The town of Drass in the Kargil district of Kashmir is reputed to be the second coldest inhabited place on earth. The road from Drass to the town of Kargil is a major strategic asset in the Indian subcontinent. This road is a part of the Indian National Highway that connects Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the remote mountain region that borders Tibet. If this road is snapped, Ladakh would be cut off from India.
Kashmir is a major strategic asset of India. The loss of Kashmir would shrink India to an indefensible position and the entire Indian heartland would be exposed. The loss of Kashmir would enable China to link geographically link with Pakistan in a substantial way. It would change the entire strategic calculus of the Indian Subcontinent and therefore of the Persian Gulf, the waterway through which the world’s oil ships.
Amazingly but in characteristically Indian fashion, no Indian Government ever thought of building a second road or link between Kashmir and Ladakh in the 50 years since the first Kashmir war in 1948.
This situation was too soft to last and it did not. In 1999, Pervez Musharaaf, the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff, decided he wanted to control this vital road.
(Dotted Line – Line of Control) (Partitioned Kashmir – Green – Pakistan, Blue – India, Yellow – China)
This road and the Kargil district sits at the top of the world with jagged heights of up to 18,000 feet and harsh gusts of wind that plunge temperatures to about -60 degrees in winter. Below the peaks and the ridge lines are loose rocks, which make climbing extremely difficult. Because of these conditions, there used to be a “gentleman’s agreement” between India and Pakistan that their armies would not occupy high altitude posts between September 15 – April 15 of each year.
The plan to occupy the border peaks in the Kargil-Drass sector was the brainchild of General Pervez Musharaaf, then the Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army. The plan called for Pakistani Army troops to occupy the strategic mountain heights during spring and use these heights to interdict the Srinagar-Leh highway. This would irrevocably alter the status of the LOC, the line of control between India and Pakistan. From these strategic heights overlooking the Srinagar-Leh highway, Pakistan could make it very difficult for the Indian Army to rush reinforcements.
This plan, like its creator Musharaaf, was seemingly brilliant but inherently rash and foolhardy. It made the critical assumption that the Indian Army would react slowly and indecisively as Indian Governments usually do. It also assumed that this would internationalize the Kashmir conflict and draw in the world to mediate. As in 1948, the involvement of the UN would mean that Pakistan would retain control of what it had captured and the Indian situation would be irrevocably damaged.
As usual, Pervez Musharaaf proved to be wrong. The India of 1999 was not the India of 1948. The Indian Army patrols detected the intruders atop Kargil ridges during the week of May 8-15, 1999. The intruders were from the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 12th battalions of Pakistani Army’s Northern Light Infantry and included members of Pakistan’s Special Services Group. They were well-supplied from bases in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. The artillery and mortar barrage from these commanding heights allowed them to shell the Srinagar-Leh highway.
The Indian Army was indeed caught in a bind. The easiest military solution was to attack and capture the areas behind the border peaks thus cutting off the supply lines and isolate the Pakistani soldiers on the heights. But that would mean crossing the line of control leading to a broader conflict and risking international pressure to stop the war. This would have left Pakistan in control of the strategic heights, the objective of Pervez Musharaaf.
So the only real option was to climb the sheer rugged wall of the mountain cliffs and be subject to withering fire from the Pakistani artillery from the peaks. The Indian soldiers would be sitting ducks on the mountain walls as they tried to climb these mountains with heavy battle packs.
The terrain in the Kargil area is about 16,000-18,000 feet above the sea level. This forces aircraft to fly at about 20,000 feet and above. This reduces the weight that can be carried and increases the turn radius. The larger turn radius reduces the maneuverability especially in the narrow width of the valley.
The Indian Army launched Operation Vijay (“victory”) on May 26, 2009 with a massive and sustained barrage from the Indian Air Force and valley based long range artillery. The Indian Air Force carried out precision bombing of the heights in about 5,000 sorties during the 50 day operation.
The Indian Army fired over 250,000 artillery shells, bombs and rockets during the Kargil conflict. Approximately 5,000 artillery shells, mortars and rockets were fired daily from 300 guns, mortars and MBRLs. Such high rates of fire over long periods had not been witnessed anywhere in the world since World War II.
The Battle for Tiger Hill
Before attacking Tiger Hill, the Indian army concentrated its attacks on the Tololing complex (see map above). Tololing was captured on June 13, 1999 after weeks of bitter fighting. The capture of the Tololing complex allowed for assault on Tiger Hill from several directions.
Tiger Hill is the highest peak in the sector. This vantage point allowed Pakistani army to see the military headquarters of the 56 Brigade, the main Indian force in charge of the area. The terrain of Tiger Hill made frontal assault difficult. The back of Tiger Hill was a sheer mountain wall about 1000 feet high and considered unbreachable.
The Indian Army plan called for a small group of 12-18 trained special forces to climb this vertical cliff and surprise the Pakistani forces on Tiger Hill from behind. This attack would be supported by an assault force of 200 with 2,000 troops providing rear support. The ascent of the small Indian team of Tiger Hill was picturized in the above clip from the film “Lakshya”.
The assault began at 5:15 pm on July 3, 1999 with a barrage from the Indian Artillery to provide cover. By 6:50 am, Tiger Hill was captured and the Indian flag flew from the top of Tiger Hill.
Below is a clip from the movie “Lakshya” that depicts the final battle for Tiger Hill by the small mountain climbing contingent of the Indian Army.
The Consequences of The Kargil War – Birth of Pakistani Terrorism
The Pakistani Army had every possible advantage in this war. It had the element of surprise. It had captured highly strategic assets, assets which made the Pakistani position virtually impregnable. The supply lines were in their favor and not subject to interdiction because of fears of provoking a broad war. The plan was sound, well-thought out and carried out perfectly. The Pakistani army knew the Indian Government and had contempt for it.
But, this plan had a major flaw. Once the conflict began, Pakistan was no longer dealing with the Indian Government but the professional, well-managed Indian Army. The Indian Army was surprised by the covert intrusion and
prevented from crossing the LOC or the Line of control by its Government. The Indian Army came up with a winning strategy and implemented it with a fast, effective and massive response. The Pakistani army suffered a humiliating defeat again and the plan of Pervez Musharaaf was blown up.
In a strange series of events, Pervez Musharaaf staged a coup against his Prime Minister Nawab Sharif who was trying to replace Musharaaf. With this coup, Musharaaf became the dictator of Pakistan.
But, Musharaaf had learned his lesson. In his regime, the Pakistani Army never again tried to confront the Indian Army. Instead, they came up with a brilliant strategy. They decided to bypass the Indian Military and directly attack India’s soft underbelly, the local Government, the local Police and the local Administration in the various Indian states.
This strategy was brilliant and succeeded brilliantly. Its pinnacle was the superbly planned and extraordinarily effective attack on Mumbai, India’s commercial and media capital in November 2008. Musharaaf and his Pakistani Army must have been enormously pleased. It was Pakistani Army’s most successful military operation against India after its first success in 1948. For a more detailed discussion, see our January 10, 2009 article The Mumbai Attack – It Was Not Terrorism.
The Bloody Sacrifice by Indian Army
The Kargil war took an enormous toll on the soldiers and officers of the Indian Army. The vertical climb in face of withering fire from mountain peaks and the bravery of the soldiers was saluted in the film L.O.C Kargil.
“Kargil can never be repeated”, says the Indian Army
Thankfully, the Indian Army has learned its lesson from the 1999 Kargil war. The Indian Army has built roads to connect most of its posts at 15,000 feet. Further the defenses have been strengthened and bunkers have been prepared to give all-round protection to Indian troops. As Major General Khajuria said in a recent interview “Things have totally changed in our favor. Along the Line of Control, we are dominating the enemy in terms of observation and heights in most of the places”. Khajuria is the Division Commander of the Kargil-based “Forever in Operations” Division.
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