Fight­ing for Ice

Si­achen is a point­less war that the two con­tenders – In­dia and Pak­istan – con­tinue to fight for noth­ing but pride.

Southasia - - Cover Story - By J. En­ver

When Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zar­dari met Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh in New Delhi on April 8, the Gyari tragedy had al­ready struck a day ear­lier and it was ex­pected that be­sides other is­sues, the Si­achen is­sue would fea­ture promi­nently in the talks be­tween the two lead­ers. Re­gret­tably, noth­ing of the sort hap­pened. In all prob­a­bil­ity, Mr. Singh ex­pressed his con­cern over the fate of the 135 Pak­istani sol­diers buried un­der a moun­tain of snow in Gyari and then the dis­cus­sion moved on to other sub­jects.

The whole prob­lem is about some­thing known as AGPL - Ac­tual Ground Po­si­tion Line, which de­notes the po­si­tion of In­dian and Pak­istani troops at the Si­achen Glacier. The line runs across the edge of the Sal­toro range -a moun­tain­ous plateau with peaks ris­ing above 8,000 me­ters (20,000 feet). The In­dian army has been oc­cu­py­ing the up­per por­tion of the range since April 1984 and has blocked Pak­istani forces from en­ter­ing the area, which was un­til the In­dian oc­cu­pa­tion, a no man’s land.

De­scribed as the world’s high­est bat­tle­field as well as the tough­est, Si­achen is an in­cred­i­bly point­less con­fronta­tion. The ut­ter irony of the Si­achen con­flict was re­cently brought into world fo­cus when the Gyari camp, lo­cated just below the glacier, and the bat­tal­ion head­quar­ters of Pak­istan Army’s sixth North­ern Light In­fantry bat­tal­ion, was sud­denly struck by an on­slaught of thou­sands of tons of ice, rock and snow in the early hours of April 7.

Nei­ther In­dia nor Pak­istan had any pres­ence on the glacier un­til 1984 when In­dian forces covertly en­tered and took con­trol of the re­gion. For 37 years be­gin­ning in 1947, nei­ther In­dia nor Pak­istan thought that the 70 km long Si­achen Glacier had any strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance. Even the Simla Agree­ment of 1972 did not give much im­por­tance to the in­hos­pitable and in­hab­it­able bar­ren mass of ice. Un­der the 1949 Karachi Agree­ment, the cease­fire line be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan for the dis­puted Jammu and Kash­mir re­gion was iden­ti­fied as run­ning to map co­or­di­nate NJ 9842 and “. . . thence north to the glaciers.” Per­haps in view of the tough con­di­tions in the Si­achen re­gion, it was not deemed nec­es­sary to de­mar­cate the line with more clar­ity and this is what In­dia took ad­van­tage of.

For In­dia, mil­i­tary pres­ence in Si­achen costs 300 mil­lion dol­lars an­nu­ally while for Pak­istan it is 100 mil­lion dol­lars. One Pak­istani sol­dier is killed ev­ery fourth day in Si­achen while one In­dian sol­dier is killed ev­ery sec­ond day – not by bul­lets but rather by the se­vere weather. The ac­cu­mu­lated cost of this point­less of all wars, which has been go­ing on for the past 28 years now, ex­ceeds $5 bil­lion while the to­tal num­ber of ca­su­al­ties is said to be around 4,000 sol­diers on each side.

Both Pak­istan and In­dia main­tain 150 manned posts. Each coun­try has 10 bat­tal­ions or some 6,000 troops on ground. The cost of half a dozen he­li­copters that the Pak­istan army de- ploys is Rs. 55,000 per hour. The clas­si­cal cost unit is of course that of a roti (loaf of bread) that costs Rs. 100 by the time it reaches a sol­dier sta­tioned in the peaks.

Si­achen has also be­come the world’s ‘largest and high­est’ garbage dump as a re­sult of the sup­plies sent to the troops. More than half of the garbage com­prises plas­tic and metal from un­ser­vice­able am­mu­ni­tion, ir­repara­ble ve­hi­cles, sup­ply tins, rot­ten food, dis­carded cloth­ing and other sim­i­lar ma­te­rial. The ice glacier does not pro­duce any biodegrad­able agents, so the garbage gets ab­sorbed into the glacier sys­tem and goes on to re­lease harm­ful tox­ins like cad­mium and chromium, which en­ter the gla­cial wa­ter sys­tem and pol­lute the wa­ters that flow down­stream and en­ter the In­dus. Since the In­dus is a source of life for mil­lions of peo­ple down­stream both in In­dia and Pak­istan, the havoc that this would cre­ate in the not too dis­tant fu­ture can very well be imag­ined.

So what could be a judicious end to this war?

While In­dia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the re­gion is a vi­o­la­tion of the 1949 and 1972 agree­ments that it signed with Pak­istan, the In­di­ans ar­gue that a fear of Pak­istani forces oc­cu­py­ing their right­ful ter­ri­tory is what has pro­voked them to keep hold­ing on to the ter­ri­tory. Fol­low­ing the Gyari tragedy and in per­haps stark re­al­iza­tion of the use­less­ness of this ex­pen­sive war, Pak­istan Army Chief, Gen­eral Ash­faq Parvez Kayani re­cently re­marked, “Peace­ful co­ex­is­tence be­tween the

two neigh­bors is very im­por­tant so that every­body can con­cen­trate on the well-be­ing of the peo­ple... the decades of en­mity be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan should be re­solved through ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

It is an­other thing though that cer­tain quar­ters in In­dia be­lieve that Kayani’s words were ap­par­ently de­signed to prod the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to re­vive pres­sure on In­dia to reach a mu­tu­ally sat­is­fac­tory agree­ment with Pak­istan on the Si­achen is­sue so that it could lead to a with­drawal of troops from the glacier. Some an­a­lysts also be­lieve In­dia’s stance on con­tin­u­ing to dig its heels in Si­achen is mo­ti­vated by the threat of Chi­nese in­ter­est in the re­gion and its re­la­tion­ship with Pak­istan.

Al­though In­dia and China have taken steps in re­cent years to im­prove their re­la­tion­ship, the fear of its north­ern neigh­bor al­ways lurks in the In­dian mind. In­dia feels that con­trol­ling the glacier will con­tinue to give it a strate­gic po­si­tion both against Pak­istan’s north­ern ar­eas as well as south­ern China. It would pro­vide it a means to cut off ac­cess be­tween Pak­istan and China through the Khun­jrab Pass in the Karako­ram Range. Some in­tel­li­gence re­ports have even pointed to In­dia’s plans to take over the Bal­toro glacier in Pak­istani ter­ri­tory, which in­cludes the world’s sec­ond high­est peak, K2, and en­able it to com­pletely en­cir­cle Kash­mir.

Be­sides the AGPL, the two armies are fight­ing for noth­ing else in Si­achen but na­tion­al­is­tic pride fanned by hawks on both sides. There is no strate­gic, min­eral or tac­ti­cal value to take ad­van­tage of. A with­drawal from the Si­achen re­gion would not put In­dia and Pak­istan at any loss if proper mon­i­tor­ing mech­a­nisms were put in place. The chal­lenge, how­ever, is to de­vise a with­drawal sys­tem where no side is shown to have lost face or se­cu­rity.

Many al­ter­na­tives to mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion have been brought to light in the past. Pak­istan has sug­gested that the non-de­mar­cated ar­eas un­der the 1972 Simla Agree­ment be iden­ti­fied as zones of dis­en­gage­ment. The idea of a peace park was sug­gested in 1994 to con­trol the mas­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, caused by mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions. This sug­ges­tion could save both coun­tries mil­lions of dol­lars cur­rently spent on the war, as well as save them from bow­ing down to a “sell out” to the other side.

The main dis­agree­ment has per­sisted over the po­si­tion of the Line of Con­tact af­ter NJ9842 and where the troops should be re­de­ployed once the line has been agreed upon. In­dia wants Pak­istan to rec­og­nize the cur­rent ground po­si­tions of its troops so that it can have a le­gal safe­guard in the event that Pak­istan back­tracks. Pak­istan says it has no such in­ten­tions. If some­how, both sides were to agree on a joint pack­age, it would en­tail both par­ties agree­ing to an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the ground po­si­tions of the armies, a suit­able du­ra­tion for the re­de­ploy­ment and de­mil­i­ta­riza­tion and for­mu­la­tion of meth­ods to mon­i­tor ac­tiv­i­ties un­til a de­mil­i­ta­rized zone is cre­ated.

The sit­u­a­tion must be re­solved in or­der for peace to pre­vail and for the two coun­tries to mu­tu­ally take a step past their tu­mul­tuous his­tory. Pak­istan wants a climb down on what has be­come a ‘sup­ple­men­tary’ dis­pute and has been dis­tract­ing at­ten­tion from the ‘core’ is­sue of Kash­mir. This is the time to take ad­van­tage of what Gen­eral Kayani has sug­gested and open a new chap­ter in the sad saga of In­di­aPak­istan re­la­tions.

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