In May 1999, India and Pakistan, in their most serious military engagement since 1971, again clashed in Kashmir. In the spring, as snows melted in the Kargil sector to the northeast of Srinagar, some 1000 or more Islamist infiltrators crossed the Line of Control from Pakistani-held Kashmir into Indian Kashmir. Equipped for high-altitude warfare, with snowmobiles and mortars, and protected by Pakistani artillery fire from the other side of the border, they established positions at heights above 14,000 feet, overlooking the strategically vital road that connects Srinagar with Leh in Ladakh.
Caught unprepared by an intelligence failure to detect the intrusion as it occurred, India rapidly mounted a major attack to dislodge the infiltrators --launching air strikes against the militant's positions and responding in kind to Pakistani artillery across the Line of Control. In the first days, India lost two jet fighters, one to a Pakistani ground-to-air missile, the other to mechanical failure. Both crashed on the Pakistani side of the border. In the following weeks, the war intensified with India's determination to dislodge the infiltrators and force their withdrawal. International concern deepened in fear that the conflict might expand to a wider war between India and Pakistan, both self-declared nuclear weapons powers. Although India and Pakistan had placed troops along their 1,875 mile border on high alert, India exercised restraint in not crossing the Line of Control, thus containing the fighting to the Kargil region within Indian Kashmir.
The conflict was accompanied by a war of words. India, in a judgment shared by most international observers, described the intruders as Pakistani-trained Islamic militants (many from Afghanistan's Taliban) and--more ominously--soldiers of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan, without credibility, denied any involvement, contending that the militants were Kashmiri freedom fighters in struggle for the liberation of their homeland.
The Pakistani-backed operation in Kashmir dashed whatever hopes for peace the Lahore Declaration had raised a few months earlier, in February, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Lahore. Indeed, India felt a deep sense of betrayal and resisted Pakistan's call for "discussions" on Kashmir.
What were Pakistan's aims in the Kargil misadventure? Various factors were no doubt involved. Whether the decision was taken by the Army or Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan's CIA), as some contend, or by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the fundamental goal was to "internationalize" the Kashmir dispute, bringing it again to world attention in the hope of drawing intervention to force a settlement favorable to Pakistan. The operation, Pakistan hoped, would give new stimulus to the decade-long insurgency within Indian Kashmir, and, in its direct impact, both raise the military costs for India in Kashmir and cut the strategic highway link between Srinagar and Leh. It failed on all counts.
Internationally, Pakistan was isolated. The U.S. and the other G-8 powers called for Pakistan's withdrawal from the positions across the Line of Control, and even China turned a cold shoulder to Pakistan's bid for support in its confrontation with India. As Indian pressure on the Kargil intruders tightened, Pakistan sought a way out--even as it continued to deny its own involvement. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif asked for an emergency meeting with President Clinton in Washington on July 4. With Clinton expressing a commitment to take a "personal interest" in the resumption of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, Sharif agreed to withdraw Pakistan's support from the infiltrators and to secure their withdrawal. In Pakistan, the political opposition condemned Sharif's "betrayal" and Islamic militants called for continued struggle in jihad, but Sharif sought to redeem himself by claiming that the guerrillas had helped alert the world to "Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint" and that, for the sake of peace, the intruders should now pull back to the Pakistan side of the Line of Control.
On July 14, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee announced that Pakistani aggression and the intrusion in Kargil have been decisively turned back. The intruders--a majority of whom were almost surely Pakistani soldiers--had withdrawn, but India's success had come at a high cost. More than 400 Indian soldiers had been killed; upwards of 700 infiltrators were dead. As Indian mourned its fallen heroes, tensions remained. Within Kashmir, insurgents mounted new attacks as a reminder that their claims were not to be forgotten, and, on a hair trigger, on August 10, an Indian MiG shot down a Pakistani naval surveillance plane that had, by India's account, strayed over the border into Gujarat. All 16 aboard were killed. Pakistani authorities contested the Indian claim that the
plane had crossed over into Indian territory --but, wherever the plane was when shot down, it crashed on Pakistan's side of the border.
With the Kargil war as a backdrop to India's parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vajpayee--"care-taker" of the BJP-led government--enjoyed soaring popularity as he launched the campaign that pollsters and pundits alike predicted would return the BJP coalition to power.
With balloting spread over a month, in five stages, from September 5 to October 3, the vote count begins only after the final round. The results will set the stage for the formation of a new government that will confront the challenge of resolving the conflict over--and within--Kashmir.
September 7, 1999