A Road to Siachen

An analysis of the Pakistani military thought and its interests in the Kargil crisis.

Over a month into the present Indo-Pakistan military crisis, the fog of confusion is slowly lifting and is revealing the first traces of intentions, which sparked the crisis. The real interesting feature of this crisis, near Kargil-Drass on the Line of Control (LoC), is not what both sides are claiming, but what is being omitted in their press briefings. The root cause of this crisis originated a decade ago and it lay in the intractability of the Siachen problem to an amenable resolution. After nearly fifteen years of combat on the Siachen Glacier, the situation has entered a phase of diminishing returns for Pakistan. This reality is even serious, especially, in the case of Pakistan given its meager financial resources than it is with India. Pakistan is more interested than India to seek an early understanding on the crisis, because it wants to prevent a military collapse, which seems to be a distinct possibility with each passing day that the conflict on Siachen grinds on.

Both nations are expanding huge sum of monies to wage a war, which has for all practical dimensions of a military stalemate. As far as Pakistan is concerned, it can no longer absorb the economic costs of conducting military operations in Siachen against the Indians without an end in sight. On the other side of the coin, its proxy war against the Indians, waged through militant guerrilla movements, seemed to be dying out and it seemed the Indian Army, in Kashmir, was beginning to emerge victorious in its counter-insurgency operations against the militant forces. In a military and a political sense, Pakistan was being presented a situation, which suggested that its political bargaining power would be whittled away by the Indian political and military gains in Kashmir. It would, as far as Pakistan was concerned, be left with no choice, but to accept a final settlement of the issue on the basis of Indian geo-political interests. This would have been the very anti-thesis of the Pakistani position on Kashmir, because given its advocacy of the issue as the crusader for Kashmiri rights, it could not politically afford to be forced into a weaker negotiating position with the Indians on this matter.

Two points need to be stressed here, which would explain Pakistani motives of indirectly aiding the militants resisting Indian Army’s attempts to evict them from the heights near Kargil. First point being that nations only risk a recourse to war, as a final solution, when they have more to lose, in a political sense, by not going to war than they hope to gain by fighting a war. The second point, which is complimentary to the first one, is that wars are nothing more than acts of political violence intended to compel an adversary to accept the political demands being made on it, when other methods of persuasion have failed. In other words, war is act of political desperation and it is fought not with the intentions of securing an advantage, but to prevent an already existing situation from into turning into an even worse one. In the case of the Pakistani armed forces, the cost analysis of the Siachen conflict, when taken in context of the American arms embargo on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons’ program, suggested that in a strategic sense the conflict was seriously weakening the Pakistani military’s war fighting capabilities.

The reason, which suggests that Siachen is a strategic disaster for Pakistani military can be simply deduced from the fact that it costs Pakistan, by a conservative estimate, nearly 30 million dollars a month to sustain its military operations in Siachen. In annual terms, that figure comes to nearly 360 million dollars, but what makes it so unacceptable to bear, for Pakistan, is the opportunity costs involved in that amount and not the actual expenditure itself. An average price for a modern fighter aircraft is usually around the 30-45 million-dollar range depending on the avionics suite brought with it and where it was manufactured. Thus, the money wasted on Siachen each year by Pakistan was enough to equip nearly a squadron of fighters for the Pakistan Air Force each year. At this rate, Pakistan Air Force could have added enough squadrons equipped with modern fighters to its inventory that the effects of the Pressler Amendment, on the qualitative aspects of its defensive posture, would have been minimal. It would have excelled the Indian Air Force in terms of quality of equipment and would have lessened the ratio of disparity, which existed between Indian and Pakistani air forces in terms of combat aircraft. Another example of this erosion of Pakistani military capabilities can be seen in the Pakistani Army. The Ukrainian build T-80UD main battle tank, which forms the iron fist of Pakistan Army’s strike corps and is the most technologically advanced and potent tank in the sub-continent, costs around two million dollars a piece. Similarly, Pakistan could have equipped a sizeable portion of its armored formations with it with the money it was spending on Siachen. The Pakistani Army could have easily replaced its fleet of aging Chinese tanks with the T-80UDs to offer a credible deterrent to the Indians and at the same time it would have reduced their superiority in armor. Pakistani Army, had it opted, it could quite easily have mechanized a significant portion of its forces and offered them battlefield mobility, which would have strengthened and increased the utility of its present strategic doctrine for combat operations against India. The present doctrine of the Pakistan Army is called “Riposte”. It is based on the idea of a strong defense, with local counter-attacks by fast moving armored brigades, and mechanized forces, to create gaps in the Indian defenses. Pakistan Army hopes to exploit these gaps to win Indian territory, which could later be used as a bargaining tool to achieve a favorable diplomatic status quo, for Pakistan, at the end of hostilities. The modernization of Pakistani military would have enabled it to maintain conventional arms parity with the Indians, but Siachen was effectively preventing it to the detriment of Pakistan Army’s war overall fighting capabilities.

Thus, as far as Pakistani military was concerned Siachen was proving to be a liability on the overall Pakistani defensive posture and was severely undermining it. Given the fact that Pakistan was restricted from bolstering its conventional defenses against India due to a lack of money, it was forced to opt for a nuclear deterrent to offset the degradation in its conventional force structures. This created more problems than it solved, because given the nature of nuclear weapons, it takes highly skilled and experienced troops to operate them. Unfortunately, most Pakistani soldiers are not literate enough to operate highly technical weapons systems and this was badly impacting Pakistani sense of security, because even if it had nuclear weapons, they would still be ineffective due to the inability of its soldiers to operate them properly. Also, the money wasted on Sichen could not be spend on the upkeep of its nuclear forces, because the limited defense budget of Pakistan could not afford the luxury to sustain the deployment of nuclear weapons, while fighting a limited war with the Indians on Siachen. Hence, the money spend on the nuclear weapons could not be used to increase Pakistani conventional arms parity with the Indians and in the long term suggested that Pakistan might come exclusively to depend on its nuclear arsenal to resist Indian aggressions. Such a scenario was unacceptable, because by relying on its nuclear weapons to deter Indians, Pakistan was narrowing its options to “all or nothing” in dealing with the Indians in a crisis. Ironically, this was thought to force the Indians to be adventurous, because they would understand that Pakistan could not effectively retaliate against them without resorting to its nuclear options. The Indians believing that international pressure on Pakistan, in terms of sanctions and cancellation of foreign aid loans, would be enough to force it to accept the Indian fait accomplis. Consequently, it was thought, by the Pakistani military, that a sole reliance on nuclear weapons would make the Indians more aggressive towards Pakistani interests specially in Kashmir and hence, would not be in the long term security interests of Pakistan.

Therefore, Pakistani armed forces were faced with the dilemma of fighting on Siachen or risk losing Pakistan’s strategic defensive capability to resist Indian designs. Hence, it was decided logically and deliberately to seek an end to the Siachen conflict. The Pakistani military, in favoring to settle the issue of Siachen, must have thought it could accomplish such a goal, because for more ten years it was carefully watching certain indicators, which suggested to it that such an option was viable and could work. To fully understand the motivations for the Pakistani military to undertake such a risk, it becomes incumbent to review the status of the Indian military forces, which would lend credence to this Pakistani viewpoint.

The Indian military, since the early 1980s, has been a victim of Indian bureaucratic inefficiency and as a result of that, has been extremely curtailed in its military posture and its ability to wage offensive actions, as seen in the recent crisis, has often been questioned. Starting with the bribery allegations in the Bofors scandal, the Indian military has consistently watched as petty political infighting has denied it the resources necessary to maintain its force in a credible war-fighting mode. The Indian Army was so desperate for financial assistance that it could not even pay its officer corps with the result that most of its best and brightest officers left the service to pursue lucrative jobs in the private sector. This created a potential leadership gap in the Indian Army and hindered the viability of its infantry units, the backbone of any professional army, to carry out their objectives. The Indian middle class, who had traditionally staffed the officer corps of the Indian Army, was leaving it in droves and the army was becoming a hollow shell without any officers to lead it. This shortfall of financial resources has prevented it from modernizing its forces and most of its units are operating equipment, which has far outlived its life expectancy. In a more critical sense, this lack of funding has made it difficult for the Indians to deploy new weapons systems and they have been gradually losing their qualitative, but what is even worse their quantitative edge over the Pakistani armed forces since the mid 1980s.

Another troubling omen for the Indian Army was the penchant of the Indian politicians to use it as an well-organized riot police to quell domestic political agitation within India itself. Since the political disturbances, which lead to the Indian Army’s involvement in the Golden Temple crisis of the early 1980s, it has been periodically used to prevent sectarian violence, often as a result of the Indian politicians’ own shortsighted policies. In the process, especially in the case of the Golden Temple crisis, it has seen its traditions of non-involvement in politics questioned and by being repeatedly being embroiled in such instances, it has witnessed a loss of morale in its officers and enlisted personnel. This is, because the purpose of an army is to defend its countrymen and not seek to be their jailers by fulfilling a role, which can best be done by the local constabulary. The end result of all this has been that the Indian Army lacks a strategic doctrine spelling out its mission and seems to be divided over its role as a local policeman in Indian politics. As if to add insult to injury, the Indian politicians expect the Indian Army to undertake such duties willingly. They do not seem to realize that, in lieu of receiving no monetary aid from New Delhi, the army has to use its own budgetary resources, which are poor at the best, to finance its newfound role, bequeathed to it courtesy of the Indian politicians.

In all of this, the Indian Air Force has also seen its once superior edge over the Pakistan Air Force dwindle to a mere parity. The Indian Air Force still enjoys a four to one ratio over its Pakistani counterpart, but the lack of financial problems has plagued it as well. The Indian Air Force is so short of spare parts that it had limited its training flights, with the result that its pilots were spending less time in the air. The Indian Air Force was having a hard time maintaining its combat skills, and because of this limited flying schedule, the Indian Air Force attained the highest accident rates in the entire world. Due to a chronic lack of spare parts, it had occasionally resorted to cannibalizing parts from other planes and that has gravely restricted its operational effectiveness. The situation became so deplorable that the chief of the Indian Air Force ordered all Indian planes to be grounded till the accident rate could be lowered and its operational readiness rates improved. It was an unheard of situation, because no air force had ever grounded its entire fleet. For a few short days, while its planes were being repaired, the Indians were totally vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike from the Pakistani Air Force. Had that happened, it would have been caught on the ground with its planes parked, like the Egyptian Air Force at the beginning of the Six-Day War, wing tip to wing tip and the results would have been disastrous.

Most of the Indian Air Force’s front line combat aircraft are Russian made MiGs, and Sukhoi, with a few spattering of British Jaguars and French Mirage 2000s, its most effective weapons platform. In the case of its Russian aircraft, they are more than ten and, in some cases, twenty years old. They have still to undergo their mid-life upgrades (MLUs), which would incorporate new weapons, electronics and avionics suites that would allow them to maintain their edge over the Pakistani front line fighters. In this case, as in with the Army, the Indian bureaucratic inertia has hindered timely upgrades of their fighters with the result that in most cases, the Indian Air Force only enjoys a numbers parity over Pakistani Air Force. It is fast losing its qualitative edge, with the Pakistanis, in aircraft performances and coupled with the superior combat skill of Pakistani Air Force pilots, the Indians pilots are in an unenviable position in a potential air combat scenario.

However, perhaps the greatest Pakistani military coup against the Indians has been in their respective naval parities. In terms of size, the Indian Navy simply outmatches the Pakistani Navy with sheer numbers. Indian Navy has an aircraft carrier, capable of carrying some twenty British Sea Harriers jump jets and an assortment of support helicopters and has nearly 60 major surface ships, including destroyers, cruisers and missile corvettes. In contrast, the Pakistani Navy has only fourteen major surface ships; mostly missile frigates, but in a critical analysis, it is the war fighting strategies of two antagonists, which proves that Pakistan is capable for handling an Indian threat on the high seas. Unlike India, which has opted for the traditional “carrier bubble”, a concept, which focuses the main emphasis on the carrier, with support ships, such as destroyers and missile frigates, ringing it in concentric circles and protecting and supporting carrier operations, instead of being independent of the carrier’s operational role. The Pakistani Navy, on the other hand, has concentrated on coastal defense and the interdiction of Indian supply lines. The Pakistani intentions, in this matter, can be seen by their main emphasis on fast, small missile boats, which can easily navigate the shallow coastal waters and in the process, play a deadly game of hide and seek with the Indian surface ships. Thus, by distracting the Indian ships from their main carrier protection role, the Pakistanis hope to temper Indian naval operations with a sense of caution and try to force them to adopt a defensive outlook in their military plans.

In this, Pakistan Navy’s fleet of French Agosta 90B submarines are intended not only to raid Indian oil supply lanes, crucial to waging a modern war, but to also be used as an offensive weapon to track and identify Indian surface ships, including its carrier, and try to sink them. The deployment of Pakistan’s P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft in support of Pakistan Navy’s Brequet Atlantique maritime air patrols was intended to track Indian shipping lanes in the Arabian Sea. The use of Pakistan Air Force’s upgraded Mirage Vs, armed with Exocet and Harpoon anti-shipping missiles, in support of Pakistani Navy in a dedicated anti-shipping role has quite clearly shown what Pakistani intention with Indians in a sea battle will be. The Orion surveillance aircraft are capable of operating outside the Indian “missile umbrella” and track the Indian ships by relaying their coordinates to the fire computers of Pakistan Air Force’s Mirage aircraft, via encrypted communications, intended for naval surface strikes, which can then locate and attack them. All of this suggests that Pakistanis have an operational flexibility over the Indians, which would equalize the Pakistan’s naval numerical disadvantages in a potential conflict with the Indians.

Consequently, all of these mitigating factors convinced the Pakistani military command that due to bureaucratic inaptitude, the Indians had squandered their conventional weapons lead over Pakistan and that ironically, Pakistan still enjoyed a relative parity with the Indians, given its conventional force structures, in defense matters. However, the Pakistanis realized that this window of opportunity would not last forever and they were determined to exploit it before it could close on them. It was with this aim that Pakistan’s military planners identified Siachen as the greatest drain on Pakistan’s military resources and the single biggest obstacle to the conventional modernization of its armed forces. Nearly fifteen years of conflict with the Indians, on Siachen, had convinced Pakistan that in order to settle the Siachen problem, the Indian military units, which commanded the heights on the glacier, would have to be neutralized. Directly attacking those heights was considered to be an impractical idea, because of logistical and financial reasons and instead, it was decided to opt for an operational plan, which would force the Indians on Siachen, “to wither on the vine”.

This was not a difficult problem to solve, because in fighting the Indians near the LoC, the Pakistani Army had long ago identified the crucial Indian supply line, which snaked its was way through Kargil to Leh and then on to Siachen. This was the vital Indian logistical artery that was providing the Indians with the necessary supplies to fight Pakistani units on Siachen and was the critical link, which had to cut be to deny the Indians the means to resist and thus, force an end to the conflict. Furthermore, this was the only road that connected Siachen with the rest of India’s network of military bases in Kashmir. By cutting Indian access to it, it was hoped to isolate Indian troops on Siachen and force the Indians to either escalate the conflict or simply accept the reality and sue for peace. Having once identified their objectives, the next operational details to be considered was the make-up and the use of force, which would secure this aim. The use of regular Pakistani Army troops was considered as a verboten idea as giving the Indians a legitimate excuse to blame Pakistan and to allow India a chance to diplomatically isolate Pakistan in the international forums. Pakistani military planners hoped to create a force, which would secure these objectives, but yet offer a sense of plausible deniability to Pakistan in case the situation turned against Pakistani interests. With this criterion in mind, a calculated decision was made to use the force of militants, which fought the Indian security forces in the summer months in the valley. It was decided that the militants, after infiltrating into the Indian side of LoC, would instead of going down into the valley simply occupy the heights and establish themselves there with the purpose of resisting the Indians.

The key distinction, which needs to be made here, is that the Pakistanis, in using the militants, realized that they could not effectively hinder the Indian supplies to Siachen via the Kargil road. Pakistan hoped to use militants as artillery spotters for the Pakistani artillery, situated on the Pakistani side of LoC, which would use the coordinates furnished by the militants to shell the road and try to stop Indian supplies to its troops in Siachen. This would offer Pakistan the perfect cover, because it could honestly deny that its troops were fighting alongside the militants, as India was bound to claim in a crisis. This plan offered the greatest benefits to Pakistan with the least amount of risk and was a relatively simple operation to conduct. With the recent proliferation of cellular phones in South Asia, communications with Pakistani artillery units and the rear staging areas was not as big a problem as it was once thought to be. This coupled with portable Global Positioning Systems to provide exact coordinates to Pakistani artillery, to target Indians positions, which could be bought on the open market, the operational framework was already in place. All that was left was the training of the militants to make them proficient as artillery spotters and allow them to invade Indian held Kashmir and secure the heights from the Indian troops.

This training was probably provided to a few select leaders of the militant groups, who were later supposed to pass their instructions to their fellow cadres, at Pakistan Army’s High Altitude Mountain Warfare School, located near its military academy in Kakul. This school is considered as one of the premier schools of mountain warfare in the world. Its reputation for excellence is such that in the past it has attracted members of the American Special Forces and Britain’s Special Air Service, who have graduated from it after undergoing rigorous mountain warfare training. Another reason for choosing Kakul was that it is located outside Kashmir and this would make it highly impossible for the Indians to know what was going on. Since most of the militants were veterans of the Afghan war and of past Kashmiri campaigns, they were well accustomed to the requirements of mountain warfare. Hence, they did not require an extended training regime. This served two purposes. One, it shortened the training period and secondly, it allowed the Pakistanis to maintain the operational security of their plans by preventing unnecessary details from leaking out and alerting the Indians. Once this force was ready, the only thing left was to wait for the snows to melt and to allow this force to carry out its mission objectives.

The smoking gun, so to speak, which identifies Pakistan as indirectly aiding the militants is not it soldiers fighting the Indians, but the logistical support given to the militants without which this operation could not have worked. Mountain warfare requires specialized training and such skills have to be taught and they can not be learned on the spot. Militants who caught the Indian soldiers unawares and gave them a rude shock were in excellent physical conditioning, which suggests that they were well acclimatized to live and fight in high altitudes. The fact the militants have a logistical organizational support, to sustain them, indicates that this operation was carefully planned and laid out, because it has all the earmarks of a professional approach to solving a military problem. The indications of this planning can easily be discerned by other factors also. While the leaders of the militant groups were under going mountain warfare training, the Frontier Works Organization of the Pakistani Army and its corps of engineers were busy expanding and improving the paths and roads along the Pakistani side of LoC. The militants were supposed to use these roads and paths to bring their supplies up to their staging areas, in the high altitudes, and lay the groundwork for their support bases, which would send them reinforcements in their fights with the Indians.

The militants, and this is not a sign of disrespect to them, are incapable of such coherent military planning and it is safe to include that they were aided in this by a group of professionals skilled in conducting combat operations in mountainous terrain for a long period of time. It is enough to ask a few speculative questions, because all of this hints of a professional military oriented approach to solving a problem. The unasked question, in this case, is who has the professional military experience to implement, organize, sustain and wage such a campaign in the region against the Indians. The most obvious answer would be the Pakistani Army, but only in an oblique sense. In this case, the Pakistani Army is indirectly supporting the militants by interdicting Indian military operations to remove them from the heights around Kargil, but that is the extant of its involvement in this crisis. This operation was planned and is being masterminded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, its branch of military intelligence. ISI is the only agency of the Pakistani armed forces, which has the experience of conducting and implementing overt guerilla military operations such as the one in Kargil on a grand scale. The ISI is utilizing its experiences from the Afghan conflict in this crisis, and this is why this operation has all the classical ingredients of how to conduct a textbook guerrilla campaign. The skill of the militants and their use of guerilla warfare techniques, which are unorthodox tactics, against an opponent who has all the logistical advantages in equipment and personnel, are highly reminiscent of ISI military operations against the Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan.

It is only when all these separate indicators are taken as a singular trend that a picture begins to emerge, like a jigsaw puzzle, which suggests that reality is far different from the gospel being preached. The Pakistani intentions, as explained above, are quite clear, but they seem to get lost, because this military operation, in Kargil, is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity, which makes it impossible to rationalize Pakistani motives. There is an old saying, which suggests that nations always prepare themselves to fight the last war. If that is the case, then Pakistan has certainly learned well from its mistakes in 1965 and 1984, in fighting the Indians in Kashmir and has successfully altered the balance of power along the LoC in its favor. By doing so, it has shifted the onus of a possible war on the shoulders of the Indians and put them in a dilemma, which has no easy answer or solutions to it. The events of late May 1999, in Kargil, were the latest series of angry shots in a war that started in 1947 and has now entered a new and dangerous phase for both sides.

The Kargil crisis has all the ingredients of a military operation intended to secure political aims and only when it is viewed, under the prism of political interests, does true nature of Pakistani intentions, in this crisis, becomes self-evident. Pakistan, as a party, is involved in this crisis, because non-involvement in the crisis would be to see a gradual diminishing of its military power vis a vis the Indians and that is, as far the Pakistani military is concerned, an unacceptable proposition. The singular most fact, which suggests a possible Pakistani participation in this crisis, is that it has nothing to lose, and everything to gain out of this situation. The only problem with its intentions, in the region, is the unpredictability of the Indians to its operational plans, because no military plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy no matter how perfectly crafted it might be. Pakistan has played its cards and its success and failure in this enterprise will be determined by how the Indians react to their perceived loss of influence along LoC and what steps they might undertake to rectify the situation in their favor.

It is fervently hoped that the Indian reactions to this Pakistani fait accompli will not result in a fourth Indo-Pakistan War, because that would be in no ones’ interests. It would be a war, whose final end will not be heralded by victors or by losers. It will be a war, which will only end with a bitter sense of regret at an outcome, which should have been avoided at all possible costs. It will be a war without any monuments except for the rows of graves hiding the folly of its practitioners and the misfortune of its victims. It is for these reasons that it is hoped that common sense prevails over nationalism and ends this crisis, before it is too late stop the madness, which seems intent to devour a sixth of humanity in its hatred of two different flags.