Commentary: Pakistan avalanche deaths show futility of glacial battle

Special to McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2012 

It took an avalanche that buried 129 soldiers alive April 7, under 200 feet of ice, snow and boulders, to persuade Pakistan's army chief that it is insane to fight India at 20,000 feet in the Himalayas to control the uninhabited and uninhabitable Siachen Glacier.

After a 28-year standoff in the thin mountain air between the two South Asian neighbors, Pakistani General Ashfaq Kayani finally uttered some common sense after paying a visit to the inhospitable battlefield – highest in the world – where his solders lay entombed in snow and ice along with 11 civilians.

"I think this is one good enough reason that this area should not be militarized," he told reporters after riding in the thin air by helicopter to view the avalanche site and efforts to recover bodies.

"We hope and we wish that the issue is resolved, so that both countries do not have to pay this cost, pay this price."

For 28 years Pakistan and India have posted from 10,000 to 20,000 troops to periodically shell each other’s positions and assert rival claims to the Siachen Glacier – part of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

On one of my visits to Kashmir a soldier manning the entrance to the governor’s mansion told me he’d just completed three month up on the glacier, which is about all the human body can take.

“I never slept more than 15 minutes before I woke up gasping for air,” the soldier told me. It was a sign of the madness of trying to fight and occupy a patch of ice where human beings cannot physically live – like fighting to control the inside of a volcano or half of a giant waterfall.

But insane and counterproductive actions seem to be compulsory in our world when nationalism is aroused. Poor countries such as Pakistan and India cannot supply milk and flour to tens of millions of malnourished children. But they find the cash to pay for bullets, helicopters, artillery and a steady supply of human fodder to defend flags they can barely stick into the icy glacier. Pakistan’s military consumes 17 percent of the government budget.

So finally, I was pleased to hear a few words of basic common sense from the Pakistani army chief Kayani indicating he sees that the standoff is senseless and it may be time to withdraw from the heights where more soldiers have died from altitude sickness and accidents than from battle.

But Kashmir has sparked two of the three wars between India and Pakistan. Kashmir was a mainly Muslim state whose leader chose to go with India during the bloody partition into a Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India in 1947, after Britain granted independence.

Pakistan took over northern territories and about one quarter of Kashmir while India kept the lion’s share. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, mujahideen fighters looking for another Islamic cause crossed over to Kashmir to start a guerrilla war against India.

When I got there, more than 60,000 people had died, all 200,000 Hindu residents had fled to the lowlands, and India was forced to leave nearly half a million troops to maintain security.

I traveled with the Indian Army to the Line of Control and saw damage caused by artillery shells lobbed from Pakistani-held Azad (Free) Kashmir.

A week later, Pakistani soldiers took me to the other side of the LOC and Indian shells crashed 600 yards away, echoing off the stone cliffs above the Neelam River. It was all so senseless. The majority of Kashmiris I spoke to said they would like independence from either India or Pakistan.

Well this is not yet the moment to believe an avalanche has trumped nationalistic madness. I was told that when Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met some years back, they actually agreed on many major issues – opening borders to trade and tourism, joint use of water resources, confidence building measures to prevent accidental war, and easing restrictions on family visits.

But they agreed that once they stepped outside their meeting room, and faced the press, they would have no choice but to deny all agreements and demand that the other side cave in.

I expect Gen. Kayani will require no more than a few days to reverse his position and call for India to hand over the glacier or face further high-altitude warfare.

Senseless acts make very good sense where nationalism is concerned.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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