How a few disguised men tied up an army of 60,000

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The Independent Online

THE FIRST Indians to discover something was badly wrong in the Himalayan mountains above Kargil this spring were goatherds. They told soldiers in the valley that there were mujahedin, Islamic guerrillas, up there, camping on peaks inside Indian territory. An Indian patrol was sent to investigate: none came back.

THE FIRST Indians to discover something was badly wrong in the Himalayan mountains above Kargil this spring were goatherds. They told soldiers in the valley that there were mujahedin, Islamic guerrillas, up there, camping on peaks inside Indian territory. An Indian patrol was sent to investigate: none came back.

Indian commanders and their political bosses began to realise they were confronting something awesome. This was far worse than shells from the Pakistani side of the ceasefire line, the Line of Control (LoC), that had rained on Kargil for the past three summers.

Enemy forces had scaled peaks along a 50-mile arc, establishing camps on the most commanding points, with supply lines reaching back into Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The mujahedin, mostly regular Pakistani troops in disguise, stared down at India's National Highway 1A, the ribbon of road that links Delhi with Ladakh, the highest and remotest region in the country. Acting as the eyes of Pakistani artillery beyond the LoC, they had all the traffic on the road at their mercy.

It took two months for India to begin to win back the ground. The fighting between the world's two newest nuclear powers was cruel and primitive. India's ageing MiGs strafed and bombed Pakistani positions, sometimes using napalm; the Bofors guns thundered in the valley. Then infantry, roped together, hauled themselves up sheer rock, with 50kg loads on their backs, many shot like rabbits as they hung there.

They climbed only at night, then hurled themselves at the Pakistanis as they reached the peaks, throwing grenades, storming across minefields,finishing the fight man-to-man.

Every day Indian commanders told the media in Delhi of new successes but as casualties mounted, real success was elusive. Neutral experts believed it would be nearly impossible to shift the intruders before winter set in in September.

Only when Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, pressed by India and the United States, ordered a withdrawal, did the fighting stop.

The architect of this Pakistani campaign - 500 men holding back 60,000 for months on end - was the same man who emerged as Pakistan's new strongman on Tuesday night: General Pervez Musharraf, former commando, battle-scarred veteran of earlier Indo-Pakistani wars. Both initiatives - Kargil and the coup - bear his signature: boldness of conception, painstaking planning, ruthless execution.

But did he act alone? Mr Sharif's allies and apologists have been saying that since the Kargil climbdown ordered in July, Mr Sharif was out of the loop: Kargil was the army's show, and Mr Sharif, who signed the Lahore Declaration with India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in February, only endorsed the operation when it was too far advanced for him to call it off.

For Mr Sharif's admirers, this script has the advantage of making him look like a man of peace, though also of weakness. It was a view that the Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, voiced soon after the conflict began. Especially for Indians, it was a useful idea to hold on to: Mr Sharif, the friend of India, betrayed by his rogue, fanatically Islamic army.

But army and intelligence sources in Islamabad and diplomats say the decision to mount the Kargil campaign was taken last autumn, soon after General Musharraf became army chief of staff, with Mr Sharif's knowledge and approval. The weakness of the plan was that strategically it was going nowhere: no defence expert in Islamabad or Delhi claims to understand what its strategic objective might have been.

Mr Sharif is out of the picture, so his character flaws may mainly be of interest to historians. General Musharraf is of more urgent interest, as he now has the fate of 140 million Pakistanis and the peace of the South Asian region in his hands. In his speech to the Pakistani people yesterday he showed an understanding of where Mr Sharif went wrong. But yesterday, speaking to the BBC, his spokesman seemed to be in the dark about what might follow the military takeover.

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