The 1999 Kargil War continues to be remembered for the strategic and tactical surprise it brought on the Indian Government and Military establishment and how it forced the establishment to wake up to the harsh realities for which we were not prepared for. The war also proved the indomitable spirit of the Indian Army which fought against all odds – harsh nature including – to wrest back command over the Kargil sector, which was occupied by the Pakistan Army under the guise of mujahideen. Indian Army’s unmatched grit, bravery and determination were on display on the treacherous mountains, peaks and valleys all along the Kargil sector.
On 26th July 2021 India will mark the 23rd anniversary of the Kargil war victory. 26th July is celebrated as ‘Kargil Vijay Diwas’ every year to honour the heroes of the 1999 war.
However, is the country correctly informed on the Kargil war? Do our citizens know the events before, during and after the Kargil war? What were the lessons learnt? What were the surprises that sprung on our face exposing our vulnerabilities? What were the happenings within Pakistan and how it affected us? To find an answer to all these questions one must read the book “Kargil – From Surprise to Victory” by General V P Malik published by HarperCollins Publishers India.
General V P Malik recently tweeted1 a quote attributed to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a French Renaissance philosopher which read thus:
“The only good histories are those that have been written by the persons themselves who commanded in the affairs whereof they write; rest is hearsay”.
General V P Malik, the author, was the Chief of the Army Staff (India) during the Kargil war. Authored by the Commander himself, there is no reason to go beyond this book for historical fact hunting. This book is a ‘tell all the truth’ by the General which deserves special salutes and respect. The book chronicles the events before, during and after the Kargil war. It answers each and every question posed in an earlier paragraph of this review. Kargil war as is known to all of us witnessed unmatched heroics by the Indian Army. However, the events which led to this war and the lessons learnt because of this war is what one gets to also know and understand in deep in this book.
This book is a riveting account of the-
- Events, circumstances and environment in the enemy country, Pakistan, leading up to the war
- Surprises our political establishment, bureaucracy and armed forces had to face because of-
- Failure in operational surveillance
- Continued intelligence failure – both external and internal
- Inability to identify the intruders for a considerable length of time
- Actual fighting on the icy and treacherous mountains all over the Kargil sector
- Exemplary role of junior leadership during the war
- Politico-military relationship during the war
- Synergy or the lack of it amongst the tri-services, the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force
- Challenges that the Army had to face because of the persistent problems with regard to modernization of the armed forces, inability to produce the required weapon systems indigenously in time and extremely tedious procurement process as also the impact of poor defence planning
- Impact of the war
- India-Pakistan relations beyond the Kargil war
The author reasons how India and Pakistan were forced by circumstances created by the 1998 nuclear tests to sign the Lahore Declaration during February 1999. The Kargil intrusion, Operation Badr as it was codenamed by the Pakistan army, was underway even as the Lahore Declaration was signed by the then Indian Prime Minister Late Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The author reveals that the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) was consulted only at the end of negotiations over the draft of the Lahore Declaration and the suggestion of the COSC to include a separate paragraph on cross border terrorism was rejected and not included in the declaration. However, the author documents that no change was observed on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir post the signing of the Lahore Declaration. Infiltration of terrorists and terrorism continued unabated. It is interesting to note that while the preparations for the Lahore Declaration was underway, the Pakistan Army under General Pervez Musharraf was busy planning and carrying out reconnaissance and logistic preparations from November 1998 for Operation Badr. This goes on to prove that as a nation Pakistan should never be trusted
The author opines that the objectives of Operation Badr were:
- Alter the alignment of the Line of Control east of the Zoji La (pass) and denying the use of the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway in this area to India
- Reviving Jihadi terrorism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir
- Highlighting Indo-Pak dispute over Jammu and Kashmir at the international level
- Capturing Turtuk, a strategically important village located on the southern bank of the Shyok river in Ladakh through which an ancient trade route cuts through the Ladakh Range into the norther areas of Pakistan
The above dangerous objectives were defeated by the Indian Army but the audacity with which Pakistani Army deceived India, throws into open the various loopholes and failures within our security system.
What drove Pakistan to launch Operation Badr? According to the author the “stability-instability” paradox after the two neighbours went nuclear in 1998, the revenge for Siachen and the Kashmir obsession were the prime drivers.
The Indian establishment (civilian and military) were in for a big surprise because of Operation Badr, for it brought into the fore the failure of the Indian Army at the operational surveillance level and the failure of intelligence – both external and internal – which continued even after the conflict resumed.
The author is extremely categorical in admitting the failure of that force which he headed, in preventing the Kargil intrusion. He goes at length to point out this. While he points out that the gaps in sectoral defences at some places were unavoidable due to natural environmental factors, he is also candid enough to admit the lapses when it comes to the areas which could have been defended. The author admits to a poor surveillance at the brigade and division levels. He also admits that the Pakistani army was successful in achieving deception and surprise and equally successful in their disinformation campaign during the early stages of the Kargil war.
The Pakistan establishment continued to harp on the fact that the intruders were mujahideen and continued to deny the presence of its army regulars. This claim was demolished by the Indian Army which captured a wealth of evidence to prove that the intruders were Pakistan army regulars. A telephone intercept between Pakistani Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz Khan and his Chief, General Pervez Musharraf (who was then in Beijing) by R&AW, the Indian external intelligence agency, demolished the Pakistani claim that the intruders were jihadi elements.
The author minces no words while highlighting the failure of the intelligence agencies to provide valuable intelligence – operational, tactical, internal and external – in either preventing the intrusion or in ascertaining who the intruders were, their strength, their weapons etc. These failures were also pointed out by the Kargil Review Committee formed by the Government of India to examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future.
The author, Chief of Army Staff (India) then, was not an ‘yes man’ either. The Government imposed the condition to the Indian military not to cross the Line of Control at any cost which proved to be a major handicap for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. To add to this the then Prime Minister Late Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee went on stressing publicly that India will not cross the Line of Control to which the author expressed his serious reservations and it required then National Security Advisor Late Sri Brajesh Mishra to clarify in an interview that ‘not crossing the Line of Control held good as on that day and nobody knew what would happen in future’.
It is disturbing to note how the absence of coordination between the agencies, inter-services and negotiators can lead to a delay in decision making resulting in ramifications detrimental to the security of the Nation. Some examples are pointed out. On one such instance the Indian military was not even aware of Track-2 diplomacy at that time between India and Pakistan. This prevented the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to accord approval for the use of air power citing the need to ‘exercise restraint’ whilst the Track-2 dialogue was under progress. As far as the absence of inter-services coordination is concerned, the author highlights the disagreement by the then Air Chief to provide assistance, particularly armed/attack helicopters. The reasons given were that attack helicopters could not operate at that altitude and the use of air power would escalate and enlarge the dimensions of the conflict. Influenced by the disagreement of the then Air Chief, the CCS too didn’t accord the approval to use the Air Force during the early day of the war!
The Indian Air Force did eventually play a major role in the Kargil conflict but not before the Chief of Army Staff’s (the author) efforts to bring on board the then Air Force Chief to agree upon the use of air power. The Kargil conflict warranted a joint military strategy, which the COSC was able to achieve.
Staying on the subject of a ‘joint military strategy’, the author’s justification merits consideration at this time of a debate raging over theaterisation of Indian Armed Forces:
“My logic for such an integrated approach at the level of the COSC was simple. All three services are national security assets. A single-service approach to defence and operational planning at the level of the armed forces chiefs, though outdated, tends to continue in our country due to its peculiar higher defence control organization and due to the fact that there is no chief of defence staff or chairman, chiefs of joint staff. For any combat situation, we must employ all three services optimally, in an integrated manner. The allocation of exact missions thereafter is a matter of detailed coordination, keeping in view factors such as the characteristics and capabilities of assets available with each service, the level of joint training and the degree of interaction among the services. In our country, where the political leadership and its civil advisors have virtually no knowledge or experience of warfare, differences in the opinions of the professionals are often played up. Such a tendency makes it extremely difficult for the political leadership to overrule any interservice argument. Such differences must be resolved at the level of chiefs of staff”. (Page 121, 2020 edition)
Once a unison was achieved at the COSC level, things started to fall in place and a coordinated effort was beginning to take shape, be it the synergy and war management, regular CCS meetings which had the three services chiefs in attendance amongst others or the politico-military consensus.
An entire chapter is dedicated to detail the fighting on the ground and the author generously credits many a known and unknown soldier instrumental in recapturing the Kargil sector and emerging victorious. The younger army leadership comes in for a lot of praise. After all, the battles to reclaim the heights were fought on one of the most difficult of terrains, in high altitude, with a lack of oxygen, under conditions of perpendicular climb, razor sharp ridgelines, permanent ice overhangs, falling icicles etc. The combat and logistic support being a crucial input finds a special mentioning.
A separate chapter on ‘Army Family Support System’ is contributed by Dr. Ranjana Malik who was the President of Central Army Wives’ Welfare Association (AWWA). The AWWA is regarded as the human face of the Army handling the soldiers’ welfare activities and has the maximum insight into the Indian military sociology. The AWWA is comprised and led by, the wives of the Army personnel and embodies a vast network that reaches out to the families of all army personnel including the families of the deceased. AWWA played a major role in maintaining the morale of the Army fighting in Kargil. This organization is something unknown to many in the public.
In the chapter titled “Partners in Victory” the author credits the Indian Air Force (which launched Operation Safed Sagar) and Indian Navy (which launched Operation Talwar) for their role in the conflict. The author opines that the role of Indian Air Force in the Kargil conflict was quite different from its conventional role in a war and influenced the war at a strategic level as also carrying out its operational missions as effectively as possible given the harsh terrain and the ‘available technical capabilities’.
The author needs to be commended for the chapters titled “The Information Battle” and “The Kargil Impact” for it has some visionary forecasts by the author. Being India’s first televised war, which entered each and every household across the nation, Kargil was both a battleground and a symbol. The author observes that both the media and military were on a learning curve as far as new concepts and methodologies were concerned. According to the author India won the information battle primarily due to factors such as full accessibility to the media, transparency, adoption of a holistic approach towards the entire situation and above all, credible daily media briefings that were conducted jointly by the officers from the Operational Directorates of the services headquarters and from the ministry of external affairs. Through this the Kargil war was projected in a correct perspective which unified the whole nation and raised patriotic fervour amongst the masses.
The author unequivocally delivers the message that ‘transparency and improved information flows can help boost morale, ensure understanding and fix accountability which in turn can prevent misreporting and help in presenting facts as they are’. However, these factors seem to have been ignored and no lessons have been learnt both by the Government and the TRP hungry media, examples being:
- Lack of effective media management by the Government during the 2020 China stand-off and Galwan clash resulting in conflicting reporting and in some cases misreporting
- Handling of media post 2019 Balakot surgical strikes which allowed Pakistan to gain an upper hand despite losing an aircraft
- The hijacking of media by General Pervez Musharraf during the 2001 Agra Summit and the failure of the Government in preventing it
- The televised reporting of the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes which went on to serve as a guide to the terrorist handlers in Pakistan
The chapter “Kargil Impact” is the most relevant especially for today’s scenario as far as India’s threat perceptions are concerned. Post the Kargil war, the Kargil Review Committee was formed which reported many serious deficiencies in India’s security management system particularly in the areas of intelligence, border patrolling and defence management. Further a Group of Ministers was also set up to review the national security system in its entirety and formulate specific proposals for implementation.
After nearly two decades, sadly, many of the recommendations of the GoM are not implemented except for the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff. In his forecast on our future challenges, the author pertinently notes the following:
- Separation among the tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare is getting blurred. A small military action along the LoC, or a terrorist act in the hinterland tends to become issues for consideration and decision making at the strategic level. (The actions initiated by the Government post the attacks on Parliament, CRPF convoy in Pulwama and Uri Army camp are classic examples.)
- Need for effective integrated command, control, communications and intelligence systems apart from faster decision making at all levels.
- Need for greater politico-military synergy.
Another notable observation by the author is on India’s ‘reactive strategic mentality’ which gives an opportunity to Pakistan to push for political and military advantages in Indo-Pak disputes before the situation escalates into a war. It is a matter of debate whether the surgical strikes post the Uri and Pulwama terrorist attacks have changed this mentality on the other side of the border.
Leveraging his hands on experience this book is an exceptional account of one of the major wars fought by two nuclear armed countries. Coming from the Commander himself this book deserves to be a part of military history which India is lagging in chronicling at. This book is lucidly written, candid, honest and many a record have been set straight too. Many of the author’s recommendations merits consideration by the Government.
In the Preface to his book, the author painfully notes that ‘soldiers are quickly forgotten after a war or a crisis is over. That is part of our post-independence strategic culture’! It is imperative that we need to change this culture.
Lest we forget! Jai Hind!
Image Source: The TimesofIndia