“Thundering above the highest peak . . . they resemble the blowing wind,” went one song tribute to those deployed on the roof of the world to guard Pakistan’s borders. “How can someone defeat them?”
But Monday night’s ceremony played out against the grim realization that something had, in fact, defeated 124 soldiers of the 6th Northern Light Infantry Battalion, stationed on Siachen Glacier. The troops, along with 14 civilians, have been trapped under 80 feet of snow for nearly a month after an avalanche buried them in base-camp buildings at 15,000 feet.
Efforts to recover them have been futile, but the army has not declared them dead.
In a way, the Siachen disaster is a symbol for another uncomfortable truth that few in either country will acknowledge: Casualties at what is called the highest and coldest battlefield on Earth are essentially pointless.
Both Pakistani and Indian officials say they would prefer not to spend billions of dollars defending a disputed border at heights of up to 22,000 feet, where far more troops have died from climatic causes than combat.
But both sides’ national pride and historical enmity always seem to stall progress on demilitarizing that frozen region of Kashmir, where conflicts have erupted since 1947 but where a cease-fire has held since 2003.
Defense analysts in both countries say signs of a new flexibility on the part of Pakistan — attributed to the Siachen calamity — probably will not change the status quo.
“Deployment of forces by Pakistan and India in Siachen is a useless deployment,” said Shahzad Chaudhry, a retired Pakistani air vice marshal.
Both sides know it, he said.
“So what is the hurdle?” Chaudhry asked. “It’s actually the fear that if one side withdraws, the other could occupy its positions.”
Overtures or ploys?
Many analysts see recent dovish statements by both sides as public relations ploys that camouflage hardened tactical positions.
After a trip to the rescue site last month, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said it was time to cut defense spending. The nation would be more secure, he said, if money were redirected to making its citizens happier and more prosperous.
“Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbors is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people,” he said.
India’s minister of state for defense, M.M. Pallam Raju, later agreed: “This money can be better spent on the development of both countries.”
An estimated 8,000 Pakistani and Indian troops have died on Siachen since 1984. This past year has been the worst for India, with a toll of 26.