Why Siachen Glacier is Strategically Very Important
Siachen Glacier is highest battleground of the world, where Indian Army personnels are manned at an altitude of 21,000 ft from Mean Sea Level like Bana Post or Phalwan Post. The word “Siachen” in Balti language means “land of red roses” but here on ground nothing grows not even grass.
The Siachen glacier is the great Himalayan watershed that demarcates central Asia from the Indian sub-continent, and that separates Pakistan from China in this region.The largest non-polar glacier, Siachen is also referred to as the third pole, stretching to a length of 70 km long and flowing from an altitude of 5750 meters to 3620 meters above sea level. Lying in the eastern Karakoram Range, just east of the Saltoro ridge line, Siachen’s ownership is at the root of a conflict which costs Pakistan and India billions of rupees a month to fuel.
So the question comes into mind why the glacier is so strategically important to India? Because this glacier prevents direct linkage between Pakistan Army & China’s People Liberation Army, which are both are rival armies of Indian Army. It also give India a foothold in the region and recconnaisse the Karakoram highway which links Pak & China.
The Saltoro Ridge is a formidable ridge that runs roughly north-west to south-east. It overlooks Gilgit and Baltistan to its west and has to be crossed by any one seeking access from Skardu in the Gilgit and Baltistan area through to the Karakoram Pass which enters Tibet. This is not to be confused with the Karakoram Highway which enters Xinjiang through the Khunjerab Pass. Any Pakistani location in Karakoram would be a threat to India in Ladakh from the north in addition to Chinese locations in Aksai Chin.
The genesis of the problem lies in the way India-Pakistan agreements were worked out in Karachi (1949) and Shimla (1972). The ceasefire line or later the Line of Control was left undemarcated from point NJ 9842, and stated that it would run north from this point. This means that north was defined as the true geographical north and not an extension of the line in the direction which would take the line to the Karakoram Pass, something the Pakistanis claimed, wanted and were willing to assert this claim with perhaps an approving Chinese nod. North of Point NJ 9842 meant north to the Siachen and not to Karakoram.
Siachen in the possession of Pakistan would have meant Pakistan would have access from Skardu through to the Karakoram near the Aksai Chin and eventual linking with Shahidullah on the Kashgar-Xigatse road that runs parallel to the Tibet- India border.
Obviously, and given the aggressive manner in which Pakistan had begun to interfere in India, among other things actively inciting Sikh extremists, India could not afford to become vulnerable on another front.
There was no option but to launch Operation Meghdoot on April 13, 1984. The Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army with cover from the Indian Air Force reached the glacier to occupy two mountain passes at Bilafond La and Sia La while the Pakistan Army could only reach Gyong La. The battle zone was a triangle with point NJ9842 at the bottom, Indira Col due west and Karakoram Pass due east. Indian troops today control two thirds of the area and the world’s highest motorable road at Khardung La with a helipad at a place called Sonam, at 21,000 feet. Pakistan overlooks the Nubra and Shyok valleys from the north. Saltoro lies almost exactly due north of Leh and north west of Kargil.
The Saltoro was attained at considerable loss of life, equipment apart from the expenses involved. There were many lives also lost to the harsh climate and the attrition rate was indeed very high in the early days of the campaign. Over time these shortcomings have been removed, the attrition rate is much lower, logistics are nowhere near as nightmarish as they used to be nearly thirty years ago.
Following the avalanche in Skardu which killed 150 Pakistani soldiers, there seems to be renewed talk that India should withdraw from the heights attained with so much sacrifice and at great cost to the nation. Siachen has recently been sneeringly described as ‘A struggle of two bald men over a comb’ or ‘an ego problem between the two armies’ and has elsewhere been described by some journalists as a futile war. Let it be said here that no war over one’s own territory that is futile.
One of the arguments being given is that the cost of retaining Siachen/Saltoro is prohibitive. This is rubbish. At approximately Rs Five crores a day it means only Rs 2475 crores annually out of a budget that is in the range of Rs 80,000 crores. Even if it were more than this, is there a fixed price for security and freedom? The loss of soldiers to harsh conditions has become minimal for the last many years and the hot war has long been over.
An agreement might have been possible but Pakistani refusal to sign the Agreed Ground Position Line on a specious argument only leads to the suspicion that they would want to alter the position at first dawn. General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil adventure in 1999 was Pakistan’s last attempt to change the ground position militarily and politically and also to negate the advantage of Saltoro with India.
The China factor cannot be ignored in this cockpit of the world. It was not so evident in 1984 although the Karakoram Highway had been built by the Chinese by then and Pakistan had illegally ceded a portion of the territory under their control, Shaksgam to them. Today, the Chinese footprint is much larger. In its own strategic interests in the region, China would be interested in greater Pakistani control over Gilgit and Baltistan.
It has been investing $150 million (abour Rs 750 crore) for widening the KKH from 10 metres to 30 metres, to be used by all weather heavy vehicles, the kind that brought strategic material for Pakistan through the Khunjerab.
A rail link was also planned, to be connected with Pakistan’s main rail grid, and fiber optic cables were being laid in 2007. If China had a port in Gwadar that they could use, this would cut down the distance from Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea to merely 2,500 km. Today Xinjiang is 4,500 km away from the east coast of China. Gas and oil pipelines through from Gwadar and Xinjiang make sense only if Gilgit and Baltistan is secured. It is not a question of a glacier in the Himalayan heights; it is a question of India’s security.
It gives India a scope to keep tabs on the karakoram highway that connects china with the pakistan, through which major trade between the two countires occur.
It also acts as a first line defence as we can see every major development on our enemy side from the siachen.
Giving up Siachen as a gesture of friendship would also mean that its recapture would be extremely expensive to India in men and material. Today, as the other side continues to arm itself with newer nuclear weapons, has not called off its jehadi hordes and the only ‘concession’ it can offer us is an MFN at a future date or lunch at Lahore and dinner at Islamabad.
Pakistan cannot actually attack it and win, hence they choose a much easier option of talking on the table and negotiating.