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