August 11, 2019

Stop Using Wars for Domestic Political Ends

B Arjun

THE conflict in the mountains of Kargil sector in 1999, resulting from Pakistani infiltration, lasted around three months. India won. But the victory cost us 527 lives of young officers and men who fought gallantly to defend our territorial integrity.

After 20 years, the government is celebrating the victory in 'Operation Vijay', but it is hardly deliberating on the lessons that we need to draw from the conflict, which represented our failure on three fronts, intelligence and generalship.

In 1999 we had only one battalion guarding the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil, today we have three brigades under a division's command to guard the sector and claim that we have plugged all the gaps. We are smugly satisfied that our better weaponry, technology and surveillance is enough to prevent Kargil-2.  However, the fact is we remain as vulnerable to military surprises as we were in 1999, when Pakistani army camouflaged as raiders entered our territory. The question before our political-military (pol-mil) leadership is: are these piecemeal measures adequate and do they provide foolproof security against another intrusion by Pakistani army or their proxies in other sectors as well.

There is no doubt that our young officers and soldiers will always rise to the occasion but is our pol-mil leadership intellectually equipped to deal with another surprise attack?  Lt General (Retd) Satish Nambiar has argued in his recent article in The Week that the ‘generalship’ was missing during the Kargil war, there was no “display of strategy or operational art. We did not take the battle to the Pakistanis by hitting them hard in the depth areas where it would have hurt them or by opening up on other fronts, as was done by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in September 1965”.

For too long, the strategists and analysts, have felt that the army achieved the political aim of restoring the sanctity of Line of Control (LoC). The problem here is that this was at best a military aim. The political aim of the ruling leadership in 1999 should have been more broad-based. It should have included using all means to see that the international community punished Pakistan for its misconduct and military misadventure. But nothing happened; all we did was crisis management.

Taking a dig at the political leadership during 1999, General Nambiar says, “It is all very well to now pretend to take satisfaction in the praise conferred on us by our self-styled well-wishers for India displaying 'restraint'.” The fact is that the restraint was not our choice. It was imposed by an external actor. This was the time when we were busy building robust ties with the US, looking forward to buying the hi-tech arms from it, when it was the sole-power backing Pakistan. Our pol-mil aim was restricted by the US diktat asking us to show restraint.

Many assumed that with the US on India’s side Pakistan would be isolated. It was also assumed that Pakistan’s crumbling economy and the growing terrorism would eventually lead the international community to declare it a failed state. But nothing of this sort happened, Pakistan has continued to thrive, the US continues to cuddle it because of its geostrategic location and Pakistan army, which is freely used in Afghanistan to keep US casualties low and keep the region in a perpetual state of chaos. The fact is our dependence on US has curtailed our strategic autonomy.

Immediately, after the Kargil war got over the NDA government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, set up a committee to look into various aspects of Kargil intrusion. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was headed by former bureaucrat K Subrahmanyam. The committee highlighted serious deficiencies in our security management system, especially our intelligence network and higher defence management. .

Despite an elaborate exercise undertaken by the KRC, the successive governments have failed to pay any serious thought to implement the recommendations put forth by the committee. For example, the recommendations, which were tabled in the parliament on February 23, 2000, led to the setting up of the headquarters of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) for tri-services integration. However the appointment of the chief of defence services (CDS), a much needed integration of the armed forces, continues to be in a state of limbo.  

On the intelligence front, it was expected that our strategic tie up with Israel and US would fetch us the required advance information to tackle Pakistan based terrorism. However, neither in 1999 nor in 2018, none of our much revered allies, CIA and Mossad helped us prevent the attacks. In fact, both used the Pulwama attacks and the subsequent Balakot air strikes to advertise their arms and ammunition through our media.

Had our pol-mil elite drawn correct lessons from Kargil and conflicts before it, we would have been much better prepared to prevent the continuous barrage of cross-border terrorism that we are subjected to at regular intervals. This strategic inadequacy once again came to fore during the Pulwama terror strikes, in which more than 40 young Indian soldiers got brutally killed. Much like Kargil this was an utter failure of our intelligence apparatus. Ironically, the Modi government instead of taking stock of the extent of intelligence loopholes that led to the attack diverted the attention of the public by talking of surgical airstrikes inside Pakistan.   

Unfortunately, Modi’s escalation strategy during the Balakot operations was devoid of a clear political objective.  For no sound strategic reason, we were in tearing hurry to act against Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi’s undue haste led to plunging our brave air warriors into the harm’s way, especially when the weather was fast deteriorating. Hurry also prevented a correct analysis of the possible ways in which Pakistan would react and use the information flows in post-strike scenario to create information chaos. This is exactly what happened when reports of Wing Commander Abhinandan, captured by Pakistan, started appearing in the social media. Later the efficacy and accuracy of the strikes carried out by the Indian air force were also challenged by the foreign media, giving Pakistan the much needed information advantage. Modi government’s little planning during the Balakot air strikes once again proved that poor political leadership guided by its narrow election objectives, can mar the best military campaigns. The use of military victories for narrow domestic political gains is a malaise that is afflicting our democracy. A veteran soldier expressing his anguish against the ostentatious event created to mark the Kargil victory wrote on the social media, “Kargil was a pyrrhic victory. There is nothing to celebrate but everything to give humble homage to. It sickens me to see the euphoric displays of celebration when there continue to be 527 families for whom every Kargil Divas is a painful catharsis relived. Instead this should be a day when we take a pledge and say… Never again will I allow parasites to dance victory laps over the bloodied bodies of our young martyrs all just for them to make it to the corridors of power. Never again will I allow widows’ tears turn into a long day’s journey into a lifetime of pitch darkness.”