Monday, November 13, 2006

The struggle over Siachen

Mules en route to supply the Pakistani front line on Siachen

India and Pakistan are due to meet for talks on Kashmir this week, and it's being reported that India has ruled out making any concessions on the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world. It can afford to because, setting aside the growing pressure on the Pakistanis from elsewhere, the local situation on the glacier definitely favours the Indians.
The grain of the mountains in Kashmir (the valleys run from south-east to north-west) means that it is easier for the Indians to supply their forces than it is for the Pakistanis to reach theirs. But since Kashmir is so central to the Pakistanis' invented notion of themselves, the lengths to which they go to maintain their front line on the glacier have to be seen to be believed. Their main supply line runs at first up the route to K2 base camp, and mule trains carrying artillery shells are a frequent sight for climbers on the path. It is rather disconcerting lying in a tent at night listening to the jingle of bells as the mules pick their way past with their cargoes of high explosive.
Meanwhile, because of the conflict in this astonishingly beautiful part of the world, the local people suffer. While a town like Leh in Indian-occupied Kashmir is well connected to the outside world and relatively prosperous, the remote settlements in Pakistani-occupied Baltistan to the north-west are more cut off today than at any time in the past. The difference in labour costs each side of the Line of Control reveals the consequences. £1,500 buys the services of three men and five horses for a fortnight in Indian Ladakh; but the same sum employs perhaps twenty men for the same period in Pakistani Baltistan. Work is so scarce there (partly because of the slump in tourism since 9/11) that there is fierce competition among the local villagers for work as porters.
Poverty was the reason why last year's earthquake had such a disproportionately worse effect in Pakistani Kashmir. Poorly constructed buildings folded and survivors of the earthquake are still living in tents, twelve months later. Jihadis from the notorious training camps in the region were frequently first to the scene to help. If the Pakistanis were half as good at looking after the people of Kashmir as they are at maintaining their precarious frontline to the north, the victims of this natural tragedy might be doing better.

No comments: