Kashmir war of rocks and grappling hooks

As the war hardens, the Pakistani leader and Clinton strike a tentative

It is a surreal struggle: Two nuclear powers, reduced at times to hurling boulders, battle for a range of inhospitable frozen peaks.

The current war between India and Pakistan puts a much harder edge on what had become an almost ritualized clash in recent decades, and reverses the goodwill that had come out of peace talks in February.

With ropes and grappling hooks, sometimes climbing a sheer 85-degree rock face, Maj. Radesh Seti and his Indian Army regiment surprised a group of fighters from Pakistan and drove many of them from a 16,500-foot Himalayan stronghold.

But Major Seti says the peak is not yet clear. "This is still an ongoing operation," he says, "we are going to have to be patient."

For the Indian Army, in the seventh week of a costly and difficult war, that statement sums up the frustrating battlefield situation in the disputed Kashmir region - a war that has thrown the two nuclear states of South Asia into their worst crisis in decades.

Now that war may be at a diplomatic and military crossroads. On Sunday the Indian military reportedly recaptured most of a key peak called Tiger Hill that Pakistani-backed troops were using to cut off resupply lines.

At the same time, US President Clinton and visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a joint statement saying Pakistan would urge troops in Kashmir to respect the agreed upon 1972 border, known as the Line of Control - a statement viewed with skepticism by Indian officials but still regarded as crucial.

"The joint communique between Sharif and Clinton is extraordinarily important," says Gen. V. R. Raghavan, former director of military operations for the Indian Army, now with the Delhi policy group. "If Sharif is unable to deliver, it will show the state of the Pakistan government, and would presumably allow us space to cross the line of control."

Whether Mr. Sharif has control over fighters who the government claims are not Pakistan military is also widely questioned.

Yet here on the front lines, it seems clear that - barring a decision by India to cross into Pakistan and escalate the war - the only thing its Army can do is to fight a peak-by-peak war.

This spring, undetected, some 600 to 900 mountain fighters crossed the line from Pakistan and occupied some 40 peaks along a 100-mile stretch of Indian-claimed land in the Kashmir mountains.

In response, the Indian Army deployed some 50,000 troops. In the past two weeks the Army has unleashed some of the heaviest artillery barrages since the 1971 war with Pakistan, and has been conducting airstrikes.

For the first time in seven weeks, the Indian Army appears to be on the offensive. In some of the most difficult soldiering anywhere in the world, it has recaptured some half-dozen strategic peaks that overlook a winding highway that links the Indian-side capital of Kashmir with key resupply posts.

In a statement at Kargil while visiting the troops, acting Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani predicted the Army would clear the mountains by September.

Yet despite such rhetoric, India faces a serious military problem. To truly push back the Pakistani-based militants, it must capture at least 35 more peaks from experienced mountain fighters.

Along with using advanced weaponry, the militants are in such a dominating position that they have occasionally pushed back Indian assaults using large rocks. So far, though it holds a 10-to-1 troop advantage, the Indian Army has taken only a handful of the mountaintop positions.

The number of Indian casualties is unknown since the Indian Army is not allowing press access to the front line.

A continuous resupply to Indian troops along the entire range of operations is extremely expensive and dangerous. The roads can be mined or washed out, temperatures even in summer drop well below zero at night, and the soldiers on the Pakistan side, who appear to have performed reconnaissance and planning dating back six months to a year, seem to be well provisioned.

Reports from both sides of the line describe Pakistan positions where soldiers have tins of meats, fruit juices, and other foodstuffs from Germany, Switzerland, and France. The Indian soldiers, climbing the heights, often carry only lentils, honey, and water.

Moreover, some of the mujahideen interviewed on local Pakistani television are wearing expensive lightweight, high-altitude gear with heavy black anti-glare sunglasses, headbands with Nike symbols, thick thermal boots, and Dacron clothing.

Indian soldiers, by contrast, wear cheap boots and cloth coats. Many of them lack mountain-warfare training - unlike the combatants they face.

Militarily, one answer discussed among Indian officers is to cut the resupply lines to the peaks. Already this is being tried in the various theaters, though cutting the lines does not stop small-scale resupply efforts.

To decisively cut the Pakistani resupply, Indian officers say they will need to cross over the line and hit the main supply bases and staging areas of the guerrillas.

The danger in such an escalation is an unpredictable reaction from Pakistan as well as the international community. The government of Pakistan denies complicity in the incursion, though faced with the scale of the move, such a position is difficult to maintain diplomatically.

An attack across the line could be the excuse some Pakistani political and military leaders reportedly want to highlight their claims over Kashmir.

Indian political leaders worry an attack across the line could turn the international community, which so far has been sympathetic to the Indian side, against them. Many leaders see continued restraint as the best option, allowing time to gain international legitimacy for driving back Pakistani troops later.

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