The Kargil war, like the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America, should never have happened. But when such failures do take place, democratic governments have an obligation to the people to investigate comprehensively why they occurred, fix responsibility and safeguard against repetition in the future. By and large, these actions must be in the public domain to ensure a degree of confidence and transparency.
The Kargil review committee submitted its report to the government in December 1999 and this was duly placed in parliament with the assurance that action would be taken on its recommendations. Subsequently, the group of ministers report on management of defence was approved by the cabinet committee on security and made public. There was thus a sense of confidence that appropriate lessons had been learnt and that action was in hand to prevent recurrence.
Two recent revelations in the media have disturbed this feeling of confidence. The first relates to leaked extracts from a six-volume, confidential in-house Indian army report on Kargil. An abbreviated form of this study is proposed to be circulated to all formation commanders and units in an effort to learn lessons and to serve as an instruction manual. It is said that the report also blames the political leadership for failing to take decisive action at a crucial point in the war. A subsequent statement in parliament by the defence minister indicates that this relates to the time gap between an army request for air support and the CCS decision authorizing its use.
That such a leak would raise political temperatures was hardly in doubt. A ruling party spokesperson declared, “There have been lapses in national security. Nothing can be a more serious crime towards citizens.” Why the army chose to reflect on a sensitive politico-military matter in an operational in-house report or how extracts have found their way to the media are matters for speculation. Use of air power in a border conflict situation is no more a tactical issue. Amongst nuclear-armed states it could have far-reaching national and international strategic implications. The Indian air force displayed strategic vision in insisting on political clearance and in the event, the CCS analysed the wider implications before taking the ultimate decision. The final decision was conditional upon the IAF maintaining the sanctity of the border, a limitation not to the IAF’s liking at the time, but with hindsight proving to be the right one. But this begs a wider question. Did our security establishment not have previously formulated and exercised contingency plans'
It is also claimed that a large part of the in-house army report deals with air support. Considering that air power, once deployed, played a crucial role towards a favourable outcome of the conflict, this is only natural. What is doubtful is whether this part of the report was written jointly with the IAF or is purely a one-sided appreciation. Clearly, it appears to be the latter since the report pushes the army’s case for medium and attack helicopters to be transferred to it. Such attitudes and turf battles are reminiscent of past mindsets and do not augur well in the ever-changing security environment. One can only surmise that the crucial role of air power as part of integrated operations has not been fully absorbed by our forces. That may partly explain the army’s inability to manage the line of control in the first place in spite of ample recce resources being available with the IAF.
Matters are only made worse by yet another media report quoting confidential exchanges between army field formations in the Kargil sector and their division headquarters wherein, much before the Pakistani intrusions were discovered, war games by the 121 Brigade had inferred that the enemy could try to capture dominating heights in the sector. Reportedly, requests for permanent defences were turned down by the higher formations. No mention has ever been made of such internal army assessments in the past, nor did they feature in the published part of the KRC report. On the contrary, the KRC had surmised that Pakistan had achieved surprise by carrying out an operation, considered unviable and irrational by Indian army commanders. One must remember that the KRC was not constituted under the Commission of Inquiry Act and was not formally authorized to summon witnesses and requisition documents. If it now emerges that such reports are even partially true and were not brought to the KRC’s notice, then much of the KRC’s assessments leading to the war will be rendered weak.
The KRC did not consider it appropriate to go into the details of the actual conduct of operations. This has created another serious gap in its findings since managing a live and hostile border even in times of peace is an operational matter. The report is glaring in its omission of the fact that tactical reconnaissance is the designated role of the IAF both in peace and war for which it is equipped and trained with sophisticated vertical and oblique photography equipment for both day and night.
Also overlooked was the fact that there is a marked difference between army commanders using helicopters for border or battlefield surveillance and tactical reconnaissance. Had the army routinely task- ed the IAF for tactical recce missions of the LoC, Pakistani intrusions would have been detected even as they occurred. In such circumstances, the Pakistan army may not even have dared such intrusions in the first place. It is ironical that while adequately equipped aircraft were idle at their bases, the Pakistan army was burrowing into our territory, and it was a shepherd that alerted the army.
We have much to be grateful for to the KRC. It was their observations and recommendations that finally led to a series of studies culminating in the GoM report on management of defence being approved by the CCS. However, the entire issue of how our armed forces plan to face new security challenges and do so in an integrated and seamless fashion, has evaded scrutiny. The army’s case for transferring medium and attack helicopters to it has merely given us a sneak preview of the old mindsets that still prevail in all service headquarters beneath the veneer of jointmanship and bonhomie. The nation will gloss over these weaknesses only at its own peril.
The Bipartisan Commission set up in the US to investigate the 9/11 attacks teaches us that if we are serious about plugging security loopholes, investigations into security failures need to be incisive, tough and all-encompassing. They should be shorn of political affiliations and there must be no sacred cows. This is only possible if the commission is tasked to cover all aspects, call for any information or witness and fix accountability. Such far-reaching authority can only be wielded through a parliamentary body. Any other approach will only leave weaknesses which potential adversaries will exploit some day. In the US armed forces, jointmanship did not come voluntarily from within the military. It was the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which mandated the joint chiefs of staff institution, scrutinized professional military education and mandated strengthening of focus on joint matters.
On our part, we cannot wait for another Kargil, as it may be too late. It is time that a comprehensive review was conducted encompassing how security of the border was managed in the period leading to war and how actual operations were conducted and what lessons emerge. Perhaps an all-party parliamentary commission could undertake this task so vital for future security. There can be no greater tribute to the soldiers and airmen who gave their lives, if their sacrifice ultimately results in much needed reforms of the armed forces mandated by law. Only then will parochialism begin to fade. Till then the nation will have to live with chinks in its armour.