Wounds of Kargil

Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir. From ‘Raiders in Kashmir’ of 1947-8 to ‘Operation Gibraltar’ in 1965 and the most recent one: Kargil in 1999. Pakistan’s role in the first two conflicts has been discussed over and over in the media and academia but Kargil war remains an event that seldom gets the attention that it deserves.

Two nuclear-armed nations fought over a key post in a disputed region for almost two months. It was the closest that the world got to a nuclear war since the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Owen Bennet Jones wrote in his book ‘Pakistan: Eye of the Storm’: “Pakistani officers attending courses at the Military Academy, the Staff College and the National Defence College routinely analyse and discuss every war, battle and skirmish in the history of the Pakistani army, but they still don’t talk about Kargil. Instructors usually claim that this is because ‘not all the details have yet been collected’. The truth is far simpler: Kargil was a piece of adventurism that totally backfired because Pakistan’s high command had not thought through the consequences.” General V.P.Malik wrote in the preface of his book on Kargil about debate on the conflict: “There is a noticeable difference between the two: an almost total lack of debate and analysis in one country and sufficient, though politicised, debate in the other. For obvious reasons, post-war issues and developments in India have been covered in more detail.”

Soon after the war, a ‘Kargil Review Committee’ was formed by the Indian government to investigate circumstances that led to the 1999 war. Some of the notable works from India on the war include General V.P. Malik’s ‘Kargil: From Surprise to Victory’, Praveen Swami’s ‘India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947-2004’ and most recently, Barkha Dutt’s ‘This Unquiet Land’. Pakistan’s official version was penned down by Dr. Shireen Mazari soon after the incident but it was swept away by observers as state-propaganda. Former Pakistani Generals including Shahid Aziz, Gulzar Kiani and Ziauddin Butt have given interviews or written articles about the issue (unanimously placing the blame on then-COAS Musharraf’s shoulders). Following is an appraisal of that conflict using the above-mentioned sources.

Marked on the map as Point 5062, Tiger Hill is situated about 16,500 feet above sea-level, ten kilometres north of a national highway connecting Srinagar to Leh. Indian encampments at Siachen Glacier (which is the world’s highest battleground, a shameful record to hold) received their supplies through that road and if Pakistan could occupy Kargil, it could cut off the link to Siachen. Pakistani forces had deployed heavy firing on the Dras–Kargil highway in October 1998 without the desired effect. Every year, Indian forces stationed at Tiger Hill used to evacuate their posts during winter months and retake their positions in the month of May, the next year. In late April 1999, three shepherds from the small frontier hamlet of Batalik left for the high ranges with their flocks, as a part of the grand summer movement that takes place across the great Himalayan ranges. On the morning of 3rd May, they discovered a group of men digging trenches along a stream that runs down from glaciers along the Line of Control (LOC) towards Batalik. They reported this activity to the 121 Independent Infantry Brigade of Indian Army stationed nearby. A small patrol was sent by the Brigade to determine the veracity of the shepherd’s claims and was ambushed.

It turned out that a company of Pakistan’s 12 Northern Light Infantry (NLI) had occupied the post. It was an intelligence failure on part of Indians, as admitted in the ‘Kargil Review Committee’.

A few months before this incident, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had invited his Indian counterpart (Atal Bihari Vajpayee) to Lahore and initiated an ambitious peace process. This initiative didn’t endear Mr. Sharif to Pakistan’s military top brass who couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine India being friendly or even being a normal neighbour to Pakistan. The peace process was sabotaged by sending irregular and regular forces atop the hills of Kargil during early months of 1999. By the time local shepherds spotted Pakistani fighters, they had occupied 40 square miles of Indian-held territory without firing a single shot. Between 1,000 and 2,000 men crossed the line of control and moved 6 miles into Indian Territory before they were even identified. On 25th May, Mr. Vajpayee approved the use of air power by Indian Air Force. The next morning the airfield at Srinagar was used to launch over forty sorties of MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27 fighter aircraft. Mi-17 helicopters were also used for air strikes. The aircraft, however, made little impact. Since many of the targets were located at between 13,000 and 17,000 feet, the planes had to fly in at over 25,000 feet to avoid the Pakistani’s anti-aircraft fire. On 27 May the Pakistanis shot down a MiG-27 and a MiG-21, claiming that both had strayed across the line of control. The next day, Pakistani troops on the Indian side of the line shot down a Mi-17 helicopter.

Indian army decided to deploy Bofors guns for their assault on Pakistani positions. The guns could fire three rounds in 12 seconds and it had a range of 30 kilometres at high altitude terrain. The decisive battle for Tiger Hill took place on the night of 3 July and lasted thirteen hours. The Indian infantry made its move, planning to reach the 16,000-foot peak around midnight. They attacked from three sides. By that time, over 30,000 rounds had been fired into the mountain. Pakistani forces carpet-bombed the town of Dras. By the time the operation came to an end, an Indian flag was flying atop Tiger Hill. The battle was won by the Indian against the odds but the war was yet to be over. According to neutral sources, Pakistani troops had been dislodged from only twelve of 134 defended positions. Another estimate suggested that India had overrun only four out of 132 positions. There was significant panic among Pakistan’s generals who had hedged their bets on Kargil and they begged Prime Minister Sharif to get them out of this mess. Mr. Sharif flew to Washington D.C and met U.S President Clinton on 4th July, 1999. After much back and forth regarding the combined statement to be issued by the two leaders, Mr. Sharif decided to order a withdrawal of forces from Kargil. It was an inglorious end to a disastrous adventure.

Lt. General Shahid Aziz (Head of Analysis wing of ISI at that time) later called the Kargil operatios ‘An unsound military plan based on invalid assumptions, launched with little preparations and in total disregard to the regional and international environment, was bound to fail’ in an Op-Ed for this paper back in 2013. He also called it ‘a total disaster.’

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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