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The cost of Kargil

August 14, 1999

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ACCORDING to an old adage, victory has many fathers while defeat is an orphan. But curiously, very few people on either side of the great divide are claiming total victory in the Kargil battle.

After the initial euphoria had died down in India, serious analysts have pointed out that although the conflict ended with the withdrawal of the 'intruders', the weaknesses that it exposed in the Indian military machine as well as the heavy losses suffered by the army made it difficult to claim outright success. Also, the international attention focused on the issue as well as the US involvement in obtaining a Pakistani pullout have been seen as unfavourable developments in New Delhi. Finally, the 'sanctity' ascribed to the Line of Control in the US-Pakistan joint declaration issued in Washington weakens the Indian claim to all of Jammu and Kashmir.

Strangely, this last element is also seen as a setback by Pakistani critics of Nawaz Sharif's retreat. These people viewed the LoC as a temporary line that would be erased as soon as Pakistan got all of Kashmir. Indeed, the tacit acceptance of the legal status of the LoC in Washington, Islamabad and New Delhi is the first step in converting it into the international border between India and Pakistan, and, hopefully, the end of the Kashmir dispute. Then, and only then, would all the blood spilled on the mountain fastness of Kargil have been for some worthwhile purpose.

In order to put a positive spin on the Kargil debacle, Mushahid Hussain, the information minister, wastes no opportunity to claim that the bitter fighting has 'internationalized' Kashmir, and hence was worth the loss of life suffered by the Pakistan army as well as the Kashmiri freedom fighters involved. According to Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, speaking on the floor of the Senate, at least 300 Pakistani officers and jawans were killed. The information minister should realize that our soldiers are not pawns to be sacrificed to 'internationalise' a political and diplomatic cause: their duty is to defend our borders and not to be butchered at the altar of expediency.

As it is, there is great anger in the army against the political leadership as well as the military high command for having first put officers and men in an untenable position, and then not supplying them adequately. Finally, they consider that the sacrifices these brave men made were degraded when the survivors were pulled back after the Washington agreement. Again, according to Aitzaz Ahsan in the Senate, autopsies of officers killed in Kargil indicate that they had kept going by chewing whatever foliage they could scavenge at those heights because they were not being supplied. Many of the soldiers just ran out of ammunition.

But what made our military and political leadership place our men in this no-win situation to start with? What possible gain did they hope to achieve? As it is, the world now sees us as an irresponsible rogue state that launches military adventures without regard to its responsibility as a nuclear power. India, on the other hand, is seen as a mature, responsible nation that showed restraint under grave provocation. Now, when an unarmed naval aircraft is shot down by Indian fighters apparently over our territory, there is scant support for us and no condemnation of the unprovoked Indian action.

It seems that the Kargil plan was presented to the prime minister at a highly restricted briefing without spelling out the implications. Given Nawaz Sharif's notoriously short attention span, he did not ask any questions and went along, thinking this was just another minor cross-border incursion. I fear he may be labouring under the delusion that Pakistan's atom bombs are just bigger conventional bombs without being aware of the short-term and long-term effects of radiation and fallout. Indeed, the more I think about the itchy finger on the nuclear trigger, the more nervous I get.

Contrary to expectation, the public reaction to the whole Kargil misadventure has been a muted unease. Most people, even in Punjab, have been largely indifferent. Sensibly, they know full well that we cannot wrest Kashmir from India by force. When the Jamat-i-Islami called for a 'million-man march' to protest against Nawaz Sharif's capitulation in Washington, barely 20,000 turned out. Hardly anybody was for the incursion when it was launched, and even fewer were against the cessation of hostilities.

When the fallout from Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests had settled last summer, analysts here and abroad assumed that the fact that both sides possessed atomic weapons would act as a mutual deterrent. The assumption was that just as a nuclear balance had prevented war between the two superpowers during the cold war, so too would the subcontinental balance prevent conventional war between India and Pakistan. However, on the basis of the evidence emerging from the Kargil conflict, it would appear that Pakistani planners now feel that their nuclear capability has won them immunity from Indian conventional forces.

If this is indeed a new element in our military planning, then clearly, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is potentially destabilizing. What would have happened had the fighting in Kargil continued and India had opened another front along the LoC? The entire operation reminds me of our 1965 adventure when we sent soldiers in civvies across the cease-fire line into Indian Kashmir. That blundering operation rapidly escalated into a full-fledged war. Can we afford another one now that the stakes have been raised enormously by the nuclear capability acquired by both?

The Indians cannot be absolved of their share of the blame for our present impasse. First, by being so obdurate over the Kashmir problem, they have ensured that relations between the two countries have been virtually at war footing for five decades; then by carrying out their nuclear tests last May, they effectively pushed the Pakistanis into following suit. Being the stronger and therefore the more self-confident nation, they could have shown more flexibility and generosity of spirit in solving this problem.

But allocating blame is usually a fruitless exercise. We need to look ahead and try to resolve the festering Kashmir issue before it plunges us into another round of bloodletting. Already, the fighting in Indian Kashmir is getting fiercer, and the recent downing of an unarmed naval plane near the border has made the situation even more tense. One can only hope that after the uncertainty caused by the Indian elections is over, the next government will turn its attention to the need for sorting out the Kashmir problem once and for all.