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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Feb 2023  Syed Ata Hasnain | How Siachen obsession got better of Musharraf

Syed Ata Hasnain | How Siachen obsession got better of Musharraf

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Feb 13, 2023, 2:15 am IST
Updated : Feb 13, 2023, 2:15 am IST

The Siachen phenomenon is hardly known to the public in Indian

Former President Pervez Musharraf. (AP File Photo)
 Former President Pervez Musharraf. (AP File Photo)

In my service with the Indian Army and subsequent to that, I have had occasion to meet many flag-ranked officers from all three services of the Pakistan armed forces, served with many of them in missions abroad and attended courses of instruction in other countries. In addition to that, I met many in unsuccessful bids for peace once we were all out of uniform. However, the man I wished to meet the most was Gen. Pervez Musharraf, former CEO and then President of Pakistan. The reasons for my desire were twofold. First, it was all about his strategy and the role he played as Pakistan’s Army Chief in initiating the Kargil War in 1999, and then leaving it to others to finish it for him. “Surprise and Deception” is a basic principle of war and Musharraf was an ardent student of warfare. His deception in the Kargil War was indeed of the highest order; the only problem being the fact that he deceived his own side (the political establishment and the other two services of the Pakistan armed forces) even more than he deceived the adversary (Indian Army). I never could meet him but if I had such an opportunity, I would have requested him to rationalise the assumptions he made in 1999 in his plan to force the Indian Army to vacate the Siachen Glacier. Why was he so obsessed with the Siachen Glacier? Not many have examined his career to arrive at fair deductions.

The second reason why I wished to meet Musharraf was simply because he and I happened to be alumni of the oldest and perhaps the finest institution in the world for imparting instruction on strategic studies and international affairs: the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) of the UK Defence Academy, London. Of course, our attendance of the year- long programme was many years apart. With his recent passing, the chance of discussing many other issues with him has also passed. It is therefore only right that I put down some of my observations about the life and times of Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan at some of the most troubled times in the subcontinent.

Musharraf is roundly cursed in India for the unnecessary loss of 527 lives of Indian soldiers in a war that he initiated and believed he could win. Some 450 or more Pakistani soldiers were also killed; being in defensive mode, their casualties were obviously less. Musharraf’s military intellect could be questioned in any debate and the method of execution, including conflict initiation, would draw the ire of any tactician. But there were two reasons behind Musharraf’s obsessive desire to battle India during his tenure as Pakistan’s Army Chief. First was the fact that he, for all his daredevilry as an SSG officer and commander, was first a Mohajir in a Punjabi-dominated Pakistan Army. The ethnic and sectarian divisions in the Pakistan Army are fascinatingly unbelievable. Yet they exist, even though the same is strictly denied. There have been many Mohajir Pakistan Army chiefs, but Musharraf wished to project his “Pakistaniat” as being a tad higher than the others. His refusal to salute Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during the famous “Bus Yatra” goodwill visit by the Indian Prime Minister in February 1999 smacked of immaturity. They needed symbols of hatred to survive their positions of arrogant power and Musharraf was willing to go the extra mile to achieve that. Interestingly, in the first flag meeting in many years, at Uri’s Kaman Post (now called Kaman Aman Setu) in February 2005, the commanding officer (CO) of the Pakistan Mujahid unit saluted me smartly and with full vigour when I walked across the old dilapidated bridge to the PoK side. I was then the commander of the Uri Brigade. Surely Musharraf could have been as mature as the CO.

It was the over-smartness of the SSG mind which bettered his sense of balance when he decided to draw out the plan to occupy the winter vacated defences of the Indian Army in the Kargil sector, with his Northern Light Infantry troops. This would give the Pakistan artillery observation posts the chance to observe the moving convoys from Srinagar to Leh, the lifeline also to Thoise, the logistics base for Siachen, and cause their disruption. This, he had hoped, would upset the Indian capability to stock Leh and Thoise for winter as the other route – Manali-Upshi-Leh -- had a limited time during which it was open. It was a plan that was never really war-gamed. Such strategic decisions are never taken on the whims and past experiences of a senior commander; they are national decisions involving the commitment of national resources. Musharraf wished to spring a surprise on the Pakistani people by presenting to them the occupation of the Siachen Glacier by the Pakistan Army by the end of 1999 or at the turn of the new millennium; under his leadership and his planning. A subset of the plan was to force the redeployment of Indian Army formations and units from the Kashmir Valley to Kargil, and thus open up space for large-scale infiltration into the Valley.

Musharraf could also have attempted this elsewhere, but his Siachen obsession got the better of him. The Indian Army had beaten the Pakistanis in the race to occupy Siachen and its guardian frontier, the Saltoro Range, by just six days in April 1984. Musharraf, as an SSG brigadier at that time, made numerous attempts to capture a toehold on the Saltoro Range, but to no avail, as the Indian Army was too strongly embedded. This failure played on his psyche. He applied this failure to his assumption that the Indian Army too would similarly fail to evict his troops from the Kargil heights. History had other tidings for the fate of the Kargil war, making Musharraf the villain rather than the Pakistani hero that he wished to be known as.

The Siachen phenomenon is hardly known to the public in Indian; the basic fact that the Pakistan Army has never officially acknowledged to its people or to the political leadership its inability to get even a foothold on the foreboding landmark. The truth, which drove Musharraf to various decisions, is that the Pakistan Army can’t even view the Siachen Glacier due to the protection offered by the Saltoro Range. It was better to have admitted that than seek to fight a pointless war in Kargil. If that had actually happened, Musharraf’s position in history may have been better respected.

Tags: pervez musharraf, siachen, india pakistan relations