By Rahul Bedi,
4 June 1999,
A massive intelligence failure by India’s military and
counter-intelligence agencies to detect the infiltration of over 600 armed
Islamic guerrillas into northern Kashmir has necessitated the ongoing air
strikes and huge ground offensive to dislodge them.
After over four weeks of ground action and 10 days of air strikes against
insurgents, who India claims are Pakistan-backed, they are still holding strategic
ridges at heights over 16,000 ft and are proving difficult to dislodge. Indian
military officials said pushing them back would be a “slow process” and may
even take three to six months.
Pakistan denies India’s allegations but has admitted the insurgents
Senior officials privately acknowledged that the stand-off in Kashmir’s
Kargil, Drass, Batalik and Muskho valley region was due to the inability of
Indian military intelligence and the country’s counter-intelligence service, the
Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW), to spot them and take timely action.
They said for weeks the army had failed to realise the presence of hundreds of
armed intruders, comprising Taliban fighters from Afghanistan entrenched 4-7km
inside Indian territory. After crossing the line of control (LC) that forms the
disputed border with Pakistan, the militants dug themselves in behind sangars, or
cement bunkers, which they swiftly built.
Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes said the intrusion was first
around 5 May by an itinerant shepherd, who alerted an army patrol. The ensuing
firefight with the intruders awakened the army to the enormity of the intrusion. It
posed a deadly threat to National Highway 1 A connecting Kashmir’s capital
Srinagar to the military outposts at Leh: the staging point for troops on the
20,000 ft high disputed Siachen glacier.
Spread over ridges across a 40km stretch, the intruders directly threatened
Indian Army supply lines along Highway 1A to forward bases bordering
Pakistan and China by accurately directing Pakistani artillery fire from across the
LC onto the road. The intruders were also proving difficult to dislodge in the
snowy terrain. All movement there is easy to detect at lower heights and the
possibility of suffering casualties is alarmingly high. This made aerial strikes
imperative which in turn raised tension between the two nuclear-capable
neighbours, who have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since
independence 52 years ago.
“An organised body of around 600 armed men who managed to establish
themselves over a large area could not possibly have gone unnoticed unless there
was a complete intelligence breakdown,” said a senior military officer, declining
to be named. He said a lack of co-ordination between RAW and military
intelligence officials and absence of mutual confidence between them was
responsible for the Kashmir fiasco. The fact that India’s civil and defence
intelligence agencies were working constantly at cross-purposes with one
another, almost always with serious consequences, was one of the worst-kept
secrets in Indian espionage circles.
Senior intelligence sources said the army was largely to blame for the
conflict escalating since it had failed to assess Pakistan’s modus operandi in
conducting Kashmir’s “proxy war”, even after 10 years of combating it. Over
20,000 people have died in Kashmir’s civil war for an independent Muslim
homeland since 1989. India blames Pakistan for ‘sponsoring’ the conflict;
Pakistan denies the allegation.
MI 25, a top-secret military intelligence cell responsible for collecting
cross-border intelligence, had also failed to acquire information on the proposed
infiltration. The cell now claims it could not have been possible without the
planning skills of the Pakistani Army and its back-up logistics, such as artillery
fire and helicopters to support militant supply lines. “Militants do not use
helicopters,” said Major General J J Singh, deputy director of military operations
in the region.
Other military officials said the Kargil campaign had been planned by
Pakistan Army over many months, even as it was engaging in peace talks with
India in February. They also claimed the militants were accompanied by
members of the Special Services Group, a crack Pakistani commando unit
specialising in mountain warfare that had been training for the raid for many
months. Pakistan denies all such assertions.
An ‘open wound’
The Kashmir dispute has bedevilled relations between the neighbours.
turned the region into one of the world’s most volatile flashpoints after the
neighbours became nuclear weapon powers and now continue to build missiles
capable of striking deep into each other’s territory. Kashmir remains the ‘core
issue’ between the two rivals, predicated to all peace talks that invariably
flounder over intractable stands on the former princely principality.
Pakistan declared last year it would not sign the nuclear Comprehensive Test
Ban Treaty (CTBT) unless the Kashmir dispute was “suitably” resolved. The
then foreign minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, said the quarrel over Kashmir could
trigger a nuclear war “at any time”. He said that unlike the Cold War in Europe,
where no territorial disputes were involved, the Kashmir issue was an “open
wound” and needed suturing.
Pakistan has also refused India’s offer of a ‘no- first nuclear strike’
settlement over the disputed state. After its multiple nuclear tests last year India
had unilaterally declared it would work towards a second strike nuclear
weapons capability, building only a minimum nuclear deterrent.
Meanwhile, it has now emerged that India’s federal home ministry was
about the infiltration of Islamic insurgents into northern Kashmir at least four
months before they were discovered in early May.
Official sources said the intelligence wing of the paramilitary Border
Force (BSF) had in January sent a report to home ministry officials stating that
several hundred armed Muslim guerrillas had taken up positions in the Kargil
region, up to 8km inside Indian territory from the LC.
Taking advantage of last year’s moderate snowfall, the BSF’s intelligence
declared, the Pakistani-backed militants had occupied vantage points over
16,000 ft high, threatening National Highway 1A. “The infiltrators occupied
these heights as early as January,” the report stated.
They faced no resistance. Besides bunkers, they also built up supply lines
through the occupation of high ridges leading back into Pakistan-held Kashmir.
“It is surprising that the militants’ movement went unnoticed by the Indian troops,
even though they were supposed to be dominating the gaps in the LC by sending
long range patrols,” the report stated.
Reconnaissance and infiltration
India’s disputed border in Kashmir is 776km long and snakes through
inhospitable, snowy wasteland. In the inhospitable Kargil region, where the
conflict is raging, it cuts across deep gorges and near impassable valleys,
perennially under several feet of snow.
Earlier this year a Kashmiri militant, during interrogation, had also
Pakistan’s plans to create “disturbances” in Kashmir by infiltrating militants into
the Kargil region.
Azhar Shafi Mir of Baramullah, a border town 70km north of Srinagar,
authorities around January that the Pakistani security forces had been training
Afghan mercenaries specifically for such an operation. The interrogation report
was also forwarded to the federal government.
Other sources said Pakistani helicopters had carried out an aerial survey
Kargil area in January and reportedly video-filmed the topography to help
prepare a detailed map. The violation of India’s air space was reported by the
local police to the army but no action was taken or countermeasures adopted.
Having gathered all the basic information, the Pakistani Army reportedly
battalion of youngsters from its northern areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, along with
Taliban fighters from Afghanistan, and rigorously trained them in high-altitude
survival and warfare. The first batch of these well-equipped guerrillas intruded
around 8km across the LC into the Batalik area early this year and began
constructing sangars capable of withstanding artillery fire and missiles from
possible aerial attacks. The remaining militants were to join them later in batches
of 15-20 each.
A group of local shepherds stumbled upon the intruders, who roughed
but spared their lives after they said they were Muslims. On returning to the
Kargil area they reported the matter to the army and a 12-man was sent to
investigate. It never returned. Army officials presume all 12 are either dead or
captured by the intruders. Even then the army presumed they had been lost and
sent another patrol — much later in early May — which eventually revealed the
extent of the intrusion.
Intelligence sources said it was also mystifying how Indian military
and other agencies that routinely monitor radio transmissions between Kashmiri
militants and their Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) “minders” across the LC in
Pakistan were unable to eavesdrop on the exchanges made by the Kargil
intruders. This failure becomes all the more mysterious with the army now
revealing that the intruders operate on military frequencies using powerful army
radio sets which they can now monitor.
The only alibi for India’s military failure in detecting the intrusions
in Kargil is
Pakistani “treachery” in violating the LC that it had agreed to respect after the
third war in 1971 and dismiss the to intrusion as “ungentlemanly”.
For several decades Indian troops would abandon high-altitude posts
region due to rigorous winter conditions, where temperatures average -20°C,
dipping to -60°C. Despite combating the decade-long insurgency in Kashmir,
bolstered mostly by foreign mercenaries crossing the LC as local recruitment
dried up, the army saw no reason to change its routine. The complacent army
went a step further and even reduced its strength from a division to a brigade in
the Kargil region. Instead of periodic preventative deployments of troops in the
region, the army retained its option of moving forces into the area only if a
conflict seemed imminent. The army also dismissed as “routine” repeated
attempts by the Pakistani Army over the last two years to push back Indian
troops from their positions along the LC and in the adjoining Siachen Glacier.
“The Pakistanis were merely testing the ground before mounting a serious
offensive,” said a senior military official involved in the ongoing conflict. “We
missed the signals.”
And having prepared its ground well, Pakistan reportedly used this loophole
along the LC to push across a group of trained men to hold strategic ridges and
threaten the army’s movements below. The intruders chose their terrain well. It
was surrounded by jagged peaks 18,000ft high with absolutely no cover for any
aggressor. Starving out the intruders had not worked as they were well stocked,
with their supply lines still open, despite contrary claims by the Indian Army.
Intelligence officials said the militants, divided into groups of around
during the day inside their sangars and spread out at night to rain machine gun
and mortar fire on the Indian troops below. They claimed each militant had
reportedly been paid around US$20,000 by the Pakistani military.
Military sources said around 30,000 soldiers had been deployed by the first
week of June to flush out around 300-400 militants. They were apparently were
mounting a “holding operation” before pushing the militants back over the next