Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Siachen's Silver Jubilee

The Pakistani and Indian armed forces fought two 'old fashioned' wars in 1965 and 1971. These wars saw two uniformed armies, along with traditional trappings like tanks and artillery, face each other primarily in the plains of Punjab.

However, the hostility between the two South Asian nuclear powers has led to several other conflagrations, including one that currently has the distinction of being the highest battlefield in the world.

The Siachen Glacier, a glacier located in disputed Kashmir at an elevation of approximately 21,000 feet above sea level, has been contested militarily since 1984. The word Siachin means the 'place of wild roses' in local dialect. The name is a reference to the roses which allegedly grow in the valleys around the glacier.

Himalayan Glacier

The Siachen Glacier in a photograph taken in 1913

The area surrounding the glacier was poorly demarcated at the time of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Subsequent bilateral agreements, including the Karachi Agreement of 1949 and the Simla Accord of 1972, did not make an effort to demarcate the territory as it was deemed to be impossible for normal human inhabitation.

When India launched 'Operation Meghdoot' in April 1984 it was able to successfully secure the high points of the 70 kilometre long glacier, including the Saltoro Ridge and two strategically important passes. Twenty-five years and several Pakistani counter attacks later, the 'Actual Ground Position Line' remains much the same. The Indian forces hold the high ground but are effectively under siege by the Pakistani forces.

The Indians cannot come down while the Pakistanis cannot go up.

While it may be difficult to fault the Pakistani military high command for not properly defending an unpopulated area at an altitude of 6,000 square meters, there were some warning signs that the Indian military was planning some sort of advance. Most notably an Indian military expedition to the Siachen area in 1978 should have raised some red flags.

It is a moot point to suggest that one side has got the best of the conflict, especially given the enormous logistical costs to both sides. But, as former Pakistan President Musharraf has admitted in his memoirs, the reality that the country has lost almost 900 square miles of territory (which Pakistan claims) to India is a bitter truth for most Pakistanis.

The Siachen conflict is an expensive and futile extension of the national honour of the two neighbours. A conflict in which avalanches and frostbites, and not enemy gunfire, generate more casualties do make one wonder who is the real adversary.

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