THE KARGIL CONFLICT
The year 1999 may have been the most momentous of my life, assassination attempts notwithstanding. The events of 1999 (The Kargil), and the fall of 1998, dramatically catapulted me from soldiering to leading the destiny of the nation. They also brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war. It is time to lay bare what has been shrouded in mystery.
As a backup t2 understanding the Kargil conflict it needs to be stressed that Kargil was not a one-off operation, but the latest in a series of moves and countermoves at a tactical level by India and Pakistan along the Line of Control in the inaccessible, snowbound North-ern Areas. India would capture a location where they felt that our presence was thin, and vice-versa. This is how they managed to occupy Siachen (ostensibly without clearance from the Indian government). This is how the Kashmiri freedom fighting mujahideen occupied the Kargil heights that the Indian army had vacated for the winter.
In October 1998, India claimed it had beaten back two Pakistani attacks in the area of the Siachen Glacier, on October 16 and 18. My own staff insisted that no such attacks had taken place. Nonetheless, I summoned the commander of Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) to understand what was really going on in his area of responsibility. He, too, reassured me that no official incursions were under way. He dismissed the Indian reports as false, and added that India had falsely reported attacks during the previous summer, at a rate of one per month. Subsequently, in late October and early November 1998 I received reports of another five such make-believe attacks.
We later discovered that this probably was related to activities by the mujahideen (freedom fighters). We knew that thousands of mujahideen, mostly indigenous to Indian-held Kashmir but also sup-ported by freelance sympathizers from Pakistan, did operate against the Indian forces. They used to cross the Line of Control (LOC) in both directions at places which were thinly held and where the going was rough. I instructed the Military Operations and Military Intelligence Directorates at general headquarters and at the headquarters of the Rawalpindi Corps to carry out an assessment of the situation. During this time, the Indians continued to report “attacks.”
The assessment was formally presented at the end of December. We realized that the number and frequency of reported attacks were unprecedented and could possibly be used by the Indians as a casus belli to launch an operation against us. We also had intelligence through various sources suggesting an Indian plan to conduct some operations in our Northern Areas. There was specific information of a possible Indian attack in the Shaqma sector; it was aimed at positions we had used to shell the road between Dras and Kargil in early summer 1998, in response to continuous artillery shelling by the Indians at the Neelum Valley Road on our side of the Line of Contro.
As a normal practice, the Indians used to move two reserve brigades from the Leh area each winter, to the Srinagar valley. In the winter of 1998 not only were these brigades retained north of Zojila, but India’s Seventieth Brigade was deployed at Dras. It gave the Indians a window of opportunity because of the relatively early opening of the pass at Zojila, as compared with the Burzil Pass on our side. The availability of a paved road also gave India an advantage for supplying the area. There were large gaps between our defensive positions in the Kargil and Dras sectors, making it possible for Indian troops to cross the line too easily. India also brought in and tested special bunker-busting equipment in the autumn of 1998. We know that the Indian army had procured large quantities of high-altitude equipment, special weapons, and new snow scooters and snowmobiles. India appeared on the verge of an attack across the LOC.
Our sources of information were very reliable. India had been “creeping forward” across the LOC even after the Simla Agreement, which was reached between India and Pakistan after the war of 1971 and defined the Line of Control. India had tested us at Chorbat La, the Qamar sector and Siachen in the Northern Areas. Finally, frequent visits of the Indian defense minister, George Fernandes, to the Siachen and Kargil areas during the summer and autumn of 1998 suggested that India was considering more offensive operations. The assessment of the GHQ staff and Rawalpindi Corps fit the logic of the situation. It was appropriate to allow the Rawalpindi Corps to pre-pare and present the FCNA plan of the defensive maneuver in the Northern Areas so as to deny any ingress across the LOC. A plan calling for plugging the gaps-ranging from nine to twenty-eight miles (fifteen to forty-five kilometers)-between our positions was formally presented and approved toward the middle of January 1999. Rawalpindi Corps and FCNA were to execute it.
The terrain and weather were forbidding. The operation had to be undertaken by limited forces, and security was crucial. Any leakage of information would have set off a race to the watershed, as had happened at Siachen. The terrain and resources were to India’s advantage, for such a race. Our information therefore was shared on a “need to know” basis. Second line forces under the FCNA, called Northern Light Infantry, composed of locals of the area, were to occupy the forward positions. The troops were given special instructions not to cross the watershed along the LOC.
Our maneuver was conducted flawlessly, a tactical marvel of military professionalism. By the end of April the unoccupied gaps along seventy-five miles (120 kilometers) of the LOC had been secured by over 100 new posts of ten to twenty persons each.
With the forward movement of our troops to dominating positions, we began to understand exactly what Pakistani freedom fighters had undertaken. I was kept informed of all movements of the freedom fighters from March 1999 onward, when our troops started reaching the heights at the watershed. Finally, on May 7, I was given a comprehensive briefing of their positions.
The Indians were completely oblivious of our new strength along the LOC. The first confrontation between the two armies took place on May 2, when Indian troops bumped into our position in the Shyok sec-tor. The second encounter took place with freedom fighters in the Battalik sector on May 7. The Indians suffered heavy casualties. Alarm bells started ringing at the Indian high command when another skirmish took place with the freedom fighters in the Dras sector on May 10, 1999. India overreacted by bringing its air force into action. Helicopter sorties were flown to ascertain the ingresses made by the freedom fighters. However, the actions of the Indian Air Force were not confined to the freedom fighters’ locations; the Indians also started crossing over and bombarding positions of the Pakistan Army. This resulted in the shooting down of one of the Indian helicopters and two jet fighter planes over Pakistani territory. When the.Zojila Pass opened to military traffic, an Indian buildup began. Our troops and the freedom fighters exacted a very heavy toll on Indian convoy traffic, forcing the convoys to travel in the dark of night. The Indians brought four regular divisions into the area, along with a heavy concentration of artillery. They even brought in the artillery of their strike formations (conventionally to be used in an offensive across the international border against Pakistan). Intense fighting erupted against the freedom fighters. The Indians also showed no hesitation in attacking our troops on the LOC on the ground and from the air.
On May 15, I ordered FCNA to improve our defensive positions in coordination with the freedom fighters to deny access to the watershed by India. By now the freedom fighters occupied over 500 square miles (800 square kilometers) of Indian-occupied territory: about 250 square miles (400 square kilometers) in the Mushko area, 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in the Dras area, twenty square miles (fifty square kilometers) in the Kaksar area, eighty square miles (200 square kilo-meters) in the Battalik area, and twenty-three square miles (sixty square kilometers) in the Shyok area (Map 2). Our field commanders were fully engaged in supporting them in the face of the growing momentum of the Indian operations. We wanted to dominate the areas held by the freedom fighters. We established outposts to act as eyes and ears, and made raids and ambushes. The bravery, steadfastness, and ultimate sacrifice of our men in that inhospitable, high-altitude battlefield, against massive Indian forces, will be written in golden letters.
The Indian buildup continued during the entire month of May. India moved in artillery and infantry formations even at the cost of significantly depleting its offensive capability elsewhere along the inter-national border. Evaluating this buildup at headquarters, we realized that India had created a serious strategic imbalance in its system of forces. It had bottled up major formations inside Kashmir, leaving itself no capability to attack us elsewhere, and, most seriously, had left the field open for a counteroffensive with which we could choke the Kashmir valley. We had no offensive designs on the international border, and were reassured that India’s offensive capability was restricted to Kashmir.
Having failed to dislodge the groups occupying the heights, the Indians resorted to mass attacks. Brigade-size attacks were launched to secure outposts held by as few as eight to ten of our men. These attacks gained little ground until the middle of June. Nonetheless, the Indian media hyped their success. On our side, our political leadership displayed a total lack of statesmanship and made no serious effort to rally the country.
Neither side’s leadership had an appetite for war, but India worked hard to isolate us diplomatically. International pressure had a demoralizing effect on Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif. Meanwhile, the buildup on both sides continued. In mid June, the Rawalpindi Corps head-quarters was allowed to shift some of its regular troops from the Mangla garrison into FCN~As area of responsibility. These troops started reaching the mountains toward the end of June. Although they played only a limited role in the conflict in the few days that remained, they would be of great use during the consolidation of our positions on the water-shed afterward. The positions held by our troops on July 4 are shown in Map 3. We had lost some ground in the Dras, Battalik, and Shyok positions, while the Kaksar and Mushko ingresses remained untouched.
Considered purely in military terms, the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army. As few as five batallions, in support of the freedom fighter groups, were able to compel the Indians to employ more than four divisions, with the bulk of the Indian artillery coming from strike formations meant for operations in the southern plains. The Indians were also forced to mobilize their entire national resources, including their air force. By July 4 they did achieve some success, which I would call insignificant.
Our troops were fully prepared to hold our dominating positions ahead of the watershed. Our nation remains proud of its commanders and troops, whose grit and determination I observed during my frequent visits to the forward areas. Many officers and men sacrificed their lives on the snow-clad peaks and in the boulder-ridden valleys of the Northern Areas. I would be remiss not to specially acknowledge the achievements, professionalism, and bravery of all ranks of the Northern Light Infantry. As a reward I later converted them into a regular group of the Pakistan Army. They now exist as a proud segment of the army’s “queen of battle”: the infantry.
July 4 marked a cease-fire, negotiated by President Bill Clinton with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. International pressure for a cease-fire was intense. President Clinton was the only statesman who had influence with both Pakistan and India. Yet in truth, it was no negotiation at all. Sharif agreed to an unconditional withdrawal. To make matters worse, misperceptions of the military situation were rampant. India raised the level of some of its achievements to mythical proportions. A hilarious example of this was the announcement of India’s highest award for gallantry, given to a soldier posthumously, because he had died in the line of duty. Later, they found that the man was very much alive. On our side, I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a “debacle.” Some people even called the Pakistan Army a “rogue army.”
As the chief of the army staff; I found myself in a very difficult position. I wanted to explain the military situation, to demonstrate how successful we had been, and point out the political mishandling that had caused so much despair. But that would have been disloyal, and very unsettling for the political leaders. In desperation they might do some-thing to destabilize the state system, or to damage the fabric of the army. On the other hand, if they were allowed to continue to spin the events disingenuously, that would have been tantamount to disloyalty to my commanders and troops. The time has come for me to deal with some of the myths and faulty perceptions and present the truth, as I know it.
One myth is that the operation was launched without the army’s taking the political leadership into its confidence.
This is a very unfortunate perception, because nothing could be farther from the truth. First, as noted above, there was no deliberate offensive operation planned, and moving to the unoccupied gaps along the line of control was not a violation of any agreement and was well within the purview of the local commander. The move to establish our defenses along the line was approved at both the corps and the army headquarters. The army briefed the prime minister in Skardu on January 29, 1999; and in Kel on February 5, 1999. During these briefings our defensive maneuver was explained as a response to all that was happening on the Indian side. Subsequently, the prime minister was also briefed on March 12 at the Directorate General Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which included a detailed survey of the situation inside Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and also along the LOC. As the operation developed, he was briefed in detail by the director general of military operations on May 17. Later briefings were also arranged on June 2 and June 22.
A second myth is that the military situation on the ground was pre-carious, and the prime minister dashed to Washington to get the army out of it.This disinformation is a much bigger lie. In their two months of operations the Indians came nowhere near the watershed and our main defenses. As a result of the ingresses ahead of the line, the Indians were able to clear only a few outposts in three (of five) areas. The briefing given by me personally to the Defense Committee of the cabinet on July 2, 1999, actually laid out the entire military picture. I covered all possible hypotheses of enemy actions in the air, at sea, and on land. The conclusions that I derived were: That the Indians were in no position to launch an all-out offensive on land, at sea, or in the air.
That Pakistan was in a strategically advantageous position in case of an all-out war, in view of the massive Indian troop inductions inside Kashmir, resulting in a strategic imbalance in India’s system of forces.
That the Indian forces, despite their massive strength, would never be able to dislodge the freedom fighters and the NLI from the ingresses and positions held by them.
we should accept a cease-fire and withdraw. My answer every time was restricted to the optimistic military situation; I left the political decisions to him. He wanted to fire his gun from my shoulder, but it was not my place to offer this. I also remember his minister, Raja Zafar ul-Haq, an ardent supporter of his, to have been the strongest proponent of no cease-fire and no withdrawal. Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, the interior minister at the time, who was to play a major political role after Nawaz Shard’s departure, said that whatever we did, we must stress that Kargil was “our joint effort and collective responsibility.” Nawaz Sharif did not like this truth and stood up abruptly, saying that we would continue later-but this never happened. The meeting ended inconclusively. It was decided to meet again on July 5, 1999, to make the final decision. I went with all my family and some friends to the hill resort of Murree to relax over the weekend. At about nine PM on Saturday, July 3, I received an urgent call from the prime minister informing me, to my consternation, that he was flying to the United States and that I should meet him at Islamabad Airport immediately. I drove down from the hills and met him at about midnight. He put the same question to me again: Should we accept a cease-fire and a withdrawal? My answer was the same: the military situation is favorable; the political decision has to be his own. He went off, and decided on a cease-fire. It remains a mystery to me why he was in such a hurry.
A third myth is that the military hierarchy was not informed, and that even the senior army leaders were unaware of our maneuvers.
Any military professional would understand that our strengthening of defensive positions in a single formation’s (FCNA’s) area of responsibility was properly ordered. All formation commanders of the Rawalpindi Corps and all relevant officers at army headquarters were made aware of it as needed. The other commanders were informed immediately on the unreasonably escalated Indian response. All military information is shared on a “need to know” basis, and before this juncture they had little need to know it. The foregoing should also explain why the naval and air force chiefs were ignorant about it until the Indian response bordered on war hysteria.
A fourth myth is that we came to the brink of nuclear war.The limits of our conventional forces were nowhere in sight, still less in danger of being crossed. I can also say with authority that in 1999 our nuclear capability was not yet operational. Merely exploding a bomb does not mean that you are operationally capable of deploying nuclear force in the field and delivering a bomb across the border over a selected target. Any talk of preparing for nuclear strikes is preposterous.
A fifth myth is that the Pakistan Army suffered a large number of casualties.
The Kargil conflict, as compared with earlier wars against India, was more intense and of longer duration. The Indians had mobilized troops far out of proportion to the situation, by massing a large number of infantry and artillery assets. The mountains favor defense. The Indians, by their own admission, suffered over 600 killed and over 1,500 wounded. Our information suggests that the real numbers are at least twice what India has publicly admitted. The Indians actually ran short of coffins, owing to an unexpectedly high number of casualties; and a scandal later came to light in this regard. Our army, outnumbered and outgunned, fought this conflict with great valor. The number of Indian casualties proves the fighting prowess and professionalism of the officers and men of the Pakistan Army.
The Kargil conflict emerged out of a tactical maneuver of limited dimensions but had significant strategic effects. As a result of the fore-sight and alertness of our senior commanders, India’s planned offensive was preempted. The initiative was wrested from India, and an imbalance was created in the Indian system of forces. The military assets committed by the Indians in the Kargil conflict in particular and in Kashmir in general brought about a near parity of forces both in the air and on the ground along the international border. This nearly ruled out the possibility of India’s deciding on an all-out war.
The Kargil conflict also brought about a significant change in the concept of operations at high altitudes. The myths about the inaccessibility of the terrain and the prohibitive effects of an inhospitable climatic environment on the conduct of operations were shaken by the resolve and resilience of the NLI troops.
I would like to state emphatically that whatever movement has taken place so far in the direction of finding a solution to Kashmir is due considerably to the Kargil conflict.