agency, the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in the summer of 1999 when the Kargil conflict was playing out, has confirmed what Parnaik said last July. Aziz has also blamed former president and military dictator Pervez Musharraf for having kept the nation in the dark on his pet project, the Kargil incursions. Undeterred, Musharraf has described the Kargil conflict as a huge military success. He says the Pakistani army would have “conquered” 300 square miles of Indian territory if then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif “had not visited the US and succumbed to pressure from then US president Bill Clinton to withdraw Pakistani troops from Indian territory”.
Musharraf, unwanted in his own country and shunned by most senior military and political leaders there, is now using his erstwhile aides and confidants to shore up some support for his favourite operation. Col Ashfaq Hussain, a former aide to Musharraf, writes in his book Witness to Blunder that Musharraf himself crossed the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan in a helicopter on March 28, 1999. He spent a night on the India-controlled side to boost the morale of his troops.
In a recent conversation, Gen V.P. Malik, who was India’s chief of army staff during the Kargil conflict, admitted that Indian troops had received reports of Pakistani patrols crossing over into Indian side of the LoC sometime in February 1999 even as prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were discussing the peace process and Vajpayee was taking the bus ride to Lahore. He reckons that Musharraf, who had already planned the incursions into Kargil by irregulars and troops, thought it fit to visit the forward areas immediately thereafter to reassure the troops that the operation he had engaged them in was indeed to continue as planned.
Whatever the reality, recent revelations from Pakistan have ensured that the Kargil conflict is back in the headlines again. The revelations have also triggered a new debate on who gained what and who lost what in the longest military engagement between India and Pakistan so far.
Pakistan’s military planners are now weighing the real cost of the Kargil operation. For months, indeed years after Pakistani troops were evicted by the Indian army and the air force from the rugged heights of Kargil, the Pakistan’s military leadership has been in denial. It tried to maintain the facade that the intruders were mujahideen, freedom fighters really, trying to liberate Kashmir from India’s clutches and that the Pakistani military was merely providing those motley groups some moral support. In trying to keep up with the fiction, the Pakistani army even disowned its soldiers, refusing to receive their bodies. Irrefutable evidence, in the form of paybooks of regular Pakistani soldiers, their photographs and letters written by them to families, however, forced Pakistan to grudgingly accept that soldiers of its Northern Light Infantry were also involved in the intrusion into Kargil.
That a professional army could abandon its own soldiers so callously was shocking, but more embarrassing was the folly of launching an operation that seemed without any tangible political objective. Musharraf’s reckless and seemingly aimless military misadventure dented the Pakistani army’s stock considerably in global circles.
The Indian army, and indeed all other agencies tasked with providing intelligence, were initially caught unawares by the intrusion despite advance warnings and inputs by its frontline commander (see Outlook, Aug 2, 1999, and the subsequent coverage, right up to September 2000). That its young officers and soldiers fought back valiantly and wrested control of all the heights and peaks that the intruding Pakistanis had occupied is well documented. What is however not sufficiently discussed is the fact that even through his misadventure, Musharraf managed, in the long run, to extract quite a cost out of the Indian army.
Till the conflict broke out and ratcheted up the tension, the Kargil-Dras sector was held by a single brigade, of some 3,000 men.
Today, a full mountain division is deployed to keep vigil on the sector. The 8 Mountain Division, which will be celebrating its golden jubilee this year, was raised in the Northeast for counterinsurgency operations, before it was moved to the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s. It was rushed to the Kargil-Dras sector in the May-June 1999. Since then it has stayed on. Before the Kargil conflict happened, during the harsh winter months, the weather meant that many posts there would be vacated; the assumption was that the enemy troops would face the same problem and would prefer to withdraw. No longer.
Now, even in the severest of winter, the Indian army has to compulsorily hold those posts by stationing men there. Lt Gen Kishan Pal, who was the 15 Corps commander based in Srinagar and technically the man who led the Indian field formations during the Kargil conflict, believes that India may have won a tactical battle but lost strategically. In an interview to me in May 2010, Pal said, “Well, for 11 years I did not speak at all…I did not speak because I was never convinced about this war, whether we really won it…. We did gain some tactical victories, we regained the territories we lost, we lost 587 precious lives. I consider this a loss of a war, because whatever we gained from the war has not been consolidated, either politically or diplomatically. It has not been consolidated militarily.” In a way, the Pakistani military achieved an unintended result in tying down a full Indian army division in Kargil. The original Pakistani objective of cutting off communication and supply lines to Siachen, the Shyok and Nubra valleys in Ladakh, however, remains unfulfilled.
Having failed to wrest control of the Saltoro ridge, which dominates the Siachen glacier and acts as a wedge between the Chinese-controlled Shagsham valley and Pak-occupied Kashmir, a Track II attempt is being made to “resolve” and “demilitarise” Siachen and get India to withdraw troops from the Saltoro ridge.
By involving senior and not-so-senior retired Indian military officials in a backchannel dialogue and getting them to agree that Siachen, along with the Sir Creek dispute, is a low-hanging fruit in the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue, a perfidious effort is currently on to get Siachen vacated through non-military means. The principle on which Musharraf launched Kargil operations has thus not been abandoned completely. The Indian establishment has, however, repeatedly failed to see through the Pakistani army’s designs. Many civil society activists in Pakistan, however, say all stakeholders, including the Pakistani army, now genuinely want peace with India. The question is: is the shift in the Pakistan military’s thinking a tactical or strategic one?
Hopefully, Indian political and military decision-makers, having learnt their lesson from the 1999 conflict, will wait to get a clear answer before reciprocating the peace overtures from Islamabad. This is the least that New Delhi owes to the young officers and men who sacrificed their lives through those months to reclaim the icy heights from intruding Pakistani forces and irregulars.
(The writer is NDTV’s security and strategic affairs editor and had reported the Kargil conflict for Outlook.)