Foreign Policy Blogs

Pakistan: The Kargil Debate Resurfaces

pakistan-flagMy last post noted how skirmishes in the disputed Kashmir region last month have put a spanner in the promising rapprochement between India and Pakistan.  This is a familiar theme in bilateral affairs.  The exemplar of how military tussles in Kashmir can escalate into a wider confrontation and subvert important diplomatic initiatives is the 1999 Kargil mini-war.  By sheer coincidence, new revelations about the conflict emerged in Pakistan just as the recent fighting broke out.  With the country about to kick off a raucous electoral season, these disclosures have current relevance since they concern actions taken back then by Pakistani leaders who are still on the political scene.  More fundamentally, however, they touch on the very essence of the Pakistani state.

The Kargil crisis, named for a small town in the mountainous reaches of northern Kashmir around which the fighting took place, is the most serious military conflict between nuclear-armed belligerents in history.  Occurring less than a year after India and Pakistan conducted dueling tests of their nuclear weapons arsenals, it had far-reaching reverberations:

  • Erupting just a few months after a landmark summit meeting in Lahore between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, the crisis abruptly derailed hopes that a fundamentally new era in bilateral relations was at hand.  It would take five years and another military crisis – this one occasioned by a brazen jihadi assault upon the Indian parliament in December 2001 – before the two countries returned to an intensive peace diplomacy.
  • The military debacle suffered by Pakistan altered the country’s domestic politics by precipitating a chain of events leading to the ouster of the civilian government and the installation of a military regime that remained in place until 2008.
  • The crisis also cemented the widespread impression that the 450 mile-long ceasefire line – known as the Line of Control – separating the two armies in Kashmir was, as President Bill Clinton famously dubbed it, the “most dangerous place in the world.”  This view underpinned the Clinton administration’s nonproliferation policy in the region as well as the Obama administration’s early efforts to mediate the Kashmir dispute.  It also still colors the perceptions of many experts that South Asia is a nuclear tinderbox – a topic I’ll turn to in my next post.

The crisis began in early 1999 when a sizeable Pakistani force (numbering at least 1,500 – 2,000 and perhaps more) of lightly-armed mountain infantry troops infiltrated across the LoC and seized large swaths of rugged territory that had been vacated by Indian forces during the winter.  By the time the intruders were discovered in May, they had occupied over 300 square miles of Indian territory and were in a position to interdict a strategic highway linking the disputed Siachen Glacier area to the rest of Kashmir.  In response, New Delhi launched a fierce and sustained counterattack.  The ensuing two-month battle featured intense ground fighting, heavy artillery barrages and the first combat sorties undertaken by the Indian air force since the 1971 war over Bangladesh.   India also placed its entire military establishment on high alert and deployed mechanized forces to the international border with Pakistan.

Although New Delhi took pains to keep its combat response confided to the immediate front – including restricting military operations to its side of the LoC – there were widespread fears that broader hostilities would break out and even escalate to the nuclear level.  The crisis was finally defused by a combination of Indian battlefield successes and U.S. diplomatic intervention, including a dramatic White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in early July that arranged for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces.  Although exact combat losses are not known, India suffered nearly 500 battle deaths, with Pakistani losses estimated at 400-700 fatalities.

Just what Pakistan hoped to accomplish by the incursion is still a matter of debate, one that has been rekindled by revelations made by Shahid Aziz over the past several weeks.* Now retired from the Pakistani army, General Aziz was the head of the analysis branch of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency during the crisis.  He would later go on to serve as director-general of military operations and chief of the general staff – both prestigious positions in the army.

His disclosures (here and here) largely corroborate details about Pakistani actions that were presented in a 2009 book, Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict, that is the most authoritative study of the crisis to emerge to date.  Here is an overview of some of the book’s key findings, which drew on in-depth interviews with the operation’s planners, along with notes about where Aziz agrees or differs:

  • An extremely small coterie of military leaders planned the Kargil maneuver in great secrecy and little thought was given to broader coordination within the Pakistani army or the wider government – a situation that accounted for the utter disarray in Islamabad’s response once the crisis was joined.**  At the center of the group was Pervez Musharraf, the recently-appointed chief of army staff who had earlier served in a commando unit along the LoC. 

Aziz confirms this point, noting that few within the military establishment were consulted about the operation.  He opines that Musharraf and his associates likely acted in stealth because the incursion was an “unsound military plan based on invalid assumptions, launched with little preparations and in total disregard to the regional and international environment.”

  • The Kargil coterie was focused on the pattern of localized firefights and aggressive probing that had taken hold along the northern segments of the LoC in the wake of India’s occupation of the Siachen Glacier in 1984 and thus had rather limited objectives in mind – the severing of Indian forces deployed on the glacier from their supply lines.  Viewing the operation as part of the normal jockeying for military advantage each side had engaged in for years, they assumed that the reaction from New Delhi and the international community would not be vigorous.  And due to the limited objectives, no provision was made for troop reinforcement and logistical supply of the captured posts. 

Aziz likewise corroborates these points, and excoriates Musharraf for sending men into battle without doing detailed planning and then abandoning them once the battle began.

  • Pakistani commanders also wanted to shore up their own tactical positions with a preemptive maneuver since they came to believe (erroneously as it turned out) that India was preparing for its own military action along the LoC in the summer of 1999.

Aziz contests this point, noting that “it certainly wasn’t a defensive manoeuvre. There were no indications of an Indian attack. We didn’t pre-empt anything; nothing was on the cards.”

  • Despite Musharraf’s vocal insistence that he kept then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif entirely in the loop, Sharif’s exact role in the events leading up to the crisis remains unclear.  The evidence points to his knowing that the army was planning some type of operation along the LoC but it is uncertain whether he was told of its expansive scope and objectives.

Aziz seconds this proposition, stating that while Sharif knew something was up he “was not fully in the picture.”

This last point not only underscores Pakistan’s long history of dysfunctional civil-military relations but also has current political relevance, as Sharif and Musharraf are both readying presidential bids later this year.  Musharraf has reacted to Aziz’s revelations by calling him as “an unbalanced personality” engaged in “character assassination.”  This is an odd denunciation since Musharraf trusted Aziz enough to appoint him, after his military retirement, to serve as head of the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption agency that Musharraf created following his coup against Sharif.

Musharraf has also reiterated his contention – which was advanced in his 2006 memoir – that the Kargil operation was a splendid tactical success that caught the Indians napping but which was then squandered when Sharif caved in to U.S. diplomatic pressure.  This theme was further echoed in a rather curious report last week in The News, the largest English language paper in Pakistan.  Recounting information it claims was supplied by a source closely involved in Kargil – but who it refuses to name other than saying that the “story has nothing to do with General (r) Pervez Musharraf directly” – the article contends that the operation only became a fiasco due to the “follies of the political bigwigs.”

The notion that feckless civilians snatched defeat from the jaws of victory is not only a distortion of the historical record but also has pernicious political implications.  The growing success of Indian counterattacks meant that military defeat was all but assured even before Sharif set off to Washington to try to find a face-saving escape from the crisis.  Indeed, Musharraf contributed mightily to what by then had devolved into a fiasco by failing to prepare for the possibility of an extended conflict and then by publicly insisting that the intruders were not Pakistani soldiers but jihadis over whom Islamabad had little control – a strategy that all but foreclosed coming to their rescue.

Even more important, Musharraf’s claim that all was lost at Kargil due to the fecklessness of the political class is reminiscent of the “Stab in the Back” myth that plagued democratic government in Germany following World War I.  A similar notion has decisively warped civil-military relations throughout Pakistan’s history, starting with claims that the 1947-48 Kashmir war was lost due to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s pusillanimity.***

Aziz’s revelations are surely not the last word about the Kargil drama.  Much remains uncertain, including Sharif’s own actions.  But with the civilian government in Islamabad within weeks of completing its allotted term – a singular achievement given the military establishment’s bonapartist instincts – and with a new army chief set to be appointed later in the year, Musharraf’s deleterious claim of battlefield victory needs to be quickly knocked down.

*It should be noted that while Aziz has written a just-published memoir containing these allegations, I am relying here on the information presented in a newspaper piece he authored last month and his subsequent press interview.

**See here for an interesting account of how the Kargil planners kept the Pakistani air force out of the loop.

***Disgruntlement over the Kashmir war was the driving force behind a failed 1951 plot to overthrow Khan’s government.  The main conspirator was the chief of the general staff in the army.

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.