By Sunil S
The landslide covered approximately a kilometre of the road west of the Goma garrison with 40-80 feet of snow and snapped a vital line of communication for Pakistani defensive positions on the Saltoro ridge line. At present, all Pakistani positions west of Ghyari – i.e. posts on the Bilafond, Grahmalumba, Ali Bragnsa and Chumik Glaciers are cut off from their supply route. The entire middle of the Pakistani defence line on the Saltoro ridge has been effectively hollowed out. Rescue and relief efforts at Ghyari are draining manpower reserves at the Goma garrison and at the Gyong advance base. The Pakistani posture on the glacier has never been weaker.
The military situation on the Saltoro ridge is often described as a stalemate. In reality Pakistan has so far had a very large logistical advantage. Having lost most of the heights to Indian Army operations, the Pakistanis sit on lower altitudes, and resupplying Pakistani posts is relatively easier than supplying Indian posts. Paved roads lead from the airport at Skardu to the Brigade HQ at Dansam and from there to the Battalion HQs at Ghyari and Goma. Goma acts as a support position for the advance base on the Gyong glacier and it acts as a way point for transit to Ghyari. Ghyari is the base camp for all Pakistani positions along the middle of the Saltoro Ridge. From Goma and Ghyari it is possible to use pack animals to reach the Gyong advance base and the Ali Bragnsa base camp. Typically it is a fifteen day trek from the Ghyari BHQ or the Goma garrison to Pakistani forward positions on the glaciers. As long as you can get supplies to the post, absent shelling from the Indian Army, for the Pakistanis life is easy on the Saltoro ridgeline.India has a much harder time resupplying the positions on the glacier as all lines of communications have to cross the Siachen glacier itself. Over the last two decades improvements and developments at the Dzingruluma camp at the southern tip of the Siachen glacier have greatly reduced the advantage of the Goma-Gyong advance base supply line. This has enabled India to secure its hold on the Gyong pass, and hold the southern end of the Saltoro range. However despite all this, the route to India’s positions in the middle of the Saltoro range is much more tortured than its Pakistani counterpart and it costs far more in terms of lives and money – that is until April 7th 2012. With Ghyari gone, the Pakistani logistical advantage in the middle of the Saltoro range is gone.
The most critical supply commodity is of course, kerosene. Without kerosene the soldiers will not have water to drink, heat to cook food and keep themselves warm. In normal circumstances, without water, food and warmth, morale collapses and the mental strength of the soldiers fails. As if that is not enough at such low temperatures, metal tends to contract, and lubricants tend to become ineffective. Even high quality weapons unless heated on a kerosene stove become cold-locked – their metal parts shrunk into dimensions beyond the tolerances laid out by the manufacturers. If you have an artillery piece on the glaciers, you have to heat it with a kerosene stove and fire it a few times regularly just to make sure it stays operational. The artillery shells do not follow their usual trajectories, as the winds and the low air densities at high altitudes affect the motion of the shell. Add to this the lack of oxygen in the high altitude air, unpredictable weather shifts and psychological impact of living in claustrophobic and confined spaces and the military effectiveness of soldiers under such conditions without adequate supplies is extremely low.
For the highest posts, there is a “last mile” problem. Usually if time permits, the troops carry the supplies up to the post themselves, if time is short – Allouete (IAF designation – Cheetah) helicopters are used. These are special versions, stripped down of excess weight and piloted by experts with a lot of experience flying in the region, they can typically lift jerrycans filled with kerosene to high altitudes. As the altitudes are at the limit of the helicopter’s endurance, a lot depends on weather conditions, and in summer, the air conditions make it impossible to lift more than one jerrycan per helicopter trip. This is an insanely expensive way to move fuel.
Fighting the Saltoro war was always expensive, and the Pakistanis never ceased to gripe about it. While the Indian Army took its losses with the grace and stoicism of a honourable warrior, the Pakistani Army went around the world giving interviews about how pointless the war was: how “poor India” could never afford such a war and that how “poor Pakistan” was only there because India had nefarious intentions there. A lot of peace activists bought into this. In my opinion these were false tears, a carefully managed PR campaign by the Pakistan Army to deflect responsibility for the escalation in the region – to draw attention away from the fact that the Pakistanis had attempted to annex the area by manipulating the US Defence Mapping Agency’s resources.
In order to keep the money flowing for this costly misadventure, the Pakistani Army manufactured all manner of legends to camouflage its terrible losses on the ridge line. Pakistani civilians were told stories of great bravery and fantastic victories by its brave army men. So significant was the Pakistani Army propaganda campaign, that even when the negotiations for de-escalation on the ridge line began the Pakistani Army refused to allow the actual ground position line (AGPL) to the demarcated. Demarcating the AGPL would expose the fraud that the Pakistan Army inflicted on its nation for the last two decades. The Govt. of India simply didn’t see the point in negotiations where the line would not be demarcated and that is where the last round of negotiations on this stalled. After the avalanche at Ghyari, the cost to keep the Pakistan Army on the Saltoro ridge just went up ten fold and it unlikely that even the highly gullible people like Zaid Hamid in the Pakistan will be willing to buy into the Army’s lies at this point.
This is the predicament that the Pakistani Army on the Saltoro ridge finds itself in today.
If the Indian Army was feeling particularly bloody minded, it would simply start shelling the Pakistani positions at this time. The smarter Pakistanis on the ridge line would surrender or abandon their posts. The stupider ones would attempt to return fire on India’s positions and exhaust what little fuel there remains at their disposal – and then die of thirst, hunger and frost bite. As the actual ground position line (AGPL) has never been officially demarcated, the IAF would be within its rights to launch air raids across it. These acts by the Indian Army would force the Pakistani Army into a very public surrender. After the Abbotabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, the Pakistani Army’s position in Pakistani society is quite precarious. Another public failure like this and the Pakistan Army would be torn to shreds by its Jihadis and ultra-nationalistic chums. The ensuing bloodbath would corrode the power of the “Deep State” in Pakistan like never before.This little push on the Saltoro ridge could go a long way in ensuring that authoritarian forces in Pakistan are kept on the back foot for a decade or two. There would of course be yet another post 1971 style anti-India hangover in Pakistan.and but at the present time we would have the certainty of what some might term an immoral but tangible peace. This seems ridiculously easy to do right now and it would be a particularly sweet payback for the Kargil intrusion. That is the easy path – the expedient path.
Then there is the harder path, the braver path – chosen by Sri Manmohan Singh himself. Despite all the insults that the Pakistan Army has heaped on him – despite the fact that COAS Ashfaq Pervez Kayani ignored Sri.Singh’s request to send the head of the ISI to New Delhi after the 26/11 attacks – Sri. Singh has found a Buddha like grace in his heart and offered the Pakistani Army an olive branch. A lesser man than him would have simply asked the boys on the glacier to start the music and had the Bofors belch fire on Pakistani positions – but Sri. Singh has offered to help Pakistan cope with the Ghyari situation. India has the HAA reserves and the Cheetah helicopters that Pakistan vitally needs to keep its army men on the ridge from dying. This is an act of immense compassion that can only come from someone steeped in the deepest traditions of Dharma. Only one sufficiently brave to see an adversary as a human being is capable of such an act of kindness. This offer underscores India’s commitment to peace in the region and beyond.
Will the Pakistani Army be brave enough to accept his offer?
If the Pakistani Army officially accepts the offer, Pakistani troops on the ridge line will be able to approach Indian posts for assistance under a white flag.As the position at which such a contact will have to recorded per standard military protocols, the AGPL will be effectively demarcated and the biggest hurdle in the negotiations to peace in the region will be removed. COAS Kayani will go down in history as the man who revolutionised India-Pak relations. Having saved the lives of countless Pakistanis, he would surpass his former mentor General Musharraf in measurable greatness.
If the Pakistani Army does not officially accept the offer, the consequences should be quite obvious.