“Thundering above the highest peak . . . they resemble the blowing wind,” went one song tribute to those deployed on the roof of the world to guard Pakistan’s borders. “How can someone defeat them?”
But Monday night’s ceremony played out against the grim realization that something had, in fact, defeated 124 soldiers of the 6th Northern Light Infantry Battalion, stationed on Siachen Glacier. The troops, along with 14 civilians, have been trapped under 80 feet of snow for nearly a month after an avalanche buried them in base-camp buildings at 15,000 feet.
Efforts to recover them have been futile, but the army has not declared them dead.
In a way, the Siachen disaster is a symbol for another uncomfortable truth that few in either country will acknowledge: Casualties at what is called the highest and coldest battlefield on Earth are essentially pointless.
Both Pakistani and Indian officials say they would prefer not to spend billions of dollars defending a disputed border at heights of up to 22,000 feet, where far more troops have died from climatic causes than combat.
But both sides’ national pride and historical enmity always seem to stall progress on demilitarizing that frozen region of Kashmir, where conflicts have erupted since 1947 but where a cease-fire has held since 2003.
Defense analysts in both countries say signs of a new flexibility on the part of Pakistan — attributed to the Siachen calamity — probably will not change the status quo.
“Deployment of forces by Pakistan and India in Siachen is a useless deployment,” said Shahzad Chaudhry, a retired Pakistani air vice marshal.
Both sides know it, he said.
“So what is the hurdle?” Chaudhry asked. “It’s actually the fear that if one side withdraws, the other could occupy its positions.”
Overtures or ploys?
Many analysts see recent dovish statements by both sides as public relations ploys that camouflage hardened tactical positions.
After a trip to the rescue site last month, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said it was time to cut defense spending. The nation would be more secure, he said, if money were redirected to making its citizens happier and more prosperous.
“Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbors is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people,” he said.
India’s minister of state for defense, M.M. Pallam Raju, later agreed: “This money can be better spent on the development of both countries.”
An estimated 8,000 Pakistani and Indian troops have died on Siachen since 1984. This past year has been the worst for India, with a toll of 26.
But New Delhi seems unlikely to agree to demilitarize the nearly 50-mile-long glacier without concessions on other issues, including a halt to cross-border terrorism. “I think this will be part of a larger package, not a piece-by-piece, issue-by-issue resolution,” said retired Indian Major Gen. Ashok Mehta.
On Siachen, the two sides are not that far apart. Under current proposals, each side would record its positions (called the Actual Ground Position Line) before withdrawal, then exchange maps.
But India wants Pakistan to authenticate — that is, accept — its map, which Pakistan refuses to do because it sees that as tantamount to accepting what it views as India’s “illegal occupation” of the glacier.
India holds the literal high ground on Siachen — an outcropping called the Saltoro Ridge, which it seized in 1984, after allegedly receiving intelligence that the Pakistani army was trying to take the area.
Now New Delhi fears that Pakistan could seize the heights if India were to withdraw.
“Quitting Siachen will be disastrous,” Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi, former vice chief of the Indian army, warned in a recent opinion piece in the DNA newspaper.
He said the region has strategic value that is worth paying for. “While it suits Pakistan to get our troops to vacate the commanding heights of the Saltoro Ridge, we would lose them permanently if we do so, as regaining them would be militarily extremely difficult.”
Issue of Pakistani economy
Indeed, India’s position appeared to be hardening at recent talks. It said it wants the Actual Ground Position Line to be converted into an extension of that portion of the Line of Control dividing the nations.
Mehta said India realizes that Pakistan is under “psychological and military pressure — they want to withdraw.”
Well, not all Pakistanis. “Ignorance-based utopian calls for unilateral withdrawal are totally uncalled-for,” Shamshad Ahmad, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, thundered Tuesday in the News, a daily English-language paper.
Army chief Kayani’s “peaceful coexistence” moment may cloak a more pragmatic strategy: “One reason I see for shift in the army stance is the poor state of Pakistan’s economy,” said Pakistani defense expert Hasan-Askari Rizvi.
The army runs or has ties (through retired officers) to a vast array of commercial enterprises. “The army is the main beneficiary of our economy, and if it is weak, the army would suffer,” Rizvi said.
At the Martyrs Day event, a film clip offered a reminder of Siachen’s toll. “Here you have to take care of two things,” said a soldier standing in a vast snowfield. “The enemy who has ingressed cunningly . . . and the weather.”
From the podium, Kayani continued to sound themes of security through democracy and prosperity, but he made no mention of pulling back from the glacier.
He said digging there would continue no matter the cost or difficulties, “until the recovery of our last soldier.”
Denyer reported from New Delhi.