Authors and analysts may differ in detail, but the broad outlines of the Kargil conflict now seem to be available some two decades after the 1999 saga on icy heights across the Line of Control (LoC) in India-held Kashmir. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s claims notwithstanding, militarily it was a draw, the Operation Koh Paima (KP) failing in its highfalutin aim — a Siachen-Kargil swap and a renewed international emphasis on Kashmir. Called the “Kargil clique” by Nasim Zehra, author of From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan, the brains behind Operation KP crossed the Rubicon without having even the air force and naval chiefs on board. Unsurprisingly, they considered their prime minister little better than a patsy, who was at best given “a deceptive briefing.”

For no less than seven months — October to May — Pakistani military activity had remained undetected and Pakistani soldiers were able to occupy no less than 146 peaks from where they could target the Leh-Srinagar highway to cut off supplies to the Indian garrison at Siachen. As an American diplomat told the author, the Indians were “caught with their pants down” and suffered heavy casualties as they tried to scale virtual “ice walls” while Pakistanis poured hell from the heights. It was a superb, sedulous piece of tactical planning that failed because of lack a well-defined strategy.

The upset for Pakistan was the early Indian response, for the first exchange of fire occurred in March, contrary to the planners’ belief that the enemy would not be able to react until June. By the end of June the Pakistani high command had realised that the initiative had passed on to the Indians, whose air power and artillery had altered the battle scenario and disrupted Pakistan’s overstretched supply line.

Nasim Zehra’s book on the events surrounding the infamous Pakistan-India conflict and the subsequent military coup in Pakistan is a groundbreaking and meticulously researched piece of political history

Short of food and ammunition, Pakistani soldiers fought back heroically in the face of murderous Indian artillery fire, the total count of artillery shells coming to 250,000. The daily average was 5,000 shells from 300 guns, “with each battery firing over one round per minute for 17 days continuously.” Tiger Hill alone received 9,000 shells the day the Indians regained it. It is such astonishing military details from a civilian author that make Zehra’s magnum opus an extraordinary piece of research and scholarship spread over a decade and a half.

Her sources are authentic, for she interviews key personalities on both sides, including Gen Musharraf, who was part of what the author refers to repeatedly as the “Kargil clique” or sometimes as the “gang of four” — a rather unfortunate epithet for those who believed they were patriots determined to avenge India’s takeover of the Siachen glacier. This wounded patriotism was, unfortunately, devoid of reason.

On the Indian side Zehra elicits the views of then Indian defence minister George Fernandes and many Indian officers involved in the conflict, but comes to her own conclusions to give us what she considers to be an authentic and near-accurate account of a hare-brained misadventure that had the sole superpower, western Europe and China on edge.

Diplomatic episodes so far not known add to the book’s originality, for Zehra records the embarrassment caused to the civilian leadership when foreign diplomats and generals told then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his aides military facts which the army had hidden from them. In one memorable portion, then US ambassador William Milam recounted to the author how adviser Tariq Fatemi looked as if he had been “kicked and his face fell” when told GHQ itself had supplied information he was contesting.

The author’s thesis is that the “Kargil clique” failed to assess the likely response by India and the international community; that the world capitals refused to believe its claims that it was not the Pakistani army, but Kashmiri mujahideen, who were doing the fighting; and that, finally, America went by India’s claim that the issue was Kargil and Kargil alone and it could not be linked to Siachen, much less to the Kashmir dispute.

The upset for Pakistan was the early Indian response, for the first exchange of fire occurred in March, contrary to the planners’ belief that the enemy would not be able to react until June. By the end of June the Pakistani high command had realised that the initiative had passed on to the Indians, whose air power and artillery had altered the battle scenario.

Yet there should be no doubt that New Delhi’s claim — that Islamabad had ‘cheated’ on the Simla agreement by moving into Kargil — had no moral basis because the Indian high command too had taken Siachen by stealth. When author Zehra told the Indian defence minister his generals had cheated on the Simla accord by taking over Siachen, Fernandes replied, “I cannot contradict you.” Gen Musharraf’s version is that violations of the LoC were something the two sides did regularly by intruding across the line when the opportunity came and that the Indian army, too, had occupied Siachen without informing its civilian leadership.

Zehra, however, points out that even when the military situation for Pakistan was deteriorating and the Indian offensive was succeeding, many Indian officers believed that the positions Pakistanis had occupied were “impregnable” and that a total eviction of Pakistani soldiers from the heights was an impossibility. Gen Musharraf, too, insists that the situation on the front was going the freedom fighters’ way, that Indians in desperation were firing on Pakistani troops down on the plains, that Pakistani soldiers were serving as the “eyes and ears” of the Kashmiri militants and that Indian gains in June were “insignificant.” In fact, by moving four regular divisions and other elements from its borders with Pakistan, says Gen Musharraf in his book In the Line of Fire, India was in no position to wage war. Zehra seems to agree with this point of view, going by her observations on pages 224, 229 and 236. There are gripping accounts of hair-raising diplomatic bullying and bluster when world powers feared the two nuclear-armed neighbours could stumble into mutually assured destruction. Indian scholar Ullekh N.P. in his book The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox also says it was India which sought American intervention to end fighting.

Before departing for the July 4 meeting with then American president Bill Clinton, Sharif asked Gen Musharraf what the military situation was; the Army chief replied it was in Pakistan’s favour. He says he was surprised by Sharif’s decision to pull back, though interestingly, the White House joint statement doesn’t speak of a Pakistani withdrawal nor does it hold Islamabad guilty, though Clinton had made it clear to Sharif that he thought Pakistan was wrong and he should order a pullback. For the brains behind Kargil, this was a betrayal, but betrayal was built into the situation because of the way Operation KP had been planned and executed. Nevertheless, Sharif’s days as prime minister were numbered.

Aside from Operation KP and the October 1999 coup, the book’s coverage of diplomacy preceding and following the nuclear tests by Pakistan and India in May 1998 contains hitherto unknown episodes. Zehra concludes that India’s initiative in testing the nuclear devices boomeranged and served to focus the world’s attention on Kashmir.

Chapter 16, dealing with the post-KP situation, leading to the highjack drama, records for history some unsavoury aspects of Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships. The extent of distrust among the principals, the defence secretary’s restraint at what he thought was arrant nonsense spoken by a panicky prime minister, whispers behind closed doors and secret oaths of personal loyalty seem to come straight out of a John le Carré novel.

The book needs total re-editing, preferably by the author herself. Names with full designations have been repeated ad nauseam; several proper nouns — Sial, Ath Muqaam, Manihaal — have been spelled differently, sometimes on the same page. There are too many typos in the text as well as in the endnotes, spread over 46 pages, composed in seven points and difficult to read. In the map opposite page 196, “headquarters” has been misspelled half a dozen times. The index is too short for a book of this size and lacks consistency in style. Also, the reader would wonder why a book published in Pakistan has American spellings. These anomalies need to be removed if this groundbreaking piece of war history by a Pakistani scholar is to have a second edition of international standards.

The writer is Dawn Readers’ Editor and an author

From Kargil to the Coup: Events that
Shook Pakistan
By Nasim Zehra
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693531374
532pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 1st, 2018