Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

August 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 5)


Pakistan’s Fourth War
By Jasjit Singh *


Pakistan’s first three wars had failed to achieve its central objective of taking over Jammu & Kashmir state. The first war was started in October with irregulars (tribal raiders) led and supported by the Pakistan Army. The second war was started on August 6, 1965, with the launching of 6,000-strong “Force Gibralter” followed by a full-scale invasion, “Grand Slam”, led by its armoured division. The third war had been more diffused where regular military forces were employed in what may be termed as the first phase in the battle for the Siachen area after prolonged preparation to create legitimacy. Failing in this phase, Pakistan started the sub-conventional war through militancy and terrorism, first in the two border districts of Indian Punjab since 1984, to prepare the ground for subsequent action. This started in July 1988, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, while militancy in Punjab was concurrently stepped up. Barring the battle for Siachen, the third war had been prosecuted by Pakistan at the sub-conventional level, using its extensive expertise and huge stocks of weaponry built up during its own proxy war against Afghanistan since 1973, and the more extensive war against the Soviet forces after 1981, when it became the “front-line state” for the United States against its Cold War enemy. The fourth war conducted in the Dras-Kargil-Batalik sector of Ladakh has witnessed a new approach which draws heavily from its experience in prosecuting the Taliban-Pakistan Army joint-force operations against the legitimate government in Kabul for the traditional goals of Pakistan.

Pakistan remained dissatisfied even with holding nearly one-third of the state as the fruits of its earlier aggression. Pakistan’s third war which had actually started with its battle for Siachen in the 1970s had failed by the early 1990s. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not been able to shed its fantasies and come to terms with realities. Decades of recycling untruths have led its people to believe that Pakistan is incomplete without Kashmir being part of it. And, hence, the repeated attempts to take it over by force. In this process, it has pursued what is a fairly consistent strategy even though constructed on false premises. At the root is the myth that Kashmir is and should be part of Pakistan because Muslims constitute a majority in the state. And since Pakistan was formed on the basis of a separate homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent, Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan. In reality, the more honest expression of the reason why Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan is available from the writings of military men. Maj General Akbar Khan, who claimed to have masterminded the invasion in 1947 has been categorical about the strategic significance of the state. 1   The original plan, which does not seem to have changed, is to occupy Jammu & Kashmir and thereby pose a direct threat to India from the north. But the façade of Islamic rationale has been useful to muster national and international support for its claim on the basis of religion, forgetting that the majority Muslim province of Pakistan broke away in 1971 after years of oppression and genocide.

It is now clear that Pakistan consciously planned to violate the 1972 Line of Control by military means authorised by the combined political, military and bureaucratic leadership (including the Inter-Services Intelligence—ISI) as part of its continuing grand strategy. The ISI itself is an extension of the military (almost entirely army-manned), which is organisationally separate but operationally represents the army’s ethos and functioning. The agreement on the Line of Control was being violated politically, diplomatically and materially since 1988 when the proxy war was launched with the Mujahideen to change the status of this agreed frontier. The Line of Control was established by mutual consent under the 1972 Simla Agreement between the two countries. While in India the Simla Agreement has been seen as a major concession for the sake of durable peace in the subcontinent, Pakistan has clearly viewed it as a tactical step to its ultimate goal. Responsible Pakistanis have been saying since the 1970s that Kashmir could be wrested under a nuclear umbrella which would ensure that India couldn’t deliver a punishing response. In 1972, it embarked on its nuclear weapon programme before it agreed to negotiate at Simla so that a powerful leverage would be available in due course. This indeed started to happen in 1981 when the US agreed not to question Pakistan’s nuclear programme as the price it paid for getting the latter to become the “front-line state” in Afghanistan. 2   Pakistan’s proposal for a “no-war” pact was an early attempt to move away from the Simla Agreement since it would offer an alternative to the commitment under the Simla Agreement not to use force. We failed to remind Pakistan at that time or later of the clause committing it not to use force, a commitment unambiguously of a higher nature in ensuring peace than a no-war pact. As per the recent statement of Dr. Samar Mubarak Mand, who supervised the nuclear tests in May 1998, Pakistan manufactured a nuclear device and tested it in 1983. 3   From then on, undermining its commitment to the Simla Agreement in various ways is history. What was important also was the acquisition of nuclear weapons by 1987, followed by the physical violence initiated in Kashmir since July 31, 1988. The statement of General Aslam Beg, as army chief a year later, that Pakistan now had a new strategy to take Kashmir under its doctrine of offensive defence, was revealing.

While some of its military leaders accepted the failures of the past, a series of fundamental factors appear to have propelled Pakistan toward the fourth war for Kashmir. These may be summed up as:

To start with, there is a deep, apparently irreconciliable ideological conflict between Pakistan and India. This has often been interpreted as Pakistan’s search for identity. The struggle for independence itself had set the parameters of the Indian ideology in terms of the equality of the human being. Democracy, secularism, federalism and social justice became the hallmarks of the national ideological goals. From this flowed the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution. Given the diversity of India in ethnic, religious, linguistic, regional and sub-cultural terms, this ideology suits the country best. In fact, it defines the core values of the Indian state.

Pakistan, on the other hand, was formed on the basis of the idea that religion (in its case Islam) defines nationhood and hence Muslim majority areas should be grouped into a separate state. This constituted the “two-nation” philosophy which obviously could not be acceptable to India (including a vast proportion of its Muslim population). India accepted the establishment of Pakistan as a sovereign state, but rejects the two-nation ideology that drives it since it fundamentally contradicts and challenges Indian core values. Very early in its history as an independent country, Pakistan moved away from the democratic framework visualised by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. 4   The shift away from democracy was no doubt driven by ethnic divisions to deny a legitimate place and role to Bengalis from East Pakistan who constituted the majority in Pakistan. Inclusion of Kashmir in Pakistan would have helped reduce the imbalance. Instead of moving toward democratic norms and ideology, narrow elitist interests (mostly confined to Punjabi-Pathan hegemony), dominated policy in Pakistan. They shifted increasingly toward an ideology that was based on religion as the basis of nationhood, which progressively altered toward religion as the basis of the state itself. Religion itself was circumscribed when the Ahmadiyas were declared non-Muslims. Increasing Islamisation of Pakistan since the Bhutto-Zia period shifted the ideology from Islam being the foundation of its nationhood to its being the basis of the state itself. This not only sharpened the ideological conflict with India, but also created internal contradictions which Pakistanis are constantly struggling with.

The second issue is that Pakistan has been emphasising Kashmir as the “core issue” in Indo-Pakistani relations. Statements by people like the current army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, suggesting that the solution of the Kashmir issue will not result in better relations with India, only prove the underlying ideological conflict as the root cause. But Pakistan has been saying, more so since the early 1990s, that Kashmir is the “unfinished agenda” of partition. This is one of the major distortions of facts that has led to increasing the emotional desire in Pakistan to complete that agenda as it defines it. But the reality is that the agenda for partition as it relates to Jammu & Kashmir was quite different.

The British ruled only parts of India directly and these areas were designated as “provinces.” Less than half the territory of the erstwhile British India came within this framework in 1947. It is this area that was to be partitioned in accordance with the dispensation of transfer of power when India attained independence and Pakistan was created. Factors like geography, demography, etc. were to be kept in mind and a Boundary Commission was set up to draw the boundaries of the proposed state of Pakistan, carved out of India.

The majority of British India, however, was ruled by the British through treaty (in many cases, multiple treaties) arrangements with the rulers/kings of nearly 564 states. These states included large kingdoms like Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir, Gwalior, Mysore, Patiala, etc. and historically important ones like Udaipur, Jaipur, Travancore, etc. Many had their own armies, currency (although the Indian rupee was the dominant legal tender), and railways in some of the bigger states like Hyderabad, Gwalior, Mysore, etc. A separate Prince’s Chamber at the national level existed for deliberations on issues related to India ruled by these kings/queens within what came to be called the Paramountcy of the British. The terms of transfer of power to India and Pakistan did not visualise any partition of these states according to any formula. In fact, the end of Paramountcy would leave each of these states a sovereign country. The rulers, however, were advised to accede to either India or Pakistan. Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, in fact, adopted a position that the decision of the ruler must be treated as final since he/she would have the sovereign right to decide the future of the state after Paramountcy lapsed. The Indian National Congress, on the other hand, took the position that the final decision must rest with the people.

The interim government of India headed by Jawaharlal Nehru had conveyed to the ruler of Jammu & Kashmir in June 1947, through the then Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten, that India would have no objection if the state acceded to Pakistan; but it must not attempt to stay independent. In the final analysis, the Maharaja opted to linger on his decision. He sought a Standstill Agreement with India and Pakistan to maintain the status quo. India did not agree to the proposal. Pakistan, however agreed, but imposed an economic blockade to force the decision in Srinagar. Then followed the invasion by Pakistan. And the following two wars for Kashmir.

In reality, the Kashmir issue had been fading from the international community’s horizon for a number of years. The state has been ruled by an elected government since 1996. Transnational terrorism continued to be expanded, but has failed to produce any tangible benefit for Pakistan. With its formulation of Kashmir as the “core issue,” Pakistan painted itself into a corner with receding choices and options except escalation of the conflict. The bilateral dialogue and Lahore Declaration amounted to providing Pakistan with a face saving formula, if it wanted to seek stability and possibly cooperative relationship with India. But it seems the hard-liners in Pakistan, especially its army and ISI, drew a different lesson from the developments.

It is in this context that we also must note the continuing struggle among the diverse centres in the power structure of Pakistan where the competing elites have cooperated in larger issues and yet sought to strengthen their own positions within the system. These centres are composed of diverse and overlapping interest groups, of which the most notable are the army (and by extension, the ISI), till recently, the president, the civil bureaucracy and political leaders who almost inevitably represent feudal interests and attitudes. The war in Afghanistan added drug-lords and arms merchants to this grouping, with many of them part of the elites. The power structure has been dominated by the Punjabi-Pathan combine who have developed a vested interest in maintaining hostility toward India. Any rapprochement with India is seen as a threat to the privileged position of the ruling elites.

Although more balanced experts have pinpointed the causes of the break up of Pakistan as essentially the flawed policies of the rulers compounded by ruthless military suppression and genocide of Bengalis, there continues a deep, almost irrational desire for revenge against India for the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. The fact that India pre-empted its positioning of its forces on the Saltoro Ridge, which dominates the Siachen Glacier rankles, further deepening the revenge sentiment. To this list, they will no doubt, also also add Kargil.

The military in Pakistan, essentially led by an overwhelming proportion of Punjabi-Pathan officers (over 84 per cent, although some estimates put it as high as 99 per cent), prides itself in its offensive and aggressive approach. In 1979, it came out with an interpretation of the Holy Quran, which argued in favour of a “total war” where terror was to be a central element in the run up to war, during hostilities, and for war termination. 5   Successive generations of officers have been exhorted to think in terms of the use of terror as a weapon sanctified by the Holy Quran. In 1989, the army formally claimed the adoption of a doctrine of offensive-defence. While announcing this, the army chief claimed that this doctrine would imply fighting the battle inside Indian territory.


Pakistan’s Assumptions

Pakistan appears to have curiously adopted a near similar set of assumptions for its fourth war as it had done in the earlier wars; and with similar results of their turning out to be flawed to the degree that the ignominy of defeat was intensified and consequent bitterness aggravated. Pakistan’s assumptions, on which it constructed its invasion, may be outlined as follows:

One of the key assumptions of Pakistan in launching its offensive has been the nuclear factor. Even when Pakistan launched its war in 1965, it was with the assumption that once India expanded its military power (as a consequence of the opening up of the northern defence perimeter), it would be well nigh impossible to snatch Kashmir from India by use of direct military force. And, hence, the perceived necessity to launch the offensive at that time. The war in 1971 unequivocally proved Indian superiority, not only in numbers, but also in the professional-military conduct of war and corresponding politico-diplomatic skills. A direct challenge to Indian military power thus became a highly risky proposition. Other ways had to be found to neutralise Indian conventional military superiority, if the goal of acquiring Kashmir was to be pursued.

Many military leaders in Pakistan held the belief, since the 1970s, that it would be possible to take Kashmir by force under the protection of its nuclear umbrella. Pakistan has sought nuclear weapons essentially to neutralise India’s conventional military superiority, which according to an eminent Pakistani, hangs over Pakistan like a permanent Sword of Damocles. 6   Pakistan had started earnestly pursuing a nuclear weapons programme in January 1972, weeks after its humiliating defeat in the December 1971 War with India and the independence of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The central logic of acquiring nuclear weapons has been to neutralise Indian conventional superiority to the degree that any punishing military operation by India, in retaliation to its actions, is forestalled by the risk of escalation to a nuclear weapon exchange. Responsible people in Pakistan have been saying that its acquisition of nuclear weapons since 1987 has kept the peace in South Asia in spite of serious tensions between the two countries. 7   This is in spite of the prosecution of the third war for Kashmir waged by Pakistan since the mid-1980s and specifically in Kashmir since July 31, 1988. On the other hand, prosecuting a sub-conventional war has been seen as the low cost option for Pakistan. As the nuclear weapons capability grew, Pakistan also started its sub-conventional war. The correspondence of the acquisition of nuclear capability and prosecution of war may be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Nuclear Umbrella and Aggression

Year Nuclear Capability Politico-Military Actions
1972 Programme started in January
Simla Agreement to protect POK
1974–76 Deal with China for nuclear
Proxy war in Afghanistan cooperation
Attempts to establish legitimacy in Siachen area
1981 Understanding with the USA
No war pact offer, distancing from Simla Agreement begins
Sub-conventional war against Kabul stepped up
1983 Nuclear test in China
Start of trans-national terrorism in Punjab
Attempt to occupy Siachen
1987 Nuclear deterrent available
Training camps for Mujahideen expanded
Brasstacks crisis generated
Attack on Siachen
1988 Violent phase in J&K started
Escalation in Punjab
1989 Nuclear deterrent in place
Sub-conventional war in J&K escalated
1990 Nuclear threat
Violent escalation of sub-conventional
R. Gates mission war in J&K
1998 IRBM test
Planning for Fourth War
Nuclear tests
Overt nuclear status
Shelling of Kargil by heavy artillery
1999 IRBM test
Fourth War launched
Nuclear Pakistan

There has been a general assessment that acquisition of nuclear weapons has eliminated the probability of war. At one level, this is true. But it really applies to a full-scale war where the contestants are willing to risk escalation at least to just short of a nuclear exchange. Limited war remains a distinctly possible scenario and the country that is able to manage the dynamics of a limited war, would have a definite advantage. In fact, the ability to fight and win a “limited war”, where nuclear weapons are not allowed to enter the equation, is likely to be the hallmark of successful national strategy in future.

This is where Pakistan failed and India demonstrated the politico-military acumen to conduct a limited war. In India, the subject of limited war has been examined by many people. 8   China has been articulating for nearly two decades that the war it is likely to fight would be a limited, local border war. Pakistan, on the other hand, appeared to have paid no attention to the dynamics of a limited war under a nuclear overhang. When the Indian Army Chief, General V.P. Malik cautioned his forces in late 1998 that conventional war remained a possibility even when two adversaries possessed nuclear weapons, it generated a strong reaction in Pakistan since it contradicted the prevailing conventional wisdom. International responses to the nuclear tests in May 1998 also added to this belief, since the argument was developed that any war between India and Pakistan would almost inevitably result in a nuclear exchange. Pakistan had been propagating this assumption from the late 1980s. It may be recalled that when tensions between the two countries were high after escalation of the proxy war in Kashmir in 1990, Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was reported to have cautioned the former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, that in case of war with India, nuclear weapons will be used early. But historical facts did not support the assumption. Kargil was not the first war between two nuclear-armed neighbours. The Sino-Soviet border war in 1969 remains the first such war, although it has not been sufficiently studied in the world.

Pakistan seems to have planned to start raising the bogey of a nuclear exchange at an early stage. It had picked the battleground carefully and the element of surprise gave it tremendous advantage. By the same logic, it posed a severe challenge to India, which would either have to open another front, or limit itself to direct uphill assaults against well-entrenched and heavily armed troops of the Pakistan Army, and suffer heavy casualties without any reasonable prospect of success before winter would set in and freeze the situation. If India opened another front, the potential for a full-scale war would have increased and the spectre of a nuclear exchange was likely to have brought the international community (and domestic public opinion in both countries) into the conflict. There would be a high probability in that case of a ceasefire being imposed by UN Security Council action. This would have formalised the new ceasefire line to India’s disadvantage. Pakistan, in fact, did issue nuclear threats in the early stages of the war to coerce the international community, especially the US-led Western world, to intervene early in the conflict. It did not pursue with the threats after realising that India had simply ignored these and not treated them as credible.

Linked to this but with an autonomy of its own was the assumption that the international community (especially the United States and China) would intervene in the war and seek an early termination which would leave Pakistan with sizeable territory on the Indian side of the Line of Control. This was also the expectation in 1965 when it was assumed in Pakistan that China would intervene. The same assumption influenced thinking when President General Yahya Khan decided to attack India on December 4, 1971.

The international community no doubt was seriously concerned with the risks involved with the eruption of the Kargil war. But India was conscious of the risks of escalation. Therefore, it decided to restrict the war to the battle zone, only extending it to cover the Dras-Kargil-Batalik sector. Signs of definite restraint by India and clear signals that India would keep the war limited led to the reaction of the international community tilting in favour of India. The relentless advance of the Indian Army preceded by exceptionally well executed aerial strikes by the Indian Air Force after the first week of June provided an impetus to the support of the international community in favour of India rather than Pakistan. This is remarkably obvious in the statements that came out of the same capitals at different stages of the war. The United States in particular came out strongly in favour of respecting the Line of Control and withdrawal of Pakistani forces back to their side of the Line.

China’s reaction was equally important and the converse of what Pakistan expected. Relations between China and India had hit a serious down turn after the nuclear tests in May 1998. There was no sign by the end of the year of any prospect of improvement in bilateral relations. But in reality, as the new year opened, China appears to have reassessed the issues and decided to delink proliferation issues from bilateral relations with India. China appeared to be moving back to rely on the support of India in its global strategies in working for a multipolar world and resisting a unipolar hegemonic dispensation. This has been an important factor in China seeking closer relations with India. China’s concerns of separatism in its western regions, especially the potential for Islamic militancy (much of it fuelled and fanned by the same sources as the ones doing it in India) in Sinkiang province was also an important factor. The result was that, based on an invitation from his counterpart, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh visited Beijing in the middle of the war, and the Chinese made it clear that they support the issues to be resolved bilaterally and through peaceful means. If anything, China leaned closer to India during the war rather than toward Pakistan which has been its traditional strategic partner for a number of decades.

One of the major factors leading to Pakistan’s decision to invade India in 1965 was its assessment that the country was demoralised after the defeat in 1962, Nehru was no more, and the Indian military was in state of disarray because of the defeat, expansion and reorganisation. India had not used its Air Force in that war for fear of escalation. Therefore, it was seen as an unprecedented opportunity to take Kashmir. Even this time, the assumptions were similar. India was ruled by a party with a minority in the Parliament in a coalition of many parties. Till early 1998, some coalition partners (like Ms. Jayalalitha) were constantly threatening to pull down the government. Finally she did withdraw support consequently resulting in a loss of the vote of confidence by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition by a single vote. No alternate government could be formed and the BJP was asked by the president to continue while fresh elections were ordered. Pakistani estimates were that a government constantly pre-occupied with its political survival and domestic politics would either over-react or under-react to Pakistani military aggression. Either way, Pakistan would stand to gain. If India reacted with incertitude, the prospects for Pakistani success would have increased. On the other hand, India might over-react. The adverse tactical and terrain situation for the Indian Army could be resolved by opening another front which was a distinct possibility both in military logic to relieve the pressure and choose our ground for a counter-attack as well as in political terms since the ruling party might be forced to accelerate the pace of conflict to complete it before the country moved closer to the national elections in September when the weather also would clamp down in Kargil sector, leaving Pakistani forces across the Line of Control. On the other hand, escalation by India by opening another front would have led to greater rhetoric and threats of nuclear weapon use, and the international community would have been expected to take an active interventionary interest, possibly leading to a ceasefire which would leave the Line of Control altered. However, India decided to exercise tremendous restraint, kept the war limited to the Kargil sector, and beat back the Pakistani forces on the ground and time of their choosing. The message was clear: if India can beat a professional military force equipped with modern firepower, at the ground (with Pakistani forces on dominating heights) and time of Pakistani choice, with the initiative also in their hands, with strategic and tactical surprise almost complete, then India can beat Pakistan anytime anywhere.

But the problem also was that Pakistan had assumed that the Indian military was now “tired” and not in a fit shape to fight. That its weapons and equipment were getting obsolete. No modernisation had taken place for more than a decade. There were acute shortages of officers, especially at the junior leadership levels. Above all, the Indian Army had been deeply involved in internal security for more than 15 years. Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, former head of the ISI and now the chief intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote in early 1999, “The Indian Army is incapable of undertaking any conventional operations at present, what to talk of enlarging conventional conflict.” 9

The decline in India’s conventional capability has been transparent for a decade. The defence expenditure dropped from 3.6 per cent of the GDP in 1987 to 2.3 per cent last year. There has been hardly any modernisation or replacement of equipment. The successive reports of the Standing Committee of the Parliament have been pointing out the need to arrest the increasing weakness in military preparedness. The army by all accounts has been short of nearly 13,000 officers. While these indicators would no doubt lead to the type of judgement Pakistan came to, the real problem has been that this did not take into account the inherent strength and fighting quality of the Indian Army. The area where Pakistan conducted the war, in fact, would not be affected by weapon systems normally needed in the plains. It was obvious that the government would move rapidly to fill up deficiencies (like ammunition for the Bofor guns).

Above all, the Pakistan Army ignored the fact that the use of the Indian Air Force would make a material difference to the course of battle.


Pakistan’s Strategy

Pakistan’s basic strategy for the fourth war for Kashmir was to position an armed force across the well established, formally accepted Line of Control in Kargil sector in Jammu & Kashmir state in the form of a bridgehead during the winter months which could be expanded as the season changed. A crucial component of the strategy was the domination of the Dras-Kargil road which provides the only road link between Srinagar in Kashmir and Leh in Ladakh. There have been reports that Pakistan’s plans for such an operation to cut the Indian supply lines to Siachen and thereafter move the Pakistan Army in the north to take Siachen region were drawn up as long ago as 1994. 10   Former Pakistani Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg also confirmed that with the occupation of the Kargil-Drass heights, “Indian troops in Siachen, Leh and beyond have been placed in a difficult position.” 11   Beg argued for sustained military pressure on India to “force it to negotiate on Siachen and Leh as the first step toward the solution of the Kashmir problem. This objective is possible and can be achieved within a period of six to eight months.” 12

We need to acknowledge that India was caught by surprise. The fact that this sector had not really been alive in terms of any earlier attempt to disturb the Line of Control, the apparent lack of utility of the sector for infiltration of terrorists, and the high altitude and snow-clad rugged mountains which would not make military operations of any significance viable had possibly introduced an element of complacency and/or diverted attention on the Indian side facilitating surprise. B. Raman has identified a number of reasons why our intelligence failed to focus on relevant information in this area. 13   The Indian Army patrols in the area over the years appear to have become predictable. But perhaps the most significant strategic factor which facilitated surprise by Pakistan was the prolonged involvement of the Indian Army in internal security duties across India almost continuously for more than 17 years. On our side, this no doubt had an impact on the thinking and orientation of the officers and soldiers where low intensity conflict was seen as the primary threat to India and the logical responsibility of the army. In the initial stages of the Kargil conflict, in fact, it appears that the assessment of the nature of occupation of fortified positions across the Line of Control was possibly more in terms of infiltration by militants rather than by Pakistani forces. The disappearance of the patrol on May 8 may also have been seen in terms of an ambush by militants rather than by the Pakistan Army. The early confusion in the politico-military leadership’s statements does indicate that the initial assessments were more on the optimistic side and understated the challenge.

It is now fairly clear that the initial elements of Pakistani planning for this operation started some time in the winter of 1997. Operational planning was firmed up by the summer of 1998. It is possible that at this stage it was limited to the No.10 Corps Headquarters commanded at that time by then Lt. Gen. Pervez Musharraf who later became the army chief. To a large extent, this itself was a seamless follow-on to the third war. The most significant element of the action in 1998 was the heavy artillery shelling of Kargil town. This surprised all observers. Firing across the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir has been a frequent occurrence over the years. But this was possibly the first time that Pakistani heavy artillery consciously targetted the town populated almost entirely by (Shia majority) Muslims, resulting in casualties as well as forcing inhabitants to evacuate the town. The population could return to their homes only after the weeks-long shelling finally stopped in late summer. Because of the experience of the previous year, the people of Kargil rapidly evacuated once the first shells started to fall on their homes in May 1999.

The operational planning for the Kargil War appears to have moved into high gear by end September 1998. Then a curious development took place. Pakistan Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat was forced to resign by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on grounds which appeared questionable. Karamat had spoken about the need for better decision making in national security matters during his talk to the Naval War College. The remarks as reported in the Press were not unusual for an army chief to make while addressing a military institution of higher learning. But they seem to have been rapidly given very high publicity. This was followed almost immediately by the prime minister seeking Karamat’s resignation. Sacking of an army chief anywhere in the world is not a common occurrence. In Pakistan, this would almost appear a sacrilege, and indicated a total reversal of the role of the army in the power structure of the country since 1954. The event appeared even more curious since Karamat had barely three months to retire in the normal course of events.

In retrospect, it can be hypothesised that General Karamat may not have been sufficiently enthusiastic about launching an invasion across the Line of Control in Kargil sector. Karamat’s reported personality would tend to confirm this assessment since he appeared to have been a sober, nearly conservative professional military leader, deeply devoted to keeping the Pakistan Army dedicated to military professionalism. And yet, the next few months would be crucial for the planning and execution of the invasion plan. An unenthusiastic army chief would certainly have been seen as a liability and hardly be wanted under those circumstances since the success or otherwise of the plans would have far-reaching implications for Pakistan. General Karamat’s offer of resignation appeared to open the path to a change in leadership that would be fully committed—and more—to the war plans. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif moved quickly to accept Karamat’s resignation and appointed Pervez Musharraf on October 7, 1998, to be the next chief of Army Staff to succeed Karamat. In the process, Musharraf superseded three officers senior to him.

Musharraf’s background has great relevance to the war. Musharraf belongs to a Mohajir family originally from Azamgarh (in what was then the Indian state of United Provinces, like his one time patron and Army Chief, General Aslam Beg during whose time the third war was launched under the doctrine of offensive-defence) and was commissioned in the Corps of Artillery in 1964. During the 1980s, he was picked up by General Zia-ul Haq for advancement on account of his religious beliefs as a Deobandi. The fact that Musharraf was strongly recommended by the Jamaat-e-Islami no doubt weighed in heavily. Musharraf was put in charge of training of Mujahideen groups for fighting the Soviet military in Afghanistan where he also came in contact with Osama bin Laden. “Recent information makes clear that the newly installed Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen Pervez Musharraf, has long standing links with several Islamic fundamentalist groups.” 14   During the Afghanistan War of the 1980s, it was inevitable that a man in his position would also develop contacts with narcotics traffickers. In 1987, as a Brigadier, Musharraf took over a newly raised SSG (Special Services Group) base at Khapalu which is the key support base for the Siachen and Kargil sector. One of his first acts was to launch an attack with his SSG commandos on Bilafond La in September 1987 which was beaten back by the Indian Army. Since then, Musharraf spent two tenures spanning seven years with the SSG and is believed to be one of the most experienced experts in mountain warfare in the Pakistan Army.

Musharraf is also known for his ruthless handling of dissent, not very different from Tikka Khan’s methods, except that he seems to rely more on suppression by proxy forces. Musharraf was put in charge of the forces to deal with the Shia revolt in Gilgit in May 1988. He transported a large number of Wahhabi Pakhtoon tribesmen from Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan under the command of Osama bin Laden, to suppress the revolt. “In May 1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit town. The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds. But the numbers alone tell us nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys.” 15

It was almost inevitable that Musharraf with his SSG background would pick up a close friendship with people like Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, the director general of the ISI during Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure. It may be recalled that Nasir was finally removed from the post at the ISI under US pressure because of his close linkages with the Harkat-ul-Ansar (declared as an international terrorist organisation and banned by the USA in 1997).

Every single attempt by Pakistan to take over Kashmir has been marked by the use of irregular forces strengthened by regular troops to create turbulence under which a regular military offensive was launched. This is the history of the 1947-48 and 1965 Wars. The latter war, in fact, was launched specifically because of the assessment in Pakistan that once the Indian military consolidates after the 1962 aggression by China, Pakistan will not be able to take Kashmir by force. The war in 1971 only reinforced this view. This is why the then army chief General Aslam Beg had stated in 1989 that a new strategic vision had become necessary. This relied heavily on invoking terror as a weapon, interpreted as sanctioned by the Holy Quran, and terrorism taken almost to the level of a proxy war. However, Pakistan had lost the proxy war by end-1990 and was forced to escalate violence horizontally beyond the Valley and diplomatically to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the international community as an Islamic as well as human rights issue. Underlying this strategy was the belief that India would be constrained to take any military action in retaliation across the borders because of the nuclear deterrent that Pakistan had acquired by 1987.

The deterrent became overt last year and shelling of Kargil started a few weeks later. It could be argued that Pakistan might feel more confident of its security and thus start to improve stability and attend to the core issues of economic recovery (from its dangerous decline in the 1990s), social change (of a feudal society) and political stability (in a fragile democracy) suppressed by religious extremism. The Lahore Declaration, therefore, was a logical step. However, the events in the Kargil sector would indicate that this was perhaps an overly optimistic assessment. It is fairly obvious that Pakistan meticulously planned an invasion through trying to establish a bridgehead across the Line of Control on the heights above Kargil with well-trained, heavily-armed guerillas and regular troops. This, no doubt, was expected to be expanded in due course and the status of the Line of Control altered. Pakistan appears to have calculated that at the minimum this would help to internationalise the Kashmir issue, and possibly alter the Line of Control even if over a short distance. Meanwhile, there would be opportunities to cut off Kashmir from Ladakh division with far-reaching implications in political, material and military terms.

This invasion has sought to establish a bridgehead across an established (and in this mutually agreed) frontier. This is a fundamental violation of the UN Charter, the Simla Agreement, good neighbourliness, not to mention the Lahore Declaration and the spirit behind it. Pakistan had done the same thing by establishing a bridgehead in Afghanistan with the Taliban militia and regular forces earlier. This possibly gave them confidence to attempt similar action in India.

In the final analysis, we must look at what may be called the X-factor: the variable, unpredictable or uncontrolled factors that affect the conduct and outcome of wars. At least two can be identified in the Kargil War. The major unpredictable factor was that of weather. The winter was unusually mild with temperatures on the heights of Kargil sector generally 15-20 degrees Celsius below normal. This no doubt made the task of the invaders easier in the glaciated heights for building fortified bunkers and sangars on the high ground. Pakistan no doubt calculated that by early May its forces, possibly with the Mujahideen in the lead, would start to come down the slopes while the army held the heights. The second and third weeks were critical. India at that stage would be spread very thin, with only a trickle of reinforcements possible if the road was not open to traffic. And this is why the Indian Air Force was called in to reinforce firepower. Once the road itself had been occupied, rapid expansion of forces into the area would be possible, creating serious complications for Indian defences. If Pakistani strategy succeeded, Ladakh would be cut off from Kashmir Valley and logistics supplies to Ladakh seriously disrupted.

But, on the other hand, temperatures in April were exceptionally hot in northern India, mostly 10-12 degrees above normal. For weeks, temperatures in Delhi and regions north of Delhi were running at around 45 degrees Celsius. The unprecedented heat wave resulted in snows melting earlier. And the Zojila-Kargil-Leh road which normally opened for normal traffic in early June, was motorable in early May and opened fully by mid-May. This facilitated the flow of reinforcements and logistics. There was an inevitable time factor required for acclimatisation and equipment to get to the troops. This is why the early opening of the road when it did became important.

The second factor was the Indian Air Force. This was the first time combat air power has been used in the high mountain ranges above 15,000ft altitude. The Indian Air Force was equipped with supersonic fighter aircraft. India had not used the combat components of its air force either in the 1962 War with China or in the Siachen conflict with Pakistan. There were no doubt expectations in Pakistan that the air force would not be brought into the equation. Or if it did, it would not make a material difference. But events proved that any such assumption was fundamentally flawed. The shear professionalism of the Indian Air Force rapidly adapted itself to the challenge of offensive air operations in the high Himalayan terrain with severe self-imposed restrictions of not crossing the Line of Control while also ensuring that our own troops did not become victims of “friendly fire” as has happened so often in other air forces.

Pakistan deployed large numbers of surface-to-air missiles and air defence weaponry in the bridghead across the Line of Control on the Indian side. It did succeed in shooting down a fighter aircraft that was circling to assist a colleague who ejected due to engine malfunction. Pakistan also shot down an Mi-17 helicopter on the Indian side of the Line of Control and damaged a Canberra unarmed reconnaissance aircraft whose flight details had been conveyed to them as per existing bilateral agreements. But all these happened in the first couple of days. The Indian Air Force rapidly adapted itself to the task and the potential threat and soon added night strikes in the high Himalayas to its daylight attacks with devastating effect. The Pakistan Air Force mounted patrols on an ongoing basis but wisely did not attempt to challenge the Indian Air Force.



*: Director, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).  Back.

Note 1: Maj. Gen. Akbar Khan, Raiders in Kashmir, (Delhi: Army Press, 1970). Back.

Note 2: General K.M. Arif, Working with Zia: Pakistan’s Power Politics 1977-1988 (Oxford: Oxford University 1995). Back.

Note 3: Dr. Samar Mubarak Mand, the Pakistani scientist in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998, cited in The Gulf Today, May 19, 1999. Back.

Note 4: Mohammad Ali Jinnah, speech to the Constituent Assembly, August 11, 1947. Back.

Note 5: Brigadier K.M. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War (Lahore: Wajidalis, 1979). Back.

Note 6: Former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Agha Shahi, in Fasahat H. Syed, ed., Nuclear Disarmament and Conventional Arms Control Including Light Weapons (Rawalpindi: FRIENDS, 1997), p. 421.  Back.

Note 7: General Aslam Beg (who headed, the Pakistan Army during 1988-91) in Syed, ed., Ibid., See also his statement at the Stimson Centre, Washington DC, July 1995. Back.

Note 8: Swaran Singh, Limited War (Lancer Books, 1995). See also Jasjit Singh, “Affordable Credible Defence”, Strategic Analysis, vol.16, no.11, February 1994. Back.

Note 9: Javed Nasir, “Calling the Indian Army Chief’s Bluff”, Defence Journal, February-March 1999. Back.

Note 10: Ali Usman, Takbeer, June 10, 1999, cited in POT, vol.XXVII, no.162, June 21, 1999, p.2143. Back.

Note 11: Dawn, June 17, 1999. Back.

Note 12: Aroosa Alam in Pakistan Observer, June 16, 1999, cited in POT, vol.XXVII, no.171, July 2, 1999, p.2293. Back.

Note 13: B. Raman, “Kargil: Was There an Intelligence Failure?” Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, July 4, 1999. Back.

Note 14: Selig Harrison, “First Put Pressure on Pakistan to Pull Back” International Herald Tribune, June 16, 1999. Back.

Note 15: The Herald, May 1990. Back.