Siachen: Battling hostile weather more than enemy

Siachen: Battling hostile weather more than enemy

Many military strategists both in India and Pakistan insist the fight must go on

In the snowy wastes of Siachen, where Pakistani and Indian soldiers face off in a high-altitude battle zone ringed by Himalayan peaks, the fight is against the mountain, not the man.

In outposts up to 22,000 ft 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 ft 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, said the Pakistani military spokesman, Maj Gen Athar Abbas.

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 has arrived to help, and was due to travel to Siachen; German and Swiss experts are 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.

Common sentiment

“Damn you, Siachen,” Kamran Shafi, a former army officer and a prominent columnist, wrote Friday in The Express Tribune, echoing a widely shared sentiment. While India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir since 1947, 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 cease-fire 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 was something completely out of this world,” said Maj Khan, a retired army officer who served in Siachen twice, and who spoke on the condition that his first name be omitted.Nothing was easy there, he said. Fearing frostbite, most soldiers went to the bathroom – small outdoor huts cobbled together from mountain stones – once a day and bathed only every few months. Khan’s appetite vanished, causing him to shed 37 pounds in three months. “You feel you are a caveman, because that’s the way you live,” he said.

During a stint on the front lines in 2003, his job was to send shells whistling toward Indian 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, Khan said.

“We could hear each other talking, and we used to exchange greetings at special times – Eid for us, and Diwali for them,” he said, referring to major Muslim and Hindu religious holidays. On one occasion, he said, Indian soldiers offered his men the chance to use their satellite phone to call home. “Obviously we never went, but that was the atmosphere: fighting but also friendly,” he said.

The hardest part of the deployment was the psychological strain, he said. Cut off from the outside world in such harsh conditions, often for months at a time, some soldiers developed mental illnesses, he said. “I saw people getting lost, just looking at space,” he said. “The isolation was affecting their brain.”

Even now, some of his former comrades are struggling to recover, he said: “Their families used to complain that they would sit somewhere and stare at the roof. And that would go on for many years.”

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.”

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