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Posted at: Jan 30, 2017, 12:29 AM; last updated: Jan 30, 2017, 12:29 AM (IST)

Avalanche deaths & the Kargil syndrome

Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
The spate of casualties due to avalanches in Jammu and Kashmir raise the question of whether vacation of high-risk areas can minimise deaths or not. Perhaps the impact of the Kargil war has is responsible for the extra-cautious approach adopted for security measures in high-altitude areas.
Avalanche deaths & the Kargil syndrome
Countering NATURE’S FURY: This photograph released by the Army on January 27 shows a rescue operation underway to find soldiers trapped at the site of a snow avalanche in Gurez sector, 130 km north of Srinagar. AFP
WHAT do avalanches have to do with Kargil and the lessons from 1999? This needs explanation. On social media recently there have been comments on the spate of avalanche casualties of the Army in Gurez valley and Sonamarg areas of Kashmir. People wished to know why the Army was reluctant to vacate areas which were vulnerable to avalanches in the high-altitude terrain. If not permanently, then at least for the winter when dangers from avalanches exist; the same could be re-occupied later as the weather improves. Responses were quick, bringing out the essential facts about the LoC and the necessity for maintaining its sanctity through physical presence. The “Kargil syndrome” isn't a term used in social media but responses alluded mostly to that broad understanding. It goes back to the days when the Army suffered a “walk- in” by Pakistani troops, into winter-vacated areas of Kargil, Dras and Batalik sectors in the winter of 1998-99.  The Army suffered a heavy toll of casualties in recovering these through conventional assaults at obnoxious heights in the next summer. 

On hindsight, the Army is obviously playing it extremely safe. It has minimised winter vacation and left little to chance. Obviously, lesser the vacation in winter greater will be the casualties. How does this policy work and is their scope for more pragmatism through execution of winter vacation as part of winter redeployment? These are inevitable questions Indian citizens will ask as they get better informed on matters strategic. More technology is available for drone, helicopter, unattended sensor and satellite-based surveillance which many consider as alternatives. 

In 2011-12, the Army suffered horrific casualties when a field workshop company was wiped out by an unexpected avalanche of such intensity that it threw lorries 300 metres away in its wake. Eighteen good soldier-technicians of the electrical and mechanical engineers died in the tragedy which occurred at night. The next day, the Army's transit camp was hit similarly, at Sonamarg with more casualties; the snow flood jumping right through a river and crossing to the plateau on the other side, something unimaginable. Both areas have been hit again this year, although not the exact spots. What the layman has to understand is that avalanches rarely strike at the same place twice and the predictability factor is rather poor. The Sonam avalanche, which buried 10 brave jawans in February 2016, witnessed a rare ice fall.  Although the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE), Manali has its detachments all over Jammu and Kashmir and does a marvellous job in issuing avalanche warnings, accurate predictions of time and place can be extremely difficult. SASE also does mapping of avalanche-threat areas, based upon data collected over years. Bulletins issued by it need to be read in detail to get an idea of potential avalanche areas. 

The problem is that a very large number of posts and picquets of the Army and other forces are deployed tactically keeping domination, defensibility, approaches and inter se distance between such posts. Vacating one may create an unviable gap or endanger the security of another. With this in mind, some posts are stocked and considered “winter cut off”. This denotes that except for the fact they occupy the real estate there are only limited tactical functions they can perform. The manpower deployed at these is without relief for as much as six months and no logistics resupply is done; men are specially selected for this arduous duty after spending leave and STD facilities are provided on priority. 

Occupation of a forward winter posture with maximum posts remaining occupied is done for two purposes. The first is to prevent a Kargil-like walk-in occupation by Pakistan in places where the snow level on their side is lower than ours. It ensures the sanctity of the LoC without any operational risk except that of avalanches or being heavily “snowed up”. 

The second purpose is to prevent infiltration into the Valley zone and the Poonch sector. Terrorists seek to take advantage of gaps created by winter vacation of some posts. Every year, frozen bodies of a few terrorists are invariably found although some may succeed in getting through. The Army delays such vacation till the last when it seems almost impossible to hold on any longer. There lies the dilemma of decision-making by senior commanders. In 2008, I requested permission for vacation of a post as the weather-prediction charts revealed heavy snow days approaching. I was advised to hold a little longer. The post had to remain deployed until abandoned in the face of an almost impossible situation. In the process of moving to another location a major avalanche struck, leading to deaths of 13 servicemen and civilian porters. I regret that situation till date. It was completely avoidable. Thereafter, the authority to withdraw was delegated to much lower commanders.

Later, in the position of authority I made it known to my command that a few terrorists getting through could be accepted as we would soon neutralise them. However, lives of our own soldiers risked under climatic and terrain threats was not acceptable. Kargil has no doubt stymied our thinking to a great extent. It is not easy risking loss of posts or occupation of vacated areas by the adversary.  In places such as Gurez valley, the scope for redeployment of posts is extremely limited due to space constraints and the lay of the ground. Besides that, many of the posts are under direct adversary observation. Building avalanche-deflection walls is a limited measure that works wherever there is a history of regular avalanches.

Can portions of Gurez be vacated? It all depends on the state of trust with our adversary, Pakistan. Under the circumstances, more can be spent on technology and surveillance. However, encroachment or occupation by the adversary cannot be prevented if the latter is determined to play dirty. All actions will need to be reactive should we choose to vacate for winter and the posts are occupied by Pakistan. Drone flights and helicopter-surveillance sorties are surveillance measures to give an early warning of infiltration or occupation of vacated areas. The intrusions may be detected but ultimately will have to be physically countered and evicted.

We are not at that stage where we can trust our neighbour not to back stab us. There can be no carte-blanche policy on the vacation of posts. This has to be entirely situational.  The government could spend more on avalanche-rescue equipment, and build infrastructure to restrict avalanches. Perhaps a review of some posts which may have lost relevance could be authorised. Reluctance in this regard is very much likely while playing safe under the “Kargil syndrome”.  The time for mass vacation of avalanche-prone areas on the LoC and the deployment of technology for detection of intrusions is not yet upon us; perhaps someday it will be. Situational discretion remains the flavour and rightly so. 


 The writer, a former GOC of the Srinagar-based  15 Corps, has extensive experience in handling high-altitude operations.

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