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NIGHTMARE HEIGHTS

Siachen: Conflict Without End By V.R. Raghavan, Viking, Rs 395

One of the wonders of military affairs remains the combat between the Indian and Pakistani armies at Siachen glacier in the Karakorum mountains. No other army except these two forces has the record of fighting at -50 degrees celsius at altitudes of about 20,000 feet. Why are these two nations fighting with costly equipment for the last two decades over the snowy wastes' V.R. Raghavan, a retired Lieutenant General, who once commanded the Indian forces at Siachen, attempts to narrate the origin and nature of this conflict.

Raghavan asserts that there is virtually no strategic necessity of pushing up troops around Siachen. The geopolitical argument, that by occupying Siachen, Pakistan would be able to join hands with China in the western Himalayas where Islamabad has ceded 2,700 square miles of territory to Beijing, is impracticable. Pakistan’s Northern Command lacks the infrastructure to send large number of troops along Siachen to threaten India. Similarly, Islamabad’s conviction that through Siachen, India would be able to link up with Russia and encircle Pakistan is also absurd.Equally untenable is the argument of Pakistani “hawks” that advance in Siachen would enable India to severe the Pakistan-China Karakorum highway. The truth is that the logistical nightmare of harsh terrain and climate would rule out military pincer movements in one of the world’s bleakest landscapes.

Yet, the Indian and Pakistani troops perched in the Saltoro ridges blast at each other’s positions with mortars and machine guns. Pakistan possesses a road through which it can move the guns up the glacier. There is no such road on the Indian side, even big guns like the Bofors are dropped from gigantic helicopters brought from Russia. Guns and rounds of ammunition are lost among the rocks and snow, lubricants in the guns freeze, and low temperatures result in the artillery ammunition performing erratically.

Extreme cold affects the soldiers’ appetite, sleep and metabolism. The wind chill effect results in continuous loss of body heat and high altitude pulmonary oedema owing to reduced intake of oxygen. So Siachen requires special troops. A High Altitude Warfare School established at Gulmarg trains the military personnel as mountaineers. Nevertheless, every fifth day, one Indian soldier dies horribly. Either he is frozen or crushed by ice or lost in the uncharged snowy ridges. Glacial crevasses often swallow humans and equipment within seconds. To keep such occurrences in check, light and portable aluminum bridges are used, avalanche warnings are conveyed to the troops by radio and satellite communications and helicopters are used for surveillance, reconnaissance, casualty evacuation and rescue missions. Many helicopters are doomed to their snowy graves when they land on soft snow.

But Raghavan feels that operations in Siachen are futile for both India and Pakistan, strategically as well as economically. Only misplaced national honour, prestige and domestic compulsions, writes the General, keep the conflict going.

Raghavan needs to read military history once again. In the late 19th century, during the scramble for Africa, the French, the British and the Germans acquired territories in the “dark continent” which placed a drain on their exchequer. But, xenophobic nationalism forced them to acquire these territories to prevent the dominoes from falling to the other side.

It suits the American academicians-turned-policy advisors like Stephen Cohen (who provides a foreword to Raghavan’s volume) to argue that both India and Pakistan are following an irrational policy in hanging on to Siachen. But, people like Cohen do not see anything odd when the crackpots of the American president’s Oval office encourage military intervention in far-off places like Angola and Panama to prevent the dominoes from falling in Washington DC. But then, Carl von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege, which is a must for every military officer, states that strategy is often the product of irrational Innenpolitik.

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