5 September 2014

We Don’t Seek Benevolence, But Don’t Malign us Either – Part III (Saf Shikan)

By Xeric
Also published by defence.pk

So, you already have been introduced to Saf Shikan Post; that it is a post above 18000 feet AMSL which is dominated by an Indian post just a few meters away from where the Indians liked to conduct shooting practice, and zeroed their weapons on us casually. Whenever the Pakistani side would thrash Indians even in another sector, they would retaliate by rocketing Saf Shikan day in and day out. Whether some Kashmiri freedom fighters hundreds of kilometers away would hunt down some of their occupiers, Saf Shikan would get the beating without any reason. Even if the Indians would like to test a new High Altitude (HA) weapon, Saf Shikan was there to serve as a soft target. But then this routine was getting old and we had developed some means of our own to tire the Indians of their favorite pastime. When I was up there, and had been on the receiving end for quite some time (atleast twice a week), I along with a few other Officers chalked out a plan which gave Indians a taste of their own medicine, and then they never again targeted Saf Shikan for times to come. Atleast for the many years after I had left Siachen till a cease fire was announced between both the countries in 2003 which is still holding. Though I am not sure how the Indians would treat Saf Shikan once this ceasefire is over as decades have passed since we first provided the Indians with the ante-dote.
            Now you must be wondering why we have to be on the receiving end, always. Well, in mountainous areas like Kashmir and Siachen this is the part of the game. At places you dominate the enemy and elsewhere he would. That’s how operating in mountains is – a spur here with them and a ridge there with you.
            Coming back to Saf Shikan. The 25 x 10 feet area that made up Saf Shikan was cramped by soldiers and some infrastructure that sloped along the length of the post. Movement within the post had to be done while tying oneself to an HA rope or else you risked slipping off into the base of the mountain a couple of hundred feet below. Saf Shikan was a difficult post, not only because it was under direct observation and fire of the enemy or because it was located on a slope, but for a few other reasons that I shall explain shortly.
            Snow, time, kerosene (K-2) oil, ammunition and food are the five things that are abundant at Siachen. Unfortunately at Saf Shikan, this cliché didn’t apply as it mostly remained a bit short on food. During summers (dumping season) the remaining posts were stacked with food, ammunition and K-II oil for the entire year. However, as approach to Saf Shikan was being watched by Indians, dumping by mules was not possible. Consequently, all the items were delivered to the post on man-packed and opportunity basis i.e. whenever we could sneak a few men down to the base.
Food at Siachen is plentiful. Items like honey, butter, dried eggs, tinned meat, fruit and veggies, and certain medicines like Cod liver oil capsules are readily available in abundance. Flavored glucose is also a basic requirement as snow water tastes bitter. However, due to reduced appetite, the fact that we Pakistanis are not used to tinned items and how much honey can one actually eat on daily basis, you normally find people complaining about the food ay Siachen. But then you tend to respect food when you are at Saf Shikan. Unlike other posts, carriage of items to Saf Shikan is limited to what a man can carry at one time. This is further compounded as movement to and from Saf Shikan is also very restricted due to our very vigilant Indians friends on the other side. So, we have prioritized the items that can come to Saf Shikan as; Ammunition, K-II oil, medicines and then rations. Rations too mean the basic items like dhall (pulses), flour and vegetables as luxuries like honey and butter are not desired. Meat too is not cooked at Saf Shikan because at such altitudes, cooking meat means more consumption of K-II oil thus increasing its requirement.
During my tenure there, ammunition was not an issue as we had enough of it to melt half of Siachen. So, whenever the weather and the Indians gave us the opportunity to move a party, we would get as much K-2 oil as the men could carry. Then was the rations. But the maximum we could ask the men, in addition to the K-2, dhall and flour, was to stack some sachets of flavored glucose in their pockets as asking anything more while they were carrying a 22 kilogram jerry-can at a low oxygen area was too much from them. Once when the men were fed up of eating the same dhall every day, I acted generous and allowed them to replace glucose sachets with some fresh potatoes. I was amused to see how they looked with all those potatoes ‘oozing’ out of their pockets. The good thing was that they were happy.
So at Saf Shikan the rule was that everyone would get one roti, irrespective of his rank, along with whatever was cooked thrice a day. Tea was only given during breakfast. No exceptions whatsoever. Now this seemed a bit harsh when compared to the other posts which had so much rations that men would write their names on snow with colored glucose for fun and complained about the ‘taste’ of food most of the time. But then Saf Shikan had its limitations. I remember when once we were short of K-2, we had to eat uncooked dhall for two days. By the way, another trick I learned there was if you are short on cigarettes, rolling used tea in a piece of paper and smoking it would give you the requisite psychological satisfaction of smoking a real cigarette!

This blog is the part three of a sequel (Part-1 and Part-2).

3 September 2014

Jamhuriat Ka Husn

By Xeric
Also published @ defence.pk

In an editorial published in Dawn on 2 September 2014, the editors have shown concerns over “Army’s questionable decisions” it has taken during the impasse that has gripped the country due to the Inqilabi - Azadi protestors sitting outside the Parliament since the last 21 days. The concerns are primarily based on two things done by the Army. One, the statements its public relations wing has released, and two; the action or ‘inaction’ as the editors at Dawn like to call it taken by the Army on 30 August 2014 when the Parliament was about to be overrun by the protestors.
Had this piece been a blog, I could have lived with it understanding that fanboy criticism of Army is the norm these days. Unfortunately, it was not the case.
Apart from many other concerns shown in the editorial, some of which I shall address later, the writers, in government’s defence had asked that “would the army allow even a handful of peaceful protesters to gather outside GHQ for a few hours?” This tongue-in-cheek or so I like to believe comment is something which I think should be addressed at priority before it sets an audacious trend, and here is why:
To begin with, Article 16 (Freedom of assembly) of our Constitution states:
“Every citizen shall have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order.”
Now by virtue of the above, Pakistanis subjects can protest against the government, even if it means gathering outside the Parliament – after all it is the people who have elected the individuals there. They can also gather against or go on strike against an unpopular decision of a private or even a government organization like WAPDA, SSGC etc, but the same cannot be done or asked from the Pakistani citizens when it comes to military. Primarily because:
  • Unlike the Parliament, is not an elected forum and that unlike OGRA or State Bank decisions taken by military regarding its internal matters does not affect Pakistanis in their individual capacity and hence does not produce reasons that would cause a protest. This is despite the fact that military runs on your taxes.
  • Unlike in a democratic or civilian setup, there is no concept of ‘popular vote’ in the military. Infact there is no concept of voting altogether (as shown in some Hollywood movies where even soldiers settle issues among themselves through vote). You are given an order and, whether you like it or not, it has to be carried out and hence its employees or so to say stake holders have no grounds for a protest, unless an individual has been punished by a court-martial. So, whereas in a civilian setup people can protest or launch strikes for pay increase, or against odd work hours /difficult working environments, soldiers or their families or for that matter the larger audience cannot. That is what primarily differentiates a military organization from a civilian one.
  • Unlike in a private or any other government organization, its employees are not under oath to obey orders without questioning them and hence even if there is some kind of resentment, the protest, if that is what I should call it for readers’ consumption has a very different procedure.
In short, military is an undemocratic organization, hence protests whether in the form of gathering outside GHQ or even a unit by the soldiers or the larger audience are objectionable to say the least. However, this raises a question for those who claim that ‘Ihtijaj Jamhuriat ka husn hai.’
Another absurd point raised in the editorial is that the soldiers did ‘nothing’ to stop the ‘thugs’ from ‘attacking’ the Parliament. Now whereas the editorial itself says that “it was surely the army’s duty to repel them” but it fails to understand the essence of it and forgets that the ‘thugs’ were indeed ‘repelled’. Of course the mode used to accomplish the task was not what the government or the editors of Dawn wanted i.e. use of force a.k.a ‘rubber’ bullets and teargas. Before proceeding further, I must clarify here that unlike Police or FC, Army being the last line of defence is not supposed to resort to non-lethal actions like hawai firing or riot control agents. By law, it is required, to the extent possible to make use of negotiations to resolve a matter, failing which it has to use lethal force (Note: A soldier can get court-martialed for firing its weapon in air to disperse a mob). So, it is either words or “real” bullets when the matters come into Army’s hands. Fortunately, it was the former that saved the day or night on 2 September 2014.
Further, the editorial’s shenanigans go to the extent of saying that it was due to Army’s ‘inaction’ “which largely explains why the protesters were able to continue their pitched battles with the police and attacked the PTV headquarters yesterday.” But then it fails to answer or even question that who ordered the Police guarding PTV removed?
Lastly, the editorial conveniently misses an important facet of all the releases by ISPR whereby it continuously emphasized upon Army’s continued support for democracy and then simply alleges that “the army is hardly being ‘neutral’” and that “it is making a choice” despite the fact that it was the government itself that got the military involved by invoking Article 245 and later by inviting it to play a facilitative role for resolution of current impasse.

       P.S. Those who would ask why a guy in uniform is commenting on politics should understand that I am Pakistani first and a solider thereafter.

31 July 2014

Truth/Facts About Pakistani Claim Over Siachen Glacier

These slides are the brief which were once delivered by Pakistani Foreign Office to Diplomats.

(Please view in full screen, you can also pause the slide show for clarity.)
 

30 July 2014

We Don’t Seek Benevolence, But Don’t Malign us Either – Part II (Saf Shikan)

By Xeric
Also published @ defence.pk and Express Tribune Blogs


Saf Shikan
Saf Shikan Post is one of the few posts at Siachen that is inaccessible by animal-transport. Hence, all the dumping of ammunition and food items is done through man-portering. Mostly, because the gradient of the post is untraversable by mules, but primarily because the approach to the post is over looked by the enemy sitting just a few meters away. Saf Shikan is located above 18000 feet AMSL at a gradient of approximately 30 – 40 degrees. An Officer’s 6 x 3 x 4 feet (L x W x H) igloo, men’s shelter made out of discarded jerry-cans and PSP sheets, and a 9 x 6 x 5 feet shell-proof bunker makes up Saf Shikan Post. Not that we couldn’t build more igloos or bunkers there, but then the area (approximately 25 x 10 feet) occupied by these three compartments is all that is livable at that height – a bit further away from these locations and it’s either a sheer fall into the abyss or an Indian sniper’s bullet will get you.

The movement to and from a bunker / igloo to another one is also interesting – a High-Altitude Rope runs along all the three housings which is to be held during ascend or descend even within the post due to the sloping ground. This is Saf Shikan Post which houses Officer (s) and few men for the next two months of their life.

With this short premise, I shall now share an experience which I had while I was there as an Artillery Observer. Saf Shikan is an important post. The why, I would not explain, but as it was important, it couldn’t stay out of communication for long periods – a phenomenon which is common at Siachen due to avalanches and other auxiliary issues that come with High-Altitude camping. Hence, it was decided that the old telecom wire utilized for line-communication would be replaced by a better and more robust cable which can sustain the harsh weather and frequent slides. Resultantly, a five-men-party was tasked with the uphill task (excuse the pun) of laying the cable over a stretch of approximately 35 kilometers.
In the rear areas, where the enemy couldn’t watch, they moved during day, and then during nights as they neared the post. It took them almost a month to reach the base camp from where it would take another week to reach Saf Shikan.

Just to put things in perspective, at Siachen you measure distance in terms of time and not lengths. The air is so thin that you can’t drink water immediately after getting up as you feel short of your breath. Even walking takes great effort; climbing a mountain while carrying weight is altogether a different story. If fired upon, instead of running to take cover, it’s better to stay and duck wherever you are, as you might get lucky and dodge the bullets, but running can cause your brain / lungs to suck upon its own fluids (HACE / HAPE) and cause sudden death.

So, the men would carry a bundle of cable weighing around 25 kilograms* for a couple of kilometers, dump it there and then go back to fetch another one to dump it even further, so on and so forth. After a colossal effort, the cable had now reached the foot of the mountain upon which sat Saf Shikan. Till here, the enemy couldn’t see our movement, but beyond it move had to be carried out on a moon-less night that too during bad weather (fog and blizzard) as the non-availability of moon light and heavy snow fall blinded enemy’s Night Vision Devices (NVDs), who otherwise would pick up our movement and targeted us with small arms and artillery. Already, twice in the previous three weeks our move-parties had been fired upon by the Indians. So we waited.

Then came the night when it snowed like hell and the cable-laying party was told to climb Saf Shikan. As was the norm before any movement to Saf Shikan, all the neighboring posts were made stand-to with weapons hot to counter any engagement by Indians. We too stood alert. I on the other hand sat outside my igloo with my rifle and an NVD looking down struggling to find the approaching men amidst the snow storm. The party gave us a test call from the mountain base and I instructed them to keep on sending their location as they climb. After four hours, I began to see some movement down the slope through the eye-piece of my NVD. The party was just a few hundred meters from us, yet it took them another two hours to reach us as the gradient short of the post was the steepest. While watching those men struggle through the storm and amidst the fear of becoming a sitting duck if the enemy picked their movement, those two hours passed in a blink of an eye.

Then came the feint shouts of “Allah – ho – Akbar… Allah – ho – Akbar” from both sides, as was the norm when a party was about to reach. As I saw the lead-man, I extended my arm out to pull him up. He held my hand, but surprisingly he was so heavy that I almost flung off the post. So I placed my rifle and NVD down and pulled the guy up with my both hands. It took me my entire strength to do so.
“Shabash! Shabash….bus pohanch gaye…pohanch gaye…Zaindabad,” I said as I hugged him and patted his back.
(Well done, well done, you have done it, Zindabad)
He was panting badly.

In return, he whispered something which I couldn’t understand. The blizzard was still strong and everything was hazy. I too was chilled to my bone. So I placed my ears near his lips.
“Mera pait…Sir…mera pait…mera pait Sir,” he whispered again.
(My stomach, Sir, my stomach)
My eyes widened, and as a reflex action my hands went towards his stomach, and all of a sudden I was struck by horror – he had tied the cable to his stomach and the entire weight of its hundreds of meters of length was resting on his stomach!

Approach to Saf Shikan Post is a roped-climb – How can you carry a cable when both your hands are struggling to keep you on your feet?

I then immediately held the cable tied to his stomach to give him some relief, but the counter pull was so great that I slipped off my feet. So I called for help. It took three men to untie the knot and hold the cable. Again, just to put the things in perspective, we tied the cable to the 200 - liter barrel we used to keep topped up with snow to be later used for melting into water, and even that flipped. We then tied the cable to something as strong as the will of the soldier who had carried it.

So people, such are the men we command – dedicated, motivated, self-less and brave. And it’s an honor.

I can just imagine the agony those men and especially that soldier had been through while they carried that cable to Saf Shikan Post through the wilderness of Siachen Glacier. Not because your taxes were short or as the rhetoric goes, the leadership ‘failed’ them, but because it had to be done, and well-done within the allocated time and resources.

The tired and fatigued they were, but they had to travel back to the base camp the same night. I requested the sector commander to let them stay but it was not allowed. Primarily for two reasons; One, Saf Shikan like other posts was already cramped up due to lack of space. Two, God knows when the combination of a moon-less night and bad weather would grace us so that we could have movement again. So the men went back and reached the base after a hike of another four hours.

Still, you know what, they gave much less than what their counterparts are sacrificing today in Operation Zarb-E-Azb. 

* 400 yards of this cable weighs 50 kilograms. Readers can now calculate the number of trips these men would be making to lay the cable.
P.S.
  • Name of the post has been changed and certain details omitted for the obvious reasons.
  • The pulley system previously installed at Saf Shikan didn’t work.
  • Those planning to have a field day about ‘Jernails’ over this piece, should understand that these men came from the same Pakistani lot who have ruined PIA, Pak Rails and Pak Steel, and just yesterday had killed three Ahmadis. Remember, it’s the leadership that makes the difference.
Read Part-1 here and Part-3 here.
To Be Continued.