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The Rediff Special/ Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)

Pakistan expects to up the nuclear ante and draw in the UN, US as mediators

A ready reckoner to the Kargil conflict.

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The former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since 1947. Pakistan claims it on the basis of a Muslim majority while India claims it on the basis of legality of merger and the fact that India is a secular state and has more Muslim citizens than Pakistan.

J&K is not a homogeneous entity and has three distinct divisions -- in the south and below the Pir Panjal range is predominantly Hindu Jammu; the valley of Kashmir is over 90 per cent Muslim; and Ladakh to the east is Buddhist.

Kargil lies between Kashmir and Ladakh and has a mixed population. Most Muslims here are Shia and have a hearty dislike for fundamentalist Sunni Pakistan. All through the unrest of the 1990s, Kargil has been a haven of peace.


Just beyond the Zojila pass is Dras. This lies at the foot of several glaciers and is the second coldest inhabited place after Vekoyansk in Siberia. Temperatures in winter go down to minus 40 degrees centigrade. Dras, at 10,000 feet, is located in a bowl surrounded by peaks that climb up to 17,000 feet. Kargil, located due east of Dras on the Zaskar range, is in a rain shadow area. Here the snow is minimal. Batalik, another place where fighting is on at the moment, is in the Ladakh range and also in the 'cold desert' area.

Besides the high altitude, absence of trees makes for lack of oxygen. Climbing is exhausting and the mountain face in most of these areas is sheer rock with elevations of 75 per cent. The defender has a tremendous advantage. Artillery or air power is of very limited use.


In the Dras-Kargil area as well as elsewhere in J&K, the army has constructed several lines of defences in the rear areas. These posts are not manned in normal times and are earmarked either for reserve forces or reinforcements in times of hot war. The danger that infiltrators can surreptitiously occupy these posts has been a cause of worry for all commanders.

Normally, regular surveillance is kept on these unoccupied peaks and it is expected that once an enemy presence is detected swift action is taken to evict them. Time is of essence as any delay would give time to the infiltrators to consolidate.

In the Kargil area, local army units obviously failed in this task. In addition, at the level of intelligence organisations, there was no prior warning. The Pakistanis were obviously successful in hiding their preparations for this action.

The actions in Kargil by India have been mainly reactive. At the army headquarters level, there appears to be some flaw in contingency planning. For if this Pakistani action was visualised earlier, the Indian response should have been swift and sure, which was not the case.


Partly, the Indian failure to anticipate the Pakistan actions stems from the basic lack of understanding of the Pak psyche. That the occupation of these posts would draw an Indian reaction would have been anticipated by the Pakistanis. It is also clear that in face of a determined Indian army and air force, the infiltrators cannot hold on for long. Then what have they achieved ?

It appears that Pakistan expects even now to up the nuclear ante and draw in the UN and the US as mediators. Another objective could have been to sabotage the peace process began by the Lahore Declaration. It is this that has given rise to the suspicion that the Pak army may well have masterminded the whole operation, keeping the political leadership in dark.

Operation Gibraltar that launched infiltrators in Kashmir in 1965, was conducted by a Kashmir Cell and even the army knew very little about it. This we have from the horse's mouth, retired Lieutenant General Gul Hasan. In India many in the media and in the Opposition have taken exception to Defence Minister Fernandes's observation of this nature, because they do not understand Pakistan and do not know their history.


Mindful of the dangers of escalation, Pakistan has agreed to send its foreign minister for talks. Pakistan has released the captured pilot and may well agree to a local cease fire. Without acknowledging its help, it may also withdraw the remaining infiltrators. The Lahore peace process then can resume its course including discussions on Kashmir issue. This is the most optimistic scenario and may well come about. This would then strengthen Nawaz Sharief vis a vis the Pak army and also give Mr Vajpayee political dividends in the forthcoming election.

But if the Pakistan army has made up its mind to create a 'nuclear war' scare and thereby draw the international community into the Kashmir quagmire then the situation does indeed look bleak. Pakistan can continue to support the entrenched infiltrators with fresh supplies of men and material and give them artillery support from across the border.

This will make the Indian task so difficult and expensive in lives that India may well think of a counter penetration strategy and capture some Pak held areas of Kashmir.

The town of Skardu is an ideal target. It should be remembered that in 1965 that is exactly what India did. It not only chased the infiltrators out of the valley but also captured the strategic Haji Pir pass on August 28, 1965. If Pakistan decides to react to that then the 1965 scenario may well be repeated, that is all out war.

India has the option of escalating the artillery war to other sectors, notably the Muzaffarabad area where Indian field guns can pulverise the crucial highway that is the lifeline of Skardu and other areas. The eastern edge of the Mangla dam (that produces half of Pakistan's electricity) is also within Indian gun range from Jhangar north west of Jammu. Both these actions can quickly bring Pakistan to its senses.

The next few days will be crucial as they will reveal whether Pakistan wants to follow the path of peace or wants to start its journey on the slippery slope of escalation.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retired), a Pune-based defence analyst, is a former head of the War History division at the defence ministry. He specialises in counterinsurgency and peace keeping operations.

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