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For troops on Siachen Glacier, the elements are the enemy

Veterans of the India-Pakistan conflict on Siachen Glacier in Kashmir do not tell stories of battle, but of battling subzero temperatures, the wind and the altitude.

May 20, 2012|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Pakistani soldiers and others take a break from post-avalanche recovery efforts on Siachen Glacier. More than a month after the disaster, crews continue to dig up snow and ice in search of bodies.
Pakistani soldiers and others take a break from post-avalanche recovery… (B.K. Bangash, Associated…)

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Icy wind whipped Lt. Nauman Ahmed's face as he plodded up a barren expanse of snowfields and crevasses. Woozy and spent, he reached a Pakistani military outpost 20,000 feet above sea level and slumped down on a cot in one of the camp's fiberglass igloos.

The next morning, the peril of waging war in the world's highest conflict zone began to take its toll. His head throbbed, and he was coughing up blood. When he tried to speak, he couldn't form words.

"I thought to myself, 'What is happening to me?'" Ahmed, now 30 and a retired captain, says eight years later. "It's such a difficult place to live.... On Siachen Glacier, we never know whether we will be around the next day."

Ahmed survived his deployment to the 49-mile-long no-man's land wedged into the Himalayas, but he isn't the same man. Cerebral edema brought on by the lack of oxygen left him with lasting brain damage. When he speaks, his words come slow and measured. Simple tasks like noting a cellphone number pose a challenge.

"People have to speak slowly to me," he says. "Like with numbers, I have to think, 'Zero — what is zero?'"

When the veterans of Pakistan's 28-year standoff with India atop the glacier in the disputed Kashmir region tell their war stories, they don't speak of assaults on hilltop bunkers or lightning raids to outflank the enemy. They speak of comrades with limbs black with frostbite, fruitless searches for soldiers buried under avalanches, the battle to survive in a place where wind howls at 100 mph, snow piles up 50 feet deep and the temperature plunges to minus-50.

The massive avalanche that buried 129 soldiers and 11 civilians in a 200-foot-deep tomb of ice and snow April 7 has renewed a question that Siachen veterans have ruminated on for years: Why do India and Pakistan continue to devote manpower and millions of dollars to a war over an uninhabited glacier?

"We'd push them off a peak, then they'd push us off a peak, but nothing significant happened," said Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, a retired Pakistani general who commanded forces in Siachen and the rest of far northern Pakistan in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. "So take it from me, it's one of the most futile things to do. No war is very clever, but this one probably takes the cake."

No one knows the futility of the Siachen conflict more than the veterans who served there. More than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died since the conflict began in 1984, and most of those deaths were the result of weather conditions rather than combat. No significant territory has been taken by either side. Skirmishes almost always involved sporadic exchanges of small-arms fire or a spate of artillery shelling.

Since 2003, a cease-fire has made deployment on Siachen seem a purposeless exercise in subzero survival.

The conflict reflects the intense animosity that has poisoned Pakistani-Indian relations since the end of British colonial rule on the subcontinent led to the partition of India and each country's independence in 1947. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in six decades, and both countries now have nuclear arsenals.

The Siachen conflict has its roots in a 1984 incursion by Indian troops into a section of Kashmir, a region claimed by both India and Pakistan and the focus of two of their three wars and one smaller military conflict.

For most of Kashmir, a Line of Control demarcates the areas administered by each country. But that line stops roughly 40 miles south of Siachen. India's troop movement onto the glacier prompted Pakistan to reciprocate with its own deployment, and the standoff endures.

The dangers Pakistani and Indian soldiers face on Siachen mirror those mountaineers encounter when tackling Everest. At 20,000 feet, the oxygen level is about half that at sea level. The air is so cold that bare skin can bind to steel within seconds. Yawning crevasses make trekking from post to post treacherous. In avalanche-prone areas, soldiers limit hiking to nighttime, never in the morning or afternoon, when sunlight loosens massive walls of snow packed higher on the slopes.

Altitude sickness is an ever-present peril. A lack of oxygen can cause fluid to leak from capillaries and build up either in the brain (cerebral edema) or in the lungs (pulmonary edema). Both are life-threatening.

"You couldn't stay there a long time, because of the lack of oxygen," said Khalid Kuli Khan Khattak, Gen. Khattak's son and a retired captain who spent a year at Siachen. "When you hiked, you had to acclimatize every 1,000 feet you go. Camp out a night, then go up another 1,000 feet."

Nothing is easy on Siachen. The lack of oxygen makes cooking impractical, so soldiers mostly live on canned lentils. With no hot water, troops bath once a month in summer, and never in winter.

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