Into the Valley of Death: The Siachen Conflict
The Land of Wild Roses
A picture is worth a thousand words, and nothing can describe Siachen quite like the images depicted. Cold. Distant. Reclusive. Unforgiving. There is no habitation here, no concept of cultivation, no animals, no birds, not even ravens. As one officer remarked, “A raven also needs a carcass to feed upon!” Here, it’s either snowing, or about to snow. Beyond that, little else.
It’s a place where space is shared by vertical mountain massifs, glaciers and moraines. It has glaciers up to 30 miles long and nearly half-a-mile deep. Before two nuclear-armed countries decided to set up igloos in The Third Pole, no one actually lived here. Indeed no one can truly survive here without special arrangements.
‘Siachen’ is a Tibetan word which means ‘a place with many wild roses’ (Sia: rose, Chen: place of). Its size is often compared to that of Rhode Island, Bahrain or Israel. Brigadier (retd.) Bilal believes it is bigger than Rawalpindi, even as large as Karachi. It lies in the Karakoram Mountain Range which has three of the six highest mountain peaks in the world, including K-2. And though over the years many expeditions discovered various parts of this land, even wrote about it, they just traversed it. None actually set up a tent to live here. It’s as simple as that.
According to the ISPR, there is one base camp after every 10-12 km. A battalion is sent in the region for a two-year tenure. The number of posts and their placement is confidential. Time magazine quoted analysts who calculated that India and Pakistan had 150 manned posts along the glacier. The highest Pakistani post is at 22,300 ft. The operational, administrative and gun support to soldiers is provided from the base camp. The storage units for ammunition, tents, medical supplies, food, fuel (kerosene, oil, diesel) are all here. Since the area is inaccessible for 7-8 months a year, things are streamlined in advance. Though a camp size can range from 50-100 people, Gayari had a larger number.
Two of the largest militaries in the world have fought five wars with each other over a period of 52 years (1947, 1965, 1971, 1984, 1999); four of them in and around Siachen and the neighbouring Valley of Kashmir. As Lt General (retd.) Raghavan details in his book Siachen: A Conflict Without End, “The Siachen dispute is a prime example of geopolitics influencing policies and strategic choices. In the eastern Karakorams, the interests of India, China and Pakistan have converged in a complex set of ambitions, errors of judgment and some deliberate exploitation of geography….. [During the Indo-China War] the Indians failed to grasp that while the Himalayas provide some safety against large-scale invasions, they can also make a military conflict in the area difficult to conduct. If that fact had been accepted, there was every likelihood that the territorial claims in the area would have been tackled differently.”
Fig. (B) shows NJ9842, the point where the cease fire line (CFL) was brokered under the aegis of the UN after the first war of ’47-’48. This line divided Jammu & Kashmir in two parts. India got Jammu and Ladakh; Pakistan the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir. In 1971, both sides crossed the CFL and retained what was won. The new demarcation was called the Line of Control (LoC). The CFL and LoC end at a point visible only on maps as NJ 980420. As Raghavan suggests in his book, the only reason why this point was chosen was because “it formed the corner of a map square.”
The Karachi agreement of 1948 stated that the LoC would extend “thence north to the glaciers” from NJ9842. India wants a straight vertical cut that would give them the Siachen glacier, half of the Karakoram pass and a border with China. Pakistan wants a natural progression of the line as it twists and twirls all the way to the Karakoram Pass. This makes India insecure. Its apprehension is rooted in a possible Pak-China offensive that could presumably be launched against it to claim Kashmir (or at the very least, Ladakh). Pakistan fears that the acceptance of the Indian claim would mean legal acceptance of the LoC, as well as potential intervention by India to claim Baltistan (or block the Karakoram Pass). India wants Pakistan to accept the Actual Ground Position Line and Pakistan wants India to go back to where they were pre-1984.
With the focus of the world more on the War on Terror, the Taliban, and Afghanistan, it is inevitable to draw comparisons between the army initiative in Waziristan and Siachen and the level of intensity of each. According to Lt General (retd.) Shuaib Amjad, “In Siachen conventional war is fought in an unconventional terrain. The enemy is specified, it is nearby and we know their positions, but the area is difficult due to its height and lack of oxygen. In Waziristan, guerilla warfare is going on in a known mountainous terrain.”
Brigadier (retd.) Bilal, who has served at the Military Operations Directorate, is a textbook soldier who describes in graphic detail what a battlefield like Siachen means. “Mountain operations are of two kinds: ‘Black Shod Operations’ which are done in areas where there is no snow, such as Waziristan. ‘White Shod Ops’ occur in Kashmir. In Waziristan, the environment is just a diversion; in Siachen, it is an enemy. The higher you go, especially after 13,000 ft, the air is extremely light, so you need to exert more pressure on the body and it can collapse. At 20,000 ft you have to move very slowly or you go out of breath very soon. People don’t understand or appreciate what we are doing at Siachen. Our avalanches and terrain are more severe than those in the Alps, yet the west made a hero out of the mountaineer who scaled the Alps. The Alps are not as difficult to negotiate as Siachen is! Even Alaskan warfare is kid’s stuff!”
With God Above and Snow Below
A soldier who served at Siachen in the ’90s spoke over the phone about what life was like during his tour of duty. Both his father and grandfather were soldiers in the Pakistan army. Originally from Lahore, he is currently stationed in Rawalpindi, where he is heading a department for the armed forces as a serving colonel. He wishes to remain anonymous. “The first thing to remember is that Siachen is not a mountain, it’s a piece of snow,” he says. The lifestyle, equipment and accessories needed at that place are very different. When the original Indian incursion took place in ’84, our forces were ill-prepared for the climate and terrain; all they thought was that they simply had to climb the mountain and sit on top of it. We had many casualties, many solders were handicapped. But then efforts were made to get proper warm clothes and boots, and there has been no change in the high-altitude ‘uniform’ since then. The Indians wear the same uniform as us.”
Speaking further on the preparations for the region he said, “The body is not accustomed to such height, so acclimatisation training is given. However, you cannot exert yourself too much or else you will tire very quickly and your lungs do not breathe normally. You have to take three steps, then stop to muster your energy and then move another three steps slowly. You have to really watch your step or it could be your last. There are crevices as deep as 1000 ft and you cannot even recover a body from there. The soldier who was posted there before me was martyred just like that. You cannot move without being roped together with your partner-soldiers. All of you move in line together so that even if someone slips or falls into a crevice, he can be held. Just going up to a post and coming down is itself hard exercise.”
The importance of a post is determined by its height and location. For instance, if a post is unimportant operationally and results in heavy casualties, the army will decide to vacate it. The higher the post, the harder it is to reach it, attack it, capture it. Similarly even if a post is at a lower height, but is narrow, it is difficult to target it.
The colonel was deputed to four posts during his nine-month tour of duty. One of these was ‘Yusuf’ post, situated at a height of 21,000 ft. “You are kept at one post for 21 days, since medically it is not possible to stay there for longer periods, so your ‘height’ is reduced gradually and then you are sent up again. Usually a post cannot hold more than five people at a time. You have to carry stuff with you since it is not possible for someone to go there with supplies daily. (At some posts) after 3-4 days, a party of 2-3 soldiers would come and we used to list our needs. The food there is a lot better than what troops get in the field – even though it is half-cooked, canned food, high on carbohydrates. But proteins such as chicken, beef and lentils are also given. Or a rice pack is sent and you have to cook it, which isn’t easy since a kerosene-burner stove at that height doesn’t hold much power. You mix Energile with snow and eat that to replenish your need for water. In fact, we used to put custard outside the igloo for a little while and soon ‘kulfi’ was ready! Basically you get to thank God a lot, even if a pack of onions is sent.”
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