Saltoro, not Siachen



Having occupied the commanding heights of Siachen glacier, the Indian Army has no reason to vacate them to make life easier for the Pakistani Army.

On April 13, 1984, India began its most audacious military campaign when troops of the Kumaon Regiment were pushed up the heights of Siachen glacier. It is now 28 years to the day India launched ‘Operation Meghdoot’, the official name given to the military campaign on the world’s highest battleground. By sending troops in April, prematurely in mountaineering parlance, India wrested the initiative from Pakistan which had planned to send its soldiers sometime later in May 1984. By the time they began their climb the Indian Army was already ensconced on the heights, with the Indian Air Force undertaking air supply sorties. In the 28 years since that day, the Army has only increased its presence on the heights, gaining territory in the process. And the Air Force has only increased its expertise and experience in maintaining troops at those heights. Army aviation has also been an invaluable contributor to the war effort in Siachen.
In the early hours of April 7, an avalanche swept over the battalion headquarters of the Pakistani Army’s 6 Northern Light Infantry at Ghyari, located at the south-western end of the spur leading out of Bilafond La. The casualties are the highest the Pakistani Army has suffered in a single incident during peacetime. And it is peacetime in Siachen since India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire in 2003. In an Army-inspired state like Pakistan, the casualties were serious enough for voices to demand the postponement of President Asif Ali Zardari’s Easter Sunday ziarat at Ajmer. The counter voices declared that his visit would also raise the long pending issue of a deal between India and Pakistan on Siachen glacier — a chimera that has long captured the imagination of commentators in both countries. There is a belief in the analyst community of both countries that this is a futile conflict which can easily be solved if the political authorities display sufficient will and resolve.
A frequently published Indian analyst has called it a “particularly muscular drama re-enacted by Indian soldiers on the heights” and which neared resolution during the time of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. “But for one reason or another, especially after Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in 1999, the Indian Army has succeeded in sabotaging the very thought from reaching its logical conclusion in the Indian political establishment,” she added. And completed the invective about the Indian Army’s disruption of peace by declaring, “The point here is that it is not up to the Army to tell India’s elected leaders where and how and under what circumstances it will fight. That decision must surely rest with the civilian leadership.”
A Pakistani analyst of similar frequency has also followed the same tack, claiming, “Pakistan didn’t start this conflict. Pakistan has wanted to end it. A possible agreement is already there. The elephant in the room is the Indian Army. It wants the Actual Ground Position Line marked and documented before it would withdraw. We cannot do it because we maintain that India aggressed and should not have been where it is”. Both analysts pretty much reflect the prevailing wisdom around this, the most inexplicable, conflict. The bull in the china shop is always the Indian Army, and the political leadership is helpless before its adamant attitude. Simple enough to declare, simple enough to write, but not simple enough to defend, for no conflict has origins that can be simplified to such clichés.
The Siachen conflict began because of incomplete cartographic commitments between India and Pakistan. In delineating and describing the Line of Control, military and diplomatic officials of both countries erred in ending the narrative at NJ 9842, followed by ‘thence north to the glaciers’, the most oft-quoted cartographic blunder. Even the Simla Agreement repeated the same error, and this despite the first battles already fought over the heights north of the Srinagar-Leh highway. International mountaineering expeditions then began to seek permission from Islamabad to climb in this area, all on the basis of American maps that depicted Siachen as under Pakistan’s control. Protests and counter-protests at the diplomatic level remained unanswered. Thus began the military stakes in the conflict. It took a late August 1983 coming together of the Ladakh Scouts and the Pakistani Army’s Special Services Group that finally clinched it for both countries.
Preparations began immediately for the eventual escalation during the next climbing season. Except that the Indian Army moved in before the Pakistani Army could. Bullets now came to be traded where once words were used to carry the message. In the process, as in all conflicts with Pakistan, India has only gained ground — most notably in 1987 when the 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry bested the Pakistani Army’s SSG at insurmountable heights, using extraordinary mountaineering skills. That action so bruised the ego of then Brigadier Pervez Musharraf that in 1999 he launched the Pakistani Army into ‘Operation Badr’ to take the heights of Kargil. The motivation was to occupy the heights, deny India road supply movement to Leh, and in the process squeeze the Army out of its heights in Siachen. None of it worked, of course. And India continues to dominate the heights, in Kargil and across Siachen.
The Indian Army is not on Siachen but to its west, on the Saltoro ridgeline. This is where the bull in the china shop comes into play. The occupation of heights by the Army has followed the principle laid out in the agreement delineating the Line of Control — ‘thence north to the glaciers’. For the Indian positions from NJ9842 are pretty much along the line north. This is now called Actual Ground Position Line; the bugbear in Pakistan’s claims, for it leaves Siachen well to the east. Pakistan’s interpretation of ‘thence north to the glaciers’ is actually in an east-north-east direction, ending on the Karakoram Pass. It barely touches the southern end of the Siachen glacier. The dispute, then, is really about what constitutes ‘north to the glaciers’. And in that disagreement over the direction of the LoC rests the solution to the Siachen conflict. Since Pakistan does not want to accept the AGPL principle, and India does not want to vacate without a formal written agreement, the dispute lingers. The Kargil conflict was thrust on India despite an agreement on what constituted the LoC in that sector. Here, however, there is yet to be an agreement.
This then raises the next doubt — about the inviolability of agreements. If past experience is anything to go by, there is every reason to stay on the heights. For, after all, it is the business of the military professional to choose the timing, location, and method of the next operation. The political leadership can only give the green light.

Get our updates FREE

0 comments:

Post a Comment

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Saltoro, not Siachen


Having occupied the commanding heights of Siachen glacier, the Indian Army has no reason to vacate them to make life easier for the Pakistani Army.

On April 13, 1984, India began its most audacious military campaign when troops of the Kumaon Regiment were pushed up the heights of Siachen glacier. It is now 28 years to the day India launched ‘Operation Meghdoot’, the official name given to the military campaign on the world’s highest battleground. By sending troops in April, prematurely in mountaineering parlance, India wrested the initiative from Pakistan which had planned to send its soldiers sometime later in May 1984. By the time they began their climb the Indian Army was already ensconced on the heights, with the Indian Air Force undertaking air supply sorties. In the 28 years since that day, the Army has only increased its presence on the heights, gaining territory in the process. And the Air Force has only increased its expertise and experience in maintaining troops at those heights. Army aviation has also been an invaluable contributor to the war effort in Siachen.
In the early hours of April 7, an avalanche swept over the battalion headquarters of the Pakistani Army’s 6 Northern Light Infantry at Ghyari, located at the south-western end of the spur leading out of Bilafond La. The casualties are the highest the Pakistani Army has suffered in a single incident during peacetime. And it is peacetime in Siachen since India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire in 2003. In an Army-inspired state like Pakistan, the casualties were serious enough for voices to demand the postponement of President Asif Ali Zardari’s Easter Sunday ziarat at Ajmer. The counter voices declared that his visit would also raise the long pending issue of a deal between India and Pakistan on Siachen glacier — a chimera that has long captured the imagination of commentators in both countries. There is a belief in the analyst community of both countries that this is a futile conflict which can easily be solved if the political authorities display sufficient will and resolve.
A frequently published Indian analyst has called it a “particularly muscular drama re-enacted by Indian soldiers on the heights” and which neared resolution during the time of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. “But for one reason or another, especially after Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in 1999, the Indian Army has succeeded in sabotaging the very thought from reaching its logical conclusion in the Indian political establishment,” she added. And completed the invective about the Indian Army’s disruption of peace by declaring, “The point here is that it is not up to the Army to tell India’s elected leaders where and how and under what circumstances it will fight. That decision must surely rest with the civilian leadership.”
A Pakistani analyst of similar frequency has also followed the same tack, claiming, “Pakistan didn’t start this conflict. Pakistan has wanted to end it. A possible agreement is already there. The elephant in the room is the Indian Army. It wants the Actual Ground Position Line marked and documented before it would withdraw. We cannot do it because we maintain that India aggressed and should not have been where it is”. Both analysts pretty much reflect the prevailing wisdom around this, the most inexplicable, conflict. The bull in the china shop is always the Indian Army, and the political leadership is helpless before its adamant attitude. Simple enough to declare, simple enough to write, but not simple enough to defend, for no conflict has origins that can be simplified to such clichés.
The Siachen conflict began because of incomplete cartographic commitments between India and Pakistan. In delineating and describing the Line of Control, military and diplomatic officials of both countries erred in ending the narrative at NJ 9842, followed by ‘thence north to the glaciers’, the most oft-quoted cartographic blunder. Even the Simla Agreement repeated the same error, and this despite the first battles already fought over the heights north of the Srinagar-Leh highway. International mountaineering expeditions then began to seek permission from Islamabad to climb in this area, all on the basis of American maps that depicted Siachen as under Pakistan’s control. Protests and counter-protests at the diplomatic level remained unanswered. Thus began the military stakes in the conflict. It took a late August 1983 coming together of the Ladakh Scouts and the Pakistani Army’s Special Services Group that finally clinched it for both countries.
Preparations began immediately for the eventual escalation during the next climbing season. Except that the Indian Army moved in before the Pakistani Army could. Bullets now came to be traded where once words were used to carry the message. In the process, as in all conflicts with Pakistan, India has only gained ground — most notably in 1987 when the 8 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry bested the Pakistani Army’s SSG at insurmountable heights, using extraordinary mountaineering skills. That action so bruised the ego of then Brigadier Pervez Musharraf that in 1999 he launched the Pakistani Army into ‘Operation Badr’ to take the heights of Kargil. The motivation was to occupy the heights, deny India road supply movement to Leh, and in the process squeeze the Army out of its heights in Siachen. None of it worked, of course. And India continues to dominate the heights, in Kargil and across Siachen.
The Indian Army is not on Siachen but to its west, on the Saltoro ridgeline. This is where the bull in the china shop comes into play. The occupation of heights by the Army has followed the principle laid out in the agreement delineating the Line of Control — ‘thence north to the glaciers’. For the Indian positions from NJ9842 are pretty much along the line north. This is now called Actual Ground Position Line; the bugbear in Pakistan’s claims, for it leaves Siachen well to the east. Pakistan’s interpretation of ‘thence north to the glaciers’ is actually in an east-north-east direction, ending on the Karakoram Pass. It barely touches the southern end of the Siachen glacier. The dispute, then, is really about what constitutes ‘north to the glaciers’. And in that disagreement over the direction of the LoC rests the solution to the Siachen conflict. Since Pakistan does not want to accept the AGPL principle, and India does not want to vacate without a formal written agreement, the dispute lingers. The Kargil conflict was thrust on India despite an agreement on what constituted the LoC in that sector. Here, however, there is yet to be an agreement.
This then raises the next doubt — about the inviolability of agreements. If past experience is anything to go by, there is every reason to stay on the heights. For, after all, it is the business of the military professional to choose the timing, location, and method of the next operation. The political leadership can only give the green light.

No comments:

Post a Comment

back to top