The aggressor in Siachen
April 19, 2012
In 1981, the generals of Bharatiya Thalsena, the Indian Army, and the air marshals of Bharatiya Vayu Sena, the Indian Air Force, began planning to capture some 3,000 square kilometres of Pakistani territory, including all major passes of the Saltoro Ridge one as high as 18,665 ft above sea level. In 1982, troops from the Kumaon Regiment were ‘acclimatised to the extremities of glacier warfare through a training expedition to Antarctica’ under the Indian Antarctic Programme.
In early April 1984, Operation Meghdoot, after the divine cloud messenger Meghaduta, was launched. Bharatiya Vayu Sena used Ilyushin Il-76, strategic air-lifters to airdrop supplies and Aerospatiale Allouette III utility helicopters to transport personnel. A full battalion of the Kumaon (Infantry) Regiment, with its regimental centre in Ranikhet, and units of Ladakh Scouts, the Snow Warriors, also an infantry regiment specialising in high-altitude mountain warfare, was ordered to move on foot to avoid detection. By April 13, around 300 Indian troops, equipped with Arctic battle gear, had captured Sia La, Gyong La and Bilafond La, the three major passes of the Saltoro Ridge.
Cost of Operation Meghdoot: $3.5 billion – a startling $3.5 billion spent just to capture barren, icy heights that attracted little or no strategic attention for a full thirty-seven years since 1947. India’s 28-year accumulated Siachen tab, in addition to Operation Meghdoot, stands at a colossal $10 billion. Currently, India spends an average of $1 million a day every day of the year (Pakistan’s costs run about two-third of India’s because of favourable land access).
A few days after April 13, Pakistani troops advanced to control the glacial valley -and block the Indian movement – approximately 5 km west of Gyong La. The Pak Army then raised an SSG garrison in Khapalu some 40 km from Saltoro and in 1987 Brigadier Pervez Musharraf led a daring but unsuccessful mission to retake Bilafond La. There have been other rather courageous assaults in 1990, 1995, 1996 and 1999 but India has managed to retain heights occupied in 1984.
The coldest of all cold wars has been on for more 10,000 days. Both armies refuse to disclose casualties but on average a soldier dies every day of the year not from enemy fire but from frost bites and avalanches. According to Dr Maleeha Lodhi, India and Pakistan have held twelve rounds of talks between December 1985 and May 2011. On June 17, 1989, a Pakistan-India joint statement stated that there was an agreement on the “redeployment of forces” in Siachen. Apparently, PM Gandhi failed to sell the agreement to the Indian Army. And the war went on – and goes on.
The Pak Army has offered to withdraw to pre-1984 positions. The Indian Army, the biggest of all impediments to a resolution, is adamant on Pakistan’s acceptance of the so-called actual ground position line (AGPL). And the war goes on, soldiers continue to die.
The most logical of all logical resolutions of the Siachen blunder is for both the armies to unconditionally withdraw to pre-April 1984 positions. But that is not acceptable to Bharatiya Thalsena. For the Pak Army ‘aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed’.
The writer is a columnist based in Islamabad. Email: farrukh15@ hotmail.com