It wasn’t grenades or bullets that took the lives of over 100 Pakistanis on the world’s highest battlefield. It was the elements. According to reports 124 soldiers and 11 civilians were buried alive under an 80 ft avalanche spanning almost a mile at Siachen glacier along the Indian border. The soldiers were posted at the Gyari sector of the glacier at an elevation of around 16,000 feet. As rescuers look for survivors they are braving temperatures that can plummet to as low as -95 grees Fahrenheit (-70C). The severity of the weather is quite ironic for a place whose name means “Place with many roses” in the Balti language. The Siachen conflict started in 1984, when Indian troops wrested control of the glacier during Operation Meghdoot.
FUTILITY OF THE BATTLES OVER A FRIGID GRAVEYARD
The News Editorial
A procession of dignitaries have now made their way to the site of the tragedy which took the lives of about 140 soldiers and civilians at Gayari on the Siachen glacier. Chief of Army Staff General Kayani has visited the site and so have President Zardari and the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif. No survivors have been found and there are no reports as yet of any bodies being found either. There can now be no expectation of there being any survivors.
Teams of local and foreign experts are at the site and there has been considerable international support for the rescue and recovery effort. Whilst the President and COAS are duty-bound to make a visit, for Nawaz Sharif this was also a political occasion. He at least cut back on the pomp and protocol and was met by a small delegation of the party faithful at Skardu airport. He distributed cheques of Rs0.5 million to the families of the missing soldiers and made a call through the assembled media for the governments of India and Pakistan to withdraw troops stationed on the glacier, and resolve the dispute by dialogue. Stressing that Pakistan should take the lead in the matter, he said he intended to hold talks with India to this end. But it is unclear where his mandate to do so comes from.
Any formal diplomatic effort he may make would have to have the agreement of the sitting government, the Foreign Office and the Army — none of which appear to be forthcoming.
The battle for Siachen is fought more with the geography and the elements than it is between the forces of India and Pakistan; and the geography and the elements win more often than not. In purely military terms neither side can ‘win’ on Siachen.
The dispute goes back to 1984, when India occupied high ground in the Saltoro range. We failed to dislodge them and both sides have doggedly stuck to their positions ever since — as one commentator drily observed recently it is like two bald men fighting over a comb.
There have been 12 rounds of talks since 1985, the most recent in May 2011, and agreement has been close at least once but it was not to be. The Kargil episode did not help matters either and wrangles over the details of any agreement that would see disengagement constantly bedevil negotiations. Notwithstanding all of that a line has to be drawn, both literally and metaphorically, under the Siachen conflict. A gradual defrosting of relations between us may edge Siachen up the ‘to-do’ list with a better chance of resolution than previously.
There is little to gain by hanging on to miles of high-altitude ice, but a great deal to be gained by honourably disengaging so that there never has to be another event such as that at Gayari, now a frigid graveyard.
Sharif may have the right idea but not the necessary permissions, and it is time for those that do to exercise them.
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