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June 1, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Operation Vijay will be long and difficult

A map study is essential to understand the battle for Kargil. The road from Srinagar crosses the 1100 feet high Zojila Pass into Drass, Kargil and on to Leh, the citadel of Ladakh. This is the lifeline for Ladakh which is open only five months of the year as Zojila gets snowed out in winter. There is an alternative, circuitous but equally difficult route via Manali through Himachal Pradesh.

The Line of Control -- at the best of times, out of control -- runs almost parallel and at distances varying from 20 to 30 km as the crow flies from it up to Kargil, a distance of about 100 km. The LoC is closest to Kargil from where the road to Leh takes a sharp deviation while the LoC moves away towards Siachen Glacier.

Zojila Pass, Drass and Kargil are vulnerable to interdiction by Pakistani artillery. The two armies have frequently jockeyed for positions of vantage that dominate this road. Additionally military posts have frequently changed hands in 1965 before and after the war and in 1971. But since then, there has been no incursion on the scale we have seen in Kargil. The road to Leh is vital to keep open not only Ladakh but also Siachen. And because Zojila is snowed out for half the year, supplies have to be pushed in when the latter is open.

The terrain is tortuous, barren except in the valleys, and sparsely populated. Troops are deployed at heights varying from 14,000 feet to 17,000 feet with wide gaps which are glaciated or snow clad and inaccessible. These areas are kept under surveillance by aerial reconnaissance and patrolling. The population is a mix of Shia Sunnis beyond Kargil, Ladakhis.

Pakistan's surreptitious intrusions between Drass and Batalik over a stretch of 100 km through gaps between Indian posts marks a new threshold in the proxy war. This is not infiltration of militants as they would not establish posts close to Indian positions.

The aim of the Pakistan army is to set up strong bases across the LoC close to the road from where they could call the shots by cutting off the road, even occupying Zojila Pass. This carefully crafted operation of the Taliban and regular soldiers was necessary to raise the flagging morale of militants bottled up in the Srinagar valley. Militancy north and south of the Pir Panjal range was contained two years ago.

The object of this desperate gamble therefore is to rekindle the dormant insurgency in the valley by opening a new front in Kargil and sucking in soldiers deployed in other sectors. An additional purpose of this high risk gamble is to test Indian resolve to defend J&K. The end game is to ensure J&K is brought back on the UN agenda. Pakistan has already sent an urgent request for a special UN observer to monitor the Kargil situation.

The insertion across the LoC between gaps in and behind Indian defences of Pakistani regulars and militants undetected is a commendable military feat which must have taken immense preparation and acclimatisation of combatants. Indian forces were caught on the wrong foot though the frequent pounding of Kargil should have served as a warning.

The Taliban guest militants surplus to Afghanistan have a direct route from Badakshan in Afghanistan to Chitral and on to Gilgit Skardu in Pakistan which are the hubs for these intrusions across the LoC. Warning shots were actually fired in Drass in November 1993 when a Fifth Gorkha patrol trapped a group of militants holed up in caves up in the Mashkoh valley. This route and others in the area were regarded as preferred infiltration avenues as the others into the valley had been blocked.

The intrusions are spread over a 100 km stretch in four areas - Mashkoh, Drass, Kaksar and Batalik. The intruders have set up posts on commanding heights and spurs leading to them up to depths of 10 and 15 km with umbilical cords to Pakistani posts close to the LoC. They have not occupied any winter-vacated Indian posts as has been reported by some sections of the media because this practice (of vacating posts) had ceased two years ago following the periodic pounding of Kargil.

The most dangerous of these four intrusions is in the Drass sector due to its proximity to the Zojila Pass and the road. Drass has been shelled for the first time -- a clear indication that Pakistani artillery has been moved closer to the LoC, if not across it.

River Indus flowing from Tibet through Leh passes through Batalik where it is a trickle in winter. There is a road from Batalik to Kalsi joining the Zojila-Leh highway. Hence the threat to this road of the intrusions in Batalik. The story goes that Batalik on the banks of the Indus river traces it ancestry to Alexander's Roman armies. The people here certainly stand out in looks and are very different from other villages in the area.

What are India's options? The easiest is: do nothing except cap and contain the intrusions. The other soft option is to do a Hazratbal of 1994 -- allow the intruders to evacuate and fall back across the LoC. The obvious but costly course of action is to cap and roll back the intrusions by evicting the intruders and undoing the violation of the LoC. The last but not the best bet would be to do a tit for tat elsewhere in J&K.

The Indian armed forces have been told to take whatever action necessary to restore the situation in Kargil but without crossing the LoC. The military response which is still evolving is calibrated, resolute but at least a week too late. The use of air power in these operations is more symbolic than effective. Taking out soldiers dug in on mountain tops by fighter bombers and fighters is extremely difficult. Helicopters on the other hand are effective but sitting ducks for Stinger missiles that the intruders possess and have put to proficient use. The IAF has lost three aircraft and at least four pilots. A Canberra aircraft was hit in one engine and badly damaged. This is a pretty impressive scorecard for the aggressors.

It is clear the military has chosen the cap and roll back option, employing the army with the air force in close support role. Operation Vijay will be long and difficult, resulting in heavy losses. The casualty figures are already very high: nearly 40 killed and 140 wounded and 12 missing. India claims Pakistani casualties as 400 killed (which includes 150 regulars) and many more wounded. The figure of claims is obviously exaggerated and is only an estimate without any firm evidence picked up on the ground.

The conflict in Kargil must not get out of control and trespass the LoC. It has to be kept localised. The danger will arise if and when the Pakistan Air Force takes to the skies to defend its air space or the army resorts to additional ground operations in another sector.

Meanwhile, the two sides must keep talking to each other and explore diplomatic options to defuse the situation. For India, the bottomline is eviction of intrusions. As the Air Force and Army batter these intrusions on the Indian side of LoC but very close to it, can Pakistan watch idly by? That is the difficult question. In its defence, Pakistan has said it has nothing to do with these intrusions. Ha!

Major General Ashok K Mehta

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