Indian, Pakistani armies remain locked in frigid, pointless combat in Himalayas

15-year war acquires new meaning as nations add nuclear capability

May 23, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SIACHEN GLACIER, Western Himalayas -- For 15 blustery, shivering years, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been fighting a war along the frigid peaks of the western Himalayas -- in an area named for the Siachen Glacier and known as the battleground on the roof of the world.

For a soldier, this is where hell freezes over, a 46-mile river of slow-moving ice surrounded by stupendous towers of snow. Temperatures drop to 50 below, and sudden blizzards can bury field artillery in minutes. Men sleep in ice caves or igloos and breathe air so spare of oxygen that it sends their hearts into a mad gallop. Fainting spells and pounding headaches are frequent. Frostbite chews its way through fingers and limbs.

The enemy is hard to see in the crags and craters in the vast whiteness -- and harder to hit. Rifles must be thawed repeatedly over kerosene stoves, and machine guns need to be primed with boiling water. At altitudes of 18,000 feet, mortar shells fly unpredictable and extraordinary distances, swerving erratically when met by sledgehammer gusts.

While some troops fall to hostile fire, far more perish from avalanches and missteps into crevasses. This is especially the case in spring, as the sun licks away several feet of ice and opens underground cracks and seams.

But for all these logistical peculiarities, the Siachen conflict might be thought of as just another low-intensity border war -- were it not being fought between the world's two newest nuclear powers. Their combat over a barren, uninhabited nether world of questionable strategic value is a forbidding symbol of their lingering irreconcilability.

"This is like a struggle of two bald men over a comb," said Stephen P. Cohen, an authority on the Indian subcontinent at the Brookings Institution. "Siachen is the epitome of the worst aspects of the relationship. These are two countries that are paired on a road to Oslo or Hiroshima, and at this point they could go either way."

Since gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, and India, which is predominantly Hindu, have been enemies with a bent toward military confrontation. In 1949, after the first of three wars, the nations agreed to a cease-fire line that stopped short of the remote massifs of north-central Kashmir -- a disputed area on the map where India, Pakistan and China meet.

The wording in the agreement merely said the line was to continue "north to the glaciers." For two decades, this vague phrasing was of more concern to mapmakers than soldiers, but in the 1970s several groups of mountaineers began trekking through the region. If they could survive, so might an army. Siachen became another reason for two nervous neighbors to be reflexively suspicious.

On April 13, 1984, the Indian army made a "preemptive" move into the glacier and the peaks and passes around it. Within weeks, Pakistani forces swept in to oppose them, but the Indians have been able to hold on to the tactical advantage of the high ground.

Fifteen years of refrigerated combat have brought only 15 years of hardened stalemate. The Pakistanis cannot get up to the glacier; the Indians cannot come down.

"Nobody can win, no matter how long we fight," said Maj. Gen. V.S. Budhwar, the Indian commander in Leh, whose region includes Siachen. "But this is our land. It is a portion of our nation-state, and we will not cede it."

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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