Kargil Conflict, The

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KARGIL CONFLICT, THE In late April 1999, Indian soldiers patrolling along the Kashmir Line of Control (LOC) near the Indian town of Kargil were ambushed by unseen assailants who had occupied secret positions high atop frozen mountain peaks along the Great Himalayan Range. After several frantic weeks of confusion, Indian military and intelligence officers realized the intruders were not Kashmiri militants, as they initially had assumed, but in fact were well-trained troops from Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry (NLI), and that the infiltration was much larger and better organized than earlier believed. In response, the Indian government mounted a major military and diplomatic campaign to oust Pakistan's occupying forces. After two months of intense high-altitude fighting, during which each side suffered more than 1,000 casualties, Pakistan ordered its soldiers home, India regained its mountain posts along the LOC, and the conflict ended.

Although in the end no territory changed hands—as it had in the previous wars India and Pakistan fought in 1947–1948, 1965, and 1971—the Kargil conflict was a momentous event. Occurring just a year after India and Pakistan openly detonated nuclear explosives, this military engagement dispelled the conventional wisdom that nuclear-armed countries cannot fight one another. Like the only other direct military clash between nuclear weapons powers—the Sino-Soviet skirmishes over Zhenbao Island in the Ussuri River in the spring of 1969—the Kargil conflict did not come close to causing a nuclear war. However, it is now known that Indian troops were within days of opening another front across the LOC, an act that might have triggered a large-scale conventional war, which in turn might have led to the employment of nuclear weapons.

Several analysts from India and the United States consider Kargil to be the fourth Indo-Pakistani war. It probably is more accurate to view Kargil as a "conflict," or a "near war," as one Indian general put it. The scale and intensity of the fighting well exceeded even the high levels of peacetime violence typically experienced along the Kashmir Line of Control, where fierce artillery duels and ten-person-a-day body counts have been far too common. However, the military engagement in the spring and summer of 1999 was confined to a small section of mountainous terrain in Indian-held Kashmir; only a fraction of each side's soldiers and military arsenals were used; and both countries tried to reduce the risk of escalation by keeping their political and military objectives limited. Moreover, because about seven hundred Indian and Pakistani soldiers perished in the mountains near Kargil, this conflict did not meet the classical definition of war as an armed conflict with at least one thousand battlefield deaths.


The Kargil intrusion is deeply rooted in India's long-standing dispute with Pakistan over the political status of Jammu and Kashmir. In late 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of semiautonomous Kashmir, delayed acceding to either of South Asia's newly independent countries, India or Pakistan, ignoring the rules of partition issued by the British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Hari Singh's dreams of an independent Jammu and Kashmir were interrupted by a tribal rebellion near Poonch. With the assistance of Pakistan army officers, tribal lashkars (forces) from Pakistan's North-West Frontier province raided Kashmir, as they had done many times in the past, seeking glory and loot. India's new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent in the Indian army to repulse these raiders, and India and Pakistan found themselves engaged in their first war within months of independence.

Kargil was a key battleground in the 1947–1948 war. In May 1948 a small force of Pakistan's Gilgit Scouts captured the high-altitude Zojila pass, the only strategic passage that links Srinagar with the Northern Areas and Leh on the Indian side of the LOC, and with it the surrounding towns of Kargil, Dras, and Skardu. Major General D. K. Palit, who was serving in a nearby Indian unit at Poonch, noted India's apprehension over this development: "As a result of the fall of Skardu and Kargil, the Valley of Kashmir was threatened from the north as well as the east; what is more, the only line of communication between Srinagar and Leh, over the Zojila and through Kargil, was disrupted. Failing rapid reinforcements, it would be only a matter of months before the enemy could walk into Leh" (Palit, p. 241). Kargil's strategic importance was as clear to the Indian government then as it is now.

India reacted immediately to this threat by sending a brigade-size force from Srinagar and Leh to retake Kargil and reopen the road. This episode is significant because the Gilgit Scouts eventually were incorporated into the NLI as part of Pakistan's Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA). These units remembered, through stories from previous generations and evidence retained in their archives, that they had captured the Kargil heights with a small, determined force. Second, it also is notable that India was unwilling to accept such an outcome and would retaliate forcefully to vacate any intrusion in this strategically important area—a crucial lesson. In the end, the fighting during what could be called the first Kargil conflict proved inconclusive. Pakistani and Indian forces reached a military stalemate, and a negotiated cease-fire line was codified in the Karachi Agreement of 1949.

Pakistanis generally believe that Hindu leaders have long oppressed the Muslim population of Jammu and Kashmir, and the questionable accession into the Indian union has denied the populace of their right to self-determination. They stress the United Nations (UN) Security Council's demand for a "free and impartial plebiscite," although other UN demands for "a cessation of the fighting" and the creation of "proper conditions" for such a vote to take place are generally overlooked. Pakistanis also consider the Indian government's refusal to grant Kashmir independence as proof that Indians ultimately do not accept the "two-nation theory," which is the raison d'être for Pakistan's creation and its continued existence.

Pakistan always has faced a larger, more populous, wealthier, and militarily more powerful neighbor in India. Pakistani defense planners have had great difficulty finding ways to compensate for these profound structural asymmetries. The sense of political and strategic necessity, when combined with a strong belief of moral righteousness, has justified the use of almost any means for the sake of liberating Kashmir and resisting Indian primacy on the subcontinent. As a result, the Pakistani army repeatedly has attempted daring and unconventional methods to wrest Kashmir from India by force and to liberate the Kashmiri Muslims from Indian rule—and it repeatedly has been stymied in these efforts. The 1999 Kargil operation was the latest failed attempt to seize the upper hand in South Asia's enduring rivalry.

Pakistan's Bold Plan

The Kargil operation was an audacious attempt to seize an opportunity of historic proportions. Pakistan's Kargil gambit can be seen as a logical—though perhaps extreme—continuation of its long-standing competitive policy with India. The Pakistani people view the Kashmiri cause as moral and just, and in 1999 Pakistani security planners continued a tradition of asymmetric strategies to circumvent India's conventional military advantages. A successful Kargil intrusion would have shown that Pakistani soldiers were willing to endure incredible hardships to support the Kashmiri struggle. It could have given a timely boost to a weakening insurgency inside Kashmir. And finally, if the plan succeeded, it could have forced India back to the negotiating table and given Islamabad greater leverage to resolve the Kashmir dispute on favorable terms once and for all.

In the winter of 1998–1999, Indian troops predictably vacated their high-altitude posts along the LOC as they retreated to winter positions—a normal measure taken by both Indian and Pakistani forces to reduce the strain on forces during the harsh winter months. Pakistani planners aimed to seize this unprotected territory to the maximum feasible limit, with an eye on interdicting National Highway 1A (NH-1A), the strategically important Indian road that runs between Srinagar and Leh. But the plan's boldness also made it dangerous and ultimately untenable. Its success would require hundreds of troops to infiltrate across the LOC without detection. After their inevitable discovery, these troops would have to fend off Indian counterattacks until the onset of snow the next winter, which would close the passes, halt military operations, and allow Pakistani infiltrators to harden their positions. This military fait accompli would have enabled Pakistan to redraw the LOC.

At remote posts in the higher altitude terrain along the LOC separating the portions of Kashmir that India and Pakistan possess, each side's forces would retreat to lower heights during the winter owing to the intense logistical and weather hazards associated with deploying troops during such conditions. After the creation of the cease-fire line (and subsequently the LOC), India and Pakistan tacitly allowed such winter retreats to occur without taking advantage of them, a norm consistent with the letter and spirit of the 1949 Karachi Agreement. Following India's military seizure of Siachen Glacier in northernmost Kashmir in 1984, however, both sides dramatically reduced the number of forward posts they would vacate during the harsh winter months. The loss of hundreds of square miles of territory around the Siachen Glacier was a deep scar for the Pakistan army, in particular the FCNA, which is tasked with its defense. So in the winter of 1998–1999, when Indian troops vacated their high-altitude posts in the area around Kargil, on the belief that invaders could not carry out any meaningful infiltration in such difficult terrain during inclimate weather, Pakistan was quick to mount, and then expand, its secret Kargil campaign.

The Kargil operation's planners seemed convinced that India would not expand the conflict elsewhere along the LOC or the international border, and that the world community would view the Kargil operation as part of the normal pattern of violence along the LOC, similar to India's daring occupation of the Siachen Glacier fifteen years before. While some of the Pakistani army's calculations were borne out by events, the faulty assumptions they made, when combined with tactical missteps on the ground, doomed the Kargil operation to failure. Perhaps most crucially, Kargil's planners failed to recognize the significance of the nuclear revolution. The international community could not endorse any attempt to use force to redraw international boundaries, even if they were disputed, and in particular would not permit what looked like the manipulation of nuclear escalation, even if that was not what Kargil's planners had in mind.

India's Political-Military Strategy

By the end of April 1999, Pakistan's intruding force had occupied about 130 posts in the Dras, Mushkoh, Kaksar, Batalik, and Chorbat-la sectors of northern Kashmir, covering an approximate area of 62 miles (100 kilometers) across the LOC and running 4–6 miles (7 to 10 kilometers) deep into the territory previously held by India. This far exceeded what is believed to be the Pakistani army's original plan to seize two dozen or so posts in a much smaller swathe of territory across the LOC. Some of the captured positions directly overlooked NH-1A, and put Pakistani troops in a position to interdict the strategically important road with artillery and long-range small arms fire.

The Indian army first learned about the intrusions in late April 1999. Initial Indian attempts to retrieve the heights, which were then thought to be held by Kashmiri militants, were easily rebuffed by Pakistan's well-trained and well-armed NLI soldiers. In fact, Indian troops experienced weeks of enemy fire without even seeing who was shooting at them, for the infiltrators were well hidden high atop the 13,000–18,000 foot-high (4,000–5,500-meter) mountain peaks. Indian officials gradually realized that circumstances were far more serious than they initially had assumed. Local commanders frantically began to maneuver their forces to contain the intruders and launched military patrols to determine the extent of the enemy intrusion. Because of poor intelligence, improper acclimatization of troops, a shortage of high-altitude equipment, and coordination difficulties, Indian troops suffered their heaviest casualties during this initial, frenetic phase of the military engagement.

The Indian armed forces launched a major counter-offensive, codenamed "Operation Vijay" (Victory), during the third week of May 1999. On 26 May, the Indian air force commenced air strikes in support of ground troops, vertically escalating the conflict. Indian troops simultaneously started mobilizing to war locations in other parts of the country, deploying forces along the India-Pakistan international border and elsewhere along the LOC. The Zojila pass opened in early May 1999, significantly earlier than normal. Pakistani defense planners had not counted on this development. The opening of Zojila facilitated India's induction of troops, supporting units, and logistics necessary for an effective counteroffensive. The Indian army achieved its first success on 13 June in the Dras sub-sector when they captured point 4590 at the Tololing Ridge after nearly three weeks of heavy fighting. This tactical victory was a turning point for the Indian counter-offensive, which the Indian army progressively built upon until the first week of July, when it had managed to recapture a significant portion of previously occupied territory.

As the Indian military reclaimed more territory, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif found himself under mounting international pressure to pull back Pakistani regular and irregular forces from the Indian side of the LOC. After a hastily arranged visit to Washington, D.C., over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Prime Minister Sharif signed the Washington Declaration with U.S. president Bill Clinton and agreed to instruct Pakistani troops to vacate the captured territory. On 11 July, the Directors General Military Operations (DGMOs) of the Indian and Pakistani armies met at the Wagha checkpost, where the Pakistani DGMO consented to commence withdrawal by 11 July and complete it by 16 July, a date that later was extended until 18 July. Pakistanis insist that this cease-fire was not implemented in good faith, as Pakistani troops suffered heavy casualties throughout July. Indians counter that the use of force was authorized only to counter resistance or to attack positions that Pakistan still occupied after the cease-fire had expired. On 26 July 1999, the Indian DGMO declared at a press conference that all Pakistani intrusions had been vacated in and around the Kargil heights, thereby marking an official end to the conflict.

Was There a Risk of Nuclear War?

The Kargil conflict caused an especially high degree of alarm worldwide because it was the first major military engagement between two countries armed with nuclear weapons since the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969. Although no Indian or Pakistani nuclear weapons were actually deployed in 1999, and although previous Indo-Pakistani crises during the 1980s and early 1990s had occurred under the shadow of covert nuclear capabilities, the nuclear context of Kargil had three unprecedented effects on the strategic behavior of India, Pakistan, and outside parties, especially the United States. First, the achievement of mutual nuclear deterrence may have emboldened Pakistani military leaders to take assertive military action in Kashmir. Second, Indian officials believed that the nuclear revolution had fundamentally transformed the Indo-Pakistani competition, and thus reacted in a slow and confused manner to the infiltration. As Pakistan's military role became apparent, India responded with unexpected vigor, both militarily and rhetorically. Third, India's forceful response fed into the worst fears of the Clinton administration about nuclear escalation and spurred President Clinton to become personally involved in effecting Pakistan's withdrawal and preventing escalation to full-scale war. Pakistan ultimately misread the impact of nuclear weapons on Indian and American behavior, mistakenly believing that India would not expend sizable resources to restore the status quo ante and that any international intervention would freeze the ground situation to Pakistan's advantage.

These effects are striking because, prior to the Kargil infiltration, Indian and Pakistani elites viewed their nuclear capabilities as largely political, rather than military, tools, and assumed that they would stabilize their long-standing competition. Leaders of each country made assumptions about the impact that nuclear arsenals would have on the other side's behavior, but these assumptions were mutually contradictory, and ultimately failed to account for the attitudes and responses of the other side. As a result, nuclear weapons did not deter war. They did not cause the conflict, but they may have emboldened Pakistan to launch the Kargil operation, and they significantly heightened the alarm with which India, the United States, and other countries viewed Pakistan's intrusion.

The value of nuclear weapons as "cover" for the pursuit of Pakistani ambitions at lower levels of intensity was both recognized and publicly addressed prior to the conflict. Shortly before the intrusion was discovered, Pakistan chief of army staff general Pervez Musharraf announced that while nuclear weapons had dramatically changed the nature of war, "this, however, does not mean that conventional war has become obsolete. In fact conventional war will still remain the mode of conflict in any future conflagration with our traditional enemy" (Kargil Review Committee, p. 242). India's military leadership recognized this possibility, as did some intelligence analyses of Pakistani intentions. According to the Indian Kargil Review Committee report, as early as 1991 the Joint Intelligence Committee anticipated that Pakistan would use its nuclear capability to limit Indian conventional retaliation in the event of low-intensity conflict. On 10 February 1999, Indian chief of army staff general V. P. Malik declared, "Having crossed the nuclear threshold does not mean that a conventional war is out" (Cherian, "Political and Diplomatic Background"). While political elites were ruling out conventional war, within two months of each other, both army chiefs ruled conventional war back in.

Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Threats

Veiled and direct nuclear threats from a range of official and unofficial sources created a chilling backdrop to the fast-paced diplomatic interaction during the crisis, and not surprisingly added to the general confusion, raising the fears of military escalation. While leaders on both sides engaged in nuclear rhetoric, neither side directly threatened to use nuclear weapons and, judging by subsequent statements and actions, neither side feared the use of nuclear weapons by the other. However, observers in the United States and elsewhere were alarmed by the possibility that the limited conflict might escalate into a conventional war and then possibly to a nuclear exchange.

In late May, Pakistani foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed made the most prominent nuclear statement of the conflict when he warned India that Pakistan could use "any weapon" to defend its territorial integrity ("Pakistan Warns It May Use Any Weapon"). This articulation is significant because Pakistani statements on nuclear doctrine usually focus on the use of nuclear weapons as a "last resort" when the survival of the state is at stake. It also took place quite early in the crisis—shortly after India had escalated the military situation by authorizing use of the Indian air force to conduct precision strikes against Pakistani positions on the Indian side of the LOC. This suggests that Pakistan was manipulating the nuclear threat, publicly setting a deliberately lowered nuclear threshold in an effort to spur international intervention and, as a consequence, to limit India's conventional response. Pakistani planners probably assumed that foreign intervention would freeze hostilities at an early stage of the crisis, leaving Pakistan in possession of at least some of its captured territory across the LOC and thereby enabling it to bargain over Kashmir from an advantageous position.

The Indian government-appointed Kargil Review Committee writes that, unlike Pakistan, India issued no nuclear threats. This statement is not entirely correct. Indian officials made nuclear threats in response to Pakistani statements. Indian leaders also issued several statements in June apparently intended for domestic audiences. Indian naval chief admiral Sushil Kumar stated that the Indian navy could both survive a nuclear attack and launch one in retaliation. Since the Indian navy had not taken custody of any nuclear weapons, this statement probably was intended to draw attention to the movement of elements of India's Eastern and Western fleets to strategic positions in the North Arabian Sea and also to position the Indian navy more favorably for future budget debates.

A 20 June 1999 editorial in the newspaper of the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), affiliated with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led the coalition that ruled India at the time, urged the government to launch a nuclear strike on Pakistan. Given the close ideological and political connections between the RSS and the more militant members of the governing BJP coalition, Pakistani leaders could have interpreted this as an official statement. While it certainly did not reflect Prime Minister Vajpayee's views, these provocative statements by figures outside the actual decision-making loop complicated crisis management.

Pakistan also had its share of unsanctioned nuclear saber rattling, especially at the height of the crisis. As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prepared to travel to China and the United States to obtain support for Pakistan's position, his religious affairs minister, Raja Zafarul Haq, publicly warned that Pakistan could resort to the nuclear option to preserve Pakistani territory, sovereignty, or security. Minister Haq was not involved in Pakistan's nuclear command and control apparatus. This statement was uttered for domestic, or perhaps even personal, political reasons. Nonetheless, the international community viewed the remark with some alarm, and India responded emphatically to it. Prime Minister Vajpayee cautioned that India was prepared for all eventualities. According to the Hindu, "The Union Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes, said here today that Pakistan's threat of a full-fledged nuclear war should not be taken frivolously and that the country was prepared for any eventuality" ("India Ready for Any Eventuality"). National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra added that India would not use nuclear weapons first, but that India was prepared in case "some lunatic tries to do something against us." ("India Prepared for Pakistan Nuclear Attack"). In this case, an apparently unofficial remark prompted a series of retaliatory statements by Indian officials at the highest level.

This rhetorical exchange during the Kargil crisis revealed a surprising lack of sophistication by India and Pakistan in nuclear diplomacy. Public statements in South Asia frequently are high on rhetoric and short on substance. In contrast to the U.S. and Soviet experiences, India and Pakistan had no history, organizational apparatus, or guidelines in sending nuclear signals. What occurred during the Kargil crisis was ad hoc, uncoordinated, and somewhat confused nuclear rhetoric. As a result, both sides took steps to tighten control over nuclear rhetoric in future crises.

Mysterious Nuclear Maneuvers

In addition to the ad hoc nuclear posturing, it has been reported that both sides increased nuclear readiness and may have made nuclear weapons available for actual employment. According to a report by a respected Indian journalist, nuclear warheads were readied, and delivery systems, including Mirage 2000 aircraft, short-range Prithvi missiles, and medium-ranged Agni missiles, were prepared for possible use. Nuclear weapons, according to this report, were placed at "Readiness State 3"—ready to be mated with delivery systems at short notice (Chengappa, 2000, p. 437). However, this claim has been discounted in Washington, Islamabad, and New Delhi. Moreover, no U.S. officials at the time mentioned it in any of their interviews or statements.

The most interesting postconflict testimony is that of Bruce Riedel, then-Special Assistant for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. According to a monograph he wrote in 2002, on 3 July 1999, U.S. intelligence detected "disturbing evidence that the Pakistanis were preparing their nuclear arsenals for possible deployment" (p. 5). According to Riedel, in a personal meeting with Prime Minister Sharif, President Clinton asked, "Did Sharif know his military was preparing their nuclear-tipped missiles?" Reportedly, Sharif responded only by saying "India was probably doing the same" (p. 7). While most observers discount this report, it apparently was confirmed by Indian chief of army staff general Sundarajan Padmanabhan, when he stated in early 2001 that Pakistan "activated one of its nuclear missile bases and had threatened India with a nuclear attack" (Chengappa, 2001). Pakistani authorities have been steadfast in their denials of moving missiles or preparing for a nuclear attack.

Although well-informed sources made the claims about Indian and Pakistani nuclear deployments, other evidence has not corroborated them. Moreover, they fly in the face of other, more official claims that no nuclear deployment took place. What some observers say could have occurred was that Pakistan dispersed its nuclear-capable missiles out of storage sites for defensive purposes—a development that could have been misinterpreted by intelligence agencies as an operational deployment. Similarly, others have not verified accounts that India heightened the readiness of its nuclear forces.

Because official spokespeople in Washington, Islamabad, and New Delhi have refused to say more, these claims about nuclear maneuvers must remain a mysterious backdrop to the Kargil conflict. However, it follows that any serious military crisis occurring in the future between India and Pakistan (or, for that matter, any other pair of nuclear states) probably will be accompanied by a great deal of confusion, controversy, and alarm over possible operational deployments. And this certainly will be the context in which the United States and other concerned parties will regard future Indo-Pakistani military crises.

Peter Lavoy

See alsoJammu and Kashmir ; Kashmir ; Nuclear Programs and Policies ; Pakistan and India ; Strategic Thought


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