Kargil: what might have happened
By Javed Hussain
THE Kargil topography is characterised by craggy peaks, steep slopes, narrow gorges and deep ravines. The arid and rocky features vary in height from 15,000 to 20,000 ft. At these heights, the average temperature during the warmest month is below freezing, while during the winter months it drops to minus 25 degrees C.
Rarified air, intensive solar radiation, strong winds and varying daytime temperatures are characteristic climatic features of the area. The Siachen glacier is also situated in this region. The main Srinagar-Leh road which is the lifeline of Indian forces in Ladakh, runs through Kargil (a tehsil headquarters of Ladakh district) and Zoji La Pass on to Leh. The Kargil heights dominate this road.
In October 1947, following the announcement of Kashmir’s accession to India, the Gilgit Scouts, a predominantly Muslim force raised by the British for internal security, revolted against the Dogras, and in a series of daring actions in1948 captured Kargil, Drass, Zoji La Pass and Skardu. However, in November 1948, Zoji La Pass and Kargil were recaptured by the Indians while the Kargil heights remained with the Gilgit Scouts.
During the Rann of Kutch conflict, these heights were captured by the Indians for the first time on May 17, 1965, for use as a bargaining counter in the negotiations. As a result of the agreement reached, the heights were returned to Pakistan in June 1965. In the first week of August 1965, Operation Gibraltar was launched. One of the areas used by the infiltrating force was the Kargil heights. To block these routes, the Indians captured the heights for the second time in the third week of August 1965. But after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, the heights were once again returned to Pakistan.
On the outbreak of war on the western front on December 3, 1971, the Indians captured the heights for the third time on December 9, 1971. This time, however, they retained the heights in line with the Shimla Agreement under which the violable Cease Fire Line (CFL), created in December 1948 on cessation of hostilities in Kashmir, was converted into an inviolable Line of Control (LoC), on the basis of actual possession of territory at the time of the ceasefire in December 1971. When the Indians captured the heights on three different occasions, the Pakistani force that was overwhelmed, consisted mostly of lightly armed, inadequately equipped Karakoram and Gilgit Scouts, both paramilitary outfits.
In the following years, the Indian troops on Kargil heights routinely vacated their posts in the winter months due to sub zero temperatures, while maintaining the minimum presence required for security. Each year in May they would return to their posts. But in May 1999, when they returned they were greeted by hostile fire. A patrol sent to investigate did not return. It was ambushed.
Thereafter, traffic on the Srinagar-Leh road was continuously interdicted by accurate artillery fire from the heights, as a result of which movement was restricted to the hours of darkness. In the following days there was massive confusion at all levels of command. Who was the enemy, the Pakistan army or the Mujahideen? Where were they deployed and what was their strength? Questions were being asked but no one had the answers, least of all the Kargil brigade, 15 corps headquarters in Srinagar (responsible for the theatre), the Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur (responsible for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh), and the army headquarters in Delhi.
Yet, orders were issued down the line to the infantry battalions to “go up there and throw them out”. This decision by the high command must have been influenced by the ease with which the heights had been captured on three previous occasions. The fact that on those occasions the enemy on the heights was a small paramilitary force, thinly spread and lightly armed, must have been overlooked by them.
In May 1999, the losses suffered by the Indian troops returning to their posts, as well as the shelling of the Srinagar-Leh road, should have told the high command a great deal about the frontage and depth of the penetration and also about the enemy on the heights. It is clear that they not only overlooked this, but also the fact that the combat effectiveness of attacking soldiers is significantly reduced at high altitudes and that it gets accentuated when the soldiers are without proper equipment and clothing, as the Indian soldiers were.
In their haste to restore status quo ante they also overlooked the fact that attacking in the unknown (without knowledge of the enemy), and that too frontally, is courting disaster. Ask the officers and men of the infantry battalions who went up the precipitous slopes, and in 11 weeks of high altitude battles lost over 600 men while 1800 were wounded. Add to this the emotional scars that the survivors would carry for the rest of their lives, and the los