FROM THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The Kargil War ended 20 years ago this month. It was India’s first televised war and one in which the media was given unprecedented access to the frontlines. india today covered the war in depth with eight back-to-back issues detailing every aspect of the conflict, from the furious high-altitude battles, our intelligence failure, the incredible valour of Indian soldiers called upon to perform the impossible and, finally, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that forced Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to order his army to withdraw from the heights.
The thing about military gambits is that they look good as sand models, but often disintegrate in the face of harsh reality. This is exactly what happened in Kargil. A clique of generals led by General Pervez Musharraf grossly underestimated India’s political will and military resolve to recapture its territory. The war is a sobering lesson in what happens when ambitious generals call the shots, unmindful of political or diplomatic consequences.
Twenty years later, Pakistan continues to pay the price for a powerful military. It is a nuclear-armed state with the world’s fifth largest army, but an economic basketcase with a third of its people living in poverty and with practically every economic indicator pointing down. The Pakistani rupee is in free fall against the dollar, inflation is at its highest in a decade, the growth rate is plunging and the country is surviving at the mercy of doles from the International Monetary Fund and wealthy donor countries. Even the promise of Prime Minister Imran Khan as a saviour has evaporated, mainly because Pakistan, as is commonly said, is an army with a country.
Despite the economic woes, its military has not stopped feeding off the people—its defence budget this year saw a 17 percentage point increase for the army.
Our cover story this week, ‘The Kargil Diaries’, written by Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan, is a flashback to the fourth, and hopefully the last, war fought between India and Pakistan. It details the documents—letters, diaries, pass-books, mess bills—recovered from the heights by our soldiers.
The papers show Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) battalions on the move in the closing months of 1998, as they scaled the heights into Kargil. This was the audacious gambit Indian intelligence missed completely. Other papers recovered detail the meticulous effort that went into planning what General Musharraf called Operation Koh-e-Paima (Call of the Mountains) or Op KP—embedding artillery officers with the NLI units to allow them to direct fire on to the Srinagar-Leh highway, issuing code sheets for secret communication with their headquarters at the rear. Developments the entire Indian
security and intelligence apparatus seems to have completely missed.
The letters from relatives were poignant and filled with trepidation given the breaks in delivery of the letters. A letter from Hafiz Abdul Qadir Aadil, a school teacher in Dudhniyal, in the Neelam Valley of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, to his soldier relative, Naik Ghulam Abbas of the 8th Northern Light Infantry, reflects great concern. Wishes like duaein khair (prayers for well-being) were used seven times in the 400-word letter. The family had received no letters from Abbas since January 1999. The letter was found on one of the dead NLI soldiers, possibly Abbas, who was killed in action in Kargil on July 3, 1999.
These documents were early indicators that convinced the army that they were not facing ‘mujahideen’ as early propaganda from across the border suggested, but the Pakistan army itself. In the face of continued denials in 1999, these papers were what helped the Kargil Review Committee, which probed the causes of the war and lessons learned from it, reconstruct a picture of the intruders and what they hoped to achieve from their doomed expedition.
The lessons from Kargil have manifested themselves in a huge surge in military personnel and a more rigorous, round-the-year vigil of the region. The bigger learnings— the need for a single-point military advisor, a Chief of Defence Staff, and closely integrating the armed forces to get more bang for the buck—have not been implemented.
While we can only hope for good sense to prevail in Pakistan, we must keep our powder dry. A dangerously unstable country in our neighbourhood run by an army— the only military in the world that directly controls its nation’s nuclear weapons—means we need to be eternally vigilant. Kargil, and the lessons learned from that war, must never be forgotten. They were paid for by the blood of our young soldiers.
Our July 26, 1999 cover