Events That Changed Destiny of Nation: X

The Kargil War of 1999

Continued from “Catastrophic Ayodhya Events in 1992”

It was a sort of unprecedented historical event when the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seated inside a bedecked bus crossed the international Attari-Wagah border in February 1999 for a friendly rendezvous with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in an endeavor to improve age-old toxic relations of the two neighbours. The event generated such a fanfare, excitement and apparent camaraderie as if it was the end of the decades of hostilities between the two neighbours opening a new dawn of hope and prospects of mutual progress and development. But only a few weeks later, Pakistan betrayed India by sending Pakistani soldiers disguised as Kashmiri insurgents to stealthily occupy the Kargil heights in the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC). It took almost three months of tedious operation and fighting by Indian troops, apart from some international diplomatic efforts, forcing Pakistan to retreat from the Indian positions in Kargil and elsewhere along the LOC.

The Kargil war aka "Operation Vijay" (as the Indian Armed Forces call it) lasted from May to July 1999 and had far reaching consequences in the region. It cost dearly to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who lost his premiership in a bloodless coup d'etat engineered by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, who simultaneously declared a state of emergency suspending the writ of the Constitution of Pakistan. Following the war, Pakistan's terror linkages were brazenly exposed and the world outlook towards her considerably changed. For India too, the war exposed the inadequacies and weaknesses of the logistics and training of the Indian armed forces in high-altitude mountainous war besides altering its strategic outlook forever. The two hostile neighbours had also reached almost to a nuclear flashpoint before the aggressor country finally withdrew its troops and other resources to deescalate.

Territorial Ambitions and Objectives

Till the First Kashmir War in 1947-48, Kargil was part of the Baltistan region in Ladakh with sparse population of the diverse linguistic, ethnic and religious groups in many valleys along the high mountainous ridges. The War led to bifurcation of the area with major portion of Baltistan going to the Pak-occupied-Kashmir (POK) and the district and township of Kargil on the Indian side in the Ladakh division of the Jammu and Kashmir. The town of Kargil is some 205 km from Srinagar, facing the northern areas across the LOC. It has extreme climate in that the summers are short, cool with chilly nights, while winters are long, frosty with subzero temperatures often dropping to −45 Centigrade and below. The area is strategically important as the Indian national highway NH 1D connecting Srinagar and Leh passes through Kargil.

This is the only major road between Srinagar and Leh that links Ladakh with the rest of the country and the ridges with several military posts overlooking it are usually 5,000 metres and above. This was the area with an stretch of about 160 Km that experienced infiltration and fighting during the Kargil War. Anyone occupying these heights would have implicit tactical advantage over the adversary as the high ground would offer advantages like a fortified arena and it would be very difficult to dislodge them without incurring heavy losses in terms of human lives and logistics under freezing temperatures. During the winters of 1998-99, Pakistani military resorted to infiltration codenamed "Operation Badr" by covertly training and sending their regulars and paramilitary forces disguised as mujahideen on the Indian side of the LOC occupying strategic positions traditionally vacated by the Indian troops during the extreme winters.

The most obvious intent of such infiltration appeared to sever link between Kashmir and Ladakh rendering the latter vulnerable. The other apparent objective was to achieve strategic advantage in securing major ridges, causing Indian troops to withdraw from the Siachen Glaciar and pressurizing India for broader negotiation of the Kashmir issue. Perhaps yet another motive of Pakistan was to create tension in the region to invite worldwide attention and thereby internationalizing the Kashmir issue yet again. Some analysts also suggested that the infiltration objective may also have been to avenge India?s Operation Meghdoot in 1984 whereunder much of the Siachen Glaciar was secured by the Indian Army.

Infiltration, Build-up and Discovery Thereof

The Kargil events led to spilling of several beans and naked truth emerging out from sources within and outside Pakistani establishment. As it appears, while the Pakistani premier was tangoing with the Indian counterpart in February 1999 for the restoration of peace, the Pakistan Army was engaged in secret deployment of troops from their elite Special Services Group as also from the battalions of the Northern Light Infantry to occupy posts on the Indian side of the LOC. It is widely believed that several Kashmiri guerillas/militants and Afghan mercenaries were also roped in and all together occupied several vantage locations and set up bases in the Indian-side of the LOC. According to Indian Army sources, this infiltration started in February and continued through April 1999 occupying heights in the lower Mushkoh Valley, Marpo La ridgeline in Drass, Kaksar near Kargil, Batalik sector east of the Indus River and Chorbatla sector where the LOC turns North as also in the Turtok sector south of the Siachen area.

These incursions were not detected early because traditionally the Indian Army vacates their posts on these heights during the extreme winters reoccupies when the weather becomes conducive in summer. During early May 1999, patrols were sent to some areas including the Kaksar Langpa area of Kargil district to ascertain if the snow had retreated enough for the summer positions to be taken. Apparently, on the tip of the local shepherds, Lt Saurabh Kalia (Captain posthumously) went on a routine patrol along with five other soldiers of Jat Regiment in the Kaksar sector of the rugged, treeless Ladakh mountains. They were trapped in a cross fire with the Pakistani forces, ran out of ammunition and captured alive by the Pakistani troops. Later they were subjected to inhuman torture, killed and their mutilated bodies recovered by the Indian side. This incident sent shockwaves to the Indian Army and nation while simultaneously revealing the presence of the hundreds of Pakistani troops disguised as guerrillas in fortified positions on the peaks of the high hills tops inside the Indian side of the LOC.

It appears that initially in the absence of the accurate knowledge of the nature and extent of the incursions, the Indian Army assumed that this was an act of militant infiltrators and would be easy to tackle them. But patrols in other areas and heavy artillery fire of Pakistan Army to provide protective cover to these infiltrators soon convinced the Indian Army that the enemy plan was on a much bigger scale that needed a far greater strategy and maneuvers to tackles and dislodge them from the Indian soil. As per assessment of the Indian establishment, anywhere between 130 to 200 Square Km areas was under the seize of the infiltrators.

Mobilization of the Indian Armed Forces

These developments were serious enough to shake the Indian Government which responded with due caution and ordering massive deployment of the Indian troops across the Jammu and Kashmir border. The Indian Army launched "Operation Vijay" and reportedly mobilized about two lakh Indian troops across the state of the Jammu and Kashmir border. But the nature of the terrain was such that actual operation and fighting had to remain localized. In the conflict zone, two divisions of the regular Army comprising of about 20,000 soldiers, a few units of the Paramilitary forces and the Air Force were actually deployed. Thus the total number of Indian soldiers who actually took part in the military operation the Kargil-Drass sector was nearly 30,000. On the other hand, the estimated number of infiltrators including their artillery back up and logistics men was approximately 5,000 at the peak of the conflict.

The Indian Air Force too launched "Operation Safed Sagar" in support of the Indian land forces but its usage and effectiveness remained limited during the conflict due the high altitude and harsh weather conditions. The Indian Navy too, on their part, geared up for the prolonged blockade of the Pakistani ports, mainly Karachi. The Navy's "Operation Talwar" was aimed at stalling the enemy's supply routes in the event of outbreak of full scale hostilities. With the available information, the Indian Naval Fleet started aggressive patrols in the North Arabian Sea threatening Pakistan's sea trade, particularly its dependence on sea-based crucial oils supplies during the conflict. Post-Kargil revelations suggested that Pakistan was left with just six days to sustain with fuel in the event of full scale war.

Conflict: Securing Territories from Infiltrators

The high altitude, harsh weather, rough terrain and narrow roads proved to be major bottlenecks in Indian Army's operations. The National Highway 1D, the only arterial road for the main logistics and supplies, had become vulnerable as Pakistanis with the observation posts set in the Indian heights had clear line-of-sight to inflict artillery fire on the Indian cavalcades. The constant shelling of the arterial road posed serious threat of Leh being cut off from the mainland. Besides the cover artillery fire, the infiltrators apart from the usual small arms and grenade launchers were also armed with mortars, artillery and anti-aircraft guns.

The initial assault of the Indian troops was aimed at securing back the high hilltop positions overlooking the National Highway 1D, particularly in stretches near the Kargil Township. As the majority of posts were in the vicinity of the highway, securing all such posts one after another was crucial not only for the security of the highway but also for recapturing the other forward posts. The Indian Army carried out their operations keeping these primary and paramount objectives in view. The task had been made more difficult by the adversaries by heavily mining several posts as subsequently revealed by the armed forces who reportedly had cleared more than eight thousand mines from these locations.

Having set their priorities, the Indian troops targeted the Tiger Hill and Tololing in the Drass Sector, followed by the Batalik-Turtok sub-sector providing crucial reach to Siachen Glacier. Then some other peaks such as Point 4590 and Point 5353 under the seize were found vital for the security of the National Highway and Indian troops had bitter fight and heavy casualties to secure them for the enemy. Through determined and sustained efforts, the majority of the heights, including many named and unnamed points, in the vicinity of the National Highway were recaptured by the middle of June 1999, though some parts in the Drass Sector near the highway experienced sporadic shelling till the end of war. All along the Indian troops faced stiff resistance as the infiltrators were well fortified at heights with enough back up ammunitions, supplies and other stuff to cope with the harsh weather conditions.

After securing the majority posts surrounding the National Highway, the Indian troops focused on their assault to secure the forward posts across the LOC by driving away the infiltrators. In this context, the battle at Toloing was significant. At some posts such as Tiger Hill Point 5140 they faced stiff resistance from the enemy including fierce hand to hand combat. While the operation was at full swing, even a large number of artillery guns including the Bofors howitzer (155 mm) were engaged by the Indian Army where the infiltrators were in the line-of-sight. At certain places, Bofors guns were found very effective while their utility and success was limited in areas constrained with the space and depth for deployment.

Besides incurring heavy casualties, Indian Army was experiencing difficulties in dislodging infiltrators from many vantage positions, so the Indian Air Force too was roped in. The Air Force engaged its Russian MiG-21fighters, MiG-27 strike aircrafts and even French Mirage 2000H to drop laser-guided bombs for destroying well-entrenched Pakistani positions at heights. However, the terrain was not found suitable for such aerial attacks hence such endeavors met with only partial success in destroying enemy holds. In the process, India reportedly lost one MiG-21and MiG-27 each; the former was apparently shot down while the latter suffered an engine failure. As many points could not be reached by the aerial and artillery attacks, the Indian Army had no option but to mount direct ground assault, success rate of which was slow and doubtful while incurring heavy loss of life.

The direct ground assaults were slow and resource consuming taking a heavy toll on peaks 5,000 metres high and above. In such cases, almost all advances were made under the cover of darkness in chilling cold conditions at sub-zero temperatures. While carrying out these operations, the Indian troops avoided crossing the LOC including aerial attacks on Pakistani soil which would have given excuse to the Pakistani Army to indulge in direct confrontation while, so far, they had denied their role in infiltration saying it was an act of the Kashmiri jihadis. Notwithstanding these constraints, the Indian troops were able to secure estimated eighty percent of the Indian territory including most of the ridges by the time Pakistan decided to withdrew leftover infiltrators in July mainly under the pressure of the Indian army and partially on account of the pressure from the world community, particularly the direct diplomatic intervention from the US President.

Since the escalation of hostilities along the affected areas on LOC, Pakistan wanted US intervention to deescalate the armed conflict. However, knowing the truth from the Indian efforts and stand as also their own intelligence sources, US President Bill Clinton refused to intervene until the Pakistan had withdrawn all forces from the Indian side of the LOC. The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff even air dashed to Washington in the midst of crisis; however, India refused to seek formal intervention or assistance of any third country in the ongoing conflict. By the time fighting ceased on 26 July, India had already taken control of its territories south and east of LOC and Pakistan had to withdraw from the remaining positions under the international pressure and imminent threat of defeat in war.

Nuclear Blackmail, Maneuvers and US Role

Just before the Kargil flare up, both India and Pakistan had tested their nuclear devices in early 1998 and both were believed to be equipped with the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). While India had pledged "No First Use" of the nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons, Pakistan had no such policy or qualm about its first use. In fact, Pakistani military and political leaders were quite vocal with this threat when the crisis was building up. Accordingly, when the Kargil conflict began, the international community too was concerned and weary about the possibility of the nuclear war if the conflict was allowed to escalate beyond a certain point.

Undoubtedly, following nuclear tests in 1998, the Pakistani Army was emboldened with nuclear arsenal on its store and using it as a coercive tool against India. During the mid of conflict, Pakistani Foreign Secretary made a statement at the close of the month of May warning that the escalation of the hostilities between India and Pakistan could lead to the latter using "any weapon" in its arsenal. In India and by international community, this cryptic statement was interpreted as a grave threat of nuclear retaliation by Pakistan. This notion further gained strength when the leader of Pakistan's National Assembly observed, "The purpose of developing weapons becomes meaningless if they are not used when they are needed". Many other such provocative statements from the high ranking officials of Pakistan and the Indian side taking a serious note of such utterances, the international community was alarmed that both the countries may indeed use their nuclear arsenal in the ongoing war.

The nature of the India-Pakistan conflict took a more dangerous turn when the United States received intelligence that Pakistani nuclear warheads were being moved towards the border. Bill Clinton tried to dissuade Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from nuclear brinkmanship, reportedly even threatening Pakistan of the dire consequences. According to a White House official, Sharif seemed to be genuinely surprised by this supposed missile movement and responded that India was probably planning the same. By the latter half of June 1999, Indian successes in their counter attack to regain territories, Pakistan's increasing diplomatic isolation in the war and impending defeat had increased the probability of the use of nuclear option. Bruce Riedel, a White House official, has illustrated these developments during the Kargil War and US role in diffusing the crisis in a paper written for the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to reports, Nawaz Sharif desperately sought US intervention in early July and contacted President Clinton to use his influence to dissuade India to continue hostilities against Pakistan. President Clinton, however, insisted that Pakistan must first pull out from the Indian side of the LOC in Kashmir and acknowledge their role in initiating the conflict. Nawaz Sharif, however, air dashed in Washington on 4 July 1999 seeking US assistance in extricating Pakistan from the wider and more dangerous potential conflict, but President Clinton remained firm on a Pakistani withdrawal first from Kargil. He offered that once Pakistan had pulled back all its forces from Indian side of Kashmir, he would do what he could to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Thus cornered Prime Minister Shariff reluctantly agreed despite fears of antagonizing Pakistan Army on such terms.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpai was invited but he politely declined to come to US at such short notice. As such India was not keen to the intervention of any third country in the bilateral conflict. Nawaz Sharif, however, kept his word on return by ordering his forces back. The US certainly not deserved sole credit for the ceasefire. Successive gains and consolidation of the Indian armed forces, deteriorating war scenario including imminent Naval blockade in Arabian sea, diplomatic isolation internationally and the risk of larger conventional or even nuclear war had already put a tremendous pressure on Pakistan to withdraw the remaining infiltrators from the Indian positions in Kashmir.

Conflict: World Opinion and Aftermath

Apart from the aforesaid US role, G8 nations at the Cologne summit during the third week of June 1999 collectively supported India criticizing Pakistan for the violation of the LOC. The European Union jointly and some of these countries individually too called for the withdrawal of Pakistani troops criticising her act of violation of the LOC. The ASEAN Regional Forum too insisted Pakistani withdrawal supporting India's cause. Even China, the time-tested and most reliable ally of Pakistan, gave a call for the pullout of the forces to the pre-conflict positions along the LOC insisting a peaceful settlement of the territorial disputes.

The much publicized propaganda of Pakistan officially maintaining Kargil incursions as an act of "Kashmiri jihadis and freedom fighters" could not stand for long and their blatant lies were soon exposed. Consequently, Pakistan was held responsible by many countries for instigating the war by sending its Army regulars, paramilitary forces and insurgents across the LOC. Many strategic and independent analysts opined that the battle fought in such a professional matter at great heights was possible by only seasoned troops; the alleged so-called "freedom fighters" would neither have the ability nor the wherewithal to seize, fortify and defend at such heights in a hostile terrain and weather. Despite Pakistani Army's constant denial of any role in infiltration, their involvement was further confirmed when post-Kargil two soldiers of Pakistan Army were given the Nishan-E-Haider (the highest military honour) and ninety soldiers were given other gallantry awards, majority of them posthumously.

Later Pakistani Lieutenant General Shahid Aziz, and then head of ISI analysis wing, confirmed that there were no mujahideen but only regular Pakistan Army soldiers who took part in the Kargil War. He wrote in his article in The Nation Daily in January 2013 - "...There were no Mujahideen, only taped wireless messages, which fooled no one. Our soldiers were made to occupy barren ridges, with hand held weapons and ammunition". India had also intercepted and recorded phone conversations between the Pakistani Army Officers and collected evidences from the recaptured posts left behind by the withdrawing Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan tried to internationalize the Kashmir issue, by linking the developments in Kargil to the larger Kashmir conflict but miserably failed to muster support from the world fraternity on the issue.

There are conflicting versions of the Pakistani casualties during the Kargil War. Pakistan officially accepted the death of 453 soldiers while Nawaz Sharif's PML(N) Party in a white paper published on the war mentioned that more than 3,000 officers, soldiers and mujahideens were killed. The US Department of State had estimated close to 700 Pakistani casualties while the Indian sources held this figure at 1,042. General Musharraf, in his memoirs, had put this figure at 357 soldiers killed and another 665 injured. On the other hand, India had officially given its casualty figures as 527 dead and 1,363 wounded.

President Clinton later wrote in his autobiography about his perception and experience, "Sharif's moves were perplexing since the Indian Prime Minister had travelled to Lahore to promote bilateral talks aimed at resolving the Kashmir problem and by crossing the Line of Control, Pakistan had wrecked the [bilateral] talks". At the same time he acknowledged and appreciated the Indian restraint for not crossing the LOC and escalating the conflict into an all-out war during the crisis.

Nawaz Shariff faced a lot of criticism from the opposition parties and extremists at home who blamed him for the war fiasco and withdrawal of troops under US pressure. Few months later, General Parvez Musharraf, the actual master-mind of the Kargil seize, deposed Shariff in a blood-less coup. Many analysts including American Bruce Riedel linked Pakistan's withdrawal from Kargil to the military coup that took place ousting Sharif's and his eventual exile. Nawaz Shariff in his official biography later claimed that General Musharraf had moved nuclear warheads without informing him during the heightened Kargil crisis while the latter insisted in own memoirs that Pakistan's nuclear delivery system was not operational at that time.

The Kargil War generated a surge of patriotism among the Indian populace and their whole-hearted support for the cause. There was a wave of anger and dislike to Pakistanis among the minds on patriotic Indians when they learnt about the inhuman treatment and atrocities incurred while killing Captain Saurabh Kalia and Squadran Leader Ajay Ahuja and the way their bodies were mutilated by the Pakistani soldiers. Captain Saurabh Kalia was on routine patrol when captured alive, badly tortured before killing and mutilating his body almost beyond recognition. Ajay Ahuja was piloting a MiG 21MG fighter which was hit by shoulder-fired stinger missile within the Indian airspace; though he ejected safely but was captured by Pakistani troops within the Indian side of LOC, and later tortured and killed. Though the intended objective was achieved but the war resulted in higher Indian casualties than ordinarily expected in such operations.

This war also led to the learning of lessons in weaknesses and inadequacies of the Indian armed forces in the mountain warfare as also the need of enhanced defence preparedness in the conventional war. The post-war analysis highlighted the loose ends of the command and control, insufficient training and preparation for the mountainous warfare, the additional requirements of large-calibre guns with greater depth and deployment ease, and so on. All this led to augmentation of the defence budget and purchase of more need bases state of the art equipment and warfare systems. The Indian intelligence agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing too had to share criticism for the failure in predicting/detecting infiltration. The myth that nuclearization would sustain greater peace was busted. The General Elections for the Indian Parliament were held in September-October 1999 i.e. immediately following the Kargil Conflict which returned the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in power with absolute majority. Indo-US relations henceforth consistently showed improvement and Israel emerged as a new found trusted ally, particularly in the matters of Defence cooperation.


Contrary to the propaganda and disinformation of Pakistan, the real cause of the Kargil War was the infiltration of Pakistani soldiers disguised as Kashmiri insurgents into the strategic heights of the Indian side of the LOC though the presence of some Kashmiri terrorists and Afghani mercenaries is not ruled out. Several incriminating documents and articles in-use left behind by casualties and retreating Pakistani troops, several intercepts recorded by Indian Army and later statements by Pakistani Prime Minister and military brass including Lieutenant General Shahid Aziz vindicated this position. It is of common knowledge now that the valiant and committed young officers and soldiers of the Indian Army, supported by the Indian Air Force, had recaptured majority of the positions on the Indian side of the LOC mainly through direct ground assault despite incurring heavy casualties; under the imminent threat of being routed in war and growing international criticism and pressure, the Pakistani forces withdrew from the remaining Indian positions in July 1999.

The Kargil War exposed crucial weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Indian armed forces in high-altitude warfare in the mountainous terrain and served as a learning lesson for the troops of their logistics problems and needs of specialized equipment suited for such harsh weather and terrain. Kargil was particularly chosen by the enemy because the terrain was conducive to preemptive seizure on account of unoccupied military posts during the prolonged winters. Any well-equipped defender at such heights would have tremendous advantage over adversaries who would find it difficult to dislodge them. The seizure had multiple objective as illustrated earlier including an attempt to internationalize the Kashmir issue yet again seeking the attention of world powers for intervention. Needless to mention, these ulterior motives and designs of the enemy was timely discovered and foiled by the Indian armed forces through their exemplary valour, fortitude and sacrifice. 

Continued to "Implementation of Mandal Commission Report in 1990"



More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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