The end of the Kargil conflict (May-July 1999) witnessed a burst of creative activity with scores of books being published on this clash of arms. It was also subjected to an official inquiry headed by K. Subrahmanyam, resulting in the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) Report, later published by Sage. Strangely, except for a semi-official account by Shireen Mazari and some short articles written by others, Pakistan has maintained an unusual silence on this conflict, although its interlocutors have not been remiss in vigorously defending their aggression which precipitated the Kargil conflict. It has also been the staple of numerous seminars in both India and Pakistan, but also in the United States. There are several remarkable aspects of this conflict that have attracted attention from the strategic community. For one, it was fought at altitudes of around 3000 to 4000 metres above sea level. The troops involved needed to possess the skills of the mountaineer alongside fighting abilities; it thereby provided an object lesson in high altitude warfare. The Kargil conflict also highlighted India’s time-honoured capacity to be surprised by its adversaries, as noted in its past intelligence failures—1962 (Sino-Indian border conflict), 1947 (raiders invading Kashmir), or 1965 (infiltration by Pakistani forces precipitating the Indo-Pak conflict that year), and several others.
Preceding the Kargil conflict, the armed forces were surprised by the entry and occupation of several posts in the Kargil sector by alleged militants. Most importantly, the Kargil conflict disproved beliefs that the possession of nuclear weapons by two adversaries and establishing a state of nuclear deterrence between them will also deter conventional conflict. The Kargil conflict showed that low level, limited conflict was possible between nuclear adversaries without the nuclear threshold being breached.
General Malik’s book discusses several of these issues. He was the Chief of the Army Staff at the time when India and Pakistan clashed in Kargil and can inform us with authority about the events that preceded and followed this conflict. Did the Kargil conflict have nuclear overtones? More specifically, did the availability of nuclear weapons to both adversaries contain and inhibit the conflict? This issue has divided the strategic community in the United States from their counterparts in India and Pakistan. The Americans are convinced that nuclear weapons played an overwhelming role in moderating the Kargil conflict, containing it from expanding to other sectors in Kashmir, and preventing it from acquiring cross-border dimensions. Strategists in India and Pakistan, on the contrary, are at great pains to explain that nuclear weapons were irrelevant to the Kargil conflict. General Malik discounts the possibility of nuclear weapons having entered the Indian calculus during the Kargil conflict, though he does mention “intelligence reports about the Tilla ranges being readied for possible launching of missiles and repeated statements being made by their [Pakistani] political leaders and non-military senior officials “; hence it became prudent “to take some protective measures….our missile assets were dispersed and relocated.”
The author dismisses the detailed account published by Bruce Riedel, Presidential aide who was present in the meeting, that President Clinton confronted Nawaz Sharif in Washington during the conflict with the accusation that Pakistan was readying its nuclear forces during the Kargil conflict, which led to Nawaz Sharif deciding to withdraw the Pakistani forces and ending the Kargil crisis. General Malik surmises this episode to be a case of “arm-twisting,” but it “helped in claiming much greater success for President Clinton’s personal intervention in the crisis than it deserved.” The Americans have privately claimed that both Pakistan and India had activated their nuclear assets in unspecified ways and that the danger of an escalation of the Kargil conflict was a distinct possibility; hence the Presidential intervention defused this possibility. No definite conclusions can be drawn of these allegations and denials unless the official archives are opened for inspection, which is most unlikely. Consequently, the question whether nuclear weapons entered the picture during the Kargil episode seems destined to remain speculative, but inconclusive, like the identity of Jaswant Singh’s mole!
Another controversial issue embedded in the Kargil conflict is the patent failure of intelligence to anticipate or detect the intruders from across the Line of Control till they were well entrenched. General Malik broadly supports the conclusions of the KRC Report that “the Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian Government, Army and intelligence agencies…” Why? A technical argument is made by apologists that the Intelligence Bureau is responsible for internal and the Research and Analysis Wing for external intelligence; hence, their failure to collect and assess information on the cross-border preparations for the intrusions was responsible for the intelligence failure. There are two problems with this simple explanation. First, why did Army Intelligence not gather this information, since there was no prohibition on their acquiring cross-border intelligence for tactical purposes. Second, there is no plausible reason why several border posts in the Kargil sector were vacated in winter allowing them to be occupied by the intruders; or why foot patrols were not sent to check the gaps between border posts. Or why air patrols were not mounted if weather conditions did not permit ground reconnaissance. The author admits that none of this happened; most importantly, a conviction was obtaining “that the threat was limited to infiltration of jihadi militants along with heavy firing to interdict the (Srinagar-Leh) road.” This was another classic case of the facts of intelligence and their assessment being dovetailed into an existing preconception that has been responsible for most intelligence failures in the world.
There is more in this book that is informative, but also what is controversial. In the former category is new information that China was not strictly neutral between India and Pakistan during the Kargil conflict. It had increased its patrolling activity along the Sino-Indian border opposite Ladakh requiring precautionary measures by India. It had also made up Pakistan’s deficiencies in conventional arms at this critical time. Moreover, the frequent visits of Pakistan’s military and political leaders to China during the conflict leave no doubt about the close consultations that were proceeding between the two countries. More controversially, the author mentions the subtle and unsubtle means used by the Indian leadership to draw the armed forces into their political and electoral machinations. Thus, an Army team of officers was invited to address a group of the ruling party MPs in Parliament House, which, not expectedly, led to a furore with the Opposition parties alleging bias. In essence, India’s armed forces have remained apolitical, despite pressures upon them to serve partisan political interests, which can be traced back to the Emergency. It would become progressively more difficult for them to stay neutral considering the crumbling political party system and the bureaucratic machinery in the country.
General Malik’s views on the feasibility of limited conventional conflict in a nuclear environment are well known. He is an adherent of this concept, which is certainly arguable, and has divided strategic opinion among scholars and practitioners across the world. This would not be the appropriate place to dilate on the pros and cons of this controversy. The author has extended his analysis to events immediately after the Kargil conflict, which includes the abortive Agra Summit; 9/11 and its reverberations through the world, including South Asia; the attack on Parliament in December 2001 and the year-long border confrontation crisis that ensued; the initiation of the Indo-Pak peace process; and the future of this relationship.
While dealing with these major issues the author has been candid and expressed his views clearly without hedging them with qualifications, as is usual in books written by academics. Given his background and unique knowledge of events as they unfolded during and after the Kargil conflict this is to be appreciated. This book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Indo-Pak conflict-ridden relationship; it is commended to those having a casual or professional interest in conflict studies. It would interest students of international relations and also modern history.
P.R. Chari is Research Professor at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.