How India overcame the Kargil challenge
If I were to give reasons for our success in pushing back the Pakistan army and restoring the status of the LoC, it would be the courage, spirit and bravery of our young officers and men who fought against all odds to uphold the highest traditions of the their regiments and the Army
Twenty years have passed since Pakistan’s perfidious actions across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil sector surprised India and its defence forces, and nearly brought the two nations on the brink of war.
Although general mobilisation had taken place, the operations were restricted to the east of Zoji La Pass, with clear terms of reference to not cross the LoC. This, by itself, was an enormous challenge for the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF), resulting, at the termination of hostilities, an easy escape route to the enemy to fight another day. With this one single order, the option for the ground forces to address the opposition from the rear, by crossing the LoC, and at the end of the war, to take the retreating Pakistan army in our net, was regrettably closed. For the IAF, the option of flying in a south-north direction to effectively engage the enemy was also severely restricted. We paid for this with the large number of casualties, and perhaps prolonging the war for 50 days. But the decision was political, and did earn us a lot of international goodwill.
I had the privilege and honour to command 8 Mountain Division in the Kashmir Valley, where we were tasked for counter insurgency (CI) operations, and for a longer period of time during the Kargil War, and thereafter. The situation in Kargil in mid-May 1999 demanded an urgent response to the Pakistan army’s incursion in the Mushkoh-Dras-Kargil-Batalik sectors. After some deliberations, the 8 Mountain Division was tasked to move across Zoji La, and assume operational responsibility of Dras- Mushkoh sector by June 1.
Since the division was functioning in CI operations, a quick change to conventional operations was the need of the hour. Counter insurgency and conventional operations are as different as chalk and cheese. Whereas CI operations required immediate response with rapid planning, lest militants played havoc, conventional warfare required deliberation and meticulous coordination not only among assaulting troops, but also with a vast array of supporting arms and services including the air force.
Therefore, a successful transition to the conventional warfare configuration in equipment, as also the psyche, within the short time, was critical. We had a short window to complete the orientation before taking on any major task.
The initial assessment on critically analysing the inhospitable terrain, the extreme high altitude at which troops would be operating, and the enemy’s incursions on dominating ground created a great deal of apprehensions in the mind.
The first view of the terrain, as one crosses Zoji La into Ladakh, is majestic. One is struck by the high mountain peaks varying in height from 18-21,000 feet, with valleys at an altitude of 10-11,000 feet. The entire area, or most of it, is devoid of cover with razor-sharp ridges and steep peaks that are jagged, and extremely difficult to negotiate. The soil is loose with gravel and stones rolling down at every step. The scarcity of vegetation in the summers, combined with the extreme high altitude, makes breathing labourious, and adds to the fatigue factor. This seriously impacts the combat efficiency of troops.
Under such varied conditions, the conduct of military operations demands proper acclimatisation to prevent incidence of high altitude sickness besides building up physical capacity of troops; special clothing, to survive in the extreme cold climate; and high level of physical fitness. In the initial stages of the war, units which were hurriedly inducted into the battle zone without proper acclimatisation and clothing suffered avoidable heavy casualties. The effect of high altitude, coupled with limited availability of roads and tracks with few laterals, made movement slow, tiresome, tedious, and time consuming.
Consequently, building up a viable military force backed by sustainable logistics became extremely cumbersome. The movement or shifting heavy equipment, including guns and ammunition, from one location to another became equally difficult.
Tactically, the terrain favoured the defender, and put the attacker in a disadvantageous position. In a terrain devoid of vegetation, with approaches of attack narrow, restricted and arduous, attacking troops were likely to suffer heavy casualties. Notwithstanding the tactically favourable impact of the terrain on the defender, coupled with inhospitable weather conditions, the division took up the challenge and displayed courage and bravery beyond the call of military duty, and pushed the Pakistan army back to where they belonged.
If I were to give reasons for our success in pushing back the Pakistan army and restoring the status of the LoC, it would be the courage, spirit and bravery of our young officers and men who fought against all odds to uphold the highest traditions of the their regiments and the Army. Their valour and sacrifice will be a part of folklore, and a source of inspiration to future generations.
I would attribute the second reason to the high standard of leadership displayed by the brigade commanders, commanding officers and the young officers in leading from the front with one single order — “follow me”. Very few armies of the world can boast of such a high committed leadership. I salute the sacrifice of our young officers and men who gave their lives for our better tomorrow.