Kargil 1999 and its relevance to the India-China LAC standoff

The first edition of Lt. Gen. Y M Bammi (retd) Kargil 1999: The impregnable conquered, with its 800-plus pages, annexures, maps and additional documents are the most widely compiled book on the intense actions/battles during Pakistan’s ambitious misadventure

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jan 21, 2021
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The first edition of Lt. Gen. Y M Bammi (retd) Kargil 1999: The impregnable conquered, with its 800-plus pages, annexures, maps and additional documents are the most widely compiled book on the intense actions/battles during Pakistan’s ambitious misadventure. It's only minor drawback is that it is heavy in weight.

This book is an abridged version and a much lighter paperback. With its in-depth, accurately researched information and battle accounts from the field of operation, the author’s persistent efforts to interview a very wide range of those concerned, from soldiers to chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force to diplomats to military and foreign strategic analysts as well as journalists, make this book prominent among other tomes on the subject. 

Some of the crucial issues and aspects addressed are: the nuances of fighting in the rugged high altitudes, how the intrusion unfolded, India's war preparedness or lack of it and how India should have reacted at each echelon of command. The book steers the narrative of the Kargil conflict from discussing mere military actions to some of the untouched aspects such as the contribution made by the combat arms, the Indian Navy, Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and logistic units. The details of operations conducted in Batalik and the Glacier sector including the performance of Pakistani troops and lessons that Pakistan learned or did not learn, make this book an interesting read for not only experts but laypersons as well.

An important part of the book, which is invaluable for future reference, is the concluding chapter, ‘Lessons from the Kargil conflict.’ The author has listed many. This must be revisited especially now in the context of the India-China military standoff. It drives us to introspect and reflect even after two decades that the lessons of Kargil are relevant. Gen Bammi draws attention to India’s repeated lackadaisical approach of not drawing lessons from the previous wars and conflicts since Independence - forgotten lessons especially in terms of intelligence, tactics, command, and control, and the aspects of high command. The Kargil conflict is one classic case of lack of timely intelligence and the high price paid in terms of casualties owing to facing an enemy well dug in with effective fire support for months before the attacking force reacted.

The Pakistan Army, known for 'outsourcing' so as to avoid committing its regular troops whenever possible, used about thirteen battalions of  the Northern Light Infantry (NLI), largely comprising non-Sunnis, literally as cannon fodder. Unlike the rest of the Pakistan Army, which is dominated by major ethnic groups like the Punjabis and Pashtoons, the NLI troops were drawn from eight major ethnic groups - Baltis, Shins, Yashkuns, Mughals, Kashmiris, Pathans, Ladakhis, and Turks.

The community composition of NLI is 49 percent Shias, 23 percent Ismailis, 10 percent Noor Bakhshis and only18 percent Sunnis. About 55 percent hail from Gilgit while 35 percent hail from Baltistan. Preparations for capturing Kargil were firmed up when former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf was heading the Pakistan Army’s directorate of military operations. NLI troops were made to dress in shalwar kameez so that they could be projected as terrorists, were inducted in late 1998. Indian Army began Op Vijay in May 1999. Initially, after the confrontation began, the Pakistan Army refused to acknowledge NLI’s fatal casualties.

But the six months delay in India reacting to the unstopped induction of almost 13,000 mountain troops of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) into the area of Kargil heights proved to be very costly for the Indian Army in a number of fatal casualties. The NLI had all the time to get well dug in and be amply supported by artillery fire. Their advantage of being on the heights on steep slopes and exposed to enemy artillery fire also took a heavy toll on the Indian Army in terms of its numbers killed. Whether it was a lack of intelligence or not reacting to whatever available intelligence, the author has not pulled any stops in recording his observations and recommendations comprehensively.

Effective, timely and continuous intelligence is a vital requirement for success in wars. Kargil was an intensification of the confrontation and intrusion in a long war waged against India by Pakistan - the fourth in fact-which began in the late 1980s and continues till date. Besides, India shares borders with Pakistan and China is the world’s highest mountain range with the coldest and harshest climate. The importance and requirements of intelligence in such terrain are much more.

The Kargil conflict of 1999 is believed to be a massive intelligence failure. We need to contemplate on this because the failure was not only in terms of unavailability of information but complete lack of assessment of the available information of the hostile intent of the enemy by the highest military and diplomatic leadership. Senior military commanders chose to agree with political intelligence instead of supporting the military framework. 

The Kargil Review Committee pointed out the failure in examining the available intelligence gathering at the multiple levels during the Kargil conflict. Gen. Bammi’s arguments on intelligence gathering as well as the information percolating and assessed by both military and political authority make a crucial recommendation that India needs to act upon. Another important lesson that resonates for any future standoff that Gen. Bammi draws is the need for synergy between India’s diplomatic and military strategies. The aim is to find a sustainable solution applying both the channels of diplomacy and military talks, without compromising and constraining each other. This, he opines, was missed during the Kargil confrontation.

In the context of warfare strategy, Gen. Bammi’s recommendation on mountain warfare still holds its ground after two decades of the Kargil conflict. What India really needs to buck up is its mountain warfare strategies because of our overlapping borders given our geographical setting with north and northeastern neighbours. He emphasizes training in offensive operations. “Patrolling, observation and analysis of the enemy activities, control of artillery fire, mine warfare and logistics need to be given due importance,” he has said.

He especially recommended this for “Northern Command as they were focussed more on counter-insurgency tasks. Special relief of incoming units needs to be considered, for such training and orientation”. Infrastructure and training play a key role in mountain warfare due to its treacherous terrain and weather conditions. In the current standoff between India and China, reports suggest including from a Chinese military expert that India has the ‘largest and most experienced mountain army.’ Nevertheless, there are logistical and tactical challenges faced by soldiers fighting in high altitudes.

Discussing India’s past wars and conflicts bring up lessons for articulating policies and warfare strategies. What readers mostly benefit from the book is Gen. Bammi's astute personal insight, analysis, and recommendations that we learn from, especially now, that India is grappling with border issues with China.

The new compact, smart, easy to carry, and well-produced 2020 edition is a value addition to the repertoire of books on Kargil and mountain warfare in the present context.

(Kargil 1999: The Impregnable Conquered by Lt. Gen. Y.M. Bammi (retd), Natraj Publishers, Pages: 486, paperback, Price: Rs. 595) 

(The author is a former spokesperson, Indian Army and Ministry of Defence) 

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