Frostbite and stalemate in the world’s highest battleground

 In early April this year, a sudden avalanche buried around 125 soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry of Pakistan’s army, under 80 feet of snow. The soldiers were drawn from two brigades of thePakistanarmy, deployed in altitudes ranging from 17,880 feet to 23,350 feet in inhospitable terrain, where scores of soldiers fromIndiaandPakistanhave perished, in battles involving hand to hand combat and, more often, from frostbite and high altitude pulmonary ailments. This battlefield is along the Saltoro Ridge and theKarakoram Range, where temperatures can dip to -50 C and the average winter snowfall is 35 feet. In Indian strategic perceptions, control of the Saltoro Ridge is essential if it is to prevent encirclement byChinaandPakistanlinking their forces across theKarakoramPass, which lies towards the South East of the Saltoro Ridge and its adjacent glaciers.

Few people understand the origins of this high altitude conflict. The northern tips ofJammu and Kashmirare located on theKarakoramMountainsand are home to two Glaciers – the Siachen Glacier and the Baltoro Glacier. The waters from these Glaciers feed the rivers of theIndusBasin. When the Kashmir dispute erupted with aPakistansponsored invasion by Pashtun tribals in 1948,IndiaandPakistanagreed to respect the Cease Fire Line drawn up by the United Nations. The Army Commanders of the two countries met inKarachiin 1949 and demarcated the entire cease fire line, up to theShyokRiverin Kargil, where the two countries fought a bloody conflict in 1999. Beyond this river was the forbidding, freezing weather and terrain of theKarakoramMountains. While the boundary beyond theShyokRiverwas not demarcated, (it was physically impossible then for people to stay for any length of time there), the army commanders agreed that the boundary separating the Indian andPakistansides beyond theShyokRiverwould lie ‘north of the glaciers’.

In 1980, India discovered that Pakistan was moving its forces into the areas across the glaciers and showing the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir on its maps as moving not ‘north of the glaciers’ as agreed in 1949, but moving eastwards from the Shyok River to the Karakoram Pass, bordering China. The Pakistani move was seen inIndiaas an attempt to link up withChinaand surroundIndiafrom Ladakh in the North. Moving swiftly on the advice of her Defence Minister (later President of India) R Venkataraman, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to seize control of the high mountain ranges (northwest of the glaciers), along the Saltoro Ridge. This enabled Indian forces to dominate the high mountain ranges and halt further Pakistani advance across the Siachen Glacier to theKarakoramPass.The operation was timely.Indiatook control of the strategic mountaintops barely a fortnight before the Pakistanis were able to get there in 1984.

Since 1984, the Pakistanis have mounted a series of unsuccessful military operations to seize Indian positions along the high mountains of the Saltoro Ridge. The operations launched in 1987 under the Command of then Brigadier (later President) Pervez Musharraf were beaten back, withPakistan’s elite Commandos of the Special Services Group taking heavy casualties. Attacks launched byPakistanon Indian positions in 1995, 1996 and even just before the Lahore India-Pakistan Summit in 1999 were also thwarted. The fighting also saw some incredible acts of bravery and endurance by Indian and Pakistani soldiers. An Indian Junior Commissioned Officer, Bana Singh, was awarded the country’s highest award for bravery when he successfully assaulted and captured a Pakistani post located at the top of a 20,000 feet high mountain peak, after climbing 1,500 feet directly up a cliff. Scores of Indian soldiers have perished defending positions in the freezing, mountainous and treacherous terrain. But, with the passage of time, roads and communications to Indian outposts have improved and casualties are now negligible, especially afterIndiaandPakistanannounced a ceasefire inJammu and Kashmirin November 2003.

Negotiations have been held between India and Pakistan since the 1980s in response to Pakistani demands that the entire Siachen Region should be demilitarized, and troops pulled back from where they are currently deployed to the positions they held in 1980. There are several factors that have determinedIndia’s approach to negotiations withPakistanon this issue. Firstly, shouldIndiapull back forces, as demanded byPakistan, to positions it held in 1980, its forces would have to traverse long distances to get back to the strategic heights it now holds. The Pakistanis could, however, literally walk in and take these positions. Should this happen – Indians believe it cannot be ruled out – and given past Pakistani intrusions that led to the Kargil conflict, India couldn’t possibly recover the positions it now holds. Moreover, in the event of a border conflict withChina,Indiacould well face the situation ofPakistanandChinamoving to join up through theKarakoramPass, especially if the Pakistanis seize the Saltoro Ridge asIndiafocuses its attention onChina.

In negotiations held so far,Indiahas held the view that before the two countries move to discuss the extent of pullback from present positions, they should jointly authenticate and delineate the positions they currently hold, so that there is no ambiguity on the actual positions on the ground held by the two armies.Pakistanis unwilling to undertake such authentication and delineation of positions presently held, as it holds that this will accord legitimacy toIndia’s present deployments along the Saltoro Ridge. There were apprehensions earlier that deployment of forces in such altitudes could accelerate the melting of the glaciers in an era of global warming, and deprive the plains ofPakistanandNorthern Indiaof their vital river waters. But recent studies have shown that far from melting, the glaciers in theKarakoramMountainsare actually expanding. Given the distrust that characterizes relations between the two neighbours and India’s suspicions of Chinese intentions along their borders, it would require imaginative diplomacy and a substantial measure of mutual confidence in relations between India on the one hand and Pakistan and China on the other, to demilitarize the world’s highest battlefield.

– G Parthasarathy