Why are India and Pakistan sacrificing hundreds of soldiers' lives over an uninhabitable icy wasteland?
- By Myra MacDonald Myra MacDonald is a London-based journalist for Reuters and author of Heights of Madness, a book about the Siachen War.
"They look like animals when they come down, unshaven, dirty, and thin as rods," said an Indian officer in September 2003, describing troops returning from a three-month stint on Siachen, where India and Pakistan had fought a war over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice on their border since 1984. In November 2003, the two sides agreed on a cease-fire; since then neither has fired a shot. Yet thousands of men remain, still dying from the brutal conditions — in April, an avalanche buried 140 Pakistani troops and their civilian staff alive. This week, senior civil servants from India’s and Pakistan’s defense ministries are meeting in Pakistan, but expectations are low. It is a measure of the peculiar intransigence of India-Pakistan relations that despite repeated calls for a negotiated settlement — renewed by Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, after the avalanche — neither country can find a way to bring their men down from the mountains.
This is a war that has thrived on superlatives — the world’s coldest, highest battlefield, fought many days’ drive from the nearest city. Men posted to Siachen huddle in isolated posts along a jagged 68-mile-long front line, believe in ghosts, go half-mad from the unbroken white, and struggle to eat at altitudes where even walking is a strain. Far more have died from the effects of the weather and the terrain than from enemy fire. They have endured the physical scars of amputated, frostbitten limbs and the mental scars of premature aging, memory loss, and, some say quietly, impotence. "It is madness to be up there," said the officer, who declined to be named, speaking of the suffering, rather than the glory, of the Siachen War.
The blood feud between India and Pakistan, which began at independence in 1947, was initially based on ideology, the former secular and the latter Muslim. Yet Siachen was a single-minded battle for territory. Soldiers in both countries told me that "not 1 inch of land" could be ceded to the other side. And the result has been a fight with many casualties and little gain, employing World War I-style trench warfare at 18,000 feet.
Siachen is the largest of a number of glaciers — giant, rubble-strewn, potholed, cracked open by crevasses — that slide down from the jagged peaks of the Karakoram Mountains into the snow-filled valleys below. Nothing grows there; no animals can live there. The region lies on the outermost rim of the old kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the times of the maharajah, it has been a place of myth. Only the bravest of explorers dared to go there, and those who did traveled in awe of the mountains. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could try to own them.
And in the beginning, nobody did. After their first war, when India and Pakistan agreed on a cease-fire line dividing Jammu and Kashmir in 1949, they demarcated their positions as far as map-grid reference point NJ9842, from which the border was to be extended "thence north to the glaciers." At the time, there seemed to be no reason to demarcate the Siachen region. No one was ever expected to live there; it was literally a no man’s land.
Then came the maps. They appeared in the 1970s, brought to India by tourists and travelers and showing the unclaimed Siachen glacier as Pakistani territory. India accused Pakistan of "cartographic aggression."
At the time, India had little to fear from Pakistan. India had just crushed it in the 1971 war when East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. But it feared China. After defeating India in a humiliating border war in 1962, China built close ties with Pakistan. And Siachen lay at the point where India, Pakistan, and China met. In the summer of 1978, a team of Indian military mountaineers explored Siachen to make sure that Pakistan could not connect with China to the north. That first expedition found little to justify this fear — the terrain was so wild that it took hours to cover a distance that in the plains would take minutes. The Indian team stayed for more than three months in Siachen, not so much to stake a claim, but to explore. "It was not a war," the leader of that first mission, Narendra "Bull" Kumar, told me in an interview in 2004. "It was a mountaineering expedition." There would be several others, enough to spook Pakistan into sending its own men.
In 1983, alarmed that the other side was going to occupy the passes into the Siachen glacier, both India and Pakistan decided to send troops the following summer. On April 13, 1984, a small group of Indian troops gathered at the snout of the Siachen glacier, where it disgorges the debris of its 43-mile journey into a chaotic mass of scree, black rock, and ice. They prayed at a makeshift temple where the Nubra River emerges as a luminous and dainty waterfall from the entrails of the glacier. Then, they boarded helicopters that dropped them higher up, and they climbed up to the passes across the mountains. Within days, a Pakistani helicopter spotted them, and Pakistani troops were hurriedly sent up to block any further Indian advance. Soon both countries were scrambling to consolidate their positions, grabbing whatever high points they could reach. The Siachen War had begun.
When I talked to Indian soldiers who had been sent up in the early months, they spoke of their sense of adventure and a glorious spirit of improvisation. "When we moved in we were very enthusiastic, very happy," said one officer who went up in 1984. "We all thought we were heroes."
However, India’s strategy had already gone awry. The original Indian intention was to put on a show of force, stake a claim, and withdraw before the winter. Nobody had ever spent the winter months in Siachen. But India had underestimated the Pakistani reaction. The very bizarreness of the Indian plan — to march its men to the top of the hill and march them down again — totally confused the Pakistan Army, or so its officers told me. To a military mind, the operation should have a clear objective, maybe to continue beyond the passes and occupy parts of Pakistani-held territory, or to reach the Karakoram Highway, the only road link between Pakistan and China. The simplest explanation — that India occupied Siachen not because it needed to but because it did not want Pakistan to have it — seemed too straightforward to be true. Yet in all the interviews I had with men involved on the Indian side, I found nothing to suggest there had ever been a bigger game plan.
The fighting in the early years was brutal. In one battle in the summer of 1987, Indian troops overran an enemy post at 21,000 feet. They had scaled vertical ice-walls in the dark and then over several days under fire crawled forward toward the post in small groups — in such terrain it was impossible to assemble a large assault team. The end, as described to me by Bana Singh, the Indian soldier who led the final assault, sounded like trench warfare at high altitude. Two Pakistanis wounded by grenades were finished off with bayonets. The remaining six Pakistanis retreated and were killed by the Indian side. There was no question of taking prisoners at these heights.
By the late 1980s, the futility of the war was obvious to senior officers on both sides. "The Indians have been stupid in coming into this area; we have been sentimental idiots in trying to grab the remaining peaks and thereafter throw them out," wrote one Pakistani commander in his personal diaries in 1989. But after the two countries narrowly failed to reach an agreement on a withdrawal, men continued to volunteer for Siachen, driven by peer pressure, curiosity, military discipline, and special Siachen allowances that would allow them to return with a tale of adventure and enough extra money to get married. They continued to suffer the kind of appalling conditions that no Western army would willingly endure. "You don’t have a bath for months. You don’t shave," said Vikram Singh, an Indian soldier posted to Siachen in 1999. "You become lethargic, and your skin is sunburned, turning black, the skin peeling off. There is nothing but snow. You get bored. You count the days. You never take off your clothes. Every problem you can think of is there."
By 1999, a year after the two countries tested nuclear bombs, Pakistan trained artillery fire on the main road leading from Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, prompting the brief but bitter Kargil War. Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan pulled back its troops, but India’s political and security establishment would no longer trust Pakistan not to reoccupy Siachen if the two countries agreed to a withdrawal. Between 1999 and 2012, India and Pakistan moved through what has become a painfully familiar cycle of peacemaking interrupted by conflict. After a December 2001 Islamist militant attack on Parliament in New Delhi that India blamed on Pakistan, the two countries prepared for war, mobilizing close to a million men along the border. U.S. shuttle diplomacy helped defuse tensions, but the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, which killed 166 people, torpedoed the next round of peace talks. And in Siachen, more than eight years after the cease-fire and 28 years after the first Indian troops ascended, the armies of India and Pakistan remain stuck in the mountains.
The avalanche this April was a terrible blow for the Pakistan Army, both in human cost and because it buried its battalion headquarters. With India already in control of most of the high positions, Pakistan has never looked so weak. But instead of negotiating a withdrawal from a position of strength and building momentum for a deal on the broader Kashmir dispute, India has insisted that Pakistan officially acknowledge India’s higher positions in Siachen and mark them on a map before any withdrawal. Pakistan, which believes India started the war and occupied its territory, finds these demands humiliating and almost impossible for it to accept. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony has even warned against any breakthrough during this week’s talks. That could mean that the Siachen conflict, and with it the broader Kashmir dispute, will remain unresolved for many years to come, and the soldiers will stay in the mountains. "In a normal war you can move about, get water, have a bath," said Vikram Singh, the soldier. "In Siachen, we just sit."