India’s rhetorical volleys have had greater success than its artillery shells fired at the frosty peaks of the Himalayas in an attempt to flush out what it calls Pakistani-backed “intruders” (i.e. mujahideen) in Kashmir’s Kargil-Drass-Batalik sector. The Indian army has suffered heavy casualties despite using its air force in Kashmir for the first time since the 1971 war. Two planes - a MiG-27 and MiG-21 - were shot down by Pakistani ground fire on May 27 when they violated its air space, while a helicopter gunship was shot down by the mujahideen on May 28, using a stinger missile.
The use of aircraft is a dangerous escalation of the conflict, but it has also immediately exposed their ineffectiveness at high altitudes. They are also restricted in making deep diving sweeps at their targets in order to avoid violating Pakistani air space, a mistake that has already proved costly. The bellicose noises emanating from Delhi have failed to conceal the debacle India has suffered in Kargil. Indian officials have made contradictory statements about the situation. While claiming to have flushed out the “intruders” from much of the territory, they have then admitted that it will take months to recapture the entire area.
India is caught in a trap of its own making. In the early eighties, Indian troops occupied posts on the 24,000-foot-high Siachen glacier on the Pakistan side of the border. Despite Pakistani protests, India refused to withdraw its forces, arguing that the border there was undefined. It took Pakistan several years to stabilise its position. Today, Pakistan has the upper hand in Siachen and is exacting a heavy price from India.
The capture of numerous ridges covering some 750 square kilometres of Kargil by the mujahideen is a fitting response to Indian aggression in Siachen 17 years ago. Kargil is even more important; the road to Siachen and Ladakh comes under direct fire from Kargil’s commanding heights. This bottles up Indian troops in Siachen and also undermines their position in Ladakh. India is hardly in a position to complain about Kargil today after its bloody-minded behaviour in Siachen.
India has also been caught flat-footed on the diplomatic front. By dragging its feet on talks with Pakistan to ease tension along the Line of Control (LoC), its unreasonableness has been exposed. The June 7 visit by Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz to Delhi was postponed when an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said the timing was “not appropriate”. (As we went to press, the visit was due to take place on June 12.)
The latest crisis in the frosty Himalayan mountains erupted when India discovered in early May that a number of posts on its side of the LoC, vacated by its troops during the bitter winter months, had been occupied by the mujahideen. India also accused Pakistan of involvement, a charge vehemently denied by Islamabad.
Delhi launched a massive assault on the mountain ridges - 18,000 to 20,000 feet high - only to be repulsed with heavy casualties. Indian air force planes were also used on May 26 and have continued bombing raids since, but with little success. Two Indian planes were shot down when they intruded into Pakistani air space. The pilot of a MiG-27, flight lieutenant N. Nachiketa, was captured alive by Pakistani troops but squadron leader A. Ahuja was killed when his plane was hit by an Anza, an indigenous Pakistani missile. In a gesture of goodwill, Pakistan returned his body a few days later. On June 3, flight lieutenant Nachiketa was also released.
Indian military spokesmen have been caught in a web of contradictions about the situation in Kargil. On June 2, brigadier Mohan Bhandari claimed that the “intruders” had penetrated up to 6.5km into Indian-occupied Kashmir but that they had been pushed back some 3.5km and now “just 2km remained.” He further stated that all but five of the mountain ridges in Kargil had been recaptured. Indian claims of the number of mujahideen casualties have ranged from 400 to 600 out of a total of 700 to 750 “intruders.”
Quite apart from his poor arithmetic about territorial gains and losses, two days later Bhandari admitted that the mujahideen controlled eight ridges. Did the mujahideen capture three additional ridges between June 2 and 4, or they had not been “pushed back” in the first place? India’s embarrassment is increasing retired military officers publicly predicing that it will not be able to shift the mujahideen from the posts militarily, and that they will remain there until they are forced to leave by the winter snow. Some consider even that unlikely.
Kashmiri mujahideen sources have confirmed to Crescent International that their fighters are well-stocked, their morale is high and their casualties have so far been minimal. Despite wildly exaggerated Indian claims, the mujahideen had, by June 6, suffered a total of 35 casualties. On the Indian side, 216 soldiers and 16 officers were confirmed dead, according to a Kashmir Media Service report of June 5.
This was given credence by a retired Indian major general, Ashok Mehta, who was reported on June 5 to have admitted that India had lost 200 soldiers, 30 of whom were officers, including a lieutenant colonel, a major and a captain. He further stated that India would suffer at least 1500 casualties if it wanted to achieve its strategic objectives in Kargil. The mujahideen’s successes in Kargil have also boosted the morale of the freedom fighters elsewhere in the Valley. An Indian colonel and a number of soldiers were killed in Langate/Halwara area on June 5.
Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), also heaped scorn on Indian claims. He said on June 4 in Rawalpindi that India had 20,000 troops in the Kargil sector and was sending an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops there. “What is their justification for dumping such a large number of troops to flush out a mere 100 mujahideen as claimed by India?”
On its part, India has intensified shelling along the LoC, especially targeting civilians. A school in the Keran sector was hit on June 1; seven children were killed and three seriously injured. The next day, another school was shelled at the same time - around 7.45 in the morning when parents bring their children to school. Three civilians were killed in the second round of shelling. A total of 16 civilians, 13 of them children, have been killed by Indian shelling.
The only consolation for India has been statements from Washington. US president Bill Clinton is reported to have asked Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to “respect the Line of Control.” US secretary of State Madeleine Albright has similarly been hissing at Pakistan. And in Delhi, US ambassador Richard Celeste accepting the Indian designation of the mujahideen as “intruders”, said they would have to withdraw. Like the Kosovars in the Balkans, the Kashmiris must leave their own land to foreign occupiers. Such is the logic of the Americans.
The Line of Control argument cannot apply to Pakistan alone. In the Simla agreement of 1972, something that Delhi never tires of quoting, it was clearly established that territory in Kashmir occupied by either side would be retained. It was on this basis that India held on to Pakistani territory while areas captured by Pakistan in the 1971 war remained under its control. India applied the same logic to Siachen. Why should this be any different in Kargil?
Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz emphasised this point when he said earlier this month that there was no clearly demarcated boundary in Kargil. This has added to India’s discomfiture. At long last, India is getting a dose of its own medicine.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999