This week there was a disastrous avalanche on the Siachen glacier, which buried perhaps 135 Pakistanis, 124 of whom were troops in the 6th Northern Light Infantry Battalion. It seems unlikely that many of these troops will ever be found, despite a concerted rescue effort, given that they may have been buried under 25 meters (75 feet of snow). The force of the avalanche -over a thousand meter line- was indescribable. This sad incident is but one tragedy in a the strange stand-off between India and Pakistan over a glacier, which must be one of the most inhospitable fortified regions on earth.
India and Pakistan have both sought to assert their authority over Kashmir ever since both acquired independence from Britain after World War Two (for a map, see this BBC article). The two sides have gone to war over Kashmir twice, once in 1947-48 and once in 1965. When India sent forces to the Siachen glacier in 1984, Pakistan soon deployed its own forces. The Pakistanis had been planning to occupy the glacier themselves, but word of their plans leaked to India, which beat them to the punch. In 1987 the Pakistanis launched an operation to dislodge the Indians, under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf. Despite great heroism, the Pakistani troops failed to overcome Indian forces.
As a result, the two sides have occupied the second longest glacier outside the poles, which stretches over 70 kilometers through some of the highest mountains in the world. There are perhaps 5,000 Indian troops on the glacier, and perhaps half that many Pakistani troops. The glacier can reach nearly 19,000 feet in altitude, and even the lowest portion is nearly 12,000 feet. Soldiers can be posted to even higher altitudes, as army leaders seek to control the heights over the glacier. Both sides lose men to altitude sickness and cold, in an environment in which the temperature can plummet to 70 below Celsius. In winter, 35 feet of snow can fall on the glacier in an average year.
Both sides recognize that the conflict causes more suffering than it warrants, but neither wants to be the first to disengage. For both sides it has become a symbol of their political will in the struggle over Kashmir, which overshadows the fact that the glacier is of questionable strategic value. More than 2000 people have died to date in the stand-off. India has offered to provide humanitarian assistance to the Pakistani forces after the avalanche. But what is needed is a diplomatic solution to the highest altitude conflict on earth.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University