Sunday, February 25, 2024

Siachen: Battling hostile weather more than enemy

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By Brig. (Retd) S. N. Sachadeva

A day after Pakistan army chief general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said his country favoured talks with India to demilitarize Siachen, the world’s highest battleground, Islamabad on April 19 said there was no change in its stance on the disputed glacier, where 127 Pakistani soldiers fell victims to avalanche. “There is no change as far as Pakistan’s policy or position on Siachen is concerned,” Foreign Office spokesman Moazzam Khan said, making it clear that there is no plan to re- deploy troops from the glacier.

The avalanche occurred on the eve of a visit to India by President Asif Ali Zardari, the first by a Pakistani head of state in seven years. Although ostensibly a private visit, Zardari had lunch with prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the visit gave a tangible fillip to gently warming relations between the two archrivals.

Recent months have seen quiet progress in strengthening economic ties; on Friday, the Indian and Pakistani commerce ministers met in New Delhi to announce new developments. Optimists hope that trade ties could leverage a diplomatic or military breakthrough.

But hopes that the latest episode, or talks over tea, could lead to a troop withdrawal from Siachen are tempered by decades of mistrust and a peace process that has moved as slowly as the glacier itself. It would be a mistake to see Siachen as the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the Pakistan-India conflict, said Ejaz Haider of the Jinnah Institute, an advocacy group based in Islamabad.

“Who wants war? Nobody. But if you want peace, you need to prepare for war,” said Haider, whose brother and father have served in Siachen. “That, unfortunately, is the reality.” The dispute over Siachen, which dates back to 1984, has been in focus since an avalanche slammed into a high- altitude Pakistan Army camp on April 7, burying 127 soldiers and 11 civilians under dozens of feet of snow. In outposts up to 22,000 feet above sea level, the temperature can plunge to 58 below, and linger there for months. Patrolling soldiers tumble into yawning crevasses. Frostbite chews through unprotected flesh. Blizzards blow, weapons seize up and even simple body functions become intolerable. Some soldiers go crazy and end up “staring into space,” as one veteran put it, unhinged by the dazzling whiteness of rock, sun and snow. Then there are the avalanches.

The latest occurred April 7, when a giant wall of snow crashed down on the Pakistani side of the battlefield, swamping the battalion headquarters of 6 Northern Light Infantry, where 124 Pakistani soldiers and 14 civilians were stationed. The avalanche buried a cluster of buildings in 80 feet of snow; a week later, rescuers have yet to pull out a single person, dead or alive. The battalion’s fate drew an anguished reaction across Pakistan and swung a spotlight onto an often-forgotten corner of the 65-year-old conflict over Kashmir, the disputed mountain territory that lies at the emotional heart of the conflict with India. And it reinvigorated an incendiary question: Is Siachen, a glacier on Kashmir’s northern edge, worth fighting over?

“It is time for both countries to step back from this madness,” said Mehmood Shah, a retired army brigadier who was once involved in talks to end the standoff. “Every day, people die in this conflict. Going on is in nobody’s interest.”

Many critics echoed that view, describing the conflict as a pointless and sinfully expensive battle for a piece of Himalayan real estate that, while stunningly beautiful, is unfit for human habitation. About 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died at Siachen since 1984, of whom about 90 per cent perished from weather-related causes. More than 1100 Indian soldiers, too, have perished in avalanches.

Military analysts estimate the deployment costs Pakistan $5 million a month; Indian costs are higher still because of higher troop numbers and because supplies are transported by helicopter. Still, many military strategists and security hawks in both countries insist the fight must go on. In any peace negotiation with Pakistan, wrote Vikram Sood, a former chief of Indian intelligence, Siachen should be the “last issue on the table, not the first.”

Pakistani military photographs of the rescue operation, released in recent days, paint a dispiriting picture of the scene: white-suited rescuers, aided by sniffer dogs, digging amid driving snow; bulldozers tapping into an immense snowdrift. A three-person US military rescue team arrived to help, and travelled to Siachen; German and Swiss experts were already on site. The effort is now focused on burrowing a 130-foot tunnel toward the troop barracks, where soldiers were sleeping when the avalanche hit.

Ominously, the army has already released pictures of those inside: mostly soldiers in their 20s, wearing green berets and striped neck-scarves. Few Pakistanis dare hope any will emerge alive; as many see it, the mountain has won yet again.

The battle for Siachen erupted in April 1984, when Indian commandos captured the peaks overlooking the 49-mile Siachen Glacier, the world’s second-longest outside a polar region. The dispute stemmed from a mix of bad politics and worse cartography: a 1972 agreement between Pakistan and India that demarcated the Line of Control was ambiguously worded, allowing both countries to claim the glacier. Fighting raged for almost two decades until 2003, when Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire that, despite occasional flare-ups, has largely held. Still, up to 8,000 soldiers from both sides, mostly Indians, remain stationed in the battle zone, according to unofficial estimates, facing each other across an expanse of rock and snow.

For those who have served in Siachen, it is an unforgettable experience. It is something completely out of this world. Nothing was easy there. Fearing frostbite, most soldiers go to the bathroom — small outdoor huts cobbled together from mountain stones — once a day and bathed only every few months.

During a stint on the front lines in 2003, his job was to send shells whistling toward Pakistani positions. But the thin air meant shells travelled unpredictably and were prone to buffeting by gusts. The punishing conditions created a strange solidarity with the enemy — who in some areas was just 200 yards away.

Those who have served in Siachen observe “We could hear each other talking, and we used to exchange greetings at special times – Eid for us, and Diwali for them.” INAV

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