Twenty Years Ago, Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Fought a Chilly, High-Altitude War in the Himalayas

Twenty Years Ago, Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Fought a Chilly, High-Altitude War in the Himalayas

Sebastien Roblin

Security, Asia

Was a nuclear war possible?

For years, there was a conceit that no two states with nuclear weapons have ever directly fought each other. That conceit has at times been thin. For example, during the Korean War, Soviet air force regiments battled U.S. jet fighters in support of North Korea. But Washington as much as Moscow refrained from pointing out that thinly-veiled fact, lest it escalate tensions.

But when thousands of Pakistani troops infiltrated across the Line of Control in 1999, separating the Indian and Pakistani-controlled territories, disguised as local insurgents, the pretense proved impossible to maintain before the prying eyes of global media.

Just a year earlier on May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducted a series of underground nuclear tests known as Chagai-I. Islamabad’s ascension as a nuclear power was met with jubilation in Pakistani streets and condemnations and sanctions across the globe. Though Pakistan’s rival India had conducted its Smiling Buddha nuclear test in 1974, Chagai came in response to a second India test held just two weeks later.

Still, in February 1999 both countries signed the Lahore Declaration expressing a desire to peacefully resolve the long-standing conflict over the mountainous region of Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority and Hindu minority.

However, the Pakistani military’s Joint Staff Headquarters, under General (and soon-to-be prime minister) Pervez Musharraf saw an opportunity to pick off salient Indian territory called the Siachen glacier. As the glacier lay 20,000 feet above sea level, Indian border outposts in the sector were sparsely manned or abandoned. And positions near the town of Kargil could be used to interdict National Highway 1 connecting the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar to the Ladakh provincial capital of Leh.

Thus, even as Islamabad and New Delhi celebrated their apparent peace accord, four battalions of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry regiment (5th, 6th, 12th and 13th) and two of the Sind Regiment (24th and 27th), as well as commandos from the elite Special Services Group, were infiltrating into the abandoned outposts at the very peaks of the Himalayas, without initially being detected.

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