17 July 2019

The four lessons from the Kargil war for a new India | Analysis

Shishir Gupta

On July 26, 2019, President Ram Nath Kovind will be at the Operation Vijay memorial in Drass to pay homage to fallen Indian soldiers during the Kargil war two decades ago. Defence minister Rajnath Singh will lay the wreath to the fallen in Drass on July 20, and will be with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the National War Memorial on anniversary of the day India declared victory at Kargil.

It has been 20 years since the Indian Army, with the help of the Indian Air Force, wrested back the glaciated heights of Kargil, in the Ladakh sector, from the Pakistan Army. But the attitude of the latter remains unchanged on cross-border terrorism, and against the normalisation of bilateral relations.

One of the key lessons from Kargil is that the Rawalpindi GHQ, working with Pakistan-based terror groups, will stymie all attempts made by the political leaderships of both India and Pakistan to bridge the gap between the two countries. It was General Pervez Musharraf who moved the Northern Light Infantry in the guise of jihadists across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil sector before then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hugged his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at Wagah in February 1999 as they signed the Lahore Declaration.

Nawaz Sharif was the victim again when Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif scuttled a bold peace initiative when Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Lahore airport on December 25, 2015 while returning to Delhi from Kabul. This time, it was the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) which broke the deve loping détente by attacking the Pathankot airbase on January 2, 2016. The note recovered from the vehicle used by the terrorists clearly indicated that the attack was planned on the same day Modi had landed in Lahore. Even the prior alert to Pakistan’s national security adviser by his Indian counterpart about an imminent jihadist threat to Pathankot was of no avail.

There is little chance of a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan now, with its present prime minister closely tied with the Pakistan Army and his survival linked directly to the Rawalpindi GHQ. With PM Modi working on bringing in more investment and opportunity to Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistan Army is likely to exacerbate the situation on the LoC in the near future.

The second lesson of Kargil was the downside of fighting a battle within Indian territory. While 527 Indian troopers laid down their lives in evicting the Pakistani intruders from Mushok to Chorbat La in the Batalik sector, the victory did not extract a heavy price from Islamabad, apart from losing more or an equivalent number of soldiers. Two decades later, PM Modi has changed the paradigm with the Balakot air strike, as future Indian battles may now be fought on enemy territory.

While the Indian Army did not act upon top intelligence received about a collection of Pakistani troopers at Hamzigund across Kargil, and underestimated the enemy in the initial stages, the third lesson of war was that the era of stand-off weapons had dawned on the sub-continent, and the time for close combat was over.

Had it not been for Israeli tech support in the form of litening pods that laser-painted the targets and guided the bombs fired from the French Mirage 2000s, the duration of war would have been extended until a ceasefire agreement, which the Pakistan Army was looking for in its favor. The use of Israeli Searcher Mark I and II drones for reconnaissance of intruder positions in an airspace dominated by IAF fighters helped both the Indian infantry and artillery to target intruder bunkers. The use of laser-guided bombs by IAF — in Muntho Dalo in the Batalik sector and on Tiger Hill in Drass in June 1999 — was the turning point of the war.

The fourth lesson from Kargil was that Indian intelligence agencies must be empowered by the political leadership, unlike what had been done under the IK Gujral regime prior to the Kargil war. The defanging of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, under the Gujral Doctrine ensured that actionable intelligence was not available before the onset of war. However, RAW proved its mettle in June 1999 by intercepting a conversation between Musharraf in Beijing and his chief of staff General Mohammed Aziz to show the world that it was the Pakistan Army that had intruded in Kargil, not Kashmiri militants. The empowerment of RAW under PM Modi has ensured positive results in the form of the Surgical Strikes following the Uri attack, and the Balakot air strikes.

Finally, a key role was played by the US in getting the Pakistanis to climb down from the Kargil heights after a July 4, 1999 meeting between then PM Nawaz Sharif and then President Bill Clinton at Blair House in Washington.

While France, Israel and Russia provided military support to India in Kargil, it was under US pressure that Pakistan eventually ended its misadventure. This laid the foundation of a robust India-US relationship while further cementing ties with Israel, France and Russia. India under Modi has not forgotten its old friends while embracing new ones.

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