While crises under the nuclear overhang have punctuated South Asian security, Kargil was the first after the two states went overtly nuclear. It has since been followed by standoffs in 2001-02 and 2008. This has ignited a debate between nuclear optimists and nuclear pessimists. Optimists believe that nuclear weapons have that deterred war and where it did break out, like in Kargil, it remained localized. Pessimists see the potential of escalation in such crises and explain that the Kargil conflict remained limited due to American intervention. This underlines the continuing nuclear danger in South Asia, which acquires prominence in light of the strategic irrationality evident at Kargil. The Indians believed that advent of the nuclear era made war unthinkable and embarked on the Lahore process. The Pakistani military assessed that there was scope for a limited conventional conflict and launched Operation Badr. It obfuscated issues by claiming that the Line of Control was indistinct in the Kargil sector and that the operation was led by Kashmiri militants.
The Indians, buying into the Pakistani logic that there is a window for conventional conflict, have adopted a proactive conventional war doctrine, Cold Start. However, there is no debate on the contours of Limited War. This emphasizes the limitations in strategic thinking on both sides. This situation, described by Ashley Tellis as ‘ugly stability’ is likely to persist, a sense of ownership of the peace process is absent at the political level. Issues lending themselves to technical solutions, such as Siachen, Sir Creek, Baghliar and Tulbul projects, are held hostage to the larger vexed question of Kashmir. While confidence-building measures have expanded, the peace process – despite being accepted as ‘irreversible’ - continues to be vulnerable to negative forces. Thus, advances made since Kargil, while welcome, remain tenuous.
The problem of reading Pakistan correctly persists. Mistaking Nawaz Sharif’s position before Kargil as Pakistan’s, India misread the civil-military equations in Pakistan. India misread Musharraf twice over. Once at Agra and next by making the backchannel dialogue hostage to his term in office. There is much more scepticism for Zardari’s placatory statements like his acceptance that proxy war was promoted by Pakistan through ‘strategic assets’ who are more appropriately termed ‘terrorists’. Pakistan’s Army remains India’s foremost strategic problem. It has the backing of the US for its recently energized role against the Taliban. India is an interested bystander at best and a spoiler at the worst in the Af-Pak region, assuming that India wishes to do more on conflict resolution, fresh governments coming into office with Delhi and Srinagar.
Meanwhile, civil unrest continues in Kashmir over completely avoidable issues. Bringing back normalcy requires both political and governance initiatives. The political prong of normalization is taken as ‘done’ with the holding of elections. The Prime Minister’s Round Table working group on, “Strengthening Relations between the State and the Center,” has not even submitted a report. Thus, the situation has not changed materially since Kargil. The present preoccupation is over the withdrawal of the Central Reserve Police Force – foisted on the Valley by the Task Force on Internal Security.
Siachen was among the candidate causes of the Kargil conflict, but the issues continues to linger with Rs.30 million spent there a day. Militarization of Kargil and Ladhak is underway with the Ladhak Scouts, a paramilitary force under the Army, gaining the status of a regiment, which mirrors the case of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry comprising men from the Northern Areas.
The current call to militarize the disputed Arunachal border with China has echoes of Kargil. India continues with the military approach to its border problems even as indications from society are to the contrary. While the attraction of officership in the services gained temporarily in the aftermath of Kargil and the drop in popularity since was arrested temporarily, due to the coincidence between the economic slowdown outside the military and the Sixth Pay Commission largesse within, the state has been remiss in observing military proprieties. The highest dignitary at Sam Bahadur’s funeral was a Minister of State and the tenth anniversary of Pokhran II went unnoticed last year. Ceremonies can be dispensed with if lessons that are rehearsed at anniversaries are assimilated. The memory of the young martyrs at Kargil of both sides requires that both states exert themselves to reach strategic maturity. This is best achieved by avoiding shedding more blood. The reaction to the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan in India is an indication that lessons remain unlearned.