The Heroes of Kargil - A Tribute

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Target Ladakh

Off Turtuk in ladakh a Pak force is gathering, apparently for a thrust towards the airfield in Thoise.

Even as MiGs and Mirages were expending rockets and bombs on the 'whited-out' enemy on Kargil hills, even as an officer-short army was sending up lieutenant-colonels to lead assault companies up the Batalik heights, the IAF's gigantic Ilyushins and fatigued Antonovs were revving up from Chandigarh and Pathankot. Carrying calorie-rich chocolates and brass-cased artillery shells in their belly they jetted and propelled themselves northward to higher heights than Kargil. Into the thinner air of Ladakh.

Strike force: Jawans of the 24 Rashtriya Rifles advance towards a hill in Kargil after destroying a hideout of militants at Bushy village in Kupwara 5 km from the LoC; (below right) Larkipura bridge in Anantnag blasted by militants

Smoking fewer cigarettes and taking deeper breaths, men move at a slow pace in threatened Ladakh. Brisk walking is dangerous. But lethal are the men poised to invade from Turtuk. 

Off Turtuk on the Ladakh ranges, a Pakistani force is gathering, apparently for a thrust towards the vital airfield in Thoise. The plan, intelligence reports suggest, is to capture Indian forward positions of Partapur garrison and the logistic bases for the southern glaciers over Shyok river. "It may be still quicker if they chopper-land or drop combat troops near Partapur-Thoise bases and the Siachen base camp," said a glacier-scarred brigadier. Even an aerial thrust towards Kardungla to bomb out culverts along the pass is anticipated, forcing Thoise radars to rotate restlessly. 

The build-up at Skardu air base on the other side of the Bofors-blazing line of control (LoC) justifies the preparations. "The force accretions and airborne troop concentration in Skardu point to a larger sinister design... to grab a large area," declared Col. Vikram Singh of the directorate-general of military operations (DGMO) on June 10, the day the Pak army handed over mutilated bodies of six soldiers who had gone to patrol the Kaksar hills a month earlier. 

Till that day, the Indian army and air force and foreign office spokesmen had been portraying the conflict as one isolated to a few hills in Kargil, a few artillery firings from across the LoC and a few skirmishes in Turtuk. But the arrest of 12 insurgents in Turtuk and wireless intercepts gave out the Pakistani game. 

The Ladakh ranges, inhabited mostly by Buddhists, had hardly interested Pakistan. No insurgents there earlier, no subversives, no 'freedom-fighters' to use the Pakistani lingo. But the 'dirty dozen' revealed they had been sent to blow up bridges and mine the road through which the Indian army would be advancing towards TurtuThe action at Chorbatla was another pointer. Northeast of Kargil and wide of the Srinagar-Leh road, point-5700 at Chorbatla witnessed an unexpected build-up of the Pakistan army. A simultaneous Pak army thrust at Turtuk and Chorbatla, could result in India being decapitated of Ladakh. "They have occupied the Kargil heights to prevent the Indian army from rushing reinforcements by road to Ladakh," said an artillery brigadier. Ladakh is mainly fed militarily by the Srinagar-Leh National Highway-1A, called the Zojila axis, which opens for summer supplies in June. And there was still a month to go before the other axis, through Rohtang in Himachal, to Leh could be opened. 

Even after the air-rush to Leh, the situation is precarious. "We were plain lucky, too," said an army officer. "The food procurement was excessive in Ladakh last season, sparing us the trouble of sending up food stocks by air." But military supplies have to be continually airlifted. k to defend Ladakh. 

The action at Chorbatla was another pointer. Northeast of Kargil and wide of the Srinagar-Leh road, point-5700 at Chorbatla witnessed an unexpected build-up of the Pakistan army. A simultaneous Pak army thrust at Turtuk and Chorbatla, could result in India being decapitated of Ladakh. "They have occupied the Kargil heights to prevent the Indian army from rushing reinforcements by road to Ladakh," said an artillery brigadier. Ladakh is mainly fed militarily by the Srinagar-Leh National Highway-1A, called the Zojila axis, which opens for summer supplies in June. And there was still a month to go before the other axis, through Rohtang in Himachal, to Leh could be opened. 

Even after the air-rush to Leh, the situation is precarious. "We were plain lucky, too," said an army officer. "The food procurement was excessive in Ladakh last season, sparing us the trouble of sending up food stocks by air." But military supplies have to be continually airlifted. 

Both armies are racing against time-one to invade Ladakh and the other to defend it. Far down in Sonamarg on the Indian side, mountain divisions are getting acclimatised to fight for Ladakh. A reserve division has appeared there overnight, dotting the lush green meadows with command tents, sleeping bags and supply depots. Generals with three and two stars are arriving to be briefed by brigadiers, and to buck up the boys. 

The long march: Jawans marching from Sonamarg to Kargil 

Pakistan's armed argument over the LoC, India now believes, was partly a smokescreen to hide its Ladakh moves. Pak artillery had often in the past shelled across the LoC in Naushera, Rajouri, Punch and Keran and their infantry commanders had violated the line only to be dislodged quickly. These had the dual purpose of providing cover fire to infiltrators and capturing tactically better heights on the undemarcated LoC. 

Kargil is different. It is where the highway of Ladakh's life comes within Pakistani artillery range. India's mistake was to believe that the Kargil shelling that started more than a year ago was an extension of the shelling in the other sectors. By March Pakistan had set up observation posts on the hills on the Indian side and manned them with insurgents. They direct Pak gunners, through radio, so that the shells fall exactly on the military convoys driving up to Ladakh. 

Pakistan's LoC argument has a strategic objective too. It is from the Zojila watershed that the Indus flows into Pakistan. Watersheds are natural boundaries, though not in the mutually agreed line of control agreement India and Pakistan signed in 1972. 

A claim up to Zojila watershed would enable Pakistan to claim land up to Dras and Kargil. That would serve four purposes: Pakistan would get more territory; its army would get a few advantageous heights; establish that LoC is not sacrosanct; and sit over the road to Ladakh. 

Despite the air supplies to Leh reinforcing Turtuk, army officers say Ladakh can be declared safe only when the road is completely secured from artillery fire. Army officers admit that the air strikes were essentially to put psychological pressure on the insurgents. "There is no surefire method to spot them and hit them at supersonic speeds. Only the most obvious of the targets and a few supply dumps have been pulverised," said an officer. Air-to-ground missiles could have done the trick, but operations officers have been advised to conserve these million-dollar gadgets, lest they should be needed against military targets in the event of an escalation. 

Two weeks into the Kargil conflict, the army too is saving for the bullet-rainy day. "Now if we want to go for an assault in say Batalik or Dras subsectors, we can. But there will be a lot of casualties. One man sitting with an automatic on the heights can mow down a division coming up the ridge in single file," said an officer. So the strategy is to starve the insurgents by cutting their supply lines. 

But the problem in most sectors, especially Dras is that the supply lines cannot be cut unless Indian forces raid them across the LoC. The inherent advantage Pakistan has is that the Kargil hills slope more gently into Pak territory, whereas it is a steep fall into the Indian side. The supplies thus are easy to flow up from the other side, whereas an assault from the Indian side is dangerous. "At present we are targeting them with artillery," said Brig. Mohan Bhandari of DGMO. One option, if India still wants to operate only from its territory, is the multi-barrel rocket-launchers, which have been sent up the road. And so have Iglas, the Indian-Russian counterpart of the Stingers, to take care of tactical air raids by Pak helicopters. But officials admit that only a bold air raid or a quick ground sweep by Indian forces can destroy the supply lines from Skardu and other places. 

With diplomatic neutralising of world capitals, it appeared that India was readying for even such an offensive. Stabbed in the back at Lahore, India appeared vengeful. But still hesitant to break the Laxman Rekha of LoC, it appeared to be waiting for a thrust at Turtuk. 

Courtesy: THE WEEK

Kargil War Heroes

 

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