Journalist Nasim Zehra rounds up the key backers of the Kargil war in an extraordinary tell-all
Pakistan, in its 71 years of existence, has fought an abnormal number of wars. Each of these has extracted a high cost, often derailing gains to the country’s economy. The situation was no different 19 years ago. Islamabad was in dire straits economically—and as politically unstable as ever—when the country went to fight its “post-nuclear” war in the Kargil district of Kashmir. Taking place between May and July 1999, the conflict was a disaster for Pakistan. But rather than face punishment for his failings, its planner-executioner, then-Army chief General Pervez Musharraf, staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, grabbing the reins of power for nearly a decade. An already crippled economy, struggling under the weight of sanctions imposed by the U.S. after the prior year’s nuclear tests, had to cough up $2 billion for the botched war. The damage to our international standing was no less significant: in the eyes of the world, Pakistan was now a dangerously unstable state led by military officials with little to no accountability.
When the war started, India was taken unawares. Based on media reports, 4,000 infiltrators—“shepherds” according to some retired Pakistani generals who supported the war—established 196 checkposts 14 kilometers into the Indian side of the Line of Control, which divides Pakistan-administered Kashmir from India-administered Kashmir. As reports of these gains spread, the media and nation at large in Pakistan cheered. But when the Indian army responded to this penetration, the Kargil “operation” quickly wilted, revealing glaring flaws in its planning and execution. The troops, trapped in their high-altitude dugouts, were forced to survive on grass before having to surrender. The Pakistan Army soon realized the “critical problems of logistical stretch” this operation had presented them with. In its loss, Pakistan had snatched another defeat from the jaws of flawed strategy.
Nearly 20 years since the war ended, journalist Nasim Zehra has written an extraordinary tell-all book, From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan (2018), making no bones about her “insider” eyewitness sources, a virtual who’s who of retired military officials: Former Army chief General Pervez Musharraf, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad, Lt. Gen. Gulzar Kiani, Lt. Gen. Javed Hassan, Lt. Gen. Amjad Shuaib, Brig. Syed Azhar Raza, Brig. Khalid Nazir. She also mentions some “critics” of the Kargil Operation—officially dubbed Operation Kohpaima (mountaineering trip)—who were the earliest to spill the beans on Kargil: former Chief of General Staff Gen. Ali Kuli Khan and Musharraf’s “blue-eyed boy,” Lt. Gen. Shahid Aziz.
Bypassing the P.M.
Let’s ask the last—but all-important—question first: Did Gen. Musharraf “clear” the Kargil war with then-prime minister Sharif? Zehra’s book hands down a grim, and clear, verdict: “The country’s chief executive, the prime minister, had neither cleared the operation, nor was he taken in the loop by the Army chief. All SOPs [standard operating procedures] had been ignored.”
Four officers, whom she calls the “Kargil clique,” actually put into practice the strategically toxic plan that had been brewing for years—ever since 1984 when India grabbed the Siachen glacier and the General Headquarters under General Zia-ul-Haq could do nothing to stop it. However, after the ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, a new headiness prevailed and some senior officers began raising the possibility of an operation against India’s occupation.
The idea, at its core, was to “block India’s lifeline to its troops in Leh” in India-administered Kashmir by cutting off the National Highway route New Delhi was using to travel to-and-from Srinagar. According to Zehra, Musharraf’s appointment as Army chief in October 1998 further gelled the idea based on the supposition that “the Indians would never fight back.” Even before being appointed the Army chief, Musharraf had advocated a military operation to resolve the Kashmir dispute, telling an incredulous Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1996, when he was the director general of military operations: “The time window for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is short because with the passage of time the India-Pakistan equation, military as well as economic, is going against us.” She didn’t bite.
Then-foreign minister Sartaj Aziz, in his book Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History (2009), tells a slightly different story. According to Aziz, Gen. Musharraf briefed the prime minister on Kargil in May 1999. This may very well not have been the first briefing on the matter, but it was the first Aziz was a part of. Aside from Aziz, Abdul Majid Malik (minister for Kashmir Affairs), Raja Zafarul Haq (minister for religious affairs), Shamshad Ahmad (foreign secretary), and Tariq Fatemi (additional secretary in the P.M. Secretariat) also attended the meeting. Aziz was among the plan’s dissenters, and what he said must be flagged as the intellectual thesis of his book: the Pakistan Army is “tactical” rather than “strategic” in its thinking.
He writes: “I saw that the tactics were brilliant but the strategy did not seem viable. And the objectives of the operation were even less clear. Other Foreign Office diplomats were perhaps in the loop [unlike Sartaj as foreign minister]. In the RAW [India’s foreign intelligence agency] telephone intercept of General Musharraf, General Aziz in Islamabad was heard telling the chief in Beijing [in Appendix III of the book] that while Mian Sahib was okay, foreign secretary Shamshad as usual was supporting.” (The foreign service’s support of the Army without any input from the minister might also shed some light on why Sharif, in his most recent tenure as prime minister, chose to keep the Foreign Ministry as a personal portfolio.)
It must be recalled that Kargil happened less than a year after Pakistan’s nuclear tests at Chagai formally declared to the world that the country was a nuclear power. Touted as a deterrent to armed conflict, the tests were a boon for Sharif, who reaped political mileage from it on the “theory” that India “will never attack now.” The Kargil clique, seizing on this misguided belief, decided to enact a plan that had been rejected earlier by Army chief General Jehangir Karamat, who retired in 1998. Lt. Gen. Aziz Khan, appointed Chief of General Staff at the GHQ, spearheaded it under the guidance of the clique’s boss, Musharraf. Next was Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmad, who had earlier served as the Commandant of National Defense College, the “think tank of the Pakistan Army,” and as Director General of Military Intelligence.
Perhaps the most important member of the clique was its fourth member, Maj. Gen. Javed Hassan, who presented himself as a “geopolitical strategist,” and was accepted as such because he “interpreted most developments within Pakistan as an extension of the agenda of major powers.” He headed the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) and was convinced that Pakistan, and the world, was ready for a successful assault on the “Indian adventure” on Siachen. He would say that it was the “defeated-by-Pakistan” Russia who had asked India to “do something against Pakistan” because “Pakistan is giving us trouble in Afghanistan.” And the U.S., instead of being happy with Pakistan for having helped defeat the Soviet Union, had “got the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy to begin arm-twisting general Zia over Afghanistan.”
Zehra’s book features much insight into Javed Hassan’s thinking. He insisted that India “had run out of options on Kashmir,” but “the Pakistani political government’s stance on Kashmir was weakening the cause.” As he saw it, the world was noticing a change in Pakistan’s position. Quoting Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, he reported that the Pentagon and U.S. State Department thought that “Pakistan neither has the will nor the wherewithal so you move away from Pakistan and we will get you the best deal.” Lesson: now is the time to attack or forget about Kashmir.
Hassan was formerly involved in monitoring the Kashmiri insurgency and that may well have colored his worldview. Between 1992 and 1993, Pakistan concluded that the “insurgency’s spirit was depleting,” and sought to make up for it by deploying its “mehman mujahideen” (guest fighters) in India-administered Kashmir. He was further convinced about the need for the Kargil operation because “the Army’s assessment was that the Kashmiris were tending to stay away from the insurgency and tending to return to their normal lives.”
Meet the mentors
As commander FCNA in October 1997, Hassan would reportedly reconnaissance the area around the LoC and return with fresh orders for his officers: “Get offensive, we have to cross the borders.” He was inclined to action without instructions from superiors and abstained from passing down written orders. Writes Zehra: “Hassan openly exhibited his enthusiasm for undertaking military operations to capture Indian-held posts on and around the LoC. Once, when present at the 19 Gayari sector, he got news that one of his brigade commanders had captured a post earlier held by the Indians, he ordered a gathering of his troops and chanted ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ (God is Great), and urged the other commanders to also mount post-capturing operations.”
Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, who Hassan reported to at 10 Corps, was not averse to accepting Hassan’s geostrategic daydreaming. Commissioned in 1962, he was a regimental colleague of then-Army captain Musharraf and was part of the 1971 war between Pakistan and India. The bulk of his military career was spent in military intelligence. Deeply religious and hailing from a middle class background in Faisalabad, he was remembered as a bully at the Foreign Office where he often lost his cool during encounters with not-so-strategic diplomats. After retirement he publicly came out against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, has retreated into bearded piety, and is never questioned over the fated Operation Kohpaima.
Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aziz Khan, second-in-command of the clique, had already—unsuccessfully—advised ex-chief Karamat that “Pakistan should occupy the heights that the Indians would vacate during winter” and wanted the troops to cross the LoC knowing full well that such an action would amount to triggering a conventional war under the nuclear umbrella Pakistan had acquired a year earlier. Shockingly, the “consensus” he was putting forward was that, after the nuclear tests, “a successful Operation Kohpaima would force the world powers to intervene to resolve the outstanding Kashmir issue.” Author Zehra calls it a strategy of nuclear blackmail.
Were there any doubts about the planned operation in the Army? Not according to Zehra, who notes it was planned and executed in great secrecy. But once it was on, the plan found support in the media and a populace fed on the textbook “realities” of Pak-Indo ties that had triggered earlier wars—and defeats. Prime Minister Sharif was on the “wrong track” while Kargil was brewing. Buoyed by his encounter with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee in February 1999, he sought to change the Pak-Indo equation forever. He had gone so far as to tell the generals in the GHQ that “Pakistan would gradually move towards discontinuing armed support for the Kashmiris.”
But the warriors planning Kargil were convinced that they could win Kashmir by bringing India to its knees and the world opinion on the side of Pakistan.
Too many necks
“The strategic philosopher and executioner of Kargil, then major-general, later lieutenant-general, Javed Hasan was quick to assure the chief that Pakistan’s positions were strongly established while the Indians were completely unprepared to respond. He then raised his hands to his throat and said, ‘If anything goes wrong, my neck is available’. His commander, General Mahmud, was quick to take responsibility. ‘Why yours? My neck will be on the line since I have cleared it.’ As if taking the cue, in stepped the next man up in the hierarchy, the chief [of the Army] himself: ‘No, it would not be your neck, it would be my neck’.”
This bonhomie would not last. After Musharraf dismissed Lt. Gen. Mahmud in 2001, reportedly under American pressure, he lashed out at his chief’s decision to ally with America against the Taliban. In 2006, he published History of the Indo-Pak War 1965, assessing the conflict as a defeat rather than victory. Published by the Services Book Club, few copies of the book remain in circulation, as an embarrassed Musharraf persuaded the GHQ to buy up over 20,000 copies because the Kargil defeat hadn’t stopped rankling yet and he was worried about any comparisons that might be drawn.
Gen. Musharraf also tried to give a veneer of victory in Kargil by “not taking the neck of Lt. Gen. Javed Hassan” and instead rewarding him with the Staff College in Lahore, where Hassan was to “correct” the minds of the country’s senior civil servants by infusing them with his strategic wisdom. Author Zehra, however, inserts a significant quote from him offering regrets after his dream ended in defeat and the rank and file started questioning the situation in Kargil: “Even as adversity struck, with military pressure mounting on Pakistani troops, Commander FCNA lost his nerve … In a meeting Javed Hasan implored the others: ‘For God’s sake, forgive me. I have made a big mistake. Now is the time for prayers’.”
The book has its unchallenged sources casting Hassan in a different light: “Major General Javed Hassan’s unprofessional, prejudiced refrain was: ‘The timid Indian will never fight the battle.’ Hassan used to go to the battle headquarters but mostly not across the LoC, yet all the posts were established with his clearance.”
Despite these attempts at saving face, the end result is undeniable. The Indian army recaptured all the contested posts in Kargil on July 26, 1999. It said it had won 1,920 square-km of territory to Pakistan’s 540. India had lost 2,862 soldiers; Pakistan 5,800. India lost 97 tanks; Pakistan lost 450. Pakistan confirmed that 453 soldiers were killed. The U.S. Department of State made a partial estimate of close to 700 fatalities. Nawaz Sharif’s “emotional” estimate was over 4,000 Pakistani soldiers dead.
Zehra notes in her book the gaping chasm that exists between the Pakistan Army and its elected civilian prime minister: “A senior ISI general … found the country’s elected chief executive, constitutionally the ISI’s direct boss, unrealistic and somewhat amusing. For these men, there was no buy-in to Nawaz Sharif’s diplomacy-oriented foreign policy. By virtue of their almost unaccountable control of Pakistan’s security institutions, they effectively controlled Pakistan’s security-dominated India and Afghanistan policies. Military men, trained to see the world in binary terms, are accustomed to unaccountably and independently managing Pakistan’s security policy.”
Pakistan’s ex-foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan, in his book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity (2011), agrees with her: “A siege mentality is also manifest in aggressive patriotism and narrow nationalism. The sentiment is especially evident among retired mid-level officials, both military and civilian, and religiously inclined middle-class citizens, who have imbibed suspicion towards the West, hostility towards India, and pride in a culture of patriotic self-righteousness typical of middle classes in many societies. This mentality induces further stress in an environment of anger, suspicion, dissension, and delusions in which extremist tendencies breed and thrive.”
What Pakistan got out of Kargil was humiliation and isolation. Unable to sack Musharraf, Prime Minister Sharif took off to the United States, taking his entire family along, which to most Pakistanis meant he feared a coup from an Army chief who had refused to accept defeat and face the consequences, instead opting to paint him as an abettor. Riaz Muhammad Khan has succinctly laid out the factor that likely most induced him to make this trip with his family. The nation, brainwashed with “binary” nationalism planted in the Constitution and textbooks, was not with him as he pleaded with President Bill Clinton to intercede and end the war.
Too big for boots
The most shameful expression of the selective amnesia prevalent in Pakistan came from ex-foreign secretary Abdul Sattar after he joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). His statement is reproduced in Zehra’s book: “He predicted that Sharif would be ousted from power like former rulers who compromised Kashmir’s interest. Sattar’s recall of history was faulty. Of the assassinated prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, the seasoned diplomat claimed ‘in 1949 Liaquat Ali Khan was involved in a sell-out and he had to leave in 1951.’ Military ruler Ayub Khan’s exit he singularly linked to the 1965 ceasefire. Ayub Khan, he said ‘sold out with a ceasefire in 1965 and he also had to go in 1968’.” (After the coup of October 1999, Musharraf appointed Sattar as his foreign minister.)
Shuja Nawaz in his classic Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within (2008) also dwelt on some of the aspects of the Pakistan Army and the Pakistani mind. The Pakistan Army, a well-organized entity, has tried to fit into an underdeveloped political system. While responding to the unequal challenge of neighboring India, it has ended up cannibalizing the very state it is supposed to defend. Its acts of trespass and usurpation have sapped its professional function and habituated it to reinterpreting its defeats as victories. Nawaz tentatively compares it with the Kemalist army of Turkey that often clashed with the democratic aspirations of the Turks—with roles reversed today as far as religion is concerned—and, more relevantly, with the Indonesian army with its tentacles deep inside the national economy and its system of privileges.
Zehra’s book sheds light on a topic in Pakistan’s history that has remained taboo for far too long. It is commonly said that that one must learn from their mistakes or risk repeating them. Pakistan, with several military losses to its name, cannot continue to bury the past or obfuscate reality to match its internal narrative. We must take stock of our mistakes, our follies, and not only learn from them, but pledge to never repeat them.
There is no honor lost in this. Only through introspection can a person, an organization, or even a state grow into a better version of itself. Zehra’s book is an excellent first step in that direction.