A tenth anniversary has its limitations. It's too early to know what really happened, for protagonists are usually still around purveying their end of the story. For instance, Musharraf in his autobiography still continues with the line that the intruders were Mujahedeen, while we know that they were soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry. This was then a paramilitary outfit with soldiers largely recruited from the Northern Areas in Pakistani occupation. As a reward for its showing at Kargil, the NLI has since been absorbed into the Army as a 'regiment'.
Likewise, on the Indian side, celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary highlight the military victory, whereas the role of the Americans who prevailed on the Pakistanis to pack up and leave is glossed over. Thus, even while acknowledging the victory as a great martial feat, it bears recounting that had the Pakistanis not left under American tutelage, the war could have expanded beyond its Limited War dimensions. With both states having gone nuclear the previous summer, the outcome of such a war could have been grave.
During the Kargil War, the two states had not got their nuclear act together. India was surprised by the Pakistani reading of the nuclear era in its launching of Operation Badr. India had for its part launched the bus to Lahore. Pakistan, in turn, was surprised by the ferocity of Indian reaction, one that threatened to expand the scope of the border war. During the war, Bruce Riedel reports of Clinton telling the visiting Nawaz Sharif of the Army's nuclear preparations back home. Raj Chengappa, a journalist with access to the nuclear establishment, maintains that India upped its nuclear alert status to Level 3.
Little has changed
Ever since, both states have apparently given themselves the mechanisms to avoid making such errors in strategic thinking. The National Security Council in both states was nascent then. India's was then in its first year, while that of Pakistan though half-a-decade old was of little significance. Soon after the war, Pakistan's National Command Authority was set up in February 2000, while India's Nuclear Command Authority followed three years later in wake of Operation Parakram. Can these mechanisms and the learning since be taken as adequate to play the game differently?
India has not managed to bring the troubles in Kashmir to a close. Even though India is at a self-congratulatory moment, having conducted two credible elections in Kashmir, the potential for trouble remains. Pakistan has not dismantled the infrastructure of terror, nor has India made any noteworthy political intervention. Governance initiatives, admittedly imaginative, are nonetheless poor substitutes. In effect, little has changed since Kargil.
Instead, a near war in 2001-02 and a major crisis, 26/11, have occurred since. India has exercised restraint. Nuclear optimists argue that this restraint is due to the nuclear deterrence. Pessimists claim that the fact that crises keep recurring and have the potential for escalation indicates otherwise. To them any consideration of the context needs to factor in American presence and, post 9/11, heightened interest in the region. India has only temporarily been persuaded by the US that Pakistan will stay the course in the global war against terror. Allowing it an alibi through a distraction on the eastern front would debilitate the international effort. It would make the Pakistani state vulnerable to extremists.
However, it is possible to argue that Pakistan is not unaware of the impact of US presence. In trying to influence it through jihadi attacks claimed as renegade action, it hopes the US would prevail on India to concede ground on Kashmir. Its limited success has been in keeping India at bay. Withdraw the American factor and the story since Kargil would have been different.
The US factor
The American commitment in Afghanistan has been extended by Obama. It would bear watching what happens after the presidential elections in Kabul in August. Once the US gains a position of military advantage over the Taliban, it would likely strike a deal with the willing Taliban and leave as early as it can without loss of face. This could be as early as Obama's bid for re-election. Thereafter India and Pakistan would be left more on their own, though not entirely. Firstly, the US would not entirely disengage this time round, and secondly, as at Kargil, its good offices are readily available in a crisis. Without the US as benefactor, Pakistan would likely get less provocative. India would however be less restrained. Nevertheless, with Pakistan less provocative, India may not require to be aggressive.
The counter argument is that Pakistan may gain from a trade-off between the US and the Pakistani military. According to this scenario, while the Pakistani Army enables a tidy exit of the US from the region, it is given something in return - such as strategic space in both Afghanistan and in Kashmir. Therefore, India must fend for itself. For this, India appears prepared.
Learning from the Kargil episode and the subsequent standoff, it has given itself an offensive war doctrine, Cold Start. To stymie Pakistan's nuclear challenge of an Indian conventional attack, India has acquired a second strike capability and given itself an expansive nuclear doctrine promising 'massive' punitive retaliation. Thus, the stage is set for a future minus the US. Being prepared reduces the incentive to negotiate with Pakistan or for political ministration in Kashmir. The growing power divergence between the two states would keep the outcome in India's favour.
There is a second dimension to the dangers ahead. Ever since the US weighed in on the Indian side at Kargil, a closer relationship between the two has developed. What began in the post Pokhran II dialogue to arrive at a mutual comprehension between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott is to culminate in the Indian prime minister being the first state guest of the Obama administration in November this year.
The Indian investment is one of longer term importance for the US, directed at the rising power likely to challenge its global position, China. Already, hyper-realist opinion-makers claim China may seek to divert the attention of its citizens from its economy-related internal troubles by attacking India in the near term. The former Air Chief while departing on pension - a moment when there is least reason to be reticent - opined that China is a 'greater threat' than Pakistan. General JJ Singh, Governor in Arunachal Pradesh, has stated that a build up of 60,000 troops in the border state is required.
As at Kargil, India could blunder into another border war and there is also no guarantee that this would stay limited as then. It would make better sense to acknowledge the primary requirement of the nuclear age and get into a meaningful huddle with both antagonists. Only a strategic dialogue in a standing forum can help avert dangers and alleviate conditions that give rise to such dangers. Only by setting this up can we truly honour the martyrs of Kargil; else they will have died in vain.