Cold War

Why are India and Pakistan sacrificing hundreds of soldiers' lives over an uninhabitable icy wasteland?
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BY MYRA MACDONALD JUNE 11, 2013

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MILITARY INDIA PAKISTAN

" said an Indian officer in September 2003. who declined to be named. fought many days' drive from the nearest city." said the officer.neither country can find a way to bring their men down from the mountains. Far more have died from the effects of the weather and the terrain than from enemy fire.000 feet. after the avalanche -. This week. senior civil servants from India's and Pakistan's defense ministries are meeting in Pakistan. describing troops returning from a three-month stint on Siachen. Men posted to Siachen huddle in isolated posts along a jagged 68-mile-long front line. speaking of the suffering. where India and Pakistan had fought a war over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice on their border since 1984. frostbitten limbs and the mental scars of premature aging. rather than the glory.the world's coldest. go half-mad from the unbroken white. In November 2003. was initially based on ideology. still dying from the brutal conditions -. The blood feud between India and Pakistan. since then neither has fired a shot. . Yet Siachen was a single-minded battle for territory. some say quietly. It is a measure of the peculiar intransigence of India-Pakistan relations that despite repeated calls for a negotiated settlement -. unshaven. highest battlefield. which began at independence in 1947. and. of the Siachen War. believe in ghosts.in April. memory loss.renewed by Pakistan's Army chief. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Yet thousands of men remain. employing World War I-style trench warfare at 18. Gen. This is a war that has thrived on superlatives -. And the result has been a fight with many casualties and little gain. and thin as rods. and struggle to eat at altitudes where even walking is a strain. Soldiers in both countries told me that "not 1 inch of land" could be ceded to the other side. They have endured the physical scars of amputated. an avalanche buried 140 Pakistani troops and their civilian staff alive. but expectations are low. impotence. the two sides agreed on a cease-fire. the former secular and the latter Muslim. dirty.  BORDERS HISTORY "They look like animals when they come down. "It is madness to be up there.

And Siachen lay at the point where India. India accused Pakistan of "cartographic aggression. "It was a . It's hard to imagine how anyone could try to own them. a team of Indian military mountaineers explored Siachen to make sure that Pakistan could not connect with China to the north. it was literally a no man's land. The region lies on the outermost rim of the old kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir. They appeared in the 1970s.Siachen is the largest of a number of glaciers -. India had little to fear from Pakistan. And in the beginning. Narendra "Bull" Kumar. and those who did traveled in awe of the mountains.that slide down from the jagged peaks of the Karakoram Mountains into the snow-filled valleys below." the leader of that first mission. not so much to stake a claim. and China met. India had just crushed it in the 1971 war when East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. Pakistan. rubble-strewn. brought to India by tourists and travelers and showing the unclaimed Siachen glacier as Pakistani territory. but to explore. Then came the maps. But it feared China. China built close ties with Pakistan. "It was not a war. from which the border was to be extended "thence north to the glaciers. it has been a place of myth. they demarcated their positions as far as map-grid reference point NJ9842. cracked open by crevasses -." At the time." At the time. there seemed to be no reason to demarcate the Siachen region. That first expedition found little to justify this fear -. After their first war. told me in an interview in 2004. Since the times of the maharajah. no animals can live there. The Indian team stayed for more than three months in Siachen. Nothing grows there. when India and Pakistan agreed on a cease-fire line dividing Jammu and Kashmir in 1949. nobody did. In the summer of 1978.giant. After defeating India in a humiliating border war in 1962. Only the bravest of explorers dared to go there. No one was ever expected to live there.the terrain was so wild that it took hours to cover a distance that in the plains would take minutes. potholed.

they spoke of their sense of adventure and a glorious spirit of improvisation. they boarded helicopters that dropped them higher up. a Pakistani helicopter spotted them. India's strategy had already gone awry. or so its officers told me. "We all thought we were heroes. both India and Pakistan decided to send troops the following summer. The very bizarreness of the Indian plan -. or to reach the Karakoram Highway. very happy. The simplest explanation -. and they climbed up to the passes across the mountains. "When we moved in we were very enthusiastic. Soon both countries were scrambling to consolidate their positions. and Pakistani troops were hurriedly sent up to block any further Indian advance. In 1983." There would be several others. Nobody had ever spent the winter months in Siachen. enough to spook Pakistan into sending its own men. But India had underestimated the Pakistani reaction. a small group of Indian troops gathered at the snout of the Siachen glacier. They prayed at a makeshift temple where the Nubra River emerges as a luminous and dainty waterfall from the entrails of the glacier." However." said one officer who went up in 1984.mountaineering expedition. The original Indian intention was to put on a show of force. grabbing whatever high points they could reach. Within days. alarmed that the other side was going to occupy the passes into the Siachen glacier. maybe to continue beyond the passes and occupy parts of Pakistani-held territory. Then. and withdraw before the winter. The Siachen War had begun. where it disgorges the debris of its 43-mile journey into a chaotic mass of scree. 1984. On April 13. black rock. When I talked to Indian soldiers who had been sent up in the early months. To a military mind.to march its men to the top of the hill and march them down again -.totally confused the Pakistan Army. the only road link between Pakistan and China. the operation should have a clear objective. and ice. stake a claim.that India occupied Siachen not because it needed to but because it did not want Pakistan to have it .

Indian troops overran an enemy post at 21.-.000 feet. There is nothing but snow." wrote one Pakistani commander in his personal diaries in 1989. You never take off your clothes. a year after the two countries tested nuclear bombs.seemed too straightforward to be true. sounded like trench warfare at high altitude. There was no question of taking prisoners at these heights. we have been sentimental idiots in trying to grab the remaining peaks and thereafter throw them out. the Kashmiri capital. the Indian soldier who led the final assault. I found nothing to suggest there had ever been a bigger game plan. prompting the brief but . driven by peer pressure. men continued to volunteer for Siachen. Every problem you can think of is there. Pakistan trained artillery fire on the main road leading from Srinagar. By the late 1980s. turning black. "The Indians have been stupid in coming into this area." By 1999. military discipline. But after the two countries narrowly failed to reach an agreement on a withdrawal. The end. "You don't have a bath for months. You count the days. You don't shave. Two Pakistanis wounded by grenades were finished off with bayonets." said Vikram Singh. the skin peeling off. In one battle in the summer of 1987. an Indian soldier posted to Siachen in 1999. as described to me by Bana Singh. You get bored. Yet in all the interviews I had with men involved on the Indian side. They continued to suffer the kind of appalling conditions that no Western army would willingly endure. the futility of the war was obvious to senior officers on both sides. and your skin is sunburned. "You become lethargic. 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 remaining six Pakistanis retreated and were killed by the Indian side. and special Siachen allowances that would allow them to return with a tale of adventure and enough extra money to get married. The fighting in the early years was brutal. curiosity.

Indian Defense Minister A. That could mean that the Siachen conflict. "In Siachen. the soldier. Pakistan pulled back its troops.S.S. pressure. Antonyhas even warned against any breakthrough during this week's talks. Pakistan. The avalanche this April was a terrible blow for the Pakistan Army. which believes India started the war and occupied its territory." said Vikram Singh.bitter Kargil War. have a bath. and the soldiers will stay in the mountains. get water. And in Siachen. and with it the broader Kashmir dispute. shuttle diplomacy helped defuse tensions. India has insisted that Pakistan officially acknowledge India's higher positions in Siachen and mark them on a map before any withdrawal. U. but India's political and security establishment would no longer trust Pakistan not to reoccupy Siachen if the two countries agreed to a withdrawal.K. more than eight years after the cease-fire and 28 years after the first Indian troops ascended. Between 1999 and 2012. finds these demands humiliating and almost impossible for it to accept. which killed 166 people. India and Pakistan moved through what has become a painfully familiar cycle of peacemaking interrupted by conflict. "In a normal war you can move about. . Under U. both in human cost and because it buried its battalion headquarters. will remain unresolved for many years to come. Pakistan has never looked so weak. but the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants. we just sit. the two countries prepared for war. After a December 2001 Islamist militant attack on Parliament in New Delhi that India blamed on Pakistan. But instead of negotiating a withdrawal from a position of strength and building momentum for a deal on the broader Kashmir dispute. With India already in control of most of the high positions. mobilizing close to a million men along the border. the armies of India and Pakistan remain stuck in the mountains. torpedoed the next round of peace talks.