DEFENCE NOTES

India's Kargil Operations
An analysis

PATRON Lt Gen (Retd) SARDAR FS LODI does a comprehensive analysis of the Indian side of the operations in and around Kargil

The fighting in Kargil, in the Indian-occupied Kashmir has ended, and the guns across the L of C have fallen silent. The Kashmiri freedom fighters, the Mujahideen have vacated the Kargil heights on their own free will, and the Indian infantry is now in the process of moving up to occupy the heights unopposed. India has claimed a great victory in Kargil. Their clamour has been so hasty and loud that the reliability of their claims are in doubt and have been disputed by military experts.

How did the large and well-equipped Armed Forces of India consisting of over a million and half men conduct themselves in the Kargil fighting. Where the opposition consisted of a few hundred Kashmiri Mujahideen fighting with small arms and no artillery, air or logistic support. This question is agitating the minds of knowing men in India and is the subject of an inquiry ordered by their government.

It seems the Indian army in Kashmir became aware of the presence of Mujahideen on the Kargil heights on May 6, 1999, when they were informed by a shepherd, as reported by The Times of India, New Delhi in its issue of June 2, 1999. The paper goes on to say that it took six days for the information to reach the defence ministry in Delhi and another two days for the ministry to conclude that 'the infiltrators only occupied remote and unheld areas'. The paper bluntly suggests that 'there is something deeply wrong with our security decision making. The sudden switch from inaction to high-profile air strikes with their escalation potential testifies to the same flaws'.

'On May 9 India launched a major assault to drive out some 400 or so Muslim guerrillas, allegedly trained by Pakistan from its side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the desolate, high-altitude Kargil sector of Kashmir' wrote M.R. Josse in the Rising Nepal of Kathmandu on June 9, 1999. This attack was apparently beaten back with heavy losses to the army which prompted a Colonel to remark 'we are dying like dogs here'. 'At this point, India lost three aircraft, two fighter jets and one helicopter gunship besides suffering 50 casualties' continued the paper. The initial Indian euphoria concerning the use of air power for the first time in Kashmir since 1971 has been dampened considerably'. The paper concluded by saying that, even a casual reading of Indian media accounts is enough to indicate that the Indian political and military leadership were 'caught completely off-guard by the Kargil militants'.

Initially the Indian senior army officers in Kashmir seemed confident of crushing the Mujahideen and evicting them from the heights they were occupying overlooking Kargil and the strategic supply road from Srinagar to Leh. Consequently correct information was withheld from the ministry of defence in New Delhi. Often incorrect information was passed on. This is evident from a report published in The Times of India, New Delhi, in its issue of June, 12, 1999, which clearly stated, 'In fact, on the night of May 12, the Northern Area Commander, Lt. Gen. H. M. Khanna, had informed defence minister George Fernandes at the Siachin brigade headquarters at Partapur that a batch of about 100 intruders had occupied three ridges in the Batalik sub-sector and would be dislodged within two days'. This was a categorical statement by a senior officer of the Indian army, to the minister of defence, knowing fully that the statement was not correct.

It was only after all the Indian attacks which were supported by heavy artillery and air bombardment had failed, with heavy losses in men and material that the Indian Army was forced to admit the actual position on the ground. The Times of India goes on to say that the magnitude of the incursion came to light only around May 18. It took several more days for the Army to realise 'that the intrusion was actually spread over four large areas along the 140 km LoC from Zojila to Turtuk. The estimate of the number of infiltrators had by then risen to about 800'.

The Times of India report continued by saying that, 'Painting a grim picture, the sources said the Pakistani intruders had come 6 km inside the LoC in Mushkoh Valley and the Drass sub-sector, 2 km in Kaksar and up to 7 km in the Batalik sub-sector. The Pakistanis, they said, were holding strategic peaks which gave them a dominating view of the areas around'. The paper also reported that 'Both the Brigadier and a Colonel of the Kargil Brigade were on Thursday (June 10) removed from Command for negligence'.

Owing to the Indian army's inability to dislodge the Kashmiri freedom fighters from the Kargil heights inspite of the mounting losses and repeated attacks to clear the heights, India's defence minister George Fernandes offered the Kashmiri Mujahideen a 'safe-passage' if they left the Kargil heights. India the nuclear power was losing face, the public outcry was getting louder and the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir were taking out processions in the capital Srinagar and chanting 'Mujahideens of Kargil, we are with you.' In 11 years of the peoples uprising in Indian-occupied Kashmir against the suppressive and brutal Indian illegal occupation, the ministry of defence in New Delhi was forced into the humiliating position of offering a 'safe-passage' to where, they belonged to Kashmir which was illegally occupied by India.

India started to concentrate more troops and guns in the area and eventually launched 'Operation Vijay' (victory) to dislodge the Kashmiri Mujahideen from the Kargil heights overlooking the main supply route. The attacks were supported by heavy artillery and air bombardment. The head of United Nations Observer Mission based in Srinagar (Indian-held Kashmir) General Joseph Bali, described the situation on the LoC as the worst. This was reported by Cable News Network (CNN) and quoted by The News of Islamabad on June 8, 1999. CNN Correspondent based in Srinagar added, that according to Defence analysts, India has deployed some 30,000 troops in the region (Kargil).

As the fighting in Kargil escalated with more troops being rushed to the area, the casualties started to mount and alarming headlines appeared in newspapers, such as 'Army loses 15 more in Kargil', The Statesman, Delhi, June 12, 1999. 'Major among 17 Armymen killed in Tololing', The Hindu, Delhi, June 15. 'Intruders destroy ammunition dump', The Asian Age, New Delhi, June 18. This prompted the India government to ban journalists from going to the front, so that the flow of information could be controlled. India also banned the seeing of Pakistan Television in India. Efforts were being made to keep the news of reverses and the high rate of Indian casualties from public view.

Inspite of these precautions The Hindu of Delhi reporting from Kargil in its issue of June 4, had said, 'Informed sources in Kargil say the offensive has not been much impressive so far considering the casualties'. Similarly The Telegraph of Calcutta reporting on June 27, said, 'Exactly a month after Operation Vijay was launched, the army has made little gain, finding only a toehold in a few peaks in the Drass sub-sector, while most of occupied Kargil remains in the hands of the intruders.... The Pakistanis are showing no signs of ceding territory ... By the army's own admission, the success percentage is low'. The paper goes on to say that the Indian military establishment is refusing to give a fair indication of the number of ridges they have been able to recapture and how much territory - either in terms of kilometres or in terms of percentage - remains to be regained.

The Indian army justified their losses and inability to gain ground by saying. 'The intruders are mobile, shifting from one ridge to another and their supply lines are intact'. Another problem they mentioned was that troops cannot be provided overhead cover on the ridges from incoming artillery fire therefore the casualties mount. 'The troops are yet to come to terms with this difficulty', they mentioned. The Hindustan Times, New Delhi reporting in its issue of June 23, that to protect the 100 km stretch of the 434 km long Srinagar-Leh highway from the firing and the shelling and to reach the original position on the LoC is not as easy a task as it was initially anticipated or calculated by the Army Commanders.

'The task remains as difficult as it was ever before, despite recapture of Chorbat La and point 5203 in Batalik sub-sector and Tololing pass and point 5140 in Drass'. The Army officials say that the pounding of these positions has helped the Indian troops to some extent. But the successes have not been to an extent which would force the 'intruders' to leave. 'The high casualties on the Indian side', reports The Hindustan Times on June 23, from Srinagar, 'has given them the reason to prolong their stay, hiding in the natural rock covers when jets hover over them and coming out when the sky is clear and targeting the Indian positions'. It went on to lament. 'It is in this scenario that the Army is finding it difficult to retrieve the bodies of the officers and soldiers from the high ridges'.

Having failed to clear the Kargil heights the Indian army was preparing to cross the LoC. The Asian Age of New Delhi reported on June 15, that, 'The government is under tremendous pressure from the defence services to give them a 'free hand' to tackle the Kargil infiltration'. The defence Chiefs met President K.R. Narayanan without defence minister George Fernandes. The paper reports that the defence advice is against allowing the Kargil conflict to carry on indefinitely, as the 'winter will bring an automatic ceasefire leaving the occupied areas in Pakistan hands. The territory will be as good as gone if it remains with them till next year'. The paper goes on to say that the Army has pointed out that the terrain and the heights make it impossible to successfully flush out the infiltrators who are at positions of strategic advantage. 'The conflict will have to be taken across the LoC for a quick solution'. Indian military assessment was that the world powers would move in at some point of time, and it was imperative for the government to secure the borders as a first priority.

The Army's inability to clear the Kargil heights was becoming apparent to the Indian government. The army's desire to cross the LoC was seen as a face-saving device by the Army Chief, General Ved Prakash Malik. In desperation the Government of India sent secret emissaries to Pakistan. Mr R. K. Mishra, Editor-in-Chief of the Business and Political Observer, accompanied by Mr Vivek Katju, Joint Secretary (Pakistan) in the Indian External Affairs Ministry travelled to Islamabad on June 1. The former Pakistan Foreign Secretary, Mr Niaz A. Naik left for New Delhi by a special aircraft on June 26 on a 'secret mission'. This was reported by The Hindu of Delhi on June 28. It seems the Indian team made a few more trips between June 1 and 26.

India is an arrogant local bully who has treated her small neighbours with scant regard and would certainly not have sent secret emissaries if she was in a strong military position in Kargil. In fact her military position was somewhat perilous. The government was therefore forced to send other emissaries to Europe and the United States. The Asian Age, New Delhi reported on June 19. 'At the time of writing this, India is waiting with bated breath for the G-8 resolution. Principal Adviser to the Prime Minister and National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra has been sent post-haste to Paris to convince the member nations that India is in the right on the Kargil issue ... The visit has a touch of desperation as obviously the Vajpayee government requires the international community to bail it out of a situation that can otherwise lead to a military conflict, which India and Pakistan can ill afford'. In the end it was the United States that bailed out India.

It is surprising to note that the Indian army was unable to evict the Kashmiri freedom fighters holding the Kargil heights. The Indian infantry battalions took a mauling and heavy casualties inspite of considerable fire support. Over 500, 155mm Bofor howitzers were firing day and night often in direct-fire role. But the infantry advance was slow and determination lacking.

'Frontal attacks too have proved futile at several places'. In other places 'plans to encircle the intruders and 'starve them out' had met with only limited success because of the terrain'. The Asian Age, New Delhi said on June 15. 'Meanwhile the Army is getting restless with the casualties far higher than the results achieved. As the source pointed out, the infiltrators were in positions from where the Indian soldiers were easy targets as was the Leh-Srinagar road'.

For the slow progress of Indian infantry or no progress and excessive casualties one often came across comments to indicate that 'it is a gradual process and will take time'. 'It will take another three months,' said an officer. 'It is difficult to fight in the hills, it is not like the plains'. The point is that the 3rd Division based in Leh and now moved to Kargil is a mountain division designed and trained to fight in the mountains. So are the brigades at Siachin, Kargil and the 70th Brigade at Ganderbal, now at Kargil. The 8th Mountain Division rushed to the area is also designed to fight in the high terrain.

High casualty rates in Kargil is one of the main causes of faltering of the infantry attacks. The second major cause is their long employment in internal security duties where they had to deal with the unarmed civilian population. But whenever they came across the Kashmiri Mujahideen, they lost men. It is estimated that during the present uprising in Kashmir covering the period 1990 to 1998 the Indian security forces have lost over 6,000 officers and soldiers killed and double that amount wounded. It was reported in The Nation of Lahore on May 5, 1999 that General Ashok K. Mehta writing in The Sunday of September 19, 1998 had said 'The most stunning fact is the sudden and exceptional spurt in army casualties. 4 officers, 3 JCOs and 58 soldiers killed and 6 officers, 12 JCOs and 170 soldiers wounded, all in 40 days ending August 16, 1998. This is the highest 40 days toll of losses since the engagement began nine years ago'.

The Nation of May 5, 1999 goes on to say that the fatigue factor was discussed in the Indian Annual Army Commanders Conference in Mhow, over which the incumbent Chief of Army Staff, General V.P. Malik presided. The infantry commanders complained that 203 infantry battalions out of a total of 365, were engaged in suppressing insurgency all over India and stress was beginning to bite. A major chunk comprising 37 per cent of total Indian infantry were employed in Kashmir. The infantry commanders prevailed upon the Indian Chief to induct half a dozen of mechanised infantry and armour regiments in Kashmir so that the overstretched infantrymen get reprieve. The prolonged employment in an internal security role is having adverse effects on the fighting capability of the Indian army. As Field Marshal Montgomery was to write about Southern Ireland, were troops were engaged in internal security duties in 1920, in his memoirs that such employment 'developed into a murder campaign in which in the end, the soldiers became very skilful. But such a war is thoroughly bad for officers and men; it tends to lower their standards of decency and chivalry.

After the Kargil fighting India has inducted more troops and raised another Corps for Leh the 14th under Lt. General A.B. Masih. It is initially to consist of 3 Mountain Division already in Leh and an additional 9 Mountain Division moved up during fighting. An additional 100 battalions of army and paramilitaries were later on sent into Kashmir, some under the pretext of election duties. Prior to the Kargil fighting the ratio of troops and paramilitaries to ground was 15 per sq km in Kashmir and 13.3 per sq km in Jammu, with 1.3 per sq km in Ladakh. Military experts consider this very high. With the induction of more troops the ratio will rise. Will the induction of more troops improve their fighting capability or is India planning a short and sharp operation across the LoC in Kashmir to raise morale.

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