SAICHEN, India – The air is thin, the soldiers thinner.
For the past 18 years, two ancient peoples – one Hindu, the other Muslim – have squared off on the world’s highest battlefield, resting not far from the infamous K2.
The first thing one notices is the smell of troops and their quarters. The stench of body odor is nearly overwhelming. Most of the 3,000 soldiers based on the Indian side of the Saichen Glacier sleep in ice caves or fiberglass shelters. They dress in high-tech, state-of-the-art apparel, wear snow parkas, sunglasses, balaclavas and snow boots or snowshoes.
The wind blows hard on peaks as high as 23,000 feet, and the temperature at night might dip to 50 below Fahrenheit. The glacier is a giant snowman, a living, moving ice machine. At night, there are stars close enough to touch, it seems. Sweat quickly becomes ice. You learn to keep your skin far from anything metal. The soldiers, quite understandably, feel closer to God up here – where the laws of physics take a holiday.
Death, however, does not take a holiday – 4,000 dead on both sides and well over 11,000 casualties – nor do the accountants take a holiday as the war in the sky costs millions of dollars to wage each and every day.
While India, with the backing of the West, has been able to intimidate Pakistan during their recent saber rattling, on Saichen, both sides are fairly evenly matched. In fact, Pakistan recently announced four conditions under which it would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against India.
According to Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai of Pakistan’s Strategic Plan Division, Pakistan would launch nuclear weapons at India if New Delhi conquers a significant amount of Pakistani territory, destroys the majority of its military, creates political instability in Pakistan or engages in economic strangulation against Islamabad. Indian hawks responded to this Pakistani nuclear doctrine by claiming India will consider withdrawing from the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty by which India allows the Indus, Ravi, Beas, Chenab, Sutlej and Jehlum Rivers to flow from its territory into Pakistan. India also promised to arm its submarines with SLBN nuclear missiles as the third and “most viable” leg of its triad.
Politics and religion are kept to a minimum on the glacier, however. Things are pretty much clear-cut. You fight. You freeze. You fight some more. If you don’t die, you go home and thaw out.
Benji Singh, an Indian soldier assigned to an artillery unit, has been on the glacier for three months. He told WorldNetDaily that the war over the glacier is about “honor, religion, pride in one’s country.”
“The radicals in the Islamic world have yet to prove they can live in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Sept. 11 showed all thinking people in the world that nations need walls. The Saichen Glacier is an important wall for the people of India,” he said.
Asked about the accuracy of shells fired at their 17,000-foot high outpost, Singh said, “Because of the altitude, line of sight or computer guidance methods are unreliable. The shells fly over their intended targets for many kilometers.”
If you were to die up here, chances are it would be from pulmonary edema or an avalanche. Then there is frostbite and the risk of a kerosene heater blowing up while trying to melt the ice from your weapons.
The battle for Saichen began back in 1949. The war in Kashmir was winding down in that year. After World War II, the ruling Indian raj, who held power in Kashmir despite a preponderance of Muslim subjects, couldn’t decide if he wanted Kashmir to belong to India or Pakistan. In the end, he fled with a station wagon full of jewels, leaving behind a bitter struggle that has lasted to this very day. Tiring of their battle over Kashmir, Pakistan and India decided to divide up the glacier without a fight.
For the next 30 years or so, only hearty Western mountain trekkers and adventurers climbed on Saichen. They eventually began to draw maps. Before long, Saichen was turning up on various maps in the tourism and other industries as a part of Pakistan.
Thus, the official reason for the war, according to India, involves “aggression carried out via cartography.”
As former President Reagan’s first term was winding down, India deployed mountain troops to take control of the glacier. It wasn’t until months later that Pakistan learned about the Indian troops on the glacier – from a group of rookie tourists who’d stumbled upon them during a hike.
Pakistan responded by sending its own contingent of troops to the glacier. Some observers believe the rulers of Islamabad don’t really want their side of the glacier, but they don’t want India to have it either.
A Pakistani officer told WorldNetDaily, “Border wars are usually symbolic. If Indonesia invaded the Australian Outback and stopped at Alice Springs, would Sydney be threatened? Or course not. But would the Australian SAS allow the Indonesian army to stay on for good? Never.”