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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave

Monday, 20 April 2020

War at the Top of the World

For my daytime reading, I thought a break from WW2 was in order. Dusting down some long-standing tomes from my 'to read' shelf I found Eric Margolis's 2001book (it has since been updated) 'War at the Top of the World: The Clash for Mastery of Asia."


This is a modern-day version of  The Great Game, for those who have read Peter Hopkirk's books about the British and Russians in Central Asia. Margolis is a journalist who has visited the main conflict zones and his book is a mixture of travelogue and history of the conflicts.

He starts with Afghanistan, which at the time he visited was after the war with the Soviets and the subsequent breakdown into tribal rivalry and the growth of the Taliban. I did like the story of his friend Fadil the Kurd and his invite, "you must come with us into Afghanistan. We will shoot the Stinger missile together".  It reminded me of medieval English knights and archers taking a winter 'holiday' to fight with the Teutonic Knights in Latvia.

The next stop was Kashmir. Much in the news recently, to remind us that this conflict has been simmering ever since partition. I hadn't appreciated just how many Indian troops had been committed to the largely Muslim province. To put down revolts and maintain the line of control with Pakistan. The paramilitary forces, in particular, are renown for their savagery, using torture, summary execution, arson and rape. This is not just a feature of the fiercely nationalist BJP policy. India's leaders have long worried that the secession of Kashmir or even worse the Sikh Punjab could trigger a process of gradual national dissolution, similar to the Soviet Union.

I have read a book by Neville Maxwell on India's China War in 1962. A more pointless conflict is hard to imagine, 7,000 metres up in the Karakoram mountains. After the Chinese victory, the conflict simmers on. Margolis also covers China's invasion of Tibet and the ongoing military build-up between India and China on that border.

India and Pakistan also skirmish over the Siachen Glacier. Margolis's description of the road journey up to the Pakistan positions is pretty harrowing. The air is so thin that helicopters can only manage a small payload.  Given my interest in Balkan history, I enjoyed the idea of the Pakistan commander studying the campaigns of Skanderbeg - "He was one of history's finest mountain warriors". Indeed he was, but even Skanderbeg would have struggled at these hights. He might also have said to the Turks, 'you can keep it!'.

It may seem a distant series of conflicts that the rest of the world has largely forgotten. But let's not forget that India, Pakistan and China are all nuclear states.

A fascinating book well told in a readable journalistic style.

And no, I am not even going to think about how you would wargame these mountain conflicts!  

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