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Kargil: where defence met diplomacy

‘‘You can do a lot with diplomacy but of course, you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up with firmness and force.’&#14...

‘‘You can do a lot with diplomacy but of course, you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up with firmness and force.’’ — Kofi Annan

Three years ago, on July 26, 1999, we declared successful completion of Operation Vijay, India’s fourth war with Pakistan. The Pakistani Army’s initiative, taking advantage of terrain, climatic conditions and ‘‘militancy’’ cover plan, achieved a tactical surprise but could not cope with subsequent Indian military reactions.

It failed at the operational and strategic levels and ended up with adverse politico-military consequences for Pakistan.

Operation Vijay was a perfect blend of strong and determined political, military and diplomatic actions which enabled us to transform an adverse situation into a military and diplomatic victory. It is now fairly certain that the decision to launch Operation Badr (Pakistan’s codename for its operation) across 160 km of the LoC in Kargil sector was taken soon after Gen Pervez Musharraf took over as Army chief in October 1998.

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The operation was launched to coincide with the melting of snow and the summer opening of India’s national Highway 1A, which links Srinagar to Leh via Kargil. Pakistani regular Army personnel of the Northern Light Infantry, supported by special forces, artillery, engineers and other combat support personnel, in the garb of militants and under a well executed cover plan, infiltrated through gaps into Indian territory to occupy mountain tops between the LoC and the highway at several locations.

Militarily, for Pakistan, this situation could not have been better. Its troops were inside India and had occupied strategic heights along the highway. Had they stayed, they could have cut off the supply route to Leh, seriously affecting our ability to move, re-deploy or augment troops from one sector to another.

They were poised to launch operations in Turtuk close to southern Siachen glacier and re-draw the LoC in Dras-Kargil-Batalik-Turtuk sectors. Intensified, enlarged or prolonged fighting would have enabled them to draw the world’s attention to Jammu and Kashmir and a war between two nuclear nations.


By the third week of May 1999, the fog of war started lifting. Our initial reports, particularly the intelligence inputs, were way off the mark. We were not facing militants but Pakistani Army personnel in militants’ garb who planned to stay on in our territory. The military objective given by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was to get the intrusion vacated without crossing the LoC.

The strategy, clear to every one, was that although India was a victim of intrusion, and exercising maximum restraint, it was determined to get the intrusion vacated.

The Chiefs of Staff worked out the military strategy to achieve the mission. It required a build up, not only in Kargil-Leh sectors but also all along the rest of the Western border and coastline. Though the build up was proceeding smoothly, the first success would take time.


Our first attack on Tololing, which overlooks Dras, failed. The troops secured the approaches and did not give up despite heavy enemy fire. Any further attacks were to be launched with full preparations.

This period was the most difficult period of war for me. We had taken a deliberate decision to keep the political and military channels of communication with Pakistan open. The Pakistani Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) continued to feign total ignorance of the intrusion.

He refused to accept that the intruders were Pakistani Army personnel or that they had violated the LoC. He would ask for details and suggest the need for formal discussions at official levels.

Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure from Pakistan and the rest of the world (including the UN Secretary General) was building up for a ceasefire and talks. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggested that Indian air strikes (within our own country) be stopped as a ‘‘pre condition’’ for talks.

When this was rejected outright, he offered to send his Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, to New Delhi, which our government agreed to. My worry was that any discussion or a diplomatic solution at this point would result in a disadvantageous solution and military humiliation, as had happened in 1962.


On June 5, 1999, while returning from Headquarters Northern Command, I decided to address the entire Indian Army through a special log (unclassified), which was dictated in the aircraft.

On June 7, 99, the Prime Minister in his address to the nation said, ‘‘I do want to make it plain: if the stratagem now is that the intrusion should be used to alter the Line of Control through talks, the proposed talks will end before they have begun.’’ And also, ‘‘Have confidence in the ability of our armed forces. The armed forces shall accomplish this task and ensure that no one dares to indulge in this kind of misadventure in future.’’ It was a great morale booster for the armed forces.


Sartaj Aziz arrived in Delhi via China on June 12, 1999. His three-point formula— a ceasefire, a joint working group to review the LoC and demarcate it on the ground and a reciprocal visit by Indian Foreign Minister next week—was turned down.

More importantly, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh made it clear that India would under no circumstances negotiate unless or until the Pak intrusion is completely vacated. ‘‘The aggression has to be undone, militarily or diplomatically, whichever is done first,’’ he said.


To me it was not just a political response but also faith and confidence in the Indian military. The responsibility on us had become heavier! On June 12, 1999, 56 Mountain Brigade (2 Raj Rif, 18 Grenadiers, 13 JAK Rif, 18 Garh Rif) attacked Tololing again, this time with full preparations. After very gallant actions, including hand-to-hand fighting that lasted over next five days, we were able to capture this important feature. The indomitable fighting spirit, grit, determination and resolve of our troops made everyone realise that we could do it.

This was the first turning point. After that we captured Point 5140 (Dras) on June 20, Point 5203 (Batalik) on June 21, Three Pimples (Dras) on June 29, and Jubar OP (Batalik). The forward movement of Indian soldiers on the ridgelines and mountain tops of Kargil, one of the most difficult terrains in the world, became unbeatable and Pak positions fell one after another.

We were able to convince the international community that it was a case of deliberate aggression in the garb of militancy. India was exercising restraint but was determined to get its territory vacated and could not be held responsible for any escalation in the process (conveyed by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra to Sandy Berger, the US National Security Advisor).

When Tariq Aziz said that ‘‘we would not hesitate to use any weapon in our arsenal to defend our territorial integrity’’, many rightly interpreted that as an overt nuclear threat. The next day, India described that as an ‘‘utterly irresponsible’’ statement. It made the right echoes in the world. Aziz’s statement was promptly denied by Pakistan.

The second turning point of the war came with the capture of Tiger Hill on July 4, 1999, the day Sharif went to see President Clinton in Washington. Clinton had requested our Prime Minister also to visit Washington but Vajpayee refused to meet Sharif or visit Washington DC ‘‘till the intrusion was vacated’’. The end was now visible.

By the time Pakistan withdrew its troops, nearly 75% of the intruded area, including all high features dominating NH 1A highway had been retaken. Even after this political and military understanding to withdraw from remaining areas, Pakistan did not vacate three heights on our side, close to the LoC. After obtaining political concurrence, we had to attack these features on July 22-25, 1999.

In launching Operation Badr, Pakistan had clearly blundered. It had failed to take into account a hard military response by India or a pro-actively conducted Indian diplomacy of ‘‘restrained approach’’.

No war is winnable without a credible politico-military standing of a nation. During Kargil, after initial surprise, Indian soldiers stood their ground and won battles with determination and dedication. At the higher level, the services evolved their contingency plans and briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Politico-military-diplomatic and media aspects were carefully and continuously monitored and coordinated in daily CCS conferences.

There was complete synergy and consensus among all organs involved in the war effort; political control, military actions-from higher direction to execution in the field- and pro-active diplomacy.

The most important lesson of Operation Vijay, I believe, was that sound defence makes sound foreign policy.

First published on: 25-07-2002 at 12:00:00 am
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