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On 26 July 2022, the 23rd anniversary of Kargil Vijay Divas, the nation gets together once again to pay homage and tribute to the brave soldiers of India’s Armed Forces who took part in that war. For those who had seen the war at close quarters, achieving victory against the enemy, ensconced at advantageous positions in the icy high-altitude mountains, seemed like ‘Mission Impossible’. And to achieve what was thought of to be an impossible task, 527 brave soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces made the supreme sacrifice while 1363 were wounded. It was a victory won against all odds, but Mission Impossible was achieved.
Nasim Zehra, a well-known Pakistani journalist and writer, in her book, From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan, has given a detailed expose of the role of the Pakistan Army in the planning and conduct of ‘Operation Koh-e-Paima,’ the name given to Pakistan’s military misadventure in the Kargil sector. This misadventure had its roots in Pakistan’s attempts to forcibly gain control over the Siachen Glacier, which India thwarted in 1984 by occupying the Saltoro Ridge, overlooking the Glacier. It was Pakistan’s repeated failures to evict Indian troops from the Saltoro ridge that led to the assumption that if Pakistan occupied the heights around the Kargil sector, overlooking the vital Leh-Srinagar road, they would be able to cut off Ladakh from the rest of India and avenge their humiliation in Siachen. In October 1998, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Koh-e-Paima, infiltrating small groups of soldiers into unoccupied territory across the Line of Control. By May 1999, they had established over 140 posts in the Kargil-Drass region. The Indian operations launched thereafter to evict the intruders was codenamed ‘Operation Vijay,’ the Operation ending on 26 July 1999, with a total Indian victory.
While we pay homage to the heroism and courage of the Indian soldier on this day, it would be equally appropriate to reflect on the lessons that the war in Kargil highlighted. At the national level, there are seven important lessons which we would do well to remember.
Blind Trust can be Fatal
The first of these lessons is that blind trust can be fatal. The Indian military as well as intelligence agencies missed vital signs and made wrong assessments, primarily because a push for peace was being made in the political space by India’s Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihar Vajpayee. In his famous bus ‘yatra’ of 19 February 1999, Mr Vajpayee made his historic speech at Lahore, where he spoke for peace. “Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge…” were the words he used, but even as those stirring words were uttered on Pakistani soil, Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, in the guise of infiltrators, was already across the Line of Control, and had surreptitiously occupied some of the unoccupied heights, overlooking the Dras Valley, Kargil and Batalik townships. India’s focus on peace blinded it to the prospect of a Pakistani betrayal, which was considered unthinkable in the prevailing bonhomie between the two countries. Pakistan thus achieved strategic surprise and was successful in the initial operations carried out by their army. We must never ever allow that to happen again.
Expect the Unexpected
The Indian Army had war-gamed the possibility of precisely such an occurrence as the intrusion of a vast body of Pakistan military personnel in small groups to occupy the heights overlooking India’s vital national highway. Such an action was considered possible but was discarded due to the difficulty of maintaining a large body of troops in the mountains. It was also assessed that while such a course of action could lead to the enemy achieving short-term tactical success, it was bound to result in a strategic disaster. The conclusion drawn from the assessment was faulty in that it presumed that the enemy would not undertake such a risky adventure which was doomed to failure. What was missed out was the fact that Pakistan has consistently made illogical deductions about India’s capabilities and so it would have been prudent to at least cater for such an eventuality. An improbable occurrence must always be catered for, if the consequences of such an occurrence would be costly for the nation. It is not the job of the military to guess. It is its job to remain prepared at all times for all eventualities.
Higher Defence Planning
When the Kargil war started, both the Army and the Air Force were short of vital ammunition and other items. That is what prompted the then Army Chief to say that we will fight with what we have. This reflects a weakness in higher defence planning, primarily because in the Indian system, we have a bureaucracy that is interposed between the military leadership and the political authority. The bureaucracy controls the procurement process but remains unaccountable for its actions, while the military has the responsibility but not the power to do anything about it. While the office of the CDS has now been created, we need to go further in the reform process and like other modern armies, remove the bureaucracy completely as the middle-man interposed between the political authority and the military leadership.
The Intelligence Factor
The induction of thousand of trained troops in small groups all across the Line of Control in the Drass, Kargil and Batalik sectors reflected a gargantuan failure on the part of India’s intelligence agencies in failing to detect such intrusion. The induction of such a large force took place over many months and was common knowledge in the areas across the LoC. Such feverish activities should have been picked up but it is evident that India lacked suitable assets which could have provided adequate early warning. The Kargil War once again highlights the importance of both human intelligence as well as electronic and other means of gathering information, to include intelligence gathering by means of satellites.
Unity of Effort
In the modern age, it is not just armies that go to war, but the nation as a whole, which implies unity of effort in prosecuting war. The Kargil Review Committee highlighted many of these weaknesses, some of which have been addressed, such as the creation of the office of the CDS. What is now needed is to make a big push for self-sufficiency in defence production. This is being done through the Atmanirbhar Bharat Initiative, which needs to be further strengthened, streamlined and made user-friendly. While the political intent is clear, huge changes are required in mindsets, especially in the nation’s bureaucracy and in the research and development organisations. To make this a truly integrated approach, the private sector has to play a major role and for this it requires a great deal of facilitation by both the military as well as the political authority.
Role of the Media
The Indian media played an excellent role during the Kargil conflict and created a positive climate for the prosecution of the war, both within the country as well as in the international arena. Press freedom contributes greatly to national security and must be preserved at all times.
The Seventh Lesson: Do not Assume
The seventh lesson is from the stables of the enemy. They prosecuted the war on three fatal assumptions. One, the Indian Armed Forces will not be able to dislodge the encroachments made by the Pakistani troops as they were occupying the strategic heights on the Srinagar-let axis. Two, India would be restricted in its response as Pakistan was a nuclear-armed state. And three, The international community would call an early halt to the war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, leaving Pakistan in possession of its ill-gotten gains. In reality, Pakistan was wrong in all three of the assessments so made. They under-estimated the will of India to fight for its land and for its people. That is a lesson which unfortunately still does not appear to have been learnt by Pakistan. And so India must be ready to deal with the Pakistani state as it currently is—hostile and bitterly opposed to India. Seeking friendship is not a mistake, but seeking friendship by keeping our eyes closed to reality will cost India dearly in the future. We must always be conscious of the real nature of the enemy.
As we celebrate the 23rd Anniversary of Kargil Vijay Divas, let us bow our heads in gratitude to the brave soldiers of India’s Armed Forces who laid down their lives for their country. And in their honour and in their memory, let us resolve to make India strong and resilient, to face any challenges that the future may have to offer. And while doing so, let us remember, that eternal vigilance is the key to peace.