Musharraf and the truth about Kargil

Indian artillery in action during the Kargil war in 1999. FILE PHOTO: KAMAL NARANG

Indian artillery in action during the Kargil war in 1999. FILE PHOTO: KAMAL NARANG  

Praveen Swami

General Musharraf's account of the Kargil war is a feisty defence of Pakistan's military but sits ill with well-established facts.

KARGIL, PERVEZ Musharraf wrote on his official website two years ago, "proved a lesson to the Indians and a rude awakening to the world of the reality of Kashmir." Now In the Line of Fire : A Memoir by Pakistan's President has sought to give shape and form to that controversial contention in the first official account that has emanated from Islamabad on the causes and course of the Kargil war. In the handful of pages of the book that deal with the Kargil war, the General promises to "lay bare what has been shrouded in mystery."

His narration has two major elements Indian provocation and the betrayal of Pakistani military triumph by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

During the autumn of 1998, he writes, India began to complain of Pakistani intrusions in the Siachen sector. On investigation, he discovered, these attacks were "make-belief." As a result, Pakistan's military became increasingly convinced that India was inventing pretexts to go to war. By the end of the year, according to the General, evidence existed that "India was on the verge of an attack across the Line of Control." Two Indian brigades, which were normally moved to the Kashmir valley each winter, were held back in Leh. In addition, India's 70 Infantry Brigade was moved into the Kargil theatre. New bunker-busting equipment also arrived in the area.

Pakistan, in this rendition, responded by enhancing its defensive positions along the Line of Control. Some 100 new section-strength posts, General Musharraf records, were set up on unoccupied heights that winter, in what he extols as "a tactical marvel of military professionalism." However, he claims, none crossed the watersheds along the LoC. By March 1999, as his troops began to reach these positions, the General slowly began to learn of the parallel military task "Pakistani freedom fighters" had undertaken: the occupation of some 800 square kilometres of Jammu and Kashmir. He claims that it was only on May 7, after fighting broke out, that he was given "a comprehensive briefing of their positions."

What followed was, in his view, "a landmark in the history of the Pakistan army ... As few as five units in support of freedom fighter groups were able to compel the Indians to deploy more than four divisions." Despite India's numerical superiority and air support, its armed forces were only able to secure gains "which I would call insignificant."

Despite this overwhelming military success, General Musharraf argues, Prime Minister Sharif crumbled under international pressure and offered a ceasefire. "It remains a mystery to me why he was in such a hurry," he remarks. Pakistan's military ruler demolishes Mr. Sharif's claims that the operation was launched without his knowledge; in fact, he lists specific dates on which briefings were provided to the Prime Minister.

Most of General Musharraf's contentions are familiar. Islamabad-based academic Shirin Mazari anticipated most of the important arguments in her book on the war. Pakistani military officials have repeatedly taken the same position at conferences to little effect, given the mass of technical intelligence, first-person accounts, and scholarly investigation that debunk the `mujahideen' story. The General's assertion that Nawaz Sharif knew of the war is also not new. Most Pakistani commentators believe the Prime Minister was aware of at least the contours of the enterprise by April 1999. Debate over the accuracy of the information Mr. Sharif was provided continues and could sharpen after General Musharraf's claims about "freedom fighters" and India's offensive plans.

However, claims that the war plans were provoked by Indian offensive intent sit ill with the historical record. The General's assertion that the 70 Infantry Brigade had moved into the area is one important half-truth. The Brigade's headquarters did return to the Kargil theatre in November 1999, after spending a year-and-half in Kashmir but its fighting troops remained committed to counter-terrorist operations there. Indeed, as General Musharraf's covert services would have told him, India's pre-war posture was studiously defensive. For example, the 9 Mahar Regiment was removed from its defensive positions along the Yaldor Langpa and stationed at a rear position near Leh in the winter of 1998-1999. The 26 Maratha Light Infantry, which protected the crucial infiltration route from Mashkoh to Dras, was also pulled off forward duties.

Scholarly accounts also do not bear out President Musharraf's claims that the Pakistan Army was sitting pretty at the time it was ordered to withdraw from Kargil. Two empirically thorough military accounts, Ashok Verma's Blood on the Snow and Y. M. Bammi's The Impregnable Conquered, leave no doubt that Indian troops had broken through to the LoC in most sectors before July 12, when the ceasefire came into force. Point 5090-metres in Dras known to Indian television viewers as `Tiger Hill' had been recaptured by July 11. Point 4875, another strategically crucial feature, had fallen a week earlier. Pakistan continued to hold on to some key positions, such as Point 5300-metres and 5329-metres in the Batalik sector, at the time of the ceasefire. However, just four days of intense bombardment (July 22-26) led to their recapture.

The claim of the author of In the Line of Fire that India understated its casualties is also without any factual foundation; even if the intention exists, undercounting and underreporting numbers of the military dead and seriously injured is just not possible in India. Pakistan's well-documented efforts to cover up its losses, and give credit to imaginary mujahideen fighters rather than the troops who lost their lives, provoked riots in its Northern Areas after the war.

Even the bravest soldiers are not immune to the inevitable effects of the one-sided use of air power and superior artillery. That a professional soldier is in denial, refuses to face the truth, reflects the Pakistani officer class's belief that it is infallible and invincible.

As the historian Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out, the "myth of the Muslim soldiers' superiority over his Hindu counterpart has long been a part of the mental landscape of Pakistan's senior officers" even though it has "exacted a high price from Pakistan's troops."

Pakistan's military, General Musharraf's book reveals, still sees Kargil as a triumph or at least a blueprint for one. As Ashley Tellis, C. Christine Fair, and Jamison Jo Medby have noted, the Pakistani establishment believes "that the use of Pakistani troops in Kargil invited political failure" but did not derive from this the further conclusion "that other forms of violence are either illegitimate or ineffective for altering the status-quo."

According to the scholar Hassan Abbas, Pakistan's Military Operations Directorate had first drawn up plans for war in Kargil during the regime of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. The military dictator rejected it on the grounds that it could "lead us into a full scale war with India." But General Musharraf took that big risk and lost. Incredibly, his book makes it clear that he thinks he won a fact Indian analysts ought to pay close attention to.

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