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June 11, 1999
War in Kargil unlikely to end before yearend
Amberish K Diwanji in Srinagar
The government has resumed using the Manali-Leh road to stock supplies in the Ladakhi capital for the harsh winter in the region.
This will reduce the strain on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway, which is being shelled by the Pakistanis. It will also leave the latter road free for the army to move supplies and troops up to the Kargil sector, where it is digging in for a long haul against the armed intruders from Pakistan.
Last week, the army conducted a test run on the road from Manali, Himachal Pradesh, and threw it open to civilian traffic and goods transport.
A taxi driver who has used the road said it is a longer, more tortuous route since it crosses a greater number of hills, and is in bad shape in many parts. "The Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road is definitely better. The Manali-Leh road in certain patches goes over very soft land, which tends to get depressed every time a heavy vehicle passes over it," he said.
The army, however, has no choice but to strengthen the road and start using it as the Srinagar-Kargil highway has been closed to civilian traffic.
Every day, hundreds of trucks leave Srinagar with troops, fuel, food and ammunition for Drass and Kargil. Since the road is narrow and winding, the army wants to keep it clear for its convoys.
Army sources warned that the country must be prepared for a long war, unlike the previous operations of 1965 and 1971, which lasted a month and a fortnight, respectively. "Army Headquarters and the political leadership have been keeping quiet about how long the war will take, but it is unlikely to be over before the end of the year," a source said.
When the crisis first broke out, Defence Minister George Fernandes had said the intruders would be "thrown out" in two days. Later, the political leadership spoke of a few weeks.
All along, however, the military brass had warned that mountain warfare being among the toughest of military operations, and the current war zone probably the highest in the world, the confrontation would not end soon.
For instance, yesterday, the government-run Doordarshan declared in its Hindi news bulletin at 2040 IST that Indian troops had captured Tiger Hill in the Drass sector. But the 2130 English bulletin dropped the statement after it was clarified that no such capture had taken place. Tiger Hill remains in enemy hands.
"It is such wrong news that gives people the impression that the Indian army is just a few days away from recapturing the entire area. The army has been advising the media patience, warning them to be prepared to report news about incremental gains for the next few months," said the source.
He said it is to avoid panic and a political crisis that neither the government nor the army is stating openly that the war will take long. "What purpose will it serve?" he asked. "It is better that we keep telling the people that slowly but surely we are making positive gains. It is the media and politicians who fuel impatience."
While the source said it is difficult to pinpoint a time frame, he said the army is waiting to see how the intruders hold on to their positions in winter. "Winter starts by the end of August here, and temperatures in the mountains drop to as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. While it is not impossible for Pakistan to keep supplying the intruders, it is a gargantuan task even in peacetime. And to keep the supply lines open under Indian artillery shelling and aircraft strafing will be almost impossible. That is when the situation will turn."
The source admitted that the period will also be a difficult one for the Indian Army, but since the Indian soldiers are lower down, they will be better off.
Meanwhile, three army officers who were to be transferred for alleged intelligence failure are still at their posts. The three are Brigadier Surinder Singh, commander of the 121 Brigade, Colonel Ajit Nair of the 121 Brigade, and Colonel Pushpinder Singh Oberoi, company officer of the 16 Grenadiers.
The 121 Brigade was posted in Kargil and the Grenadiers in Drass at the beginning of the year when the intruders were setting up their positions in the mountains.
"After tomtoming all over town that no military intelligence failure had taken place, how can Army HQ suddenly blame these three for intelligence failure? Doing so will mean admitting not only to the failure but also to telling a lie to cover it up. So they will be quietly transferred after the hullabaloo has died down," an army official said.
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