Pakistan admits troops' incursion

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PAKISTAN PUBLICLY admitted for the first time yesterday that its troops had operated on the Indian side of Kashmir's de facto border in the mountain war between the two neighbours that is now winding down.

In an interview with the BBC, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Army's chief of staff, acknowledged that Pakistani troops had conducted what he called "aggressive patrolling" across the border, known as the Line of Control or LoC, during the hostilities. Until now Pakistan has insisted that only mujahideen, Islamic freedom fighters, have crossed into the Indian side.

Yesterday in the mountains above Kargil, the guns were silent and the few hundred Pakistani infiltrators who kept 40,000 Indian troops at bay for two months have melted away.

In India, there is broad agreement about what sort of an event this has been. As India sees it, several hundred Pakistani soldiers disguised as mujahideen crossed from the Pakistani side of theLoC and dug themselves in on the craggy ridges overlooking the vital highway that connects Srinagar, the Kashmiri summer capital, to Ladakh, the highest city in the world, across an area some 125 miles in length. They were able to do this because these ridges, some as high as 16,000 feet and covered in deep snow every winter, are vacated by both sides in September.

Because India's intelligence failed and its patrols were inadequate, the infiltrators were able to sneak in without alerting the Indians until early May, when an Indian patrol stumbled on an enemy-occupied bunker and never came home. A fortnight later, when the scale of the intrusion became clear, India launched a massive attack, including MiG and Mirage jet fighters and helicopter gunships, to drive out the intruders. But it was an immense task: in two months India probably lost more than 500 soldiers, and spent tens of millions of dollars. They won local successes but when, on 4 July, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the US President, Bill Clinton, called on the intruders to withdraw, India was still a long way from victory.

That's broadly how India sees it. But in Pakistan, confusion reigns. Over every aspect of the campaign there are far more questions than answers. Who ordered the campaign? What did they hope to achieve by it? Who did the infiltrating force consist of? Why did India counter-attack with such ferocity? And, most naggingly, why did Mr Sharif suddenly fly to Washington and with Mr Clinton at his side announce he was aborting a campaign that was apparently going so well? There is very little agreement about any of these matters.

But there is a consensus of anger. The perception among ordinary Pakistanis, and shared by many in the elite, is that the Prime Minister has sold the Pakistan Army down the river.

"War is a violent expression of political intention," a former senior officer in Pakistani intelligence told The Independent. But in the case of Kargil, the question of political intention remains elusive. "No one has come up with a credible account of what the operation was designed to do," a Western defence expert said. "It had to have a wider strategic objective - but what was the mission?"

Equally shrouded in fog has been the identity of the soldiers who have been fighting for Pakistan and/or Kashmir for the past two months.

Yesterday's statement by General Musharraf was the first official admission that mujahideen were not the only people who had crossed into Indian territory. The only other acknowledged involvement of Pakistani troops was in supporting the campaign from Pakistani soil - with artillery fire, for example.

Neutral observers have long been adamant that most of the troops were regular Pakistani soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry, recruited locally and well adapted to fighting at Kargil's altitude. But because the Pakistani government was committed to the mujahideen fiction, the sense of plucky young men making the ultimate sacrifice in large numbers - a fact that has dominated the Indian press for weeks - has been absent in Pakistan. Here the war's goal was a shadow, and the protagonists were ghosts.

But amid the fog, certain facts are coming into focus. The Kargil adventure was probably proposed to Mr Sharif late last year, or in January at the latest. If he gave it the nod without rigorous examination, that, people say, is his style. Last year the previous army chief of staff was sacked after he proposed the establishment of a National Security Council. Had such a body existed, it might have looked at the Kargil idea a little more keenly. "They briefed him," a Western diplomat said, "but he probably didn't ask where it was going." The goals that are suggested for the mission are mostly very hazy: it was to re-ignite the militancy in the Kashmir valley, or to re-alert the world to the Kashmir problem, or to put pressure on India to negotiate on Kashmir in earnest.

One former chief of the army, General Mirza Aslam Beg, told The Independent the war could have culminated in a general war with India in which Pakistan would have "liberated" Kashmir. But this view was dismissed by Western experts as "a fantasy".

"Kargil was a tactical operation which spun out of control due to the violence of the Indian reaction," one defence analyst said. And because Pakistan was so glaringly the aggressor - and India was canny enough not to broaden the war - Pakistan's friends deserted her. Even Saudi Arabia, it is said, privately disapproved.

For ordinary Pakistanis, stranded in a fog of disinformation, one fact came looming clearly after Mr Sharif's trip to the US: victory had been turned into a rout. "There is a great deal of disappointment and anger in the army," said a retired senior general. "They feel badly let down. It is a loss of face for Pakistan, and a political disaster for the government."