The enduring lesson of strategic restraint : The Tribune India

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25 years of Kargil War

The enduring lesson of strategic restraint

Powerful nations employing disproportionate force to achieve tactical objectives need to introspect.

The enduring lesson of strategic restraint

Impact: The Kargil conflict marked a strategic shift in the international perception of India, whose measured response was viewed positively. File photo



Lt Gen JS Cheema (retd)

Former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff

IN 1999, Pakistan’s Kargil intrusions challenged India’s territorial integrity. Emboldened by its nuclear tests conducted the year before, Pakistan aimed to internationalise Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint, assuming that its newly acquired capability would deter India from a full-scale military response, forcing early mediation and allowing it to keep the intruded territory across the Line of Control (LoC). To resolve the unprecedented crisis, India categorically rebutted any diplomatic efforts proposed by Pakistan until the intruders were completely evicted. A long period of diplomatic parleys would have afforded adequate time for the Pakistani intruders to consolidate their positions and indulge in excessive nuclear rhetoric to pressure India to accept the new alignment. Accordingly, the Cabinet Committee on Security instructed the armed forces on May 18, 1999, to clear the intrusions employing air power offensively but laying down a term of reference not to cross the LoC.

India’s declaratory self-imposed caveat of not crossing the LoC, reflecting its policy of ‘strategic restraint’, was aimed at garnering international acceptance of a responsible nation avoiding escalation and prioritising peace. This could also help lift sanctions imposed by the global community after it had conducted nuclear tests in 1998, though this stance left many questioning the policy. Not surprisingly, it created a paradox, wherein India wanted to evict the intruders from its territory but was not ready to enter Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which was under Pakistan’s illegal control since 1948. It was tantamount to accepting the LoC as the international border and abdicating its claim to PoK. This limitation bolstered Pakistan’s belief that India feared escalation because of the former’s nuclear capability. The restriction also caused tremendous consternation among the Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), as it involved frontal attacks along the expected approaches, causing larger Army casualties and curtailing the radius of the circuit of IAF combat aircraft. On being explained the adverse implications for the conduct of military operations, as the contingency might arise to cross the LoC, the National Security Adviser diluted the restriction, stating publicly that not crossing the LoC holds good today, but not sure what would happen tomorrow. The damage was, however, done, with Pakistan perceiving it as a meek military response.

Pakistan raised the spectre of a nuclear confrontation, with its Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, declaring its newfound confidence in countering an Indian attack on equal terms. Days later, Pakistan issued an official warning of retaliation, implicitly with its nuclear weapons. These threats were primarily aimed at the international community, especially the US and other Western nations, to pressure them to restrain India’s military push. However, New Delhi dismissed these threats, well aware of Islamabad’s limited nuclear capability — possessing only a few undeveloped nuclear weapons with restricted delivery systems sans a proper command structure for using them. Lt Gen Prakash Menon, former Military Adviser to the National Security Council Secretariat, aptly remarked: “It was with a non-existent capability around which Pakistan wove its paradigm of a nuclear umbrella, to prevent escalation as well as leverage the nuclear flashpoint card internationally.”

The international community, initially swayed by Pakistan’s rhetoric, saw through it as India presented concrete evidence of the Pakistani army’s involvement in the intrusions. The shift in the narrative compelled Pakistan to tone down its rhetoric. Reacting to Islamabad’s threats of more incursions, New Delhi hinted at military action across the border. The Army’s success in recapturing the intruded heights reflected the hollowness of Pakistan’s nuclear rhetoric. India carefully calibrated strategic troops posturing close to the border and relocating naval assets to the Arabian Sea to create a strategic asymmetry along the entire Indo-Pak front to achieve escalation dominance, should there be a need for war. While the Western media overplayed the nuclear threat, Pakistan’s attempt to link its actions to a potential nuclear flashpoint failed. Instead, it came under intense international pressure to withdraw.

As the Indian military operations gathered momentum, Pakistan sought an exit strategy. Its Prime Minister visited Washington in July 1999 to meet then US President Bill Clinton, who categorically rejected Pakistan’s repeated pleas for direct US intervention in the J&K dispute and called again for withdrawal. Pakistan eventually agreed, and the Indian Army accepted a phased withdrawal on its terms and conditions. The Pakistani army withdrew by July 17, barring three areas, which were cleared by the Indian Army by July 25. On July 26, the Indian Army declared the successful conclusion of the Kargil War.

The Kargil conflict marked a strategic shift in the international perception of India, whose measured response, exercise of strategic restraint and prioritisation of regional stability over escalation were viewed positively. The US unequivocally favoured India, with its Congress recommending the suspension of loans from international financial institutions to Pakistan until it withdrew its troops. The G8 countries and the European Union adopted a similar stance. Russia was more supportive, while Pakistan’s trusted ally, China, maintained a neutral stand. Most of the other countries showed even-handedness, asking for restraint, while Saudi Arabia and Iran sought UN intervention. The saga of the unparalleled courage and bravery of Indian soldiers was superbly supplemented by politico-diplomatic initiatives bolstering India’s international standing as a responsible country. Pakistan was humiliated not only on the Kargil battlefield, but also globally.

The Kargil conflict highlighted the contrasting perspectives of India and Pakistan. India conceptualised a limited conventional war as an option below the nuclear threshold. Pakistan, however, believed that its newly acquired nuclear capability had deterred a stronger Indian response, emboldening it to continue using terrorism as an instrument of state policy, as evidenced by the terrorist attacks on Parliament in December 2001 and the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. Whether an all-out war in 1999 could have prevented major terror attacks originating in Pakistan remains debatable.

The strategy of restraint can be a powerful tool of a strong nation and not a sign of weakness, as it underscores a country’s confidence in its long-term strategic approach. In today’s world, this lesson seems more relevant than ever before. Powerful nations employing disproportionate force to achieve tactical objectives need to introspect. The object of war, as per Carl von Clausewitz, is not victory but to establish enduring peace. But unfortunately, that has rarely happened, as testified by the numerous ongoing confrontations.

#Kargil #Kashmir #Pakistan


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