Why Is India Still Ignoring Lessons Learnt From the Kargil War?

The best way to pay homage to those who lost their lives fighting in Kargil is to remember what was learnt and incorporate that in future practice – something India is yet to do.

The Kargil memorial at Drass. Credit: PTI

The Kargil memorial at Drass. Credit: PTI

Almost two decades later, the Kargil war has many lessons in national security, diplomacy, warfare, strategy and tactics which were paid for in blood, but unfortunately, remain largely ignored.

The first lesson that India must factor into its Pakistan strategy is that we are dealing with dual power centres within our western neighbour. The Pakistani political establishment exercises its powers at the pleasure of the Pakistani military and not the other way around, as is the norm in any democracy. This essentially means that Pakistan is free to make promises or policy statements politically, that can be reneged on at convenience by the military. Most of the Pakistani military’s (mis)adventures have been planned by the former and foisted ex-post facto to political leaders who have been presented with fait accompli. This essentially means that our peace dialogues are unevenly matched. For example, our home secretary’s real counterpart in Pakistan is a serving army general, not the civil servant holding a corresponding title.

Secondly, duplicity is a core component of the Pakistani military strategy. Not that there is anything wrong or ‘dishonourable’ in using deception as a tool of war, however, we must appreciate that subterfuge is fundamental to the Pakistani army who tend to lead most of their conflicts with soldiers masquerading as irregulars. They did that before Kargil, in 1948 and in 1965 as well. Subterfuge necessitates a higher degree of secrecy and Pakistan is good at that, at times keeping not just their political leaders in the dark, but also their own navy and air force, as during Kargil. This gives them the edge of surprise which is a tremendous force multiplier in war, as Indian forces learnt at the cost of several hundred body bags.

In each of the aforementioned conflicts, Indians were largely blindsided and learnt of the intrusions through local sympathisers rather than our numerous and much-vaunted intelligence agencies. So much so, that the National Technical Research Organisation was set up to bridge this gaping lacuna post Kargil. Surprise is an essential principle of war and Pakistan has beaten us to it enough times in the past for us to learn and fix this deficiency.

And that underscores the importance of the third lesson.

The local populations of our western/northern border areas have historically sided with India. Pakistani infiltrators during all the three incursions were spotted, identified, delayed and in some cases even caught and handed over by the local population to Indian soldiers. Very clearly, nationalism prevailed over religious and regional affiliations in each of those instances. India needs to better appreciate the value of the ‘defence in depth’ of the local population and be aware of the irreparable damage that a sense of alienation can cause to such a strategic asset.

The fourth lesson is to respect the capabilities of our adversaries even if we hate them. Pakistani troops began their build up as early as February and March 1999, during which time all movement, including patrolling by Indian soldiers, would entail equipping them to withstand glacial conditions and willingness to accept casualties. Till Kargil happened, the Indian side did not think this necessary or acceptable and instead relied on Winter Air Surveillance Operations, which as we know failed disastrously to detect the large-scale infiltration. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, were willing to take those casualties (and they did) to exploit the element of surprise.

Soldiers enact scenes from the Kargil war in a light and sound show. Credit: Reuters/Fayaz Kabli/Files

Soldiers enact scenes from the Kargil war in a light and sound show. Credit: Reuters/Fayaz Kabli/Files

The fifth lesson would be to implement learnings from previous experiences. The Kargil Committee, set up in the aftermath of the war, gave recommendations ranging from the strategic reorganisation of intelligence, reducing the army’s commitment in counter-insurgency commitments, improving operating procedures and inter-services cooperation, right down to tactical elements like equipment acquisition, including a lighter rifle that enables soldiers to fight in ultra-high altitudes.

Two decades later, most of the seminal recommendations of the Kargil Committee report have been avalanched under political one-upmanship, bureaucratic apathy, turf protection, diffused accountability and the victor’s hubris wherein many claim accolades for ‘evicting’ the infiltrators but no one seems culpable for losing the territory in the first place. Many awards and compensations are declared for the dead and wounded, but very little done to prevent soldiers from dying in future conflicts. This has become our national narrative in the aftermath of every security incident now. And anyone who dares to point this out is labelled as ‘anti-national’.

But perhaps the most seminal lesson from Kargil is to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. Winning battles is mere tactics, whereas winning wars is strategic. And if we don’t understand that distinction, we might continue to celebrate winning battles, while we are continually losing the war.

There are many hypotheses for why Pakistan initiated the Kargil war. Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister, vociferously denied knowledge of this betrayal while Parvez Musharraf insists that the operation had the prime minister’s approval. Given the supremacy of the military in Pakistan and the fact that even the air force and naval chiefs of Pakistan were oblivious to this operation, and that Sharif had to scurry to the US begging for intervention, it is likely that he was indeed unaware of the operation. But the animosity between India and Pakistan has its roots in another war that has been raging in Pakistan from literally its inception. And that is the war between the civilian democracy and the power-grabbing military.

Pakistan is a military junta’s dream country. For all practical purposes, it is the military which calls the shots in Pakistan, consuming a disproportionate percentage of the countries’ resources, while saddling accountability of the country’s deteriorating condition squarely on the civilian political establishment. This convenient arrangement needs an India bogey to be kept alive within the Pakistani populace. In 1997, Sharif was in a position to change that narrative.

Sharif had the popular support to take some previously unimaginable steps. He had just won a landslide victory against Benazir Bhutto and the passing of the 14th amendment to the constitution guaranteed him immunity from ‘no confidence motions’, making him the most powerful prime minister since independence. He successfully removed the president, the chief justice and the then army chief General Jehangir Karamat, replacing him with General Musharraf while superseding two generals. Moreover, the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998 largely diminished India’s conventional superiority. If Sharif, or any other prime minister for that matter, could convince Pakistanis that signing a peace accord with India could divert military resources into much-needed nation building efforts, this was the opportune moment. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s overtures were reciprocated by Sharif and applauded by the world community, who welcomed the defusing of tensions between two nuclear nations. But the Pakistani military saw the rapprochement as a threat that could erode their relevance and pole position within their national narrative, and did what they do best – scuttle the peace talks and keep the India bogey alive.

Indian territory was invaded and occupied by a few hundred soldiers, which necessitated the mobilisation of virtually a fifth of the Indian army. After weeks of bloody fighting and expending hundreds of lives and millions of dollars, the Indian army wrested back posts that were ours to begin with. We neither damaged Pakistan’s war-waging capabilities, nor gained any territorial advantages, nor diminished the Pakistani army’s adventurism which continues till date. Beyond a few months of international isolation, it did little to change Pakistan’s international polices which are based on canards and denials as displayed a decade later, when they were caught harbouring Osama Bin Laden. At best, this was a tactical victory of recapturing lost territory for the Indian army.

The strategic winner of the Kargil war was the Pakistani army. Sharif lost his domestic and international credibility and by the end of the year, was ousted in a bloodless coup giving Pakistan’s reins to Musharraf for the next decade. The Kargil betrayal muddied peace talks for all practical purposes and reverted the Indo-Pak status to ‘no war, no peace’ – the situation designed and sustained by the Pakistani military till date.

War is a very expensive way to learn lessons and hence wasting opportunities to learn from past operations is a criminal dereliction of duty. The best way to pay homage to the 1,800 troops who lost their lives or were wounded in Kargil is to make sure that those mistakes don’t happen again.

Raghu Raman is a former soldier and the founding CEO of NATGRID. He tweets @captraman. Views are personal.