Anil Athale


The short and bloody Kargil battle of last year was indeed a strange phenomenon. Field Marshal Hindenburg , the hero of decisive German victory over the Russian forces in battle of Tannenburg was often asked the question as to who won the battle? There was a raging controversy over the credit for this victory. His Chief of Staff , Ludendorff and a staff officer Colonel Max Hoffman, all claimed the credit. Hindenburg’s cryptic reply was,"I do not know who won the battle, but if it was lost , I surely have been the one to take the blame." It is all too often true that while success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Kargil battle defies this logic.

Ion the Indian side it was claimed as a great victory by the party in power while the opposition continued to harp on the initial failures and also disputed this claim. The situation in Pakistan is no less bizarre. Neither Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister nor the Army Chief General Musharraf wanted to take sole credit for what was and continues to be described as a great victory for the Mujahideen (religious fighters). After the 12 October 1999 coupe, Musharaff continues to claim that the Prime Minister was fully in picture and in fact it was his decision. The farce does not end there. India has published the names of 71 Pakistani officers who died in that war. But Pakistan steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its involvement and except in a few cases, did not even accept the dead bodies of its own soldiers.

The border skirmish between India and Pakistan at Kargil from 25th May to 26 July 1999, was one of the most serious post second world war conflict. Since the nuclear tests of 1998, both countries are ‘declared’ nuclear weapon powers. This was the first ever direct confrontation between the soldiers of two nuclear capable states. During the entire cold war era, the Soviets and the Americans were careful to avoid direct confrontation, with the exception of 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Pakistan broke the unwritten first commandment of nuclear game, "Thou shall not confront another nuclear power!"

The whole world was alarmed at the possibility of the use of nuclear weapon by either side. This could prove catastrophic for the world as there is a danger of this setting a precedent and leading to nuclear anarchy. It is worthwhile to note that even at the cost of suffering a military humiliation, in 1975, the US did not use nuclear weapons against the advancing columns of North Vietnamese army. The taboo on use of nuclear weapons has held since 1945 and the whole world is determined to keep it that way. It is this and this alone that ultimately forced Pakistan to withdraw from the occupied heights in Kargil.

This still leaves the central question unanswered, why did it take place.

Pakistani Strategic Design.

Kargil was not just an attempt to gain tactical advantage. The idea was to seize Kargil town and isolate the Kashmir valley in the East. Through terror tactics and ethnic cleansing in Doda area and Punch district, in combination with Kargil thrust, Pakistan hoped to obtain the valley. Though for public consumption, it continues to lay claims to the whole of Kashmir, it appears that it has settled for control of Kashmir valley as the minimum strategic prize.

If Pakistan would have succeeded in wresting Kargil, the geography of the area is such that it would have taken a major effort and long time for India to evict them from there. In the first Kashmir war in 1947-48, precisely this happened and Kargil had proved a tough nut to crack.

The Indian leadership, including the armed forces failed to anticipate this move as they counted on Pakistan not taking the risk of attracting retaliation elsewhere.

Role of Indian Nuclear Doctrine.

Many believe that it was the wooly headed nuclear doctrine of India that encouraged Pakistan to embark upon this misadventure. The draft nuclear doctrine released by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) laid emphasis on no first use and ‘minimum deterrence’. A concoction of second strike capability with stand alone forces that are expected to survive a first strike and retaliate thereafter.

Minimum deterrence is concept born during the cold war era of balance of terror between two adversaries. In this situation of nuclear plenty a minimum deterrence had some meaning as even that was enough to trigger the holocaust, and hence gave security out of proportion to the potency of that force. The French relied on this concept. But today in the absence of balance of terror at the global level, minimum deterrence is not only meaningless but a dangerous concept.

This confusion was compounded by the frequent pronouncements from the authoritative IDSA (Inst. of Defence Studies and Analysis, a Delhi based government funded think tank) since 1987 that now that Pakistan has tested (in a laboratory) a nuclear weapon, even conventional war is out of question.

This strategy of shooting one’s own foot, ensured that India put restrictions on its own conventional forces. The two strands in Indian strategy gave Pakistan enough maneuvering space to take its proxy war to a new level by engineering an intrusion.

Now or Never Syndrome.

Since 1991, Pakistan has been worried about the improvement in Indo-US relations. Fear of losing Western support prompted it to act before it is too late. The steady Indian economic growth , at 6 to 7% and Pakistan’s own dismal position further added to this worry of future. It is worth noting that in 1965 as well, it was similar fear of Indian build up (begun in wake of the 1962 debacle against China) that prompted the launching of operation ‘Gibraltar’.

Discounting Indian Nationalism.

Pakistan has always misunderstood the din and noise of Indian democracy as a sign of weakness. In 1999 when the Vajpayee government lost parliamentary majority and fresh elections were ordered, Pakistan felt that it can take advantage of the political instability.

Russel Brine, a British scholar who wrote on Indo-Pak war of 1965 has mentioned that even in 1965, in wake of language riots in the South, many Pakistanis felt that India was weak and on the verge of breakup. According to Brines, Pakistanis failed to realise that Indian nationalism, so clearly aroused in 1962, had not vanished but merely gone underground. Again in the Kargil episode the Indians proved that when it comes to facing security threat, Indians can rise as one. Unfortunately Pakistan misjudged the Indian mood.

Can More ‘Kargils’ be Prevented ?

The answer is a qualified yes. India has to totally revamp its conventional strategy and adopt offensive strategy to deal with proxy war. In order to carry this out, it has to create a decisive technological superiority over Pakistan. Now that the tap of US aid is shut, it should be possible. This may well trigger a conventional arms race in the subcontinent. In that case, like the Soviet Union, Pakistan will bankrupt itself in the process.

Today with the world opinion in favour of India, it is us that have the space to maneuver and not Pakistan. But for that to happen, many far-reaching changes will need to be carried out in our nuclear and conventional posture. We have no choice but to run the technology race, not only for the security but for economic well being.