Winning: A Sad Story Of Fire And Ice

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February 25, 2016: On February 3rd there was another fatal avalanche on the India-Pakistan border. Ten Indian soldiers died and once more there was some publicity for the thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers who man this frigid, front line that is six kilometers up in the world’s highest mountains. There have been a growing number of proposals from Pakistan and India that one of the things they could do to decrease military tensions was for both countries to withdraw from the Siachen glacier that lies between the two nations. There has been a ceasefire up there since 2003 and that has worked but the troops remain and suffer heavy losses just by being there.

No one ever expected the Siachen glacier to become a front line. Until the 1980s it was believed impossible to maintain troops on the 74 kilometers area of the glacier that lies astride the border. New technology gradually made the impossible possible, if very expensive. In 1984 India occupied the “uninhabitable” Siachen glacier border area. Pakistan responded by also moving troops up into the glacier. Since then there have been occasional news items about the harsh conditions troops of both nations but the total cost was kept secret. That has begun to change and since 2009 India has been more forthcoming about the cost. In turned out to be very high. India was spending about a million dollars a day to supply its troops on the glacier and India revealed it had lost (to non-combat causes) nearly 30 troops a year since 1984. Another 6 or 7 a year were lost to combat.

In 2010 Pakistan revealed that from 2003 to 2010 they had lost 213 soldiers on the Siachen glacier, all due to natural (avalanche, falls and severe cold) causes. Up to that point Pakistani losses were about the same as Indian. After 2010 the situation got worse because it was known that 140 Pakistani soldiers were lost in a 2012 avalanche. With this many killed in one incident it proved impossible to keep the details secret and that led to both nations becoming more open about the cost of occupying the glacier. That led to suggestions that it would be a splendid peace gesture, not to mention saving lives and money, if both sides withdrew to lower altitudes and used UAVs and satellites to keep an eye on the border area that ran along the glacier. As more is known about what goes on up there more people in both countries see moving off the glacier as a win for both sides.

India, despite having positions a bit higher than the Pakistanis, has reduced losses over the years to a greater degree than Pakistan. In other words, India proved more capable of taking better care of its troops than Pakistan. India acted on its years of experience with troops living at high altitudes and developed or imported special equipment and clothing that made life more survivable at those high altitudes. In effect, India used its much larger defense budget to save lives up on the glacier.

In 2014 both India and Pakistan admitted to losses during an avalanche at a high altitude portion of their border in Kashmir. Ten Indian soldiers were killed by a snow avalanche, while four Pakistani soldiers were lost on the other side of the border. This took place near army camps that both nations maintain along the Kashmir border. Some of these camps are high up, at an altitude of 6,500 meters (20,000 feet) or higher. These are the highest military camps on the planet and largely the result of never precisely demarcating the 740 kilometer long border. One 75 kilometer portion is on the 6,500-7,000 kilometer high Siachen glacier. The 2014 avalanche was 144 kilometers from the Siachen glacier in similar high, snow covered terrain. The reason for not precisely marking that part of the border was the inaccessibility of those 75 kilometers of ice and thin air.

This bizarre situation all began in the late 1970s, when Pakistan began a campaign of Islamic terror attacks on Indian Kashmir. In response, India moved more police and troops to Kashmir and in 1984 moved troops onto the Siachen glacier to block Pakistan based Islamic terrorists from sneaking into Indian Kashmir via that remote route. No terrorists appear to have ever used the glacier route into Indian territory but with the high levels of terrorist violence in Indian Kashmir, desperate measures seemed reasonable. Pakistan responded to the Indian action by moving troops up onto the glacier as well.

Since 1984 over a thousand soldiers have died, and even more injured in these high altitude border areas. For the troops serving in those harsh conditions (thin air, intense cold, constant snow and ice plus frequent inaccessibility) life is rough even when it is not fatal. After September 11, 2001, the two countries began negotiating a ceasefire, and one was signed in 2003. This ended the frequent gunfire on the glacier (usually initiated by the Pakistanis), but efforts to negotiate a withdrawal of troops from the glacier have so far failed. But with each new natural disaster up there getting off the glacier becomes acceptable to more political and military leaders.

 


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