From The Archives

When Pakistan and India went to war over Kashmir in 1999

Updated 17 Feb, 2017 02:32pm
Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf at Keil sector near Rawlakot on the Line of Control, February 1999 | AFP
Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf at Keil sector near Rawlakot on the Line of Control, February 1999 | AFP

Proving all claims and assessments wrong, a few hundred militants continue to control some of the most crucial mountainous positions in the Kargil-Dras region. As all attempts by the Indian ground and air forces to recapture the lost positions are frustrated by the well-equipped militants, the intensity in artillery duels between Indian and Pakistani troops along the Line of Control touches new heights.

Within weeks, the troop concentration along the LoC and the international border has increased manifold, and the naval fleets of the two countries have sailed out into the open seas to position themselves against each other. And as thousands of villagers living on the two sides of the border start to move out to safer areas, India and Pakistan once again appear to be at the brink of another more disastrous war.

This situation deteriorated further in recent weeks when the Indian administration, embarrassed at its army's failure to flush out the militants from Kargil and Dras, looked for a military solution to the conflict. The Indian government's snub to Pakistan's proposal for talks, and its refusal to hold any dialogue until the withdrawal of the "Islamabad-backed infiltrators" from Kargil, and Pakistan's categorical rejection of its direct involvement, has led to a new level of jingoism in India.

Although the Indian government did try to clarify that the American visit did not amount to third-party mediation, Delhi's frustration over the pro-longed conflict in Kargil had ultimately sucked it into accepting some kind of US role in this affair.

As more and more bodies of Indian soldiers from the conflict zone reach their respective towns, the most popular war cry in Delhi now is to "teach Pakistan another lesson." On the other hand, Pakistan's army chief, General Pervez Musharraf has made it absolutely clear that the Pakistani armed forces are fully prepared to counter any aggression.

Already, the so-called 'bus diplomacy', which only a couple of months ago had created a fresh atmosphere of optimism in the region, looks like a thing of the past. Now there is renewed talk on both sides of settling the outstanding dispute through military means. Yes, despite all the official denials from Delhi and Islamabad about the possibility of a direct engagement on the battlefield, a war between the two proud nuclear powers does look imminent.

Also read: The pursuit of Kashmir—The untold story

As war clouds started to hover over the subcontinent, matters were made worse by the role of the media, particularly in India. Almost the entire battery of newspaper and satellite television networks in India appears to have fallen in line with the policy of the Indian ministry of external affairs and their military establishment, thus creating a tangible war-like atmosphere. There were statements, not only from politicians, but also journalists, wherein Pakistan was called a "rogue state", and demands were made to inflict "lasting punishment" on Pakistan.

Of course, the Pakistani media has also not lagged far behind. State-run television (PTV) and the right-wing conservative press continue to project these few hundred militants as the true liberators of Kashmir. The press has also kept up constant pressure on the government against any "peace deal". Some newspapers and analysts are now ridiculing the Indian army for its failure in Kargil, and are describing the present situation as "the most opportune time" to declare full-fledged war for the liberation of Kashmir.

Caught in the crossfire: villagers in Azad Kashmir | Archives
Caught in the crossfire: villagers in Azad Kashmir | Archives

Also read: In Kashmir, the young are paying for India’s lack of vision

These moves have been given further substance by statements and speeches made by members of the hard line Islamic parties. For instance, speakers at a rally in Rawalpindi, attended by several thousand supporters of the Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, did not mince words in giving a warning to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against pulling out of the conflict. And then there are the likes of the former ISI chief, Lt. General (retd.) Hamid Gul, who went to the extent of saying that any deal with Delhi at the cost of the militants offensive would amount to putting the last nail in the coffin of the present government. So, if anything was lacking in creating an atmosphere to start a greater conflict, the hawks amongst the politicians and the media on the two sides have done their bit to justify an all-out war.

As war clouds started to hover over the subcontinent, matters were made worse by the role of the media, particularly in India

With both sides locked in one of the worst conflicts since the 1971 war, it soon started to dawn on the international community that developments in South Asia were getting out of hand. When Pakistan downed two Indian combat aircraft which had crossed into its territory, and Delhi started to show signs of crossing the LoC in a counter-offensive, the international community responded with alarm and panic. The United States and other G-8 countries, despite their heavy involvement in the Kosovo crisis, were compelled to take time out and turn their attention towards the conflict in South Asia.

It did not take them long to realise that the possible escalation in the region could have catastrophic consequences. A resolution passed by G-8 leaders not only took notice of the long-standing dispute over Kashmir, it also expressed serious concern over the escalation in the Kargil region.

US President Bill Clinton went a step further and telephoned both the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, asking them to show restraint. But both these developments signalled diplomatic setbacks for Pakistan. The G-8 and President Clinton clearly sided with the Indian version of cause and blame. In fact, President Clinton even asked the Pakistani prime minister to use his influence to withdraw the militants from Kargil — thus directly implying that Pakistan not only had the means to pull out these fighters but that it had in fact put them there in the first place.

The United States did not stop just there. Realising the seriousness of the Kargil conflict, which by all means had the potential of snow-balling into all-out war, Washington immediately rushed its senior most military commander in the region and a senior State Department official to Islamabad. General Anthony Zinni and the State Department official held extensive discussions with top Pakistani officials, including the prime minister and the army chief.

Although there were no positive statements from either side, the meetings did produce enough ground for the State Department official to undertake a trip to Delhi to hold talks with the Indian authorities. And although the Indian government did try to clarify that the visit did not amount to third-party mediation on Kashmir, Delhi's frustration over the prolonged conflict in Kargil had ultimately sucked it into a situation where it had been forced to accept some kind of US role in this affair.

Along the LoC: Reluctant warriors? | Archives
Along the LoC: Reluctant warriors? | Archives

However, even as a small conflict in a remote mountainous region has resulted in a situation where a bloody war between the two known South Asian adversaries looks like a reality, very little is known about the circumstances which led to this development. Amidst allegations and counter-allegations, and claims and counter-claims by Islamabad and Delhi, the truth about the events of Kargil remains shrouded in secrecy.

The Indian establishment has directly blamed Pakistan's armed forces for carrying out the present offensive, accusing the Light Infantry Battalion of being actively involved with the Pakistani and Afghan militants in Kargil. Pakistan's foreign office and military establishment still maintain they have no active role in the Kargil conflict. But, does this also mean that they were unaware of the militants' plans? There have also been strong suggestions in Delhi that perhaps Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not even aware of the army's decision to launch this operation, and many Western diplomats in Islamabad tend to agree with this theory.

Also read: Military has some serious misgivings about India—Mahmud Durrani

Despite the repeated claims by India about the active presence of Pakistani troops in the Kargil mountains, so far very little concrete evidence has been produced to substantiate such allegations. However, the Pakistan-based leadership of the various militant groups have not missed any opportunity to embarrass Islamabad. Their attempts to boost the activities of their comrades in Kargil and reports of sending in reinforcements belie the government's claim about the indigenous nature of the present conflict.

If a former head of the ISI, Lt. General (retd) Javed Nasir is to be believed, the preparations for the Kargil operation started several months ago. The Kargil region has been traditionally used by the Kashmiri militants to enter the valley. However, this time the militants had more ambitious plans. They decided to move into the area and try to capture the strategically located mountains and ridges that overlook the Kargil-Srinagar road. The idea was to try and block the supply route for the Indian troops based at the Siachen glacier. Towards the end of last year, several hundred volunteers from four well-known militant groups began vigorous training sessions in mountainous areas to prepare themselves to brave rough, wintry conditions.

Army *jawans*: ready for battle | Archives
Army jawans: ready for battle | Archives

They were mainly from Tehrik-e-Jihad, an organisation that draws its cadres from Kashmir, Al-Badr, whose members include both Kashmiris and Pakistanis, Harkatul Mujahideen, which has in its fold a few Kashmiris but many Pakistanis and Afghans, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose members largely hail from Pakistan. Later on, when the conflict intensified in Kargil, two more groups, Hizbul Mujahideen and Harkat-e-Jihad, also joined to provide reinforcements. But according to a number of western diplomats, it is hard to believe that these militant groups could have launched such a major offensive without the active help and support of the Pakistan army.

Also read: Enforced disappearances: The plight of Kashmir's 'half widows'

By now, it has been established beyond doubt that this time the militants have completely shaken the entire Indian establishment. Many senior Indian journalists admit that the belligerency presently being witnessed in India is not only because the militants have badly bruised the Indian claim of being a mighty regional power; the sheer number of casualties from the present conflict have shaken the entire country. Television images beamed by Indian satellite net¬works, showing the arrival of the dead and wounded from the battle front, and the reactions from the family members and the local population capture the real mood of depression and anger in India.

A recent report by the French news agency AFP from Indian-held Kashmir gave a graphic account of the way the dead and wounded are being brought to Srinagar from the battle front, before being sent to Delhi. According to the report, the Indian Airline's flight from Srinagar to Delhi these days has turned into an air ambulance service. Almost every day, it carries to the Indian capital dead bodies and injured soldiers from the battle front in Kargil in greater numbers than normal passengers. The passenger seats in the air¬craft are often removed to accommodate stretchers carrying the wounded, and a special section of the Delhi airport has been designated to accommodate the coffins arriving from the battle zone.

A few journalists covering the Kargil conflict who managed to get on the flight describe the atmosphere on the flight as a true reflection of the events in Kargil. According to Abu Maaz, who is a sector commander of the Tehrik-e-Jihad in Kargil, even now several bodies of Indian soldiers are lying decomposing on the mountains, and Indian troops dare not lift them for fear of coming in the line of fire. Abu Maaz, who recently came to Skardu for reinforcements, told journalists the number of casualties on the Indian side have been much higher that what is being claimed by New Delhi.

Rough estimates indicate that the Indian army has lost more officers and men in these few weeks of fighting in Kargil than it lost in the last full-fledged war with Pakistan in 1971. And according to a senior Indian journalist, this time the bodies are going to some of the remotest towns and villages in India, thus creating a nation-wide mood of anger, and encouraging hawks to go for an all-out war against Pakistan.

The Indian Army: facing heavy losses | Archives
The Indian Army: facing heavy losses | Archives

However, the question being asked by many senior observers is that can either India or Pakistan afford to engage in a full-scale war, even if it is limited to the use of conventional forces? Some Western diplomats in Islamabad are of the view that, even if there is a war, it will be fought along the LoC, and will remain confined to Kashmir. But are there any guarantees that the losing side is not going to launch an offensive on the international border? In either case, the level of destruction on the two sides will be immense, and despite Indian claims of military superiority, there is little chance that India can win a war against Pakistan in a decisive manner.

A report titled "South Asian Military Balance", submitted by the US Deputy Secretary of Defence Bruce Riedel before the American Senate's foreign relations sub-committee last year, clearly stated that while India enjoys a numerical advantage over Pakistan in conventional military capability, it is most unlikely that it would score a decisive victory over Pakistan. Recently reproduced excerpts from the report suggest that the internal security problems faced by India in Kashmir and East Punjab may also hamper India's quantitative advantage over Pakistan.

While analysing comparative conventional forces in detail, the Riedel report argues that because of its more developed industrial capability and greater geographical expanse which provides strategic depth not available to the much smaller Pakistan, India could fight a longer war than Pakistan — thus a longer war would favour India. However, many analysts say that such a war would be a major blow to economic and social development in the two countries and may push them back to where they started more than 50 years ago.

Also read: Kashmir's Neelum Valley — The sapphire trail

But is there really a way to prevent the present conflict from snowballing into an all-out war? Many analysts and western diplomats believe the key to ending the present conflict lies with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, it mainly depends on what the government's real objectives, both strategic and diplomatic, are and the extent to which it wants to use the situation in Kargil to internationalise the Kashmir dispute. Some government leaders in favour of ending the present crisis believe the diplomatic advantage that Pakistan had in the initial stages of the conflict has gradually slipped away with the international community turning against Pakistan. This is precisely what the opposition leader, Aitzaz Ahsan, said in the Senate during the debate on the Kargil situation, and accused the government of isolating the country on the diplomatic front.

However, even if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wants to end the present impasse in an attempt to prevent a major escalation, his choices are quite limited, argue analysts. As things stand at the moment, the government is just one of the three elements in the entire conflict — the other two being the army and the militants and their parent political parties.

It is not clear how the army leadership will react if there is a serious proposal from Premier Sharif to try and end the present conflict by asking the militants to withdraw. There is another, equally important question: even if the militants' initial offensive was launched with the active support from this side of the LoC, is it possible to force them into withdrawal? Militant leaders, both in Muzaffarabad and Pakistan, say they are fully committed to the present phase of the Kashmir struggle, and their sacrifices in the present fighting make it incumbent upon them not to agree to any diplomatic settlement.

Even if the militants' initial offensive was launched with active support from this side of the LoC, is it possible to force them into withdrawal?

Those close to the prime minister say he is certainly aware of these complications, but this has not deterred his desire to use the process of dialogue to settle outstanding issues with India. Following the failure of his peace initiative, whereby foreign minister Sartaj Aziz was sent to Delhi for talks, Sharif now appears to be employing back-channel diplomacy to try and defuse the situation. Recently, former foreign secretary Niaz Naik was quietly sent to Delhi to hold talks with Indian leaders. During his brief stay, he met both Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh.

The visit was supposed to be kept secret as apparently it was a serious attempt to try and find a way out of the current impasse without drawing any media attention. However, some Indian officials deliberately leaked it to the local press, thus prompting Islamabad to also leak the move by Delhi to send senior Indian journalist, Mishra along with a ministry of external affairs official, to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Senior analysts in Islamabad say it is not only domestic problems that are creating difficulties for Sharif in his search for an agreeable solution to the current crisis. The level of belligerency being displayed by Delhi is also being described as a major factor in preventing a real diplomatic break¬through. However, some Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats in Islamabad are convinced that, since the visit by the US military and State Department officials to the region, things appear to be moving in the right direction. If this optimism is not misplaced, it is quite possible that the war, which at the moment appears to be imminent, may eventually be averted through diplomacy.

This was originally published in the Herald's June 1999 issue under the headline "War?". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer was the Herald's Bureau Chief in Islamabad in 1999. He is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.