Kargil War 1999

The Kargil Conflict

IDR attempts to answer some frequently-posed questions on the current developments in Kargil.

1. Have the Pakistan Army and the ISI undertaken the operation to capture the ridges with the help of Afghan mercenaries without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif?

Unlikely. While it was noticed in the past that the ISI had undertaken many operations against India without the knowledge of Benazir Bhutto when she was the Prime Minister, because it suspected her of having secret contacts with India, all major operations during Nawaz Sharif's first tenure as Prime Minister such as the kidnapping of an Indian diplomat and the attack on Israeli tourists in the Kashmir Valley in 1992 and the Bombay blasts in 1993 had the approval of Nawaz Sharif. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Chief of the Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Ziauddin, the Director-General of the ISI, Lt. Gen. (Retd) Javed Nasir, the Principal Adviser to Nawaz Sharif on intelligence matters who was himself the DG of the ISI during Nawaz's first tenure, and Brig. (Retd). Imtiaz, Principal Adviser, Internal Security, who was himself Director of the Intelligence Bureau during Nawaz Sharif's first tenure, were all hand-picked by Nawaz after the resignation of Gen. Jehangir Karamat as the army chief in October last and it is difficult to believe that they would undertake a serious operation like the infiltration without Nawaz's approval.

2. How can Nawaz be a picture of reasonableness as he was at Lahore in February during his meeting with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and, at the same time, clandestinely authorise an operation of this nature which would undermine the Lahore Declaration?

Critics of Nawaz in Pakistan call him the meeti choori (the sweet dagger). He has always had the reputation of a man with two faces---externally sweet and reasonable, but internally cunning, calculating and ruthless. Many of those presently being harassed by the law-enforcing agencies in Pakistan such as Hussain Haqqani, his former press advisor and, subsequently, Pakistan's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, would testify to this ruthless streak in Nawaz. In May 1992, when an Indian diplomat in Islamabad was kidnapped and tortured by the ISI, a prominent Indian, who was a close friend of the Sharif family, approached Nawaz for assistance in getting the diplomat released. Nawaz was the picture of indignation and abused the ISI in the presence of his entourage for kidnapping the diplomat. Subsequently, it transpired that Nawaz himself had authorised the kidnapping. That is Nawaz in a nutshell. Indian leaders, who had interacted with Nawaz in the past, had noticed that the sweet reasonableness which he displayed during one-to-one meetings, was belied by his subsequent actions. At the same time, he is not an erratic or irrational person like Benazir. He is lucid in his thinking and doesn't mind beating a retreat if he finds that his action is proving to be counter-productive, as one saw in 1992 when he encouraged the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) of Amanullah Khan to organise a march to the LOC to violate it and then arrested Amanullah and had the marchers dispersed with force when he found that Western opinion was turning against him.

3. When could the intrusion in the Kargil sector have taken place?

Only after the winter set in (November), when the Indian Army's forward patrols stop going to the ridges. It was detected on May 6, when our Army resumed its forward patrols and encountered one group of intruders.

4. What could be the identity of the intruders?

There are three possibilities-- the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the militant wing of the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad, both of which are members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the US and Israel , and bin Laden and his group itself which had fled from the Kandahar area. Since the middle of last year, the responsibility for orchestrating the jihad in Kashmir had been practically taken over by the HUM, the Markaz and its Lashkar, to the exclusion of the indigenous organisations.

5. Would it have been possible for the intruders to reach this area without the knowledge and assistance of the Pakistan Army and the ISI?

Out of question. The intruders could have reached this area only through the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan). The NA is directly under the control of Islamabad and all movements in this area are strictly controlled by the army. Not even a resident of a village in the NA could visit another village without the clearance of the local administration.

6. Would it be possible for the ISI to spread the insurgency to the Kargil area?

Very difficult. Kargil is a predominantly Shia area. So is Gilgit. The Shias of Gilgit have for many years been fighting against the Sunni-dominated local administration. The Taliban of Afghanistan is a strongly anti-Shia organisation, which has been training the cadres of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Pakistan, an extremist Sunni organisation, which has been systematically eliminating the leaders of the Shia community in Pakistan. The Taliban itself massacred the Shias (Hazaras) of Bamiyan in Afghanistan last year. Therefore, the Pakistan Army and the ISI using Afghan mercenaries to start an insurgency in the Kargil area doesn't make sense.

7. Then, what could be Pakistan's purpose in helping these mercenaries entrench themselves in this area?

To remove them from Afghanistan where they had become inconvenient and dangerous after the US bombing of Afghanistan in August last, to relieve pressure on the mercenaries in the Valley and to weaken the logistics supply line of the Indian army and administration to Leh and Kargil.

8. What are the implications of the air strikes of the Indian Air Force?

It is a purely defensive counter-insurgency operation undertaken over Indian territory in an uninhabited area where there is no danger of any harm to innocent civilians. Since the mercenaries have occupied high ridges, it would have been very difficult for the army to neutralise them without a prior softening of the infiltrators' entrenchments from the air.

9. How is Pakistan likely to react?

Nawaz has a strong sense of national pride and looks upon himself as a firm defender of Pakistan's pride and self-respect. He strongly believes that for every action of India, which, in his perception, may hurt Pakistan's pride or damage his image in the eyes of Pakistanis, there has to be an appropriate riposte by Pakistan. At the same time, he is not an irrational adventurist. His reaction is likely to depend on the identity of the infiltrators. If they are the followers of bin Laden, he would be happy that India eliminates them rather than that he incurs the odium of his people by dealing with them or helping the US deal with them. Pakistan would make a lot of noise and raise the matter internationally, but would, most probably, avoid any ground action in their support. However, if they are not bin Laden's people, he might find himself constrained to take at least some ground action to express his solidarity with them, without letting the situation go out of control.

10. How do the NATO's current air operations in Yugoslavia differ from the Indian operations?

The NATO's operations fall into the following categories:

  • Attacks on pre-identified fixed targets. The target information, as furnished by the intelligence agencies, is fed into the instruments before the take-off; the pilot flies over the target at a height of 25,000 feet plus, releases the precision bombs and flies back to base. If the target information was correct, the strike is successful; otherwise, a flop as happened with the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. This is the least dangerous of the missions for the pilots.
  • Attacks on targets of opportunity. The pilots patrol a given area at 25,000 feet plus and, if they spot a previously-unidentified target such as an army post or a military convoy, they descend to 15,000 feet, strafe the target and get away. These missions are more dangerous for the pilots. However, to reduce risks, the NATO pilots are under instructions not to descend below 15,000 feet. Visual identification of a ground target from this height may not often be accurate and this could result in serious mistakes such as the bombing of agricultural tractors carrying Kosovar refugees, mistaking them for armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
  • Rescue missions. When an aircraft is hit by hostile fire and disabled, the pilot ejects. Immediately, a signals emitter attached to his body is automatically activated. Its signals are picked up at the base of the rescue mission aircraft. A helicopter, escorted by fighters, takes off, its instruments lock on to the signals from the downed pilot's emitter and the chopper reaches the pilot and picks him up. This is the most dangerous of the missions because the chopper has to come down to almost ground level to pick up the pilot and the fighters may have to descend to less than 10,000 feet to protect the chopper. The NATO has had to undertake only two missions of this type since it started its air strikes. Since the emitters emit the signals at not-easily-identifiable, frequently-changing frequencies, it would be very difficult for the Yugoslav pilots to identify and lock on to them and reach the spot before the Americans.

Also, there is less tension on the NATO pilots due to the following reasons:

  • Since they fly at 15,000 feet plus over targets located at ground level, any shells or missiles fired from the ground would have to cover at least 15,000 feet before reaching the aircraft. This gives them some time for evasive action.
  • Since all the neighbouring countries of Yugoslavia are co-operating with the NATO, the pilots do not have to unduly worry about any navigational error which may take them over the air space of another country.

In contrast, the missions undertaken by the IAF pilots are technically the most complex and the most hazardous ever undertaken by any Air Force since the Second World War due to the following reasons:

  • The pilots take off from their base, fly to the Kargil area at an altitude of say 25,000 feet plus, descend to say around 20,000 feet, strafe the infiltrators' encampments on the ridges and rapidly get away. Since these encampments are located on ridges at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, any shells or missiles fired by the infiltrators have to cover only about 5,000 feet before they hit the aircraft. This reduces considerably the time for evasive action available to the pilots.
  • The infiltrators' encampments are located within 6 kms of the Line of Control (LoC). When the aircraft are flying at high speeds, even a split-second navigational error could take the pilot over hostile Pakistan-controlled territory, endangering his life and aircraft and possibly creating a diplomatic incident.

All our prayers, good wishes and admiration should, therefore, be directed to these brave and patriotic pilots and other members of the crew of the IAF.

11. What are the principal dangers faced by the pilots from the ground?

When the distance between the encampments and the aircraft is very small, even a bullet fired from an AK-47 rifle can theoretically hit an aircraft, but this danger is the least likely. The principal dangers would be from conventional anti-aircraft weapons and the shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles. In the case of the conventional anti-aircraft weapons, the gunner has to roughly calculate the speed and altitude of the aircraft, take aim and fire. Mistakes of aiming are more likely and this would give the pilots a reasonable chance for evasive action and escape. In the case of the heat-seeking missiles, all that the gunner has to do is to make visual contact with the aircraft, place the rocket on his shoulder, turn it in the general direction of the aircraft and fire. The missile will lock itself on to a source of heat in the aircraft---generally the engine exhaust-- and chase it.

12. What is the Stinger missile?

The Stinger is a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile of US design and manufacture and is considered the most lethal of this category of missiles presently available. The CIA gave a large number of these missiles to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan for issue to the Afghan Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft in the 1980s. The ISI retained a large number of these missiles for itself and issued the rest mainly to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar and the Arab mercenaries of Osama bin Laden. These missiles inflicted severe damage on the Soviet aircraft. After the Afghan war, the CIA wanted to buy back these missiles from the Mujahideen and sought the co-operation of the ISI, then headed by Lt. Gen. (Retd) Javed Nasir. The Mujahideen refused to sell them back. Angered over the lack of co-operation from the ISI in this matter, the Clinton Administration placed Pakistan in the so-called watch list of State-sponsors of International Terrorism in January, 1993, and removed it from the list in July, 1993, only after the Pakistan Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, succumbed to US pressure and sacked Lt. Gen. Nasir and many of his officers who, according to the US, were mixed up with the Mujahideen and the mercenary groups in Afghanistan. Last year, Mr. Sharif rehabilitated Lt. Gen. Nasir and appointed him as his Principal Adviser on Intelligence matters. In the past, American officials, in response to Indian concerns over the possible use of these missiles in Kashmir, had claimed that they had not issued any batteries for these missiles to Pakistan after 1988 and that, therefore, once the life of the pre-1988 batteries expired, these missiles would be unusable unless the ISI and the Mujahideen find some way of re-using the batteries or clandestinely procure a fresh stock. They estimated such a possibility as remote. If the press reports identifying the missiles used in the Kargil sector as Stingers are correct, the American assurances stand discredited.

13. Is any evasive action possible against the Stingers or other heat-seeking missiles?

The Soviets had used the technique of creating alternate heat-sources to confuse the missiles. This technique consisted of firing a large number of flares in different directions. The missile would get confused and could lock itself on to one of these flares and start chasing it, thereby enabling the pilot to escape. At the time of landing and take-off, the Soviet pilots routinely fired these flares. While flying on a mission, they fired these flares only after spotting the firing of a heat-seeking missile. Otherwise, if one fired the flares routinely while on a strafing run, they might enable the gunners of conventional anti-aircraft weapons to improve their aim. The effectiveness of such evasive action depends on the pilot spotting in time the firing of a missile. Unfortunately, in many cases, the pilot realises that a heat-seeking missile has been fired at his aircraft only after it hits its engine. This would be particularly so for the IAF pilots with the reduced time for evasive action available to them.

14. Should the loss of two IAF aircraft and one chopper in the first three days of the operation be a matter of concern?

The loss of the life of even a single member of the armed forces is a tragedy for the nation, but such losses are inevitable in an operation of this type and the nation should not let itself be discouraged by such losses.

15. How long could it take for the joint army-air force operation to eject the infiltrators and bring the territory back under control?

The rear bases providing reinforcements and logistic support to the infiltrators are located in Pakistan-controlled territory. If our forces can put these bases out of action, the joint operation could end in a shorter time-frame. Since this is ruled out in order to prevent unwise escalation, one has to anticipate that these Pakistani rear bases would keep re-supplying the infiltrator encampments. This could prolong the operation. It would not, therefore, be reasonable to expect quick results from our armed forces.

16. What seems to be Pakistan's diplomatic game plan?

To project itself as a reasonable power, seeking a political and not a military solution. This is the motive behind Mr. Sharif's phone call to the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, on May 28. His objective apparently is to use the resumed dialogue to legitimise the change in the status quo introduced by Pakistan through subterfuge. India's objective, militarily as well as diplomatically, has to be the restoration of the status quo by the elimination or withdrawal of the infiltrators and re-assertion of the Indian control over this territory. We should be careful not to walk into any Pakistani trap towards post-facto legitimisation of its actions.

17. What has been the attitude of the rest of the world?

Russia has been supportive. China has been strangely silent till now. In the US and West Europe, while there is recognition of the Pakistani provocation in creating the present situation, there is the usual reluctance to condemn Pakistan and ask it to withdraw the infiltrators or at least to let India deal with them, without interfering in the Indian operations. The UN Secretary-General's call to the two parties for a cease-fire is ridiculous. It is like calling upon a policeman to cease fire when he is trying to overwhelm a serial killer. Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved a rescue package for the Pakistani economy. The next tranche (US$ 63 million) out of this amount was due for payment this month. If the US and other Western powers ask the IMF to withhold any further payment till Pakistan withdraws the infiltrators, this could have a sobering effect on the Pakistani leadership. However, it is doubtful whether they would do it. In matters concerning Pakistan's proxy war in Kashmir, the policy of the West in general and the US in particular has always been one of hypocrisy and double-speak.

18. What are the lessons for India?

Since the Government is engaged in a difficult and sensitive task, this is not the time for individual or organisational fault-finding. The time for a post-mortem would be later. However, even now, a general observation would be in order. Devoid of esoteric mumbo jumbo, national security management is the simple art of not letting oneself be taken by surprise. A State, which lets itself be repeatedly taken by surprise---the beginning of the proxy war in 1989, the Mumbai and Coimbatore blasts, the Purulia arms-drop and now the Kargil infiltration-- becomes a soft State and loses the respect of adversaries as well as friends.

Reproduced with permission from Lancer Publications: Indian Defence Review Volume 14 (2) Copyright © Lancer Publications and Bharat Rakshak

15 July 1999