Siachen what next?

By Prof Farakh A Khan (22.4.12):

On April 7, 2012 an avalanche (or Glacier Surge) buried the battalion headquarter under hundreds of feet of snow and boulders in Siachen’s Gayari sector killing some 130 people (Syed, Baqir Sajjad and Ali Farman. Intense rescue efforts under way. Dawn. April 8, 2012; Baabar, Mariana. US, India offer help in Siachen search operation. The News. April 9, 2012). This suddenly jolted Siachen in focus. Unfortunately we know very little about Siachen conflict since the Siachen policy is firmly under military control. The media and politicians have been suddenly reminded of the wasteland of Siachen (Akhundzada, M Taqi. Nawaz asks Pakistan to lead India to pull out of Siachen. The News. April 18, 2012). On April 18 showing concern over the deaths of the soldiers Mian Nawaz Sharif followed by President Asif Ali Zardari made quick trips to Siachen.

Siah in Balti means roses and Chin means abundance. May be this was a pun on the snowy wasteland. Siachen Glacier melt forms the Nubra River flowing into Ladakh where it joins Shyok River. The Shyok River joins Indus up stream of Skardu. To get Siachen the last major town in Khaplu. Khurkund is the last permanent habitation at 11,000 feet where there are hot sulphur springs. In Siachen the Pakistan Army Brigade Headquarter is in Goma, which is less than 10,000 feet elevation. Battalion headquarters are in Gayari and Chilung. Gayari is at an altitude of 13,000 feet while Chilung is lower. These headquarters are approachable with difficulty by jeep with snow chains during six winter months. The to get to Siachen Saltoro Range has to be crossed through Sia La (23,960 feet), Bilafond La or Saltoro Pass (20,210 feet), Gyong La (18,500 feet), Yarma La (20,000 feet) and Chilung La (19,000 feet). In the 14th century despite high altitude and extreme cold Saltoro Pass was crossed by Syed Ali Hamdani who travelled to Kashgar to spread Islam. In the 16th century Turkish Sultan Abu Sayid invaded Ladakh from Xingjian now part of China. Siachen was discovered by the British in 1907 (Sugarman, 1996).

Pakistan spends Rs15 million per day to maintain three battalions in Siachen, which amounts to Rs. 5.4 billion a year. So far 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been killed since April 1984. There are 4,000 Pakistani troops and 7,000 Indian soldiers stationed in the conflict zone (Mir, Amir. Over 8,000 Indo-Pak soldiers killed at Siachen. The News. April 9, 2012). Most of the dead are from Northern Light Infantry. We have no idea as to the annual casualty rate in Siachen.

I am appalled at the poor information regarding the cause of war and survival at high altitude. This has prompted me to give some information and maps of the area.

Let us first focus on the origin of the conflict. Karachi Agreement of 1949 and Simla Agreement of 1972 between India and Pakistan referred up to a point on the map called NJ 9842, which was to pass northeast below the Siachen Glacier but remained un-delineated and hence disputed by the two sides. At the time of agreement neither side paid any attention to the deserted icy area, which later became disputed. The Indian military made plans in 1981 to capture 3,000 km of Siachen area. The Indian armed forces prepared 300 soldiers (Kumaon Regiment and Ladakh Scouts) for Arctic conditions before they were launched (Saleem, Farrukh. The aggressor in Siachen. The News. April 19, 2012). They were sent for training to Antarctica in 1982. Minor skirmishes were reported as early as 1982. The Indians launched its major attack in the area on April 13, 1984 calling it ‘Operation Meghdoot’. Pakistan claims that the Indians have captured 1,000 km of Pakistani territory in the area and want it back (pre 1984 position). The Indians want the Actual Ground Position Line to be maintained. There have been more than 12 secretary level talks between India and Pakistan but with no results.

In 1987 after a flowery presentation by generals Imran Khan and Bangash to former President Gen Ziaul Haq authorisation was given by Zia to launch the Siachen attack called ‘Operation Qeadat’. The objective was capture of a ridge opposite Bilafond La by barrage of artillery fire before the ground assault. Army knew nothing about acclimatisation at high altitude or the protective gear required to function in the cold environment. The attack included 1st and 7th Azad Kashmir Regiments and commandos. They were in their low altitude winter uniform and ordinary tents. The 7 AK Regiment suffered more than 300 casualties mostly due to affects of high altitude and severe cold. Later the soldiers were provided with imported special uniforms and igloo tents.

It is claimed that General Bangash was totally incompetent and a coward but he survived this setback. Heavy casualties were suffered and it was clear that it was disaster on the very first day. Bangash was transferred and Imran was not touched since he was to retire soon. From then on the army was just carrying on a holding operation. In 1980s the cost of one chapatti was Rs 150 for the soldiers on the frontline. The food was in ample quantities rather too much (Gen Zafar Amjid. PC Gaap. June 5, 2009). The ceasefire has been in place since 2003.

Many talks between India and Pakistan have taken place before. The fifth round of talks were held between Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Dr Humayun Khan and India’s Foreign Secretary in Islamabad on December 17, 1985 where it was agreed to redeploy troops according to Simla Agreement. However there was an uproar in India and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to reverse the agreement.

The three days Track-II dialogue took place in Bangkok in 2009. The talks were sponsored by US Ploughshares Fund. Maj Gen Dipankar led the Indian 11 member team while Riaz Khokhar and Najmuddin Sheikh headed the seven-member team from Pakistan. Indians want the region between NJ9842, K2, and Karakorum Pass to be declared as ‘International Science Park’ and ‘Peace Zone’ under UN Environment Programme. Pakistan wants Siachen Glacier to be declared as ‘Peace Park’ since it was eroding the Glacier rapidly (Kiani, Khaleeq. Track-II forum floats idea of Siachen ‘Peace Park’. Dawn. December 3, 2009).

Talks were again held in New Delhi headed by Lt Gen Syed Ather Ali from Pakistan and Mr Pradeep Kumar on Siachin issue in 2011. This was 12th meeting after a gap of four years. The talks were inconclusive (Naqvi, Jawed. Talks on Siachin cordial but inconclusive. Dawn. June 1, 2011). We can only speculate what actually transpired during the talks. Maleeha Lodi in her article gives some information (Lodhi, Maleeha. Siachen: ten questions. The News. April 17, 2012).

According to WikiLeaks the Indian Army is against any deal with Pakistan on Siachen. Indian Joint Secretary TCA Raghavan revealed this in 2006. The BJP is the other big hurdle. The annual cost of the army in Siachin for the Indians is $670 million, which is not much when compared to the total defence budget. Agreement on Siachin was very near in 1989 and 1993 but was set aside because of the Indian army top brass (Sattar, Madiha. Indian army hurdle in way of Siachin solution. Dawn. June 2, 2011).

The two sides also have their eyes on Kashmir issue. Historically the British sold Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846. Kashmir was defined as land east of Indus excluding Chamba and turbulent Hazara. Gulab Singh had conquered some parts of lands west of Indus including Ladakh. The British did not contest these claims. Siachen area was never part of Jammu and Kashmir Empire of the Sikh ruler. Siachen is now part of Baltistan.

Due to Indian army activities Siachen Glacier is shrinking by 110 meters annually. A lake at 15,500 feet half a kilometre long has formed due to the glacier melt. The Baltoro Glacier on the Pakistani side on the other side of Saltoro Ridge is stable since 1904. Other Himalayan glaciers are also melting. Because of Indian army access over Siachen Glacier severe environmental degradation is taking place (Kiani, Khaleeq. Indians’ presence at Siachen causes rapid glacier melting. Dawn. December 7, 2009). No one realises the amount of pollution these 12,000 troops have created. It will take years to clean up the mess created by the troops. This is the most stupid war ever.

Let us highlight problems faced by the soldiers stationed at high altitude (up to 22,000 feet) with temperatures hitting -70 degrees centigrade.

Lt Gen Ayaz Ahmed speaking in a talk show (April 13) as an expert on Siachen tragedy on Geo TV claimed that the problem was of low oxygen and it was difficult to boil water! No wonder our army is still in the WW I era.

Our group launched its first high altitude research project with poor resources at a camp located at 12,000 feet in 1981 in the Kaghan Valley. This was the first ever-serious research on effects of high altitude done in Pakistan. Subsequent projects on yearly basis were taken place elsewhere. We subsequently published our results in two books ‘Man Mountain and Medicine’ I and II edited by Dr Mohammad Ilyas. Our studies were initially on unacclamatised subjects and later on local population. Our suggestion of establishing a permanent high altitude research centre was never taken seriously.

I would not go into details of acute and chronic mountain sickness. Acute mountain sickness afflicts the unacclamatised subjects with wide variety of symptoms after few hours stay at high altitude (9,000 feet and above). After each step the subject has to stop to take a breather. Physical exertion will exacerbate symptoms. At extreme altitude (above 20,000 feet) acclimatisation is not possible. More serious symptoms due to brain oedema and water in the lungs (breathing problem) can lead to rapid death. The only certain cure is to bring the patient down to lower altitude as quickly as possible. The high altitude symptoms are due to low atmospheric pressure (not fall in oxygen percentage), which does not allow sufficient oxygen to dissolve in the blood. The low pressure also brings the boiling point of water down thus at some altitude the water will boil at below 30*C. Surprisingly dehydration is another problem. Strong ultraviolet rays can cause painful first-degree skin burn. Without protective eyeglasses can lead to ‘snow blindness’. This is a painful condition. Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting can cause serious weight loss and reduce ability to function. Disorientation and loss of mental function can cause serious problems.

Extreme cold brings its own problems (-70*C in some places). Special protective clothing and living accommodation is required to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Fibreglass igloo tent parts are hauled over difficult conditions up steep slopes where they are assembled. The living conditions in the igloo are appalling. Then soldiers face blizzards, crevasses, rock falls, avalanches and isolation. To get to some posts the soldiers have to undertake serious rock climbing.

Beside cold and high altitude I have been told that artillery and rocket fire is also most inaccurate at high altitude. Almost all casualties are due to the weather and high altitude rather than enemy fire.

After the Siachen tragedy the key players in Pakistan made statements. Nawaz Sharif suggested unilateral pull out from Siachen, which he later denied. Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani was also in favour of troops pull out. The Indian Minister of State for Defence Palam Raju appreciated the stance of Gen Kayani. However the Pakistani Foreign Office claimed that there was no change in policy regarding Siachen (Nawaz reiterates Siachen withdrawal call. OC. The News. April 20, 2012).

Why is India and Pakistan in Siachen, which is of no strategic value to either side? The Indians claim that they fear Chinese intrusion in the area. Why has Pakistan and India not been able to reach an agreement in Siachen (since 1984) and Sir Creek (since 1964)? I do not have insider information of past negotiations between the two countries so I cannot comment on what transpired between the two. Idea of ‘Siachen Peace Park’ is perhaps the only solution. I am sure that with some bending from both sides these issues should be resolved before we take up the more serious issue of Kashmir.

Sugarman, Martin A. war above the clouds: Siachen Glacier. Services Book Club. 1998.

UN map of Siachen showing line of control up to NJ9842 Point.


Siachen area and disputed triangle
Siachen triangle between Karakoram Pass and Indira Koli
Satellite photo of Siachen


Comments are closed.