The Vajpayee Government had conducted India’s nuclear tests from 11-13 May 1998, followed by Pakistan. The world was critical of India as it showed the path for a nuclear armed South Asia. What irritated the US further was that its satellites and intelligence networks failed in monitoring preparations for the test. Multiple sanctions were imposed on both India and Pakistan. Further, India was in the Russian camp. India, in 1999, when Kargil occurred, was not a nation which the world respected.
On the contrary, Pakistan was a US ally as it had supported it in pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It also had control over the Taliban government in Kabul. Bill Clinton, the then US President, considered Kashmir as a global nuclear flashpoint and was pushing both nations for talks. There was increasing pressure on India to accede to some of Pakistan’s demands on Kashmir. India was at a disadvantage, which Musharraf as the Pakistan army chief exploited.
In 1999, India’s political environment was also unstable. The Vajpayee government, which had come to power a year earlier as part of a shaky coalition was tottering for months and was finally reduced to a minority on 17 Apr 1999. During Kargil operations,it was a caretaker government. The Indian economy was rising but suffered a pushback due to sanctions. There were major gaps in military capabilities.
Vajpayee’s famous bus diplomacy to Lahore had occurred in Feb 1999, wherein he had stated, ‘Hum jungna hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke, ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jungna hone denge.’ His remarks in the visitor’s book in Lahore’sMinar-e-Pakistan were, ‘A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.’ All this while Pak troops were deploying in Kargil. The declaration signed during the visit emphasized that Kashmir would be resolved bilaterally, reiterating the Shimla Agreement.
Nawaz was keen to enhance people to people contact, open trade and possibly even convert the LOC into an international border. The visit was a turning point in Indo-Pak relations, which was unacceptable to the Pak military leadership. Musharraf, without the knowledge of Nawaz Sharif, had already launched Operation Koh-i-Paima, the Pak name for occupation of Kargil heights. It was planned by close Musharraf aides, and little information was shared.
At the time of the Lahore visit, Pak troops were already across the LOC in multiple Indian locations in an apparent declaration of war. India had been caught off guard and was compelled to launch operations to regain what was rightfully its own. The nuclear threat hung like the sword of Damocles, pushed by the Pak military leadership, swallowed by the world, impacting Indian political decision making.
The Pakistani political leadership, headed by Nawaz Sharif, was unaware that its forces had crossed the LOC. Nawaz’s consent was taken on the pretext that he would be the individual who would have pushed India to the negotiation table and compelled it to accept Pakistan’s terms and conditions. Nawaz had stated, in relation to the operation being against the spirit of the Lahore declaration, ‘can we ever take Kashmir through paperwork? We have here an opportunity to take Kashmir.’By the time Nawaz understood the game, it was too late. Any contrary orders would have implied a retreat.
Musharraf’s plans were simple. Occupy Kargil heights vacated by Indian troops in winters to dominate the Leh axis. Holding onto these heights would prevent move of Indian convoys to Ladakh thereby bringing India to its knees. He had underestimated the Indian response, including its physical assaults and air power. India lost valuable lives in probing attacks and small battalion size operations, prior to accepting reality. Satellite imagery capabilities were very limited.
Pakistan initially attempted to act innocent claiming those on the heights were not Pak soldiers but Mujahideen. Simultaneously, it awarded decorations to those who fought. This led to global pressure, including from China, US and Arab states. In an article published in Al Jazeera in Apr 2011, Hamid Hussain, a US based Pakistani writer, states that Pakistan had become a global laughing stock once the truth of its army involvement in Kargil was revealed. Had Pakistan succeeded, Kargil would have avenged the loss of Siachen in 1984 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Initial Indian retaliation was slow. The army was compelled to implement the government’s directive of not crossing the LOC. The air force was unwilling to get involved due to this limitation. When it finally did, it became a game changer. Simultaneously, these directions sent a message to the world that the conflict would remain localized to Kargil.
Since 1999, a lot has changed.India has risen in every sphere, while Pakistan has dropped. Its own Arab supporters are no longer with it. China, its only ally, is unlikely to arm and fund it in any conflict. The US has largely ignored Pak, post its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Diplomatically, Pak has been isolated. It has no global voice.Militarily, while it may remain a nuclear power, however, lacks funds to maintain essential war reserves. Its economy precludes enhancing military power to meet Indian conventional military challenge. While India has stabilized politically, Pakistan grows more unstable by the day.
As Balakote displayed, India is willing to challenge Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail and cross the LOC, if essential. Improved means of surveillance exist. Capability gaps have been overcome. Pakistan has understood that India will respond with full military might, in case of any misadventure. India is not the same of 1999.
Kargil occurred due to our belief that traditional vacation of posts in winters was acceptable to both sides. A similar scenario emerged along the LAC in 2020, when the Chinese intruded in the garb of their annual exercise. In 2020, India did not deploy additional forces,on account of COVID, and the intrusion occurred. The Galwan clash and resultant casualties was a fallout of this laxity.We failed to implement lessons from Kargil.
For India, future challenges will emerge from China, not Pakistan. While Kargil boosted Indian military image and displayed the determination of its soldiers, it also projected casualness in defence preparedness. We need to incorporate lessons from both Kargil and Ladakh and ensure we are vigilant in matters of national security. India however proved on both occasions that it will respond and not accept unilateral changes in status quo.
The author is Major General (Retd)