Don't Escalate Kargil To All-Out War
18 June 1999
The Times of India
By Siddharth Varadarajan
THREE weeks into what can only be described as a situation perilously close to war, it is imperative that the conflict in Kargil not be allowed to spread any further. Despite both sides reiterating that they have no intention of escalating hostilities, the Army and Air Force in
India and Pakistan have been put on red alert and villagers living close to the border in areas as far afield as Punjab have begun to shift out fearing the worst. The latest news is equally disconcerting: apprehending hostile moves by Pakistan, the Indian Navy has now gone on
alert. Slowly but surely, all the elements of war are falling into place.
By sending heavily armed mercenaries across the Line of Control in Kashmir and then reinforcing them with its regular troops, the Pakistani army has created a situation that is explosive and potentially cataclysmic. If General Pervez Musharraf and other senior Pakistani
generals do not quickly order their forces to pull back, there is every possibility of the conflict snowballing into something much more fearsome.
With elections around the corner and the opposition parties accusing the BJP of being ``weak'' for not detecting and repulsing the intruders in a timely fashion, the Vajpayee government cannot afford any unilateral de-escalation such as a cessation of hostilities against forces
occupying strategic heights inside Indian territory. The torture and mutilation of Indian POWs and the taped proof of the Pakistani army's involvement in the armed intrusion across the LoC has also enraged the public and raised the political stakes. Were the defence minister to
reiterate the offer of `safe passage' he made two weeks ago, he would almost certainly be pilloried.
While there is no sign that Pakistan is willing to withdraw its forces, it is essential that India take steps to ensure the geographical scope of the conflict is not widened. There are, in particular, two dangers.
First, as the Indian army pushes ahead and clears territory on its side of the LoC, it may end up crossing into Pakistani-occupied areas on the other side. The army may do so either by mistake or because of some ill-conceived political decision to teach the Pakistani forces a lesson.
Either way, the consequences would be severe, both diplomatically as well as militarily.
Second, if the campaign to drive back the intruders does not go according to plan, there will be a great temptation to launch airstrikes at artillery positions and supply routes in the Pakistani side of the LoC. Indeed, a few defence analysts have already begun to advocate this line of action despite the obvious risks it entails. Airstrikes inside Pakistan will almost certainly invite retaliation. The Pakistani air force is likely to get involved and given the psychological impact of
aerial combat and the concomitant loss of aircraft, the drift towards war would be virtually unstoppable.
If war were to break out between India and Pakistan, the fighting will most certainly not end within the 14 days it took to conclude the 1971 war. The fact that both countries have nuclear weapons means neither side can hope militarily to defeat the other. The most likely scenario
is of a step-wise escalation in which new areas and classes of weapons will progressively be involved. The first stage might involve fighting along other parts of the LoC, the second fighting along other parts of the border. Finally, we could see the outbreak of full-fledged
Of course, the longer such a war lasts, the greater will be the possibility that it will turn nuclear. Given its conventional inferiority and the fragility of its economy -- the Karachi Stock
Exchange has fallen by some 27 per cent since fighting began in Kargil -- Pakistan will find itself under immense pressure to use nuclear weapons. The greater the danger of nuclear war, the greater will be the Western efforts to intervene. After spending the better part of 50 years
railing against the `internationalisation' of the Kashmir issue, Indian officials are excited now that President Bill Clinton has asked Pakistan to withdraw its forces. ``India is vindicated'' was how the MEA put it, as if Washington's benediction is the last word.
The fact of the matter is that neither blandishments nor threats could make the US convince the Pakistani army to forgo testing its nuclear weapons last year. Notwithstanding Mr Clinton's apparent tilt towards India, there is nothing concrete the US can do to secure the withdrawal
of Pakistani forces in Kargil. Rather than basking in the seemingly benign interference of big powers, India needs to solve its problems by itself, acting all the time in a restrained and responsible manner.