Kargil: the morning after

Published April 29, 2000

IN my younger days, there were many evenings when I committed excesses for which I had to pay heavily the next morning by way of a splitting headache and a bilious sensation.

Mercifully, the resilience of youth, aided by some aspirin and Alka Seltzer, soon overcame the effects of overindulgence. Unfortunately, the hangover from the Kargil episode last year is far more persistent, and will take more than a few aspirins to cure. A year after the conflict, we are still feeling sharp twinges to remind us of the high costs and risks of ill-conceived military adventures.

Having paid the price for the blunder in much precious blood, we continue to pay an exorbitant diplomatic cost. The latest item to be added to the Kargil bill is the real possibility of India joining the Security Council of the United Nations. Although this proposal had been knocking around for a few years, it wasn't taken very seriously. And after India tested its nuclear devices two years ago, its chances of gaining a permanent seat on the Council seemed dead and buried. But we may have resurrected it by allowing India to project itself as a mature, responsible state. Already, four out of the five permanent members have expressed support for India.

In itself, the expansion of the Security Council is long overdue as its present composition reflects the balance of power that obtained just after the Second World War. Any sensible dispensation today should include economic powerhouses like Japan and Germany. India, with a billion citizens and a growing middle class, is poised to become a major player in this century, and seems a natural candidate for membership to the world's most exclusive club. But this objective reality runs counter to Pakistan's narrow objectives. Locked as the two countries are in a zero-sum game where one's gain is the other's loss, things are not going our way in strategic terms.

The problem with the Kargil operation was that for all its tactical brilliance in conception and execution, it was flawed in that no attention was paid to the inevitable diplomatic fallout. When considering grand strategy, all relevant factors - ranging from the economic to the diplomatic - are carefully studied. The military equation is placed in the larger international context before taking a decision. This was clearly not done, with the result that the Kargil adventure has backfired with serious consequences.

One of these consequences was the tone and tenor of President Clinton's televized address to the nation during his brief visit. He made it very clear that overt or covert military operations are simply not acceptable to the world community. The subtext was that Pakistan is in the doghouse while India is the paramount regional power. We may not like it, but this is currently the view from Washington. And more than ever before, it is the view from Washington that prevails in much of the world.

In response to the initial military setback it suffered in Kargil, the Indian government established a panel of experts to examine the causes for the intelligence failure that led to the fiasco. The panel has now produced a voluminous report that scrutinizes various military and non-military aspects of the short but bloody conflict. This report has been released to the public. We, too, need to draw some lessons from the episode. Above all, we need to know who authorized the operation, and whether the then PM had been fully briefed about the fact that the position of those on the Kargil heights was untenable, and that once the Indians reacted in force, they could not be re-supplied.

Another cost of Kargil was the removal of Nawaz Sharif's elected government. Never mind that not many tears were shed over his ouster: we are now in political limbo with the rest of the world treating us like a pariah state.

Although it took several months to come to a head, the army's resentment against Nawaz Sharif finally resulted in a coup on 12 October last year, and the junta is now fumbling in the dark with no clear idea of where to go and what to do.

Kargil has also strengthened the hands of the jihadi elements by sending out a clear signal that this government is willing to stick out its neck a very long way over Kashmir. General Musharraf's attempt to make a distinction between terrorism and jihad is finding no takers abroad, but internally, it makes it difficult for law and order agencies to take on these armed groups. And for the militants, armed action in Kashmir - often against unarmed civilians - is no different from acts of random violence within Pakistan. This is the hydra successive governments have created, and Kargil was the ultimate seal of approval.

Presumably, the idea behind the operation was to focus the international limelight on Kashmir in the expectation that the world would hasten to defuse a potential conflict that could go nuclear. If this was the strategic objective, then it backfired badly. The world was indeed very concerned during the fighting, but as the drama on the heights of Kargil unfolded, people in capitals around the world were very impressed by India's well-considered response. We were seen as the aggressors as nobody believed for an instant that Kashmiri militants could mount or sustain an operation of this magnitude. So at the end of the day, India came out smelling of roses, while we had egg all over our face.

Another setback to Pakistan has been the 28 per cent increase the Indian defence establishment has managed to squeeze from the government as a direct result of the initial reverses it suffered in Kargil. This increase represents Pakistan's entire defence budget, and the disparity between the two countries will grow wider, making a military solution to the Kashmir problem even more unthinkable.

So militarily we are worse off, and diplomatically we are more isolated than we were at any point in our history. Internally, the political future is grimmer than ever. Whatever yardstick we use, Kargil has been an unmitigated disaster. Surely we have the right to know who was responsible for it.



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