Kargil : how much ‘by the throat’ did the Pakistan army have us? -1

Syed Ata Hasnain
July 27, 2016 0 Comments OPINION 180 Views

Of course, Pervez Musharraf’s claims that the Pakistani army caught ‘India by the throat’ in Kargil in 1999 are wrong. Here, Syed Ata Hasnain explains just how wrong they are.
Coming into the 16th anniversary of Operation VIJAY (Kargil 1999), the media is awash with analyses about the operations in Kargil in May-Jul 1999. This is aided no less by gung-ho statements by the likes of General Pervez Musharaf, the then Pakistan Army Chief and later dictator President. Considering that the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict is also shortly going to be upon us, Pakistan is going to open the floodgates of psychological warfare to project to our people its military prowess. Informed military and other strategic analysts need to meet this projection head on lest the Indian people are left in self-doubt. This analysis is all about Operation VIJAY and suitable pieces on 1965 too will follow.
In 1995, I was in Leh and tasked to attend a wargame of the Kargil Brigade. In the course of doing so I happened to ask the very competent Brigade Commander, late Brig. Sandeep Sen, as to why a 120 Km frontage in the mountains was being held only by a brigade. He gave me an astounding answer which I quote –
“this is the concept of traditional gaps; it is a quid pro quo kind of understanding (unwritten) that deployment can be light on both sides and neither side will exploit an advantage”.
He further went on to explain that this being a Shia-dominated area we did not expect any irregular operations because the support base was firmly with India. In 1997, Pakistan commenced deliberate shelling of Kargil sector targeting even the road from Zojila leading to Leh. It was testing of the waters. The occupation of the heights vacated in winter across the LoC in 1998-99, even as the Peace Diplomacy was underway under PM Vajpayee, was ostensibly Musharraf’s brain child. I dare to say I share one thing in common with Parvez Musharaf; he and I are both alumni of the UK’s iconic institution, the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS).
Did Musharraf’s ploy really have the Indian Army and nation by the throat as he boastfully states, is the question under debate. Analysis of this has to begin with the presumed aim of the mission Musharraf undertook.
In 1999, Pakistan was concerned about the flagging militancy in Kashmir and the possibility of the international community losing interest in it. The nuclear test of 1998 had exploded the clandestine Pakistan capability and Pakistan was on virtual nuclear parity with India thus emboldening it to risk a conflagration. Considering the Pakistan Army’s diluting power within Pakistan’s polity and its ever-present desire to be the ruler, Musharraf could not allow the India-Pakistan peace process to seriously take off.
For the Pakistan Army, tension with India promotes its own political power and importance and Musharraf was not short on political ambition either. His perception was that a secured military advantage in a limited skirmish along the LoC in a remote area may not instigate India into launch of all-out war; the nuclear balance was anyway in place, as per his mind, thus probably enhancing India’s limit of tolerance by a few notches. He could thus play a few ‘games’ within that level of tolerance.
The area Musharraf chose was the same which late Brig. Sandeep Sen described as the sector with ‘traditional gaps’. As far as Musharaf was concerned, there was nothing traditional about it. It gave Pakistan the advantage of strategic surprise. The posts were vacated in winter by the Indian Army and only reconnoitered by air. Occupation of these would provide the distinct tactical advantage of domination; anyone who knows high altitude (HA) operations can assess that to dislodge a well-entrenched defender at these heights would need an advantage of 9:1. The Indian Army would have to push in reserve formations to achieve anything near that ratio and the reserves would be unacclimitized to HA operations thus elongating the response; besides of course, upsetting the order of battle of flanking formations. Most important of all, the main logistics route to Leh ran close to the LoC in the Dras-Mashkoh sub sector in the general area of Kargil sector. Interdicting this artery meant that winter stocking of Lima sector (Ladakh sector including Siachen) would be adversely affected. The alternate route from Manali via Upshi to Leh had limited capacity because of the nature of terrain and early closure for winter. Logistics choking of Lima sector in the perception of Musharraf would mean the inability to sustain deployment in Siachen thus forcing vacation without firing a shot.
Musharaf had other linked intentions too. One, to bring Jammu & Kashmir into limelight again and two, to trigger greater dynamism in the militancy in the Valley. Concerns of the international community would run high as there was little clarity on nuclear doctrines and protocols of the region. The forced movement of reserves from the Valley (immediate flank) would open vast spaces for conduct of militant operations and infiltration.
In discussions with Pakistani officers a year later in a strategic program abroad, I did admit that Musharraf’s plan was bold but just as the Pakistanis have always historically done, they ‘mastered the initiation and had no clue about termination’. Here is how I justify this statement.
Was the Indian Army taken by surprise? Admittedly it was but in conflict that is always possible. The more important issue is how it reacted thereafter. 15 Corps had an operational responsibility from Demchok to Gulmarg along the LAC, AGPL and LoC, with Siachen and the militancy in the Valley to contend with. It was not the best of arrangements with 3 Infantry Division in Lima sector at lower priority as the militancy in the Valley and ongoing infiltration grabbed all the attention. Initially, 15 Corps treated the intrusions as a local problem but as already explained, recapturing obnoxious heights in HA areas is virtually impossible unless you are prepared to fight attritional; for that you need troops.

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