Life & death in world’s highest combat zone : The Tribune India

Life & death in world’s highest combat zone

Ideally, Siachen should be demilitarised and restored to status quo ante, with both sides withdrawing amicably. However, this will require a high degree of maturity from both sides. This is easier said than done.

Life & death in world’s highest combat zone

Specialised rescue teams carrying out operations to search for bodies of the 10 soldiers of Infantry’s 19 Madras Regiment who were killed in an avalanche in Siachen. The glacier is the world’s coldest and most-expensive-to-maintain battlefield. PTI

Dinesh Kumar

THE  Siachen glacier, located at the world's only nuclear tri-junction and where the overlapping boundary claims of three nuclear weapon states — China, India and Pakistan — converge, is again in the news following the death of 10 Army soldiers belonging to the Infantry's 19 Madras Regiment following an avalanche on February 3. Also known for being the world's highest, coldest and most expensive-to-maintain battlefield, the incident raises a question about the rationale of maintaining troops in an area that has led an American commentator to describe India and Pakistan as “two bald men fighting over a comb”. 

This is not the first time that both India and Pakistan have lost soldiers to an avalanche in this region where the human body reaches its limits and where helicopters, the only source of air support, exceed their flight envelope. On December 16, 2012, six soldiers belonging to the Infantry's 1 Assam Regiment were killed, while a seventh went missing following an avalanche in sub sector Hanif in Turtuk area of the glacier region. The worst-known incident, however, occurred on April 7, 2012, when about 140 Pakistani soldiers were killed after an avalanche slammed into their army camp in Gyari. The incident then led Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to cooperate in demilitarising the glacier region. 

For the record, the 76.6-km-long Siachen glacier, the second-longest glacier outside the polar regions, is located well within Indian territory. Indian troops are located in over 100 posts atop the Saltoro Ridge, which in turn forms the 110-km-long actual ground position line (AGPL) located at heights between 17,500 and 22,000 feet, starting from NJ 9842, a grid map reference. This is the point until which the Line of Control (LoC) is officially demarcated. The Siachen glacier, in roughly the form of an inverted triangle, “rests” on NJ 9842 with Indra Col (to the left) and the Karakoram Pass (to the right) in the north as the two extremities. The glacier, located in Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir, is situated between the Saltoro ridge to the west and the main Karakoram range to the east. Such is the geo-political location of the Siachen glacier that it lies just south of the great watershed that separates Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan from China in this region. 

The origin of the Siachen conflict lies in a set of five words dating back to the CFL (Ceasefire Line) Agreement signed in Karachi on July 27, 1949 by military representatives of India, Pakistan and the UN Military Observers Group. The CFL (renamed LoC following the July 1972 Simla Agreement) was demarcated up to Chalunka, Khor and NJ 9842 with the remaining portion extending northwards left open with the five words “thence north to the glaciers”. Neither side then imagined demarcating a difficult-to-survey terrain, let alone occupying it. But all that changed following a long chain of events starting with India's loss of territory to China in the Ladakh region in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the China-Pakistan border agreement of 1963 in which the 5,800 sq km Shaksgam tract was ceded by Pakistan to Beijing, Pakistan's dismemberment in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the subsequent cartographic claims by Pakistani and western countries and mountaineering expeditions for westerners facilitated by Pakistan in the glacier region during the 1970s.  

On April 13, 1984, the Indian Army pre-empted a Pakistani Army plan to occupy the Siachen glacier after it heli-dropped 29 soldiers belonging to the 4 Kumaon Regiment on the Bilafond La, a tactically important Pass, located on the Saltoro range. Following this, the Army then secured Sia La, another tactically important Pass, and Indra Col, the northern most point of the Saltoro ridgeline. Both sides then rushed to secure the dizzying heights of the Saltoro Ridge overlooking the glacier to gain visual domination of the other. It was a race which the Indian Army quickly managed to win, thus completely denying Pakistan a piece of the Siachen glacier. This continues till today. 

But this victory also brought with it the nightmare of logistics and of creating an infrastructure to maintain some 4,000 soldiers in a terrain and environment which tests the limits of human physiological and psychological endurance. The biggest enemy remains the weather where temperatures can fall to as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius, with a constant danger of blizzards and avalanches. The minefield of numerous crevasses adds to the challenge to foot soldiers as does the lack of oxygen. Transporting supplies is a major challenge considering that single-engine light helicopters can only carry a limited weight to those heights. Since India has access to the entire glacier, it also means that the supply line is long from the nearest road head — about 70 km. In contrast, because Islamabad does not have the glacier, the farthest distance the Pakistani Army has to cover from its road head is 20 km. 

After initially suffering considerable losses, the Indian Army has, in fact, managed to reduce casualties in the glacier region by improving equipment for the soldiers, installing pre-fabricated fibre glass huts and laying a kerosene oil pipeline, to name a few measures. In a rare admission, Pakistan conceded it had lost 213 soldiers between 2003 and 2010. The approximately 140 soldiers killed in 2012 are in addition. In the absence of figures released by the Pakistani Army both preceding and following this 2003-2010 period, it is difficult to put an exact figure on Pakistani casualties.  Data released by the Indian government in Parliament reveals that the Indian Army had lost 869 soldiers on the glacier in 31 years, starting from April 1984 to December 2015. This includes 33 officers, 54 junior commissioned officers and 782 other ranks. But this does not include the number of Indian soldiers injured or permanently incapacitated. The extent to which Indian casualties have reduced is evident from the fact that the Army lost just four soldiers each in 2007 and 2008, 10 in 2013, six in 2014 and five in 2015. In contrast, some stray Pakistani casualty figures reveal 12 Pakistani soldiers killed in 2007 and 13 in 2008. Almost all casualties are attributed to the harsh weather and terrain rather than to enemy firing. Although the two sides have held 13 rounds of discussions to demilitarise the glacier, the biggest hurdle is Pakistan agreeing to record the existing positions on the Indian side. 

The Indian Army considers this paramount to prevent Pakistan from occupying it as soon as India vacates the Saltoro ridge gained at much human and financial cost. Pakistan refuses to oblige so as to prevent a subsequent legal claim by India. A formal demarcation will also expose the Pakistani Army to ridicule considering that, contrary to claims made domestically, they have never fought on the glacier. Pakistan claims a diagonal line running north-east, from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass, which not only encompasses the entire Siachen glacier but also threatens Indian positions in Leh. In addition to forming a direct linkage with Chinese- occupied Ladakh, the Indian Army says that such a claim is in direct violation of the watershed principle which India has followed in occupying the Saltoro ridge. The area should be demilitarised in the interest of preventing further environmental degradation of the area.  Decisions related to geo-politics can never be and never are based on sentiments and emotion. Unfortunately, in our world where realpolitik continues to dictate statecraft, a price tag cannot be placed on a country's national interest. A country has to pay the price, no matter how severe, to preserve its national interest unless, of course, a détente can be effected or one side is willing to compromise. 

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