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by international syndicated columnist
& broadcaster Eric Margolis

The world's most dangerous border become even more dangerous last week, as Indian and Pakistani forces clashed repeatedly on their long-disputed Kashmir border. Regular military forces of two nuclear-armed powers fought intense ground and air battles that could escalate at any time into a general war. Nuclear weapons on both sides were reportedly placed on high alert.

For the past decade, Indian forces in Kashmir, which number 600,000 troops and paramilitary police, have been battling some 20,000 Muslim Kashmiri rebels seeking independence of the mountain state, or union with Pakistan.

Last week, 500-600 rebel mujihadin boldly crossed the cease-fire line between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions of divided Kashmir, and seized key positions along a wild, 40-mile stretch of the 16,000 ft. Ladakh Range overlooking the strategic military road connecting Leh with the Siachen Glacier, over which Pakistan and India have battled for ten years. India has fortified much of the LOC with thick belts of wire, extensive minefields, and motion senors supplied by Israel, making crossings by mujihadin forces extremely costly. The mujihadin picked a poorly defended part of northern Kashmir LOC to launch their incursion.

In the course of a major Indian offensive to retake the ridge line, regular Indian forces traded heavy artillery salvos with the Pakistani Army and, for the first time in the long Kashmir conflict, used warplanes to attack the dug-in mujihadin and, apparently, Pakistani Army positions. On Thursday, Pakistan shot down an Indian MiG-21 and MiG-27 over its territory.

During my visit to the 22,000 ft Siachen Glacier in 1994, to research a book I'm just finishing on the Kashmir crisis -`War at the Top of the World' (due to be published this fall) - I scouted the Ladakh Ridge, where this week's fighting occurred, and was fired on by Indian mortars. These mountains, in one of the world's most remote places, lie on the northeastern shoulder of the Kashmir Valley. To their immediate north extend the mighty Karakoram Mountains that rise to 8600 meters, and then China's western province of Sinkiang.

The barren Ladakh Ridge command a majestic view of the entire Indian-held Ladakh Valley spread below, all Indian communications, and the garrison towns of Kargil and Leh. Ladakh, also known as `Little Tibet,' forms part of historic Kashmir, but was annexed by India in the 1950's.

India is building a military road from Leh northeast to the foot of the 50-mile long Siachen Glacier that is considered vital to the Indian Army's efforts to push Pakistani mountain troops off the western face of the great massif of snow and ice that flows down from K-2, the world's second highest peak.

Until now, the 10,000 Indian troops on and behind the Glacier had to be supplied by mule and by helicopter. The road will permit easier resupply and allow the Indians to move 155mm guns forward to shell Pakistani base camps on the reverse slope. Last week's mujihadin offensive threatened to sever this strategic and sole military artery to northern Ladakh and Siachen.

Indian and Pakistani forces have skirmished along the Line of Control (LOC), or cease-fire line, since 1947, have fought two major wars over Kashmir, and a third, further south. I've also twice been under heavy Indian artillery and machine-gun fire further south on the LOC, which the CIA calls `the world's most dangerous border,' and the likeliest place for a nuclear war to begin.

The 52-year old struggle over divided Kashmir went critical last year when India and Pakistan revealed their nuclear arsenals. Both sides have air-delivered nuclear weapons and are deploying medium-ranged ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads: India, its `Prithvi' and `Agni' systems; Pakistan the new `Ghauri' and `Shaheen' missiles. All of Pakistan, and much of northern and central India, are now under threat of nuclear attack.

These missiles, and nuclear-armed strike aircraft, are at hair-trigger readiness. Both sides have at best a 3-minute warning of enemy attack. A false alarm, or a major upsurge in fighting over Kashmir, could trigger a `use-them-or-loose them' nuclear exchange which, RAND Corp estimates, would kill 2 million people immediately, cause 100 million casualties, and send clouds of radioactive dust around the globe.

India's current caretaker government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, has repeatedly vowed to crush the uprising by Kashmir's Muslim majority. India claims the Kashmiri rebels are, in fact, `foreign mercenaries' (meaning Afghan and other militants from the Muslim world), directed and armed by Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI.

There are small numbers of `Afghani' - veterans of the `jihad,' or holy war, in Afghanistan - in the insurgent ranks, but the majority of the independence- fighters are native Kashmiris who rebelled a decade go after years of brutal Indian misrule. Pakistan does aid some of these groups, and provide them base camps in `Azad' Kashmir, the Pakistani-portion of the state. But many of the other 20-odd resistance groups operate without any help from outside, as I saw first-hand when in the field with the Kashmiri mujihadin.

India's repeated claims to have virtually crushed the Kashmiri intifada were plainly contradicted by this week's dramatic events. In spite of deploying a third of its army and 300,000 paramilitary police in Kashmir, India has failed to extinguish the revolt, which has caused at least 50,000 deaths since it spontaneously erupted in 1989.

India has been widely condemned by human rights organizations for routinely using torture, mass executions, arson, and gang rapes to break Kashmiri resistance. Unable to quell the uprising, India has turned its wrath on Pakistan, and frequently threatened a full-scale war against its smaller, weaker neighbor.

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and Indian PM Atal Vajpayee are responsible leaders, but they both head unstable governments. They have rushed to defuse the surging military tensions in Kashmir, rightly fearing an all-out war, or even nuclear conflict. But the fighting in Ladakh and around the Siachen Glacier threatens to generate its own momentum, as field commanders call for counter-attacks and more troops. The greatest danger is that Indian troops will cross the LOC in hot pursuit of retreating mujihadin, bringing them into a direct clash with dug-in Pakistani troops.

This, in turn, could lead to wider clashes along other parts of the LOC and, most ominously, further south, on the plains of Punjab, where India has massed three powerful armored strike corps that are poised to invade Pakistan and cut it in half. Heavily outnumbered, outgunned Pakistan could be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons to halt the Indian advance.

Remote, little-known Kashmir has suddenly become an urgent and highly dangerous problem for the entire world. Once again, we see that war teaches geography.

Copyright: Eric Margolis, 1999

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