Witness to folly

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

An account of the mess created by India and Pakistan in Siachen.

MYRA MACDONALD was Reuters correspondent in New Delhi for four years, during a critical phase in Indias relations with Pakistan. No journalist has travelled in the Siachen region, from both sides of the India-Pakistan divide, as extensively as she has. Her book is straightforward reportage of what she saw with her own eyes and of what she was told by responsible military officials. It is enriched by her colleague Pawel Kopczynskis stunning photographs. The om ission of a map is a serious flaw.

What we have is a good account based on extensive interviews on how the two countries got into the mess in 1984, their persistence in folly and how they are paying for it. At 19,500 feet, Siachen has the highest helipad in the world. It cost, so they told me, at least 30 million rupee ($740,000) a day to run the operation. It was a war where the majority of casualties were claimed by the weather and the terrain rather than by enemy fire. The Indian Army spent 51,000 rupees ($1,260) just to clothe one soldier, not including his boots, and 95 per cent of the equipment used on Siachen was imported. On the basis of the many different estimates she had heard, at least two or three thousand men must have died altogether on both sides in the course of the war, mostly in the early years. On the Indian side alone, 12,000 were wounded, injured or brought out sick, many of them physically or psychologically scarred for life.

To what gain? India discovered Pakistans growing interest in Siachen and decided to forestall any move by it by dropping men by helicopter to occupy the passes on the Saltoro range on April 13, 1984. This was Operation Meghdoot. Pakistan counter-attacked and the war began. A ceasefire followed 20 years later. But the diplomatic impasse remains. Indira Gandhi and Zia-ul-Haq could well have agreed to let the status quo remain with neither side having a presence there. But trust was in short supply, understandably. India did not intend to have a permanent presence there. Pakistans reaction, predictable as it was, left it with little choice. Lt. Gen. M.L. Chibber, head of the Northern Command, is a fine soldier with a balanced approach. Indira Gandhi told him, General, do it in a manner that it does not escalate into an all-out war.

Lt. Gen. Jahan Dad Khan, head of Pakistans 10 Corps, told the author that it was a question of who reached the area first. Pakistan decided that the earliest it could launch an operation was early May. By March, when I left, details were still being worked out, he said. The instructions were very clear that the Commander of the Northern Areas was to move in May. Air cover would be there. Logistics support would be there. But the Indian Army moved in the second week of April. Pakistanis spotted Indian troops for the first time on April 18.

Each side attributed to the author motives of a bigger plan and painted the worst case scenario. In June 1987, India seized control of the Quaid Post from Pakistan. It was renamed Bana Top after Bana Singh who led the attack. One Pakistani Commander wrote in his personal diaries in 1989. 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. Instead of wasting our meagre resources, and banging our heads against ice walls, we should fall back to road heads. In a very short while, the Indians would look very silly sitting on the inhospitable heights, not seeing or facing any enemy. Weather and troop morale will force them to pull back also.

Neither side can throw the other out from the positions it holds, and holding existing positions is not a viable option. The only sensible course is for both to withdraw. In June 1989, they agreed to do just that. A few weeks later, India insisted on authentication of existing positions. On this issue the talks have been deadlocked since.

An interesting report sheds light on the motives underlying Pakistans foolish venture into Kargil in 1999. According to one former Pakistani commander, the targets were to be the Indian base camp at the snout of the glacier, and the main road leading from Srinagar to Leh as it ran up the Line of Control between the towns of Dras and Kargil. Only with such a master plan could the agonising slowness and senseless inching forward of the Siachen war be halted, the commander wrote at the time. It may not be necessary to physically occupy both or either. It would be quite sufficient to render it impossible for the enemy to hold onto them and use them freely, he wrote in a handwritten draft of which he gave me a copy on condition that I did not use his name.

One hopes the next edition of this excellent book will carry a good map to illustrate the areas it mentions.

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