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As India commemorates the 22nd Anniversary of Kargil Vijay Divas on 26 July 2021, we fall short of words to describe the valour and heroism of the officers and men of the Indian Army who battled the enemy in extremely hostile terrain in the high altitudes to give victory to India against all odds. This was indeed ‘Mission Impossible” made possible by sheer guts and courage of the troops who looked at certain death when climbing those high peaks dominated by the enemy—and yet refused to flinch. In this, they were ably supported by the Artillery gunners who made victory possible through precision fire shoots, as also by the Indian Air Force, who flew their combat missions in extremely hazardous weather conditions at altitudes never attempted before. To all the valiant soldiers of the Armed Forces who fought in Kargil in the Summer of 1999, our humble Salute. You made your nation proud by your valour and your sacrifice.
We pay special tribute to those who gave their lives for their nation as also to those who were wounded in this war. 527 brave soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces made the supreme sacrifice while 1363 were wounded. Their exploits are the stuff that legends are made off. They shall never be forgotten.
Commemorating Kargil Vijay Divas is also a time to sit back, think and reflect on why we as a nation allowed ourselves to be duped yet again by a wily enemy. In February 2019, India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee went on his historic bus yatra to Lahore, in a fresh bid to build bridges and seek an enduring peace. His words in Lahore reverberated throughout the world and bespoke of great promise for peace:
“Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge…”
But the Pakistanis had other plans in the offing. In her book, ‘From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan,’ Nasim Zehra gives a detailed account of “Operation Koh-i-Paima”, or Operation KP as it came to be known. This was a plot formulated by a handful of Pakistani Generals, to capture the Kargil heights, cut off India’s road link to Ladakh and force India to accept Pakistani terms on Kashmir. The plan took shape soon after General Musharraf was made the Pakistan Army Chief in October 1998. By mid-October, Operation KP was underway, with the first lot of troops moving across the LoC. By February, when Prime Minister Vajpayee was delivering his address in Lahore, the Pakistan Army had already established dozens of posts across the LoC. By mid-April, over 140 posts had been established to include the watersheds across the LoC in Mushkoh, Drass, Kaksar, Batalik, and Turtok sectors and were in position to interdict NH-1A, the life-line to Indian troops in Ladakh and Siachen.
It is perhaps true that the Pakistani Prime Minister was not kept in the loop about Operation KP. But on January 29, in Skardu, he was informed that the Pakistan military would get active on the LoC, to give a boost to the ‘Kashmir struggle’ and that local level operations were being undertaken. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose to go along with the Army, despite the fact that he was also preparing for the Lahore Summit that was to take place three weeks later. He was briefed again on March 13, where he was told that limited action across the LoC was being undertaken. And on May 17, at the ISI’s Ojhiri Camp office, only a few miles away from Islamabad, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was informed of the full extent of Operation Koh-i-Paima. Yet he did nothing to call a halt to the Operation. He was promised victory by his General’s and was intoxicated with the idea that to him would devolve the honour of being called “Fatah-i-Kashmir”.
These events indicated that for Pakistan, a quest for peace would always be a ploy to seek positions of advantage which they could subsequently exploit. India would do well to imbibe this lesson of Kargil. While it is true that the Pakistan military calls the shots in matters relating to India and on Pakistan’s Kashmir policy, the political class too follows the Pakistan Army’s lead in its anti-India stance. Talking peace is the easy option, to sway the soft-headed, both in India and in Pakistan. The harder reality is that Pakistan is ideologically disinclined to seek friendship with India. All peace overtures must therefore be seen with abundant caution.
From the Indian side, there were many major lapses. The failure to detect enemy intentions speaks of poor human intelligence capabilities across the border. Indian agencies had reported in June 1998 the possibility of increased infiltration following the nuclear explosions conducted by both countries earlier in May and in October 1998, R&AW assessed that Pakistan was determined to interdict the Drass-Kargil Highway and that “a limited swift offensive threat with possible support of alliance partners,” was possible. This assessment stands in contradiction to what was actually happening on the ground, as detailed in the book by Nasim Zehra. Subsequently, R&AW’s next estimate in March 1999 maintained an assessment of low likelihood of war and did not repeat the threat of a ‘swift limited offensive’. It is inconceivable that the signs of a build up in the winter months in Gilgit-Baltistan were not picked up. That is something which India’s intelligence agencies need to introspect on.
The Pakistani troops had crossed the LoC in October 1999 and remained undetected for nearly six months. This clearly is unacceptable and suggests shortcomings, not just in the Army’s reconnaissance and intelligence gathering capabilities, but also, and more importantly, in the ability of the military leadership to analyse enemy intentions and be prepared for worst-case scenarios. That the bus yatra had created a euphoria of peace is undeniable, which perhaps led the higher military leadership to lower its guard, but that is a luxury which the military can ill afford. We must never allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency again.
That both Pakistan and China will attempt to gain strategic surprise in any future conflict is a given. It is important that our young officers develop a habit of reading and stay abreast of all developments, not just in our neighbourhood but in the wider geo-strategic realm, to get a deeper insight into such issues. Such self studies cannot be kept pending till such time as one reaches higher ranks. It must be developed at a younger age, preferably at the cadet stage itself. And by the time these young officers reach one star and above rank, they would have developed a strategic perspective, which would serve them, the Armed Forces and the country well. In future wars, knowledge will remain the most powerful weapon.
Today, with Afghanistan heading towards possible civil war, an increasingly hostile China on our Northern and Eastern flank, a radicalised Pakistan to our West, and with political instability in Nepal and Myanmar, the challenges to India’s security are immense. The lessons from Kargil are clear. While peace is a desirable outcome not just for South Asia but for the wider Indo-Pacific region, it can best be brought about if India remains strong and united. And where peace is more likely to be an illusive entity, due to national and regional players whose interests would be compromised if such a peace be achieved, it would be better to accept the fact that some countries will remain hostile to India and deal with the situation accordingly.
Let us never forget that while our brave soldiers will protect the country, and are ever willing to shed their blood to do so, eternal vigilance and strength remain the best guarantors of peace.