Imperative of Placing our Operational Achievements in Perspective

"Let us be quite clear. The 1971 operations in the Eastern theatre have been the only real military victory our Armed Forces have achieved since Independence. In the Western theatre in 1971, it was a well-executed replay of 1965."

Imperative of Placing our Operational Achievements in Perspective

Among the various posts and reports in recent days on the anniversary of the 1999 Kargil Operations, I received one from an old Regimental colleague and friend Colonel Vinay Dalvi, a piece put together by him for this month’s edition of FORCE magazine. The references Vinay makes to the actions of some of our young stalwarts, and the remarks he attributes to Air Marshal Narayan Menon about an “air agreement that prohibited flight of aircraft and helicopters within a specified distance of the IB’/LOC..” provokes me into emerging from the self-imposed reticence that being an “Extinguished” Fellow confers, and resurrecting something I had written on the 20th Anniversary of the Kargil Operations (I cannot recollect where it appeared but still valid) because of the importance of placing past events and experiences in the right perspective when looking ahead and planning for the future.

But to deal first with Air Marshal Narayan Menon’s comment: the restrictions on air activity were part of a broader agreement negotiated in April 1991 in New Delhi with the Pakistanis by a Defence delegation headed by me as the Director General Military Operations, that included Air Vice Marshal Tarlochan Singh the then ACAS (Ops), Rear Admiral Vijay Malhotra the then ACNS (Ops), the late Dr Chatterjee, then JS(G) in the Ministry of Defence, and Arun Kumar Singh, then Director in the Ministry of External Affairs (later to be our Ambassador in Israel and the USA, among other appointments). The Pakistani side was led by Lieutenant General Shamim Ali Khan, their CGS, and included among others, Major General Jehangir Karamat their then DGMO. We negotiated an agreement (which still holds) on exchange of information between the two countries on conduct of military exercises and aircraft flights in the proximity of the border/LOC, as also communications between naval vessels at sea;

Before proceeding further, fully conscious of the fact that what I have to say, will ruffle some feathers, permit me to make a couple of points that I think are pertinent. I say without fear of contradiction (from anywhere in the world) that the performance of the junior leadership and men of the Indian Armed Forces units that took part in the Kargil Operations was absolutely outstanding. No other Army or Air Force in the world would have displayed the determination, grit, leadership by personal example, spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty that our youngsters did. And I say this with some feeling and conviction borne out of personal experience.

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Success in evicting the Pakistani intrusion 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” once they were cleared to get into action. With a couple of honourable exceptions, there was hardly any ‘generalship’ involved. Nor was there any display of ‘strategy’ or ‘operational art’. In that, as articulated by me even at the time when invited for discussion on TV channels, we did not take the battle to the Pakistanis by hitting them hard in the depth areas where it would have “hurt”. Or by opening up on other fronts; as was done by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in September 1965.

It is all very well to take satisfaction in the praise conferred on us by our self-styled well-wishers at displaying “RESTRAINT’. My own impressions in inter-actions and discussions in later years, has been that while our interlocutors commended us at our faces 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 not only most appropriate, but absolutely essential, that we commemorate the valour and bravery of those who laid down their lives in achieving success in the Kargil operation. As mentioned earlier, their performance was indeed quite incomparable. It is equally appropriate that we also adequately acknowledge the contribution of those who fought in that operation and are still amongst 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, equipping 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.

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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 1st of January 1949 UN imposed Cease Fire Agreement; 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 military ‘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, consequent to the Tashkent Agreement, we reverted to pre-conflict status giving up places of strategic value like the Hajipir Pass, etc. And before going on to 1971, let me revert briefly to Kargil. To reiterate that, for all the outstanding actions of our junior leadership and rank and file, 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 MILITARY VICTORY our Armed Forces have achieved since Independence. In the Western theatre in 1971, 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 stand-off with Pakistan, is another matter altogether- An abject capitulation at the negotiating table the outcome of an outstanding MILITARY VICTORY.

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 therefore to our colleagues in uniform today 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. And I make this plea in all earnestness and with some feeling because the Armed Forces hierarchy now at the helm of affairs, is constituted of those who provided the outstanding junior leadership during the 1999 Kargil operations.

The crowning and troubling irony however, in portraying achievements within the framework of a false perspective is that, notwithstanding some tentative steps over the last year or so, many of the serious recommendations made by the Kargil Review Committee, endorsed by the Report of the Group of Ministers, and I dare say, many other such reports and recommendations over the years, remain in cold storage.

About the Author

Lt Gen. Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and is a highly distinguished General of the Indian Army who served as the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of  United Nations Protection Force, during 1992-93. He is a renowned academic, associated with the world's top defence Think tanks, leading strategic journals, and was the former director of the United Service Institution of India.

(Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India.)

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