Had General Pervez Musharraf pulled out old files and taken cognisance of terrain and logistics imperatives, Kargil may never have happened.
Almost two decades after the Kargil conflict, painting a strategic landscape of the key drivers that motivated the Pakistan Army to launch the operation is not a difficult proposition. However, putting it into an objective-applied historical context is considerably challenging, given the emotive nature of all India-Pakistan conflicts.
Considering the single-minded historic obsession of the Pakistan Army to get even with India after repeated military failures and sub-optimal outcomes from sub-conventional strategies, every Pakistan Army chief has wanted to go down in history as someone who has redeemed the honour of the army.
At the conceptual level, it has been an accepted doctrinal underpinning that a pre-emptive and proactive approach to war-fighting was ingrained in the DNA of the Pakistan Army, while India was always seen as a reactive and diffident society, which had learnt to live with its neighbour’s distinctly different war-waging philosophy.
The Siachen operation
The stunning capitulation of the Pakistan Army in 1971 in Bangladesh, and the bitter pill of having been rattled in 1984 by the pre-emptive occupation of the Saltoro Ridge, astride the Siachen Glacier, by India made it imperative for Pakistan to strike back. Having claimed ownership of the glacier, and the ensuing lack of success in dislodging the Indians from any of the heights they had occupied rankled Pakistan Army.
The aggressive, localised action by successive Indian brigade commanders of the Siachen brigade even after 1988 resulted in continuous pressure on the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) to redeem the formation’s honour after almost two decades of being continuously on the back foot. A division-sized formation at that time with four brigades, it formed a part of Pakistan’s 10 Corps, which had its HQ in Rawalpindi.
The impact of the Siachen operation as one of the primary causes of the Kargil conflict is surprisingly underplayed by India. This is possibly because of the underlying argument that such a scenario should have been played out and war gamed in India’s war colleges and emerging ‘Net Assessment’ outfits during the period of 1985-1999. That it was not done reflects Indian strategic and operational thought of the time, which was still mired in conventional war gaming and conducting large-scale exercises with division-sized armoured thrusts like Operation Brass Tacks.
The many battles in Kargil
Before giving General Pervez Musharraf the entire credit for what was prima facie an audacious infiltration plan, or discredit him for his recklessness and inability to assess likely Indian responses, it is important to step back and look at the history of battles in the Kargil sector.
The Pakistanis had tasted blood in 1948 when tribal Lashkars, supported by the Gilgit Scouts, made a late winter run to Leh via Dras and Kargil, only to be pushed back by a spirited response from the Indian Army. Similarly in the 1965 war, one of thrust lines of Operation Gibraltar was in the Kargil sector. As a refresher, the 1965 operation sought to infiltrate irregulars, embedded with Pakistani army officers and men, to spark a popular uprising in Kashmir, which never happened.
Despite an aggressive western army commander in the form of Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh, the Indian Army could not prevent these infiltrators from capturing a few critical heights in the 121 Brigade sector overlooking Kargil town in April 1965, Pt 13620 and Black Rock being two of them.
May 1965 saw some of the toughest high-altitude battles ever fought in the 20th century as 4 Rajput Regiment of the Indian Army’s 121 Brigade supported by 85 Light Regiment, an artillery unit, evicted the infiltrators from the heights. The attacking force suffered heavy casualties, including company commander MajorBaljit Singh Randhawa, who was the first gallantry award winner in the 1965 war and was bestowed with a posthumous Maha Vir Chakra while Captain Ranbir Singh Kang, an artillery officer, was awarded with a Vir Chakra.
It was a similar story during the 1971 war except that an ambitious Indian offensive across and along the Kargil heights followed the eviction of intruders. Brigadier M.L. Whig’s 121 Brigade attempted to link-up with the Ladakh Scouts in a likely advance to Khapalu and Skardu, this time with good IAF fighter support. This was not to be because the weather and the ceasefire acted as spoilsport.
A risky, untenable plan
The 1999 Kargil plan is widely believed to have emerged as early as 1987 during General Zia’s reign as military dictator, but was shot down as too risky and untenable by Pakistan’s foreign minister Sahibzada Yakub Khan. It emerged again during the tenure of General Jehangir Karamat as chief of army staff in 1998, but was put on hold for similar reasons.
It is highly likely that Musharraf saw in the plan an opportunity to make history. Rather than believing that surprise and audacity would overwhelm the Indians, had Musharraf pulled out old files and taken cognisance of terrain and logistics imperatives, Kargil may never have happened.
Arjun Subramaniamis a retired Air Vice Marshal of the IAF, and currently, a visiting fellow at Oxford.