Junior Army men were outstanding in Kargil, generals floundered: Veteran

Lt-Gen. Satish Nambiar (retd) argues there was hardly any generalship involved

Kargil celebrations Arvind Jain Indian Army soldiers celebrate victory in the Kargil war in 1999 | Arvind Jain

While following various reports in recent days on the 20th anniversary of the Kargil operations, I felt somewhat provoked into emerging from my self-imposed reticence. I say without fear of any contradiction that the performance of the junior leadership in the Kargil war, and men of the units that took part in the operation, was absolutely outstanding.

No other Army in the world would have displayed the determination, grit, spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty that our youngsters did. Success in evicting the Pakistani intruders in the Kargil Sector was achieved through great feats of bravery and commitment, aided in no small measure, by the performance of our gunners using the much-maligned Bofors, and by our young “air warriors”.

However, with a couple of honourable exceptions, there was hardly any generalship involved. Nor was there any display of strategy or operational art. We did not take the battle to the Pakistanis by hitting them hard in the depth areas where it would have hurt them. Or by opening up on other fronts, as was done by prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in September 1965. It is all very well to now pretend to take satisfaction in the praise conferred on us by our self-styled well-wishers for India displaying 'restraint'.

My own impressions in interactions and discussions in later years has been that while our interlocutors commended us for the restraint displayed, they actually did not think much of our capacity for political decision-making and assertive action in the pursuit of strategic objectives in national interests.

There is no gainsaying the fact that it is most appropriate that we commemorate the valour and bravery of those who laid down their lives in achieving success in the Kargil operation. Their performance was incomparable. It is equally appropriate that we also adequately acknowledge the contribution of those who fought in that operation and are still among us, whether in service or otherwise. Their performance is no less praiseworthy. It was my privilege to be the chairman of the Kargil Battle Honours Committee. To that extent, I can claim to have a better idea of what the operation was about than many of my generation.

However, while it may be all very well for our political leadership and senior military leadership of the time to make a big ‘song and dance’ about the ‘victory’ in the Kargil operation, I do sincerely hope that my young colleagues in uniform, sitting today in war-rooms at various levels, evolving future strategies and drawing up operational plans—as also working on organisational re-structuring, equipment parameters for the future, and so on—are doing so within a realistic perspective of what exactly our past operations were about. Without being swayed by all the chest-thumping, bluster and rhetoric that appear in the public domain.

And here, let me go back in time before returning to Kargil. The operations in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48 were forced upon us by the tribal invasion of October 1947, followed by active participation of the Pakistan armed forces, and were brought to a close with the UN-imposed ceasefire agreement of January 1, 1949, apparently when our forces were at the outskirts of Muzaffarabad. Whatever we may claim, the fact is, the operations were stalled with a large chunk of Jammu and Kashmir still in Pakistani hands. And we continue to pay the price. Can we claim it as a ‘victory’?

The 1962 conflict with China merits no discussion in context of this piece. Except to state that it was no ‘trauma’ for our generation. Because we are aware that in the overall context, our colleagues and men fought well, and gave a good account of themselves, notwithstanding the outdated clothing, weapons and equipment we were provided with, and the questionable political and senior military leadership of the time.

In 1965, for all the gallant actions and efforts, when the ceasefire came into effect, it was little better than a stalemate. Before going on to 1971, let me revert briefly to Kargil. To reiterate that, for all the outstanding actions, what we really achieved in military terms was to recapture what the Pakistanis had intruded upon. And at what a cost!

Let us be quite clear. The 1971 operations in the Eastern theatre have been the only real VICTORY our armed forces have achieved since independence. In the western theatre, it was a well-executed replay of 1965. But in the eastern theatre, a new country was born; all Pakistani forces surrendered unconditionally; and about 93,000 prisoners of war were in our custody. That these prisoners were repatriated without securing a permanent solution to the standoff with Pakistan is another matter altogether.

It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future, we will secure such a victory again. However, in the evolution of operational strategies, and proposed execution of operational plans, it is imperative that we factor in capacities that enable us to pre-empt our potential adversaries if we can, and/or respond to an aggression in such a manner as to make him/them recoil, and seek termination of hostilities on our terms.

My plea to our colleagues in uniform is do not put our youngsters through another Kargil-like operation. By more effective use of political, diplomatic and military options, make sure that, unlike in Kargil, they are given at least an even chance in their efforts at dealing with the adversary.

The crowning and troubling irony, however, in portraying achievements within the framework of a false perspective is that serious recommendations—such as those made by the Kargil Review Committee and endorsed by the report of the group of ministers—remain in cold storage. More on that some other time!

The author is former deputy chief of Army staff, and force commander and head of mission of the UN Forces in the erstwhile Yugoslavia. The article is an edited version of a missive he shared among veterans.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK