On taking over 192 Mountain Brigade in January 2000, after the Kargil War, my immediate focus was to reconnoiter the terrain of my area of responsibility–which was 70 km along the Line of Control (LOC). The three Infantry Battalions under my command were manning 12-15 posts each. The terrain of Batalik-Yaldor-Chorbatla Sector is the most rugged after the Siachen Glacier, with heights ranging from 15,000 feet to 19,000 feet. The temperatures in winter range from minus 10-15 degrees Celsius on a sunny day to minus 35-40 degrees Celsius at night. Even in summer the nighttime temperatures are minus 5-10 degrees Celsius.
After a detailed helicopter reconnaissance, I began my ground reconnaissance in the first week of February 2000 from the Yaldor Sub Sector. Prior to Kargil, the entire sector was the responsibility of the 3 Punjab. However, the unit was physically holding only the Western third of the sector, 10 km on either side of the Indus River. Between Point 5006, the Eastern-most post of 3 Punjab and Chorbatla held by a BSF platoon, there was a gap of 40 km along the Line of Control (LOC) where there were no troops. The decision not to hold this gap was a deliberate one based on terrain, enemy appreciation, and the paucity of troops. The area was to be kept under surveillance by foot patrols and helicopters. This implied that at least three patrols had to cover the likely infiltration routes apart from helicopter reconnaissance by day.
While the area was diligently patrolled in the summers from May to October, in winters, patrolling was virtually non existent due to the flawed assessment that tactical operations are not feasible due to extreme cold and snow. Surprisingly helicopter reconnaissance was also not carried out. No attempt was made to recruit local levies from the Buddhist and Muslim populations of the area who are used to the harsh winters. The locals who frequent the area in early and late winter were not tapped as intelligence sources. While there had been complete intelligence failure at the strategic level on part of the Research and Analysis Wing, the failure at the tactical level, particularly the battalion, brigade and division level, will remain an indelible blot on the Indian Army like the 1962 debacle. More so, when in 1984 we had secured our un-held areas along the Actual Ground Position Line in Siachen where the terrain and weather is the most hostile in the world and which was also the responsibility of 3 Infantry Division. We also failed to remember that the Gilgit Scouts had operated in the entire stretch from Leh to Zozila in winters of 1947-48, as had our troops.
It is an empirical military irony that the defender always appreciates that difficult terrain can be lightly held or kept under surveillance for response and the attacker always appreciates that he must exploit it. Military history is replete with examples where human endeavour exploited difficult terrain to achieve success.
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as I trudged up from Dah via Yaldor to Munthu Dhalo. Munthu, in the Balti language, is the name of a small lotus-like red flower and Dhalo is plateau. Located at an altitude of 14,500 feet, it looks like a small lunar bowl nestled between the the formidable Ladakh Range to the north, the Kukarthang/ Jubar Ridge to the west and the Khalubar Ridge to the east. This was the main logistics and staging base for Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) Company Columns, created out of 3, 4 and 5 NLI Battalions that were operating in the area during the Kargil War. It was snow covered in February, and the daytime temperature was minus 15 degrees Celsius. Yet I could not help but admire the breathtaking rugged beauty of the area. I was briefed about the operations conducted in summer of 1999 and the current operational situation. The tell-tale signs of the Logistics Base were still there. Burnt and blood splattered white snow tents, remnants of ammunition and ration dumps and sangars spread over a distance of one km were visible to the naked eye. It was over Munthu Dhalo on 27 May 1999 that a Mig 27 flown by Flt Lt Nachiketa had a flameout and crashed, and a Mig 21 flown by Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja who stayed over the area to coordinate the rescue operations, was shot down by the Pakistani troops using a Stinger missile
My tenure of one and a half years as Commander of this sector, interviews with veterans of the war and a detailed study of published material gave me an insight into the fascinating tactical operations conducted by the NLI in this area.
It was apparent that the Pakistanis had carried out detailed reconnaissance over the years gaining better knowledge than what we had of the area. Logistics were built up during 1998 and logistic bases were created in Goma Ganoks Nala and Chorbat Lungpa. From these bases during March – April 1999 along with the infiltration, Forward Logistic Bases were created at Munthu Dhalo for 3 NLI and below Point (Pt) 5000 in Junk Lungpa for 4 NLI. The route of infiltration of 3 NLI was Marol – Goma Ganoks Nala – Point 5285/Point 5239 – Munthu Dhalo – Jubar/Kukarthang/ Khalubar Ridges. The route of infiltration of 4 NLI was from Piun – Chorbat Lungpa – Churbar Sispo – Point 5000 Base -Point 5203/Khalubar. A small attempt was also made from Siari – Kurubar Nala- Sonam which was nipped in the bud on 30 May 1999 as described by me in my earlier column.
The infiltration routes and heights secured by the Pakistan Army are marked on the image in red and our posts are marked in blue.
This Sector did not have the same strategic significance as the Mushko – Drass – Dalunag intrusion, as the Srinagar – Leh Highway was 40 km to the south. However, the intrusion in this area outflanked the Turtok Sector and could cut it off if Pakistanis brought in additional forces. Additionally, it extended the LOC further south by 10 km over a frontage of nearly 20 km and tactical control of an area of nearly 200 square km. Our leftover positions at Point 5006, Devil’s Eye and Chorbatla could have been easily cleared if we had delayed our response.
By all counts it was a brilliant tactical feat by the NLI troops. The surprise achieved was total. Extremely difficult terrain was surmounted; the troops sustained and persevered in sub-zero temperatures and high altitude. Logistic build up was imaginatively carried out and sustained. The lessons that we had learnt in 1947-48 and 1962 that well trained troops can carry out offensive operations in winters in high altitude had been wished away by us. The tactical conduct was brilliant until we built up an overwhelming force. The failure of the Pakistan Army was at the strategic level.
There was no clarity on the likely Indian response. It was naively assumed that since only un-held tactically dominant areas had been occupied, we would settle for a status quo as had happened in Siachen in their case. Also having seen the Indian response, the Pakistan Army failed to build up adequate forces to oppose the equivalent of a division that we mustered in this area. Sadly the brave NLI troops were left to their fate.
[Not To Scale]
The NLI infiltration routes are marked in purple dots and the heights secured in red dots. Our posts are shown with blue dots.
It was apparent that it was feasible to patrol this area in the winter. It was a fundamental tactical lapse at the Battalion/Brigade Level in not having kept this area under surveillance. It was also apparent that no helicopter reconnaissance was done, as even after seven months one could see the telltale signs of the Logistics base from the ground and while flying in a helicopter. It was left to a resident of Garkhun village, Tashi Namgyal, to discover the intrusion on Jubar Ridge on 3 May 1999. He, along with two friends, had gone looking for a lost yak and while peering through his binoculars saw six Pakistani soldiers in black apparel.
He immediately reported the matter to the Commanding Officer of 3 Punjab at Batalik. Tashi Namgyal remains an unsung hero but will be remembered as the man who did what the Research and Analysis Wing and the Indian Army could not!
The tactical lapses in not keeping the un-held areas of Kargil under surveillance will remain as a permanent blot on the name of the Indian Army!