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May 31, 1999


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India at a disadvantage in high-altitude war

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

For India, clearing the Drass-Kargil-Batalik area of intruders is only half the job. The other half after the clearance operations will be to ensure that the Pakistani-backed militants do not return.

"It will not be easy to keep the area clear of the intruders," said P Stobdan, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. "By using the air force and all our artillery fire power, India has exposed its aces to the enemy. If they plan to return again, which is very likely, then they will come back prepared to face artillery fire and the air force," said Stobdan, who specialises in Kashmir and Central Asian studies, and hails from Kargil, which lies in the Ladakh region.

Stobdan has another worry, and that concerns acclimatising to the heights of Kargil. "The Indian troops are not properly acclimatised for the barren mountain heights of Kargil. Worse, India does not have militia recruited from these areas which, if done, would have been very useful. On the other hand, Pakistan has divisions of troops raised from the regions of Gilgit, Baltistan, Kardul and the North Western Frontier Province, who are used to the terrain where the battle is raging at present," he said.

He said a person from the mountains can climb faster, have fewer breathing problems and withstand the cold better. "It is not that men from the plains cannot do that, but in India we keep transferring them and whenever they return, they will again take time to acclimatise themselves," said the IDSA fellow.

Thus, though the army rushed around 10,000 troops to Kargil, most of them will take at least two weeks to be acclimatised. Till then, the army will have to depend on the soldiers serving in Kashmir to push out the infiltrators.

An Indian army officer agreed that acclimatisation is a difficult process, but said most Indian troops have served time in Kashmir and readapt faster. "First the troops are sent to 9,000 feet, then up to 12,000 to 14,000 feet, and finally up to the frontline which is between 15,000 to 18,000 feet," he said.

Stobdan strongly advocated raising forces specially for mountain warfare. "We should raise many more mountain divisions since the Kashmir problem will not be resolved overnight. And Pakistan can never match India in the number of men, so let us use that advantage," he said.

At present India has eight mountain divisions, besides the Ladakh Scouts and the Indo-Tibetan Border Force, units specially raised to serve in the mountains of the LoC. "But right now the Ladakh Scouts and ITBF are both serving on the plains," said Stobdan. He also felt that though army units have to be rotated, some of them should be specialised for mountain warfare so that they are better prepared.

He added that many of the Pakistanis and Pushto-speaking militants across the LoC hail from the mountainous regions and are therefore better acclimatised, something Indian planners will have to keep in mind.

Explaining Pakistan's tactics over the past decade, he pointed out that when militancy reared its head a decade ago, Pakistani infiltrators concentrated on whipping up trouble in the Valley. "After 1994, they began to concentrate on Jammu and from 1997, they have been brewing up trouble in the Drass-Kargil-Batalik zone," he said.

There is a method in this targetting. "It has to do with the ethnic composition of Jammu and Kashmir, which is not, as most believe, entirely a Muslim state," said Stobdan and then provided the break-up. He started from just south of the Siachen Glacier which is uninhabitable except for the army personnel who man the wasted heights. Turtuk village, just south of the Siachen Glacier, was captured from Pakistan in 1971 and is Shia dominated.

Further south and west lies Batalik, dominated by a group called 'Aryan', believed to be descendents of an Aryan tribe that came into India. "They are not Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists, and they speak a language called Dardic, which is part of the Indo-European languages," said Stobdan.

Kaksar and Kargil are Shia dominated while Drass is dominated by the Shina, a Sunni sect but who do not have mongoloid features and are close to the people in Gilgit. And the Mashkosh valley is dominated by the Gujjar nomads who herd goats.

"All this only shows that there are ethnic, sectarian and language differences from village to village. The Pakistan shelling of Kargil has made the Shias support India rather than Pakistan. And thus, the terrorists cannot hide in this region nor can the terrain absorb too many outsiders. Thus, the Pakistanis shelling of Kargil is to terrorise the villagers so that no supporters of India are around. The Pakistani shelling has also driven away the villagers. Even after the intruders are driven away, there is no surety that the Kargil residents will return," said Stobdan.

One major impact of driving out of the local population is the lack of intelligence and information for the armed forces. "The intelligence sources for the army are the local people and herdsman who cross the mountains back and forth and find out what is happening on the other side of the LoC. Certainly, no one who does not look like a Kashmiri from the mountains can even dream of doing that," he pointed out.

Though Stobdan does not say so, this might also explain the intelligence failure to pre-empt the Pakistani thrust into the mountain heights. With no local residents to guide around the mountains, the army is severely handicapped in its operations.

Stobdan also feels there is the impact of Pakistan local politics in the shelling of Kargil. "The Sunni-Shia conflict within Pakistan is echoing on our side of the LoC. Many of the residents of Kargil also support Iran, something that Islamabad does not like and would like to end," he said.

Though India has claimed that the infiltrators speak Pushto, Stobdan doubts if they are Taliban troops from Afghanistan. As he points out, there are six million Pushto-speaking people in Pakistan compared to Afghanistan's four million. "Right now the Taliban is desperately short of men in its war against the Northern Alliance and is unlikely to spare troops for Kashmir. The Taliban is hiring Pushto people from Pakistan, so it is more likely that those in Kashmir are Pakistanis rather than Afghanis," he stated.

One price of the latest crisis is that from now on, India will have to pay the expensive cost of manning or keeping under surveillance the high mountains at all times. "This is inevitable, otherwise Pakistani-backed insurgents will return. And the next time, they will be stronger," warned Stobdan.

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