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The War Nerd December 10, 2004
Kargil War as Ice Capades
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

Some guy in India asked me to write about the 1999 Indo-Pakistani fighting in Kargil, a patch of high-altitude ice in Kashmir at the northern tip of the Subcontinent. This is some of the most worthless and fought-over ground in the world, up where the borders between Pakistan, India and China smear together like the middle of a pie sliced by a spastic.

Pakistan lost the conventional fight for Kashmir in the three Indo-Pakistani wars, and now mostly sticks to funding the 30-odd militias fighting to eject India, but there have been a few small conventional battles. The Kargil border battle was the biggest, but as I recalled, it ended in a stalemate—a few hundred dead on either side, and no real change in the border.

It didn’t seem like much to work with, but he promised me there was some pretty intense fighting, "even hand-to-hand combat!" I don’t know why people think hand-to-hand combat is so wonderful. It’s usually a sign that something has gone way wrong in the plan. The whole idea is to destroy the enemy before he gets close enough to grapple with you. And hand-to-hand fighting 18,000 feet up in the Himalayas makes me tired just thinking about it. It must’ve been some pretty slow-motion combat, like Tom and Jerry on valium. Lunge, take a five-minute breathing break, lunge again.

At that altitude, nothing works the way it’s supposed to. Kargil was the only time two modern armies fought at such an insane altitude. Both armies had to use specially modified helicopters to ferry supplies, because normal models won’t fly in that thin air. Artillery ranges were all messed up too, because standard trajectory calculations didn’t hold. Shells flew much further than they were supposed to—no wind resistance.

Humans don’t work too well at 18,000 feet either; guys on both sides were falling over with altitude sickness and frostbite before they even made it to the front. In most other ways Kargil was a classic example of why war these days is so frustrating to watch. Instead of India and Pakistan slugging it out with all their strength down on the flat, they settled for this little sideshow in terrain that made large-scale warfare impossible.

Actually, that’s why they fought in Kargil: because they knew it was smalltime and would stay smalltime. By 1999, India and Pakistan both had nuclear weapons. Remember how overcautious those made us and the Russians in the Cold War? Well, it had the same effect on the Subcontinentals. Neither country is really all that eager to find out how itchy the other side’s button-pressing finger is.

The Pakistanis still want Kashmir back from the Indians—it’s a Muslim region so they figure it’s rightfully theirs—but they want to take it in an indirect, deniable way. So the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, came up with the idea of infiltrating some "volunteers"—a mix of Kashmiri, Afghan and Pakistani Islamists—into the heights of Kargil during the long winter.

At that time of year, the Indian troops in Northern Kashmir hunker down in their bases and try to eat enough Vindaloo Curry to stay warm. The Indian Army didn’t even notice the enemy trenches overlooking them till May 1999, when they started digging their bunkers out from under the snow. Indian scouts—Get it? "Indian scouts"?—noticed that there were enemy infiltrators dug in along a ridgeline on their side of the "Line of Control," the border between them and the Pakistanis.

The Indians decided to deal with the problem the sensible way: with air power. Unlike helicopters, jets love high altitudes and the Indian pilots were dying to fly their MiGs against live targets.

That didn’t work out too well. The infiltrators used shoulder-fired SAMs to shoot down a MiG 27, and then the MiG 21 the Indian AF sent to find out what happened to the MiG 27. Why you’d send a clunker like the MiG 21 out after a better plane like the MiG 27 I don’t know, but they did. Score so far: Infiltrators 2, India 0.

One of the most important lessons of this weird little campaign is that even a small infantry force can defend itself against air attack if it’s equipped with good SAMs. And somebody (meaning the ISI) had provided the infiltrators with some very good SAMs. I can’t help wondering if they were Stingers, because we handed over a whole lot of these top-of-the-line American shoulder-fired SAMs to the Pakistanis back in the eighties. The idea was they’d pass them on to the Afghans to use against Soviet Mi24s. And they did, and it worked; it was a big factor in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. There was just one little problem: when we tried to collect all the unfired Stingers after the war…well, we sorta couldn’t account for a couple hundred of them.

The CIA put up posters all over Afghanistan offering cash for any returned Stingers, but didn’t get too many takers. I guess some Afghans decided they’d prefer to keep their surface-to-air capability. After all, if you want money, all you need to do is plant more opium poppies; but money can’t buy a weapon as magical as a Stinger. And of course a lot of Stingers never made it to Afghanistan at all; the ISI kept them to pass on to its Islamic-militant friends for future use.

The infiltrators sent one shot-down pilot’s body back to the Indians, but that only made the Indians angrier, because an autopsy showed the pilot hadn’t died of injuries in the crash. He’d been shot twice, in the chest and head. The Indian press had a great time playing up that story, and the home folks started getting excited.

The Indian Army was still trying to figure out who was up on that ridgeline, and what they were going to do about it. Over the next few days, there were probes and counter-probes all along the LOC. Naturally, there were casualties on both sides—and when the Pakistanis handed back the Indian dead, the corpses were mutilated, eyes and penises missing.

At least that’s the way the Indian newspapers told the story. Who knows if it’s true? What we’re dealing with here is good old war propaganda, and nothing gets the home folks excited like mutilated corpses. It goes all the way back to the Iliad, with Achilles dragging Hector’s body around tied to the back bumper of his chariot.

Personally, I don’t much care what they do with me once I’m cold meat. I’d much rather be mutilated dead than alive. If they had a donor card for corpse mutilation on your driver’s license, I’d check the box every time. But for some reason it drives people crazy seeing a body mistreated. When we ran from Somalia in ’92, it wasn’t losing those 18 men that upset people—it was those pictures of dead GIs being dragged in the dust.

Little wars like Kargil are actually better than a big war for stirring up nationalism back home. When a country’s fighting for its life, people are more scared than proud. But as long as the war is a skirmish 18,000 feet up in the Himalayas, nobody has to be afraid. They can afford to puff out their chests and get all furious about atrocity stories.

And the Indian press pushed the Kargil story as hard as it could. India is a huge, messed-up country with more than a billion people speaking more different languages than there are in all of Europe. You have to work damn hard to keep a place like that united, and the simplest way is to get them mad at somebody across the border.

Kargil was like the Alamo for Indian propaganda—kind of a sacred last stand. If you want to see what I mean, have a look at a couple of websites I found dedicated to the "heroes" and "martyrs" who died in Kargil:

You read some of the "tributes" on these sites, stuff about "grim-jawed officers meeting the heroes’ coffins," and you’d think you were back in one of the great old European wars, before the Europeans got too cool and chickenshit to do patriotism:

"With unrelenting courage and fierce determination, [India’s] brave soldiers are guarding the country from the enemy's clutches. Facing danger at every step and hostile weather conditions, they put their lives at risk. Forsaking the comforts of home and family life for a life of hardship and danger, it's their unwavering love for their motherland that spurs them on. This page is dedicated to the brave men of our soil who embrace danger and even death willingly for the sake of the country. This page is the tribute to their indomitable will, their stoic courage, and their intense love for nation…[the Kargil campaign] ended with pakistani army (cowards) and its foreign mercenaries FLUSHED OUT WITH HEAVY LOSSES!"

I like the way the website guy put "cowards" in parentheses right after "pakistani army." Me being a writer myself, I can see that’s his way of making sure the reader gets the point. He’s also a fan of all-caps, to make sure you get the important bits, like "FLUSHED OUT."

Finding these websites really cheered me up, made me realize that just because one part of the world gets all cool and tired doesn’t mean it’s all over for everybody. Excitement just moves to a new part of the world. We’re just starting the era of great national wars in the Subcontinent. They’re not tired at all; they’ve got this big birthrate, a really patriotic press, an economy just heating up, lots of energy—all the ingredients.

There was even a hit film about Kargil in India, a "Bollywood blockbuster" called LOC Kargil. I got a real kick out of reading what the female lead, a woman named Esha Deol, said about being in the movie. If you want to know what all-out patriotism is, forget the poor Jawans (grunts) who died up on the ice and just listen to her comment: "I would have worked on the film even if they’d only given me a two-minute role."

Settling for a two-minute role—baby, that’s real sacrifice.

Like most wars these days, Kargil just petered out. The infiltrators had the best of it at first. Indian intelligence had failed to give any warning. Well, that’s what military intelligence does: fail. They should just drop the facade and call MI the "Department of ‘Whoops!’"

By the time the Indian Army spotted these mysterious infiltrators, they were dug in on the high ground. Not a good position to be in, if you’re the Indians—kind of like Bunker Hill, if it was on top of Mount Everest. Attacking uphill in air that thin, while the defenders shoot and shell you—man, that’s my idea of hell.

All things considered, the Indian Army did pretty well. They got aggressive, once they saw the threat, and forced the infiltrators to leave. The ones who stayed died. So did about 400 Indian troops. I haven’t been able to find a breakdown on causes of death, but I’d bet that the cold and lack of oxygen killed at least as many men as enemy fire did.

Once the skirmishing was over, the fight was on the propaganda front. The big question was how much the Pakistani Army had been involved. Naturally they tried to claim it was all foreign "militants" who’d dug in on the heights in order to free Kashmir from Indian rule. Naturally the Indians tried to prove that the whole Kargil war was a Pakistani Army operation from the get-go.

And it was. It couldn’t have happened without massive help from the Pakistani Army and more importantly the ISI. There were never more than 1000 infiltrators on the heights, but it took tens of thousands of men to handle the logistics for a manned position in hostile terrain like that. The Pakistanis later admitted that one of their local units, the Northern Light Infantry, had crossed the LOC and "helped" the infiltrators, who were mostly locals and Pakistanis—the foreign militants were never more than 10% of the infiltrators.

In tactical terms, Kargil meant very little. The battlefield was one of the least-valuable bits of real estate on the planet. If it had fallen, nothing would have changed down on the hot flatlands where the Indians and Pakistanis actually live.

But war these days isn’t about tactical victory. It’s about morale, and propaganda. In those terms, Kargil was a huge, huge victory for India and a big defeat for Pakistan. It did more for Indian nationalism than cricket, and that’s saying a lot. It’s damn hard finding anything everybody in India can rally behind. Almost everything there is the exclusive property of one particular tribe, or religion, or caste. Remember, India nearly tore itself apart twelve years ago over whether the Muslims or the Hindus had a right to build a shrine on some extra-special piece of holy turf in Ayodhya.

And that’s where losing 400 men in a high-profile, harmless little war like Kargil comes in handy. Those websites I mentioned list the names of every single Indian soldier killed up there. When you consider how many Indians die every day, with nobody giving a damn at all, it’s pretty amazing that these 400 dead guys get so much adoring press.

When you look at the list of names, you see why. Some of the names are obviously Sikhs (Sikhs love armies), but there are plenty of Hindu names, Muslim names—for all I know there are Zoroastrian names in there too. It’s a chance to sob together over those dead integrated units—like those good old corny WW II movies where every platoon has this melting-pot roll call: "OK, lissen up, Bernstein, deNapoli, O’Brien, Kowalski, and Running Bear!" And naturally the most harmless ethnic sidekick in the platoon gets killed and everybody cries, and feels patriotic. I haven’t even seen the Bollywood movie they made out of Kargil but I’m willing to bet it has a scene like that in it.

By losing 400 men up there where there are no mosques, Hindu temples, Untouchables or sacred cows, India got a huge nation-building boost at zero cost—a strategic victory out of a minor skirmish.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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