War at the Top of the World: from Time Asia

War at the Top of the World: Time Asia

Thawing relations between India and Pakistan have brought a cease-fire to the strife-torn Siachen Glacier. Will hostilities remain on ice?

Posted Monday, May 4, 2005; 20:00 HKT
Reproduced from Time Asia. All credits go to Time Magazine (By Tim McGirk with Aravind Adiga | Siachen Glacier)
Up at 5,653 m, Pakistani army Captain Ali Nazir watches the crows as they soar down from the spires of rock, gliding over the blue glacier. "I like the crows," Nazir says. He points to his soldiers clustered around a fiberglass igloo. "Aside from us, they are the only living creatures we ever see." And when the crows leave during the fierce, three-week-long winter blizzards? Then, says Nazir, "I cannot describe the absolute desolation I feel." He gestures grandly, like an orchestra conductor, at the view: snow clouds roiling down from the crags, avalanche tracks, man-eating crevasses ribbing the glacier. Soldiers see strange things at such altitudes?genies flitting across the glacier, phantom troops along a ridge. Men go mad and wander off to die in blizzards. "This is a terrible place. It is a battle just to survive," says Nazir, 27, his face darkened by high-altitude exposure.

Across a rampart of rock and ice stretching the length of the 75-km Siachen Glacier, an Indian soldier, Amarjeet Singh, is preparing to take up his battle position against the Pakistanis. Singh had served on the glacier before, in 1989, at the height of the fighting with Pakistan, but he thinks his second tour of duty will go easier. Indian and Pakistani troops are no longer shooting at one another. They are mainly worried about avalanches and deadly high-altitude sickness instead. "It was much worse before," recalls Singh, who says he now has warmer boots to protect him against frostbite, and better ice axes. Once he gets to his mountaintop bunker, entombed under layers of snow, Singh, like the other soldiers there, can call home by satellite phone from their soot-blackened igloo, while waiting out the hour that it takes to boil rice at these altitudes.

Time Magazine Siachen

Even with improvements in military equipment, Siachen is still an awful place to wage a war. Both countries refuse to disclose their casualties in the 21 years that they have been fighting up here, but some military analysts put the combined death toll at anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 lives. Temperatures can fall below -55C; and more soldiers are killed in avalanches than by gunfire. To mount an assault on an enemy-held mountaintop is often suicidal. Because of the lack of oxygen, attacking soldiers can climb only about five meters before they have to stop to catch their breath. If you let bare skin touch steel for more than 15 seconds?a finger on a trigger, for example?you risk severe frostbite. Says Rifaat Hussain, who teaches political science at Islamabad`s National Defence College: "It`s totally insane to be fighting a war at these altitudes."

Recently, TIME was able to visit both sides on the glacier and talk to soldiers involved in something that, if not the world`s most insane war, is surely the war fought in the most insanely impractical place. But the Siachen Glacier is worth visiting for more than the spectacular scenery. It is both a potential flash point between two nuclear powers?and potentially evidence of a new spirit of cooperation between them. The two neighbors nearly waged a full-scale war in 1999 when 800 Pakistani soldiers disguised as militants scaled a 5,100-m-high ridge near Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir and began shelling a major road used by the Indians to supply their Siachen outposts. India recaptured Kargil after suffering many casualties, but the Indians remain wary of the peace-making vows of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who, as army chief, had planned the Kargil offensive. Today, Siachen is more important as a test of diplomacy than of high-altitude battle skills. If India and Pakistan cannot solve a dispute over a chunk of ice that is of little strategic value, asks Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan`s Foreign Ministry spokesman and one of the key diplomats in talks with India, "then how can we fix more complex issues like Kashmir?"

It`s a good question. In November 2003, India and Pakistan declared a cease-fire along their disputed border from the Siachen Glacier through Kashmir. The truce, which has held, is part of a thaw in the hostility between the two countries. Nowadays, Kashmiris can travel by bus across the hilly, barbed-wire front line to visit relatives?the first time they have been able to do so for 50 years. Businessmen are hatching plans to pump oil from Iran through Pakistan to India`s factories, and Pakistani musicians and actors are heading for Bollywood spotlights. In June, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during a visit to Siachen, said he wanted to turn the battlefield into a "peace mountain." A few days later, India`s army chief General Joginder Jaswant Singh said the Indian army had drafted a road map that would convert the glacier and its surrounding peaks into a demilitarized zone. However, years of mistrust bedevil the peace process. Neither nation wants to be the first to pull its troops off the ice for fear that the other would rush in. Vijay Oberoi, a former Indian army vice chief of staff and an influential military analyst in New Delhi, has doubts about Pakistan`s true intentions. "We have suffered when we trusted them," he says. The Indians see their own position on the Siachen Glacier in grand terms. "The fact that India is on Siachen, and in control of it," says Lieut. Colonel J.S. Pundir, "is a sign that we can be a superpower." The Pakistanis are equally suspicious of the Indians. "We don`t want to be here," says Captain Nazir, "but the Indians moved in first, and we`ve sacrificed a lot of blood to keep them from advancing farther into Pakistan."

The origins of the ice war date back to 1949, after India and Pakistan came to blows over possession of Kashmir, a former kingdom coveted by both countries. Negotiators agreed on a cease-fire line that stopped at a map coordinate known as NJ9842, a mountaintop northeast of the Kashmiri city of Srinagar. In vague wording, which would come back to plague both nations, the agreement stated that the cease-fire line would extend from NJ9842 "thence north to the glaciers." This, according to the Pakistanis, put Siachen firmly inside their territory. The Indians think otherwise. New Delhi insists that because Siachen is the source for the Nubra River, which flows eastward into India, the glacier should belong to them. In the mid-1970s, Pakistan began to issue climbing permits to foreign mountaineers who wanted to explore the Karakoram Range, which has some of the world`s highest peaks. Then, in 1977, an Indian colonel named Narinder (Bull) Kumar was leafing through a mountaineering magazine when he spotted an article on international expeditions venturing onto the glacier from the Pakistani side. Kumar persuaded his superiors to allow him to lead a 70-man team of climbers and porters to the glacier. They returned in 1981, climbed several peaks and walked the length of Siachen. In an interview with Outside magazine in 2003, Kumar described the glacier as "like a great white snake ... going, going, going. I have never seen anything so white and so wide."

Bull`s secret trek was spotted by Pakistan. On patrol, some Pakistani soldiers found a crumpled packet of "Gold Flake" cigarettes?an Indian brand?and their suspicions were raised, according to a senior Pakistani government official. Soon, the Indian expedition on Siachen was shadowed by the Pakistanis. At army headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistani generals decided they had better stake a claim to Siachen before India did. Islamabad then committed an intelligence blunder, according to a now retired Pakistani army colonel. "They ordered Arctic-weather gear from a London outfitters who also supplied the Indians," says the colonel. "Once the Indians got wind of it, they ordered 300 outfits?twice as many as we had?and rushed their men up to Siachen." When the Pakistanis hiked up to the glacier in 1984, they found that a 300-man Indian battalion was already there, dug into the highest mountaintops. The Indians control two of Siachen`s three passes, and two-thirds of the glacier. Says Lieut. Colonel Abid Nadeem, Pakistani commander at Gyong, which at 4,266 m is the highest battalion headquarters in the world: "The Indians were climbing heights. And we were climbing heights. Then the shooting started. And so the war began."

Battles for these nameless peaks often involved surreal acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. In April 1989, for example, the Pakistanis decided to try to dislodge an Indian squad from a saddle between two peaks known as the Chumik Pass before reinforcements arrived. First, a platoon of Pakistanis, roped together, tried scaling a 600-m cliff to reach the Indian post, but they were wiped out by an avalanche. Time was running out; Indian reinforcements were approaching. So a Pakistani lieutenant, Naveed Khan Qureshi, 27, with no mountain-warfare training, volunteered for a crazy mission. The plan was for Qureshi to be dangled from a tiny helicopter by a rope and then dropped on top of the peak, above the Indians. Slapped by high winds, the helicopter stalled and went into a dive. Qureshi was still underneath it, swinging to and fro. "I was sure that he was going to get caught in the tail rotor blades," says the pilot, Raheel Hafeez Sehgal, now a colonel. Sehgal pulled the chopper out of its stall and headed for a lower ridge. Qureshi was cut loose?and fell straight into a crevasse. Miraculously, he survived, but was trapped there until a second soldier was airlifted in. The two men were stranded in a blizzard for two days until the weather cleared long enough for Sehgal to land four more troops and supplies. Trouble was, their position was 150 m below the Indian outpost instead of above it. Lashed together by ropes, the six men advanced up the mountain, and eventually overran the Indians` bunker. From that vantage point, the Pakistanis began to pound a lower Indian base on the glacier with mortars and rockets. A month later, the two countries realized the madness of trying to slug it out, and agreed to demilitarize the sector. The pact has held firm?proof, says Pakistani military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan, that Siachen can be a place of peace.

Today, an icy stalemate prevails. At Gyong, the Pakistani battalion headquarters, the military has made a large-scale model of its sector of Siachen. Using a swagger stick, an officer points out the positions of the Indian outposts, which dominate many of the highest peaks and ridges. Analysts reckon that India and Pakistan have 150 manned outposts along the Siachen Glacier, with some 3,000 troops each. At the Indian Forward Logistics Base, a 4,927-m-high post that is a key coordinating point for Indian troops manning the northern part of Siachen, Lieut. Colonel Pundir claims that the Pakistanis still don`t control any part of the glacier. "Not even an inch," says Pundir. With an air of contempt, he adds: "They can`t even show their faces near it." Pakistani Lieut. Colonel Saeed Iqbal concedes that the Indians control the heights. But he insists that the Indian success comes at a price. "It`s costing them far more than us," says Iqbal. "We can deliver our men and supplies to the front line using roads, while the Indians have to bring in everything using helicopters and snowmobiles." Islamabad political analyst Hussain calculates that it costs the Indians $438 million a year to fight for Siachen (Indian officials claim it is less than $300 million), while Pakistan`s bill is estimated at $182 million.

Since 1989, India and Pakistan have held nine meetings to hammer out a peace deal for Siachen. So far, they have got nowhere. At the last meeting, in May, India insisted that Pakistan accept the current 110-km front line along the glacier and the surrounding peaks?known as the Actual Ground Position Line?as the de facto international border. That way, say the Indians, if Pakistan does try to seize the Indian positions after a withdrawal, it would attract international condemnation. "The ball is in the Pakistani court; they must accept the ground reality," says Oberoi, the former Indian army vice chief of staff.

Pakistan, for its part, says it will never accept India`s alleged claim jumping. Says Foreign Ministry spokesman Jilani: "Siachen is perceived as a major act of Indian aggression." You hear that viewpoint often on the Pakistani side of the glacier. After a game on the highest cricket pitch in the world, in Gyari, Lieut. Colonel Iqbal sits down in a deck chair. "This war was forced on us," he says. "I have to stop the enemy from sitting on our land, and it might as well be here." Iqbal glances up sharply at a booming noise, which sounds like distant artillery fire. He grins; it`s just another avalanche.

Despite what analyst Hussain calls a "trust deficit" between the two sides, fresh peace proposals are making the rounds in New Delhi and Islamabad. The Pakistanis want to separate troop withdrawals from the glacier from the knottier issue of who owns Kashmir and, with it, Siachen. For its part, India wants hard evidence?such as a map or a photograph in which the Pakistanis agree to the current front line as the border?before it will agree to demilitarize. One proposal, made by international environmentalists, is that the Siachen Glacier be declared a troop-free zone, with access permitted to mountaineering and scientific expeditions. The Indian army says that thanks to global warming, Siachen is receding at a rate of 10.5 m annually. International pressure is also being applied to solve the conflict, according to analysts in India. "The U.S. would like India to withdraw; they see it as a symbolically important step," says Brahma Chellaney, a defense analyst at New Delhi`s Centre for Policy Research. Outsiders know that reaching a final settlement on Kashmir will be hard, but hope that the two sides can at last negotiate on what might be solvable. "Siachen looms high in what can be achieved," says Chellaney.

But honor is at stake. India and Pakistan each believe fervently in their own claim to Siachen. Both have spent blood and treasure to prove it, although the glacier`s strategic value is minimal. From his camp on the ice, Pakistani Captain Nazir watches an Indian party through binoculars. Despite the cease-fire, Nazir can`t relax. He is worried that an avalanche will sweep down on his encampment. "One came down on our toilet," he says. "Thank God nobody was inside." That would indeed be an awful way to go. But until India and Pakistan can find a way to trust each other, such a white death threatens the lives of young Indians and Pakistanis locked in a pointless war on the roof of the world.