June 1999 News


India close to declaring all-out war in Kashmir

16 June 1999
The Guardian
By: Suzanne Goldenberg

The clamour grew for India to wage all-out war against Pakistan as the Indian death toll from fighting Islamic militants in the mountains of Kashmir inched past 106 yesterday.

The Pakistani incursion over the "line of control" separating the two powers in the disputed province has proved deeply humiliating to the Indian army, which has not fought a war since 1971.

An estimated 30,000 Indian soldiers have now been moved to the Kargil area, but attempting to scale the 16,000ft peaks in the territory is likely to lead to many casualties.

But the likelihood of heavy losses is also the product of a defence establishment where decisions on salaries and arms purchases are left to bureaucrats and training, modernisation and the maintenance of equipment have not been seen as a priority.

"Their military capability from the outset is not as high as it should be," a western defence analyst said. "They are over-manned and under-resourced. Whether it's small arms, ammunition, clothing or tank barrels, the bureaucrats just don't move the file."

There were more funerals yesterday. One of the three coffins delivered to New Delhi was that of Major Rajesh Adhikari, killed on May 29. His body could not be recovered until Monday - a sign of the punishment the Indian forces are taking.

On the front line, the contrast with Kosovo could not be sharper: there are no laser-guided bombing raids here.

Even years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 70% of India's military equipment is Soviet-made - which means robust rather than hi-tech.

On any given day only half India's fleet of MiG aircraft are airworthy. Most of its Bofors guns, the Swedish-made howitzers which have proved the army's saviour at Kargil, are firing far below their maximum speed, because their automatic functions are not working.

Within three weeks of the fighting, New Delhi was running low on ammunition, and approached South Africa for shells and spare parts.

It is also running low on talent as other career options open up for the ambitious, educated children of the middle classes.

Last weekend half the new graduates of the military academy at Dehra Dun were marched right to the front to compensate for the shortage of officers - almost 15,000 are needed.

Such handicaps are behind the increasing pressure on the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to drop his posture of restraint, and sanction a move across the line of control into Pakistani Kashmir.

"These mountains just soak up men. It is getting increasingly more likely India will find it has to cross the [line of control] to have any chance of success in this operation," the defence analyst said.

On television and in print, retired generals and other commentators have been strongly pressing the military case for India to cross the line.

At its most modest, such an operation would be restricted to cutting the supply routes to the invaders at Kargil, who continue to receive reinforcements. At its most ambitious, it would mean opening a second front.

In both cases, however, it would lead to a full-scale war between two nuclear powers - a possibility that has seemed more likely since talks broke down on Monday. Both sides are massing forces along the line of control, to the alarm of the international community.

On Monday night President Clinton called both prime ministers to plead for restraint.

"We obviously take this very seriously," said James Steinberg, Mr Clinton's deputy national security adviser. "We have urged all sides to exercise maximum restraint . . . and to intensify their diplomatic contacts."

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