Pakistan avalanche shines light on 'futile' war

Published April 9, 2012 1:27PM (EDT)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — An avalanche that buried more than 120 soldiers in a Himalayan region close to India has put a spotlight on what critics says is one of world's most pointless military deployments: two poverty-wracked nations engaged in a costly standoff over an uninhabitable patch of mountain and ice.

Since Saturday morning when the massive wall of snow engulfed a Pakistani military complex close to the Siachen Glacier, rescue teams have been unable to dig up any survivors. There is now very little hope that even a small number of people will come out alive.

A team of U.S. military experts was expected to arrive at the site Monday to assist in the rescue efforts, according to an American official. The team flew in from Afghanistan after the Pakistani army asked for help, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The U.S. military helped Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and floods in 2010, ventures that Washington used to bolster efforts to strengthen its ties with Islamabad, vital in the fight against al-Qaida. The current mission is far smaller, and comes amid a near-breakdown in relations between the two countries.

Switzerland and Germany are also sending small teams of experts to help, said the Pakistani army.

The missing soldiers are part of the Pakistani military deployment to the Siachen Glacier, which forms the northern part of Kashmir region, disputed between Islamabad and India and the main source of tension between the nuclear-armed rivals who have fought three wars since 1947.

The conflict over Siachen began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 78-kilometer (49-mile) long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. Islamabad also deployed its troops. A 2003 cease-fire largely ended skirmishes on the glacier, where troops have been deployed as high as 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), but both armies remained camped out there.

Neither side releases information on troop numbers in the region, but they are believed to be in the hundreds or low thousands.

Of all the problems plaguing the two countries, Siachen is often described as one of the easiest to solve but it is hostage to general mistrust and hard-liners on both sides who don't want to give up their claim on territory, however strategically insignificant.

"This absolutely futile, useless fiasco has been going on since 1984," said Pakistan-India peace activist Tahira Abdullah. "It is a one-hour job to agree on a solution, but it is now an ego problem between the two armies. Both armies should pull back from the heights. Soldiers are dying and my heart bleeds for them, but it's for nothing."

Temperatures as low as -60 C (-76 F), vicious winds and altitude sickness — the region is just east of the world's second-highest peak, K-2 — have killed far more than the artillery fire. Casualty figures are not released by either military, but hundreds are believed to have died there.

The avalanche plowed into the headquarters at Gayari sector, which is at the entrance to the glacier, and buried the complex under more than 20 meters (70 feet) of snow.

The military says at least 124 soldiers from the 6th Northern Light Infantry Battalion and 11 civilian contractors had been buried. Publicly, the army has held out hope of survivors.

"Miracles have been seen and trapped people were rescued after days ... so the nation shall pray for the trapped soldiers," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told a local television station late Sunday.

The frontier in Siachen has never been demarcated. When the Line of Control that divides Kashmir was set by the two countries after a 1971 war, it didn't extend to the northern glacier because it was considered uninhabitable.

On Sunday, President Asif Ali Zardari held talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India, the first time the two leaders have met in three years. The issue of Siachen was raised in the 40-minute meeting, according to Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai.

Analysts say resolving Siachen should be possible before the much more difficult dispute over Kashmir is attempted.

Because no one lives in the region and it is of no strategic value, a joint or even unilateral withdrawal from one side could break the logjam.

"Why should we be going for an agreement? We should just withdraw," said Imtiaz Alam, the head of the South Asian Free Media Association, which promotes regional peace. "If we do that, Indian domestic pressure will also result in a withdrawal there. They will say it is madness to continue."

Each country spends many millions of dollars to maintain troops in the remote region.

"We should do joint research in the area on how to stop the glacier melting," said Alam. "Make it a peace park instead of wasting money."

By Salon Staff

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