Why was India surprised in Kargil 21 years ago? Serving IPS officer Vijay Sakhare, who specializes in intelligence and related issues, gives us his take.
By Vijay Sakhare
In the summer of 1999, India and Pakistan fought a high-altitude limited war in Kargil, a remote area in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Fighting began when the Indian Army discovered that a number of armed men had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and entrenched themselves on the Indian side. Over the following weeks, Indian troops learned that these armed men were not mujahedeen fighters, as had been first assumed, but Pakistan Army regulars disguised as militants. Consequently, a security crisis with potential to turn into a nuclear war erupted as India and Pakistan fought for next Eleven weeks. Fighting ended on 26th July with the intervention of United States President Bill Clinton who considered South Asia ‘the most dangerous place on the Earth’.
As war raged, Indian intelligence agencies were blamed for the ‘intelligence failure’. The Kargil Review Committee established to review the events that led to Kargil war, found that Pakistan’s armed intrusion had completely taken India by surprise. It further stated that it could not find ‘any agency or individual’ who was able to predict Pakistan’s invasion. In his memoirs Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, Indian Chief of Army Staff during the Kargil War, General Ved Prakash Malik, blamed Indian intelligence agencies for their failure to predict the intrusion. The founding father of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Rameshwar Nath Kao, when asked for his opinion by then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said that the army wrongfully blamed intelligence agencies for the ‘intelligence failure’. While the media and the Indian Army also pointed to an intelligence fiasco, former and serving intelligence officers and security experts argued that intelligence agencies were blamed incorrectly for omissions and commissions of the army. 
Contrary to the dominant narrative, this essay will argue that the Kargil Crisis was not an ‘intelligence failure’, exclusively. It will establish that while intelligence agencies collected important strategic and tactical intelligence, failures in assessment led to incorrect predictions about Pakistan’s intentions. It will illustrate that despite incorrect assessments, the Kargil war could have been prevented had the army paid due attention to intelligence inputs, and been diligent in guarding the Line of Control (LoC).
The essay is divided into seven sections. Section I provides a theoretical background of the meaning of ‘intelligence failure’ and the factors that lead to such an outcome. Section II briefly describes the history and structure of India’s intelligence system. Section III provides an overview of the Kargil War, while Section IV outlines the important inputs provided by intelligence agencies prior to the conflict. Section V examines why intelligence agencies erred in their threat assessment. Section VI juxtaposes the Kargil War with other international ‘warning failures’. Finally, Section VII concludes by examining whether the Indian Army could have prevented the Kargil War despite assessment failures by intelligence agencies.
What is intelligence failure?
Robert Jervis argues that the most obvious meaning of ‘intelligence failure’ is a mismatch between estimates and subsequent events. It also represents a forecast falling short of what one expects from good intelligence. Sherman Kent, in his hugely popular 1946 classic ‘Strategic Intelligence’, postulates that an intelligence cycle consists of four stages: requirement, collection, analysis and production, and dissemination to a variety of customers. Based on these stages, intelligence failures are those pertaining to: the collection of information, analysis of the information and the response to the produced intelligence. The responsibility of collection failures lies squarely on the intelligence agencies but failures of information assessment and response are as much a failure of the political-strategic leadership as that of intelligence agency. 
Richard Betts classifies the factors responsible for intelligence failures into three categories called ‘enemies of intelligence’. The first category is ‘outside enemies’, literally national enemies or foreign adversaries who attempt deception and denial. The second category is, ‘innocent enemies’, organizational shortcomings that normally include negligence in standard operating procedure, institutional myopia, gaps in coverage, inefficiency caused by organizational redundancy and inadequate skill sets. Betts’s third category, ‘inherent enemies’ – limitations that are not only part of the human condition but also key aspects of intelligence – are the most serious intelligence challenge. They are inherently problematic and not easily ‘fixed’, rendering intelligence failures inevitable.
Before scrutinising the role played by these factors in Kargil Crisis, the next section delineates the history and structure of Indian intelligence agencies.
History and Structure of Indian Intelligence Agencies
In 1887, the British government established the ‘Central Special Branch (CSB)’ to collect, collate and analyse secret and political intelligence. The Government of India Act 1919 defined the tasks of the CSB and it became Intelligence Bureau (IB) in 1920.
After independence, the Constitution of India placed IB on the Union List (Item 8, Article 246, Seventh Schedule) putting it completely under the complete control of the Central Government. IB assumed responsibility for collecting both strategic and domestic intelligence, the latter focussing on the activities of insurgents, militants and Communists, and the former, monitoring Pakistan and the Peoples’ Republic of China.
After the creation of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) in 1967, IB’s role became restricted to combating threats to India’s internal security. The involvement of Pakistan-based militant groups in terrorist activities in India necessitated IB to maintain posts along India’s western borders which routinely collected intelligence on Pakistan, which proved crucial in the Kargil Crisis.
The Research and Analysis Wing was created in response to the shock of India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. It was carved out of IB’s ‘external wing’ by executive order from the Prime Minister’s Office. It is responsible for foreign intelligence and threats to the external security of India. Roughly a quarter of the agency’s output deals with military intelligence, the remainder being dedicated to political and economic intelligence.
The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) is an apex body for coordination among different intelligence organizations and preparation of intelligence estimates. It doesn’t have intelligence collection sources of its own, but it is provided with inputs by all the agencies for making assessments. It issues the Monthly Intelligence Review and Strategic Analysis and prepares papers on important topics. Despite its position of authority, JIC has been routinely bypassed by intelligence agencies and undermined by turf wars. This proved critical in the flawed assessment of the threat in Kargil War.
Military intelligence encompasses all Indian Army personnel engaged in intelligence work. The Directorate-General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) coordinates intelligence activities in the army. It streamlines information ﬂow to ensure that field commanders receive time-sensitive data. The Kargil Review Committee found that military intelligence produced a significant number of tactical intelligence inputs that it did not share with civilian intelligence agencies or JIC.
Before examining how this situation contributed to intelligence failure the following section will discuss the Kargil War.
Kargil District in Kashmir shares the LoC with Pakistan. The LoC is characterised by steep, barren mountains ranging from eight to eighteen thousand feet high. Indian and Pakistani border posts are situated along the outer mountainous ridges. The area is poorly served logistically and many posts become inaccessible in winter. Snowfall and avalanches make patrolling treacherous. Since 1977, India and Pakistan had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ stipulating that neither would occupy the most isolated posts from September 15th to April 15th annually. But in 1999, the Pakistan Army violated this agreement by occupying vacated Indian Army posts.
On May 3rd, the Indian Army’s 121 Brigade in Kargil received reports of armed intruders in the Kargil sector. On May 8th the Army reported clashes between patrols sent to verify this input and the intruders. Fighting broke out when Indian troops discovered that armed men had crossed the LoC and entrenched themselves in vacated Indian posts. On May 12th, Headquarters Northern Command informed Indian Army Headquarters about an intrusion of 100 to 150 ‘jihadis’, a figure which was continuously revised in subsequent weeks. It was confirmed that the armed intruders were Pakistan Army regulars when R&AW intercepted a conversation between General Parvez Musharraf and his Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz. For next 11 weeks, the Indian Army fought high-altitude war with Pakistan regulars and had recaptured most of its posts before the United States intervened to end the war. The Army recovered all remaining posts and war came to an official finish on July 26th 1999.
The Kargil Review Committee revealed that it could not find ‘a single agency or individual’ who was able to predict Pakistan’s large-scale intrusion. It found fault with intelligence agencies, especially R&AW. General Malik cried ‘intelligence failure’ and blamed intelligence agencies for Kargil War, while B. Raman, former Additional Secretary in R&AW for three decades, argued that the Army was blaming intelligence agencies in order to hide its own failures. Praveen Swami, a renowned security expert, deemed charges of intelligence failure to be unsubstantiated and partly a cover-up for lapses by the Indian Army.
So, was Kargil an ‘intelligence failure’ or an Indian Army ‘cover-up’? The next section details the inputs provided by intelligence agencies in order to examine the extent to which the Kargil Crisis can be attributed to intelligence failure.
Kargil: Intelligence Failure?
On June 2nd 1998, the Director Intelligence Bureau informed Prime Minister Vajpayee that the Pakistan Army was preparing for a large-scale infiltration of mercenaries into Kargil. The correspondence was copied to the Directorate General of Military Operations, the Union Home Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary as well as the Defence Secretary. Responding to the alert, DGMI reported the increased activities to be part of heightened tensions in the aftermath of nuclear tests.
On August 25th 1998, Brigadier Surinder Singh, Commanding Officer, 121 Brigade Kargil, warned his superiors of an increased threat after sharp artillery exchanges with the Pakistan Army between July 27th and August 4th, resulting in the deaths of 31 civilians, 10 soldiers and 6 Border Security Force (BSF) personnel.
In October 1998, R&AW informed JIC and DGMI that Pakistan was determined to interdict the Drass-Kargil Highway. It also reported a constant movement of artillery and troops from peace locations in Pakistan and massive preparations to improve defences. It assessed, “A limited swift offensive threat with possible support of alliance partners.”  Queries were raised by DGMI regarding the limited swift offensive, which were answered verbally by R&AW.
In February 1999, R&AW reported that the Pakistan Army leadership was not happy with the proposed thaw in Indo-Pak relations. In March, R&AW reported that the Pakistan Army maintained a strong posture and continued with a heavy deployment of artillery and troops along LoC.
Every six months, R&AW routinely produces estimates of Pakistan military threats. It produced three such estimates between nuclear tests and the war. These estimates assessed that international sanctions had worsened Pakistan’s economic crisis and affected its war-fighting capabilities. In October 1998, R&AW produced a special report predicting a possible ‘limited swift offensive action’ by the Pakistan Army in Kargil. Its next estimate in March 1999 maintained an assessment of low likelihood of war. Though it did not repeat the threat of a ‘swift limited offensive’, it did assess that to placate the hawks, Pakistan’s Prime Minister might increase support for infiltration.
Army intelligence also reported heightened Pakistan Army activity across the LoC. The Kargil Review Committee found that Indian intelligence agencies possessed less tactical intelligence than the Army on Pakistan’s military activities. But, critically, the Army failed to share this intelligence with the civilian agencies that could have assisted in an accurate assessment. Between June 1998 and May 1999, R&AW, IB and Army intelligence, among themselves, produced forty-five reports relating to Pakistan’s intentions in Kargil. Only eleven of them ever reached JIC, along with 8400 others which were ‘noise’ and not related to the looming crisis.
Despite visible bonhomie in Indo-Pakistani relations, Indian intelligence agencies had predicted a large-scale mercenary infiltration backed by the Pakistan Army. However, they failed to predict the localised invasion. Why this error in assessment occurred is the subject of the next section.
Why intelligence failed to accurately assess the threat?
This section analyses intelligence failure in Kargil in the light of the aforementioned ‘enemies of the intelligence’.
‘Outside enemy’, the Pakistan Army, used excellent deception and managed to convey the impression that their activities opposite Kargil were part of preparation for infiltration of militants.
‘Innocent enemies’ also played an important role in intelligence failure. Though fort-five inputs concerning Pakistan’s intentions in Kargil were generated, only eleven reached the JIC. The military had also generated substantial tactical inputs, but did not share them with others, hampering an accurate assessment of the immediate threat Pakistan posed. The Kargil Review Committee lamented the absence of any institutional mechanism governing interactions between different intelligence agencies below the JIC level. It decried the agencies’ turf wars and the lack of inter-agency cooperation and coordination.
‘Innate enemies’, too, were key to the intelligence failure. Infiltration has historically been Pakistan Army’s modus operandi. Conditioned by their past experience, intelligence agencies interpreted the heightened activities at Kargil as Pakistan’s preparation for yet another large-scale infiltration of mercenaries, not an intrusion. This belief arose from ‘inductive reasoning’ which extrapolates patterns of past behaviour to predict future behaviour. According to cognitive psychology, such conditioning leads to ‘cognitive predisposition’ meaning that once a belief or image is established, new material gets assimilated automatically and the discrepant and ambiguous information is either ignored or incorporated into existing views. Consequently, Pakistan Army’s familiar activities triggered a ‘cognitive predisposition’ leading Indian intelligence agencies to incorrectly predict Pakistan Army’s intentions vis-à-vis Kargil as an infiltration, not an intrusion.
The Indian Army had always believed that intrusion of Pakistan Army from the Northern Areas into the Drass-Kargil-Batalik was highly unlikely because the rugged terrain and high ridges made access problematic. Furthermore, Army assumed Pakistan would not attempt a Kargil offensive because it believed it to be logistically unsustainable and, frankly, suicidal. It also presumed that militants, instead of occupying territory, indulge in ‘hit and run’ tactics. This ‘cognitive predisposition’ prevented the Indian army from contemplating an intrusion by either the Pakistan Army or mujahedeen mercenaries. Furthermore, Intelligence analysts may have ‘mirror-imaged’ beliefs of their powerful consumer: Indian army, that would have ‘cognitively predisposed’ them to ignore the possibility of a clandestine intervention.
Trend analysis and intelligence inputs led intelligence agencies to assume that Pakistan would not deviate from its strategic behaviour of frequent mercenary infiltration. These assumptions also led to the miscalculation that the Pakistani military leadership was disinclined to escalate hostilities. In doing so, Indian intelligence analysts projected their own behavioural codes onto their adversary, using them as an inferential short-cut for predictive analysis.
The rapprochement and visible display of bonhomie in Indo-Pakistani relations after February 1999 left policy makers blind to Pakistan’s deception. Prime Minister Vajpayee was sanguine about improving relations with Pakistan, possibly predisposing him to ignore a few reports of Pakistan’s deception. Robert Jervis asserts that decision makers are reluctant to accept intelligence contrary to their policies. Their worldview and assessment of a situation leads to ‘cognitive biases’, such as those inferred on the part of Vajpayee, whose disappointment was visible when the intrusion was confirmed.
Jervis asserts that the fundamental cause of intelligence failure lies in a country’s difficulty in grasping the other’s worldview, or a contradictory interpretation of the same event, known as ‘Rashomon Effect’. Understanding others’ thinking is essential in intelligence, and the inability to do so frequently result in intelligence failure. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Argentina’s invasion of Falklands/Malvinas Islands, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur War, India’s nuclear tests, Pearl Harbour, and the Cuba Missile Crisis are but a few examples of ‘Rashomon Effect’ in international politics.
In 1941, US naval commanders believed that Japanese would not attack Pearl Harbour against American interests. But Japan attacked the American fleet in the Pacific, naively believing that after initial retaliatory action, US would write off its losses and reconcile to Japanese dominance over the eastern Paciﬁc.  The Japanese could not foresee that the Americans would see Japan’s actions in the Pacific as not only an insult but also a display of fascist tyranny and never accept defeat. Similarly, in September 1962, US intelligence judged that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would never risk US retaliation by deploying ballistic missiles in Cuba. Americans did not foresee that Khrushchev’s Cuban brinksmanship was motivated more by his fear of a coup by hardliners in his own government, than by possible US retaliation. In each incident, the adversary’s actions defied the conventional wisdom of ‘rational’ behaviour. 
In the Kargil War, Indian intelligence agencies could not foresee that Pakistan perceived India as weak, unstable, and incapable of a quick, firm response. They did not anticipate that the Pakistan Army expected a weak response because of the Indian Army’s extensive counter-insurgency commitments. They failed to see that Pakistan relied on nuclear deterrence for early intervention of international community, leaving Pakistan in possession of some gains that would strengthen its post-conflict bargaining position. Indian intelligence analysts expected Pakistan to behave ‘rationally’ by not undertaking a logistically unsustainable suicidal mission. As Jervis observes, “States rarely expect their adversaries to behave foolishly. The Pakistani incursion simply did not make sense; it was therefore sensible of India not to expect it.’’ 
Though strategic and tactical intelligence was gathered correctly, ‘cognitive predisposition’ induced intelligence agencies into making a flawed interpretation. But despite that, was it still possible for the Indian Army to prevent an intrusion? This essay will turn to this subject in the next section.
Did the Indian Army fail to prevent the Kargil War?
Given the multitude of warnings about a large-scale infiltration through Kargil, it is difficult to ignore the allegations of laxity on the part of the Indian Army in the Kargil War. Traditionally, by mutual arrangement, both armies vacate certain forward posts during winter. But in 1998-99, the Pakistan Army did not vacate its posts, and it also took over vacated Indian Army posts.
As discussed, intelligence agencies had provided several inputs regarding heightened Pakistan Army activity across the LoC. The Director Intelligence Bureau and R&AW had warned of the induction of troops from peace locations, logistic building and a large-scale infiltration into Kargil by Pakistan Army. Dismissing it as part of a heightened alert in the aftermath of nuclear tests, DGMI paid scant attention to these warnings. R&AW had also warned of the Pakistan Army’s intention of a limited swift action. In addition, the agencies had telephonically shared inputs with Commanding Officer 121 Brigade also. R&AW had related that the senior Pakistan Army brass was unhappy with the thaw in bilateral relations and that the Prime Minister may support increased infiltration. The Indian Army’s Northern Command also reported a substantial increase in troop movement during February 1999, compared to February 1998 and January 1999.
Documents accessed by the magazine, Frontline, suggested that a war game, code named ‘Operation Jaanch’, played in 1998 by Colonel Oberoi specifically warned of possibility of the Pakistan Army troops holding key positions in Kargil. Oberoi’s requests for enforcements were not heeded by the Division and Corps commanders. In view of these inputs, increased vigil over the LoC and a review of vacating posts in ‘winter posture’ would have been prudent. Instead, the Indian Army vacated not only posts usually left ‘un-held’ in winter posture, but also those customarily held in winter. Its scant attention to intelligence inputs was evident as it vacated Bajrang post in March 1999, contrary to established practice. At Bajrang, the Pakistan Army captured Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and his men on May 14th 1999, while on patrol verifying reports of intrusion.
Compounding matters, the Army neglected to send regular surveillance patrols to un-held gaps for months. Such carelessness is surprising, since 1999 did not mark the Pakistan’s first intrusion into Kargil. In 1988, BSF lost Kaksar to Pakistan. The army recaptured it a couple of days later after several soldiers’ died in fighting. In 1993, Pakistan lost 27 soldiers attempting intrusion. Between July 27th and August 4th 10 Indian soldiers, 6 BSF personnel and 31 civilians died in sharp artillery exchange, forcing Commanding Officer 121 Brigade to report an increased threat perception.
In view of historical intrusion attempts and frequent warnings, it is difficult to justify the Army vacating posts and abandoning regular surveillance patrols. Commanding Officer 121 Brigade did not require his superiors’ clearance to increase vigil in Kargil. Instead of responding to an increased threat perception on the ground, he created a defensive paper trail. He also ignored two specific intrusion alerts from Major KBS Khurana of 121 Brigade Intelligence and Field Security Unit and Major Bhupinder Singh of Brigade Intelligence Team in September ’98 and December ’98, respectively.
The Army had justified vacating posts in winter posture based on inhospitable terrain and extreme weather conditions. But Border Security Force personnel assigned to Marpo La and Charbot La in Kargil, and Indo-Tibetan Border Police in Daulat Beg Oldi have held winter posts without massive air back up or specialized equipment.
The Kargil Review Committee and the Indian Army identified R&AW’s failure in providing correct Order of Battle (ORBAT) and in identifying two extra Battalions as critical intelligence failures. It is difficult to appreciate how information about two additional battalions would have helped in assessment of intrusion by Pakistan Army when everyone was talking about infiltration. B. Raman quotes R.N. Kao who told the Prime Minister: “Sir, General Malik went into happy sleep during the winter. He is now blaming the intelligence agencies for not preventing him from sleeping.”
The Kargil War can be attributed to India’s ‘intelligence failure’ to the extent that intelligence agencies erred in assessing the threat. But despite their incorrect assessment, the Indian Army could have prevented the intrusion had it paid more attention to intelligence inputs and maintained greater vigil in guarding the LoC.
Prior to the Kargil War, intelligence agencies were successful in collecting important strategic and tactical intelligence, but they failed to assess it appropriately and predict the threat Pakistan posed. The principle cause of intelligence failure was the ‘cognitive predisposition’ of intelligence analysts towards a mercenary infiltration. The central issue in their failure to assess the Pakistan Army intrusion was their inability to conceptualise why Pakistan would behave in an ‘irrational’ manner and start a logistically unsustainable war.
In order to prevent intelligence failures in the future, one solution would seem to be improving intelligence collection. Though better coordination and intelligence sharing among different agencies would prove beneficial, the key to avoid such failures lies in exposing analysts to the innovative conceptual and analytical tools found in the social sciences for analysing the intelligence inputs. It would sensitise intelligence analysts to the importance of overcoming cognitive barriers such as ‘cognitive predisposition’ that proved critical in the Kargil Crisis.
Vijay Sakhare is a senior serving Indian Police Service Officer who specialises in Intelligence, South Asian Security issues and radicalization.
The views expressed above are author’s own and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.
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