Siachen Lacks Strategic Military Relevance
The Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani of course would not remember but I once bumped into him at a dinner and pointed out the futility of fighting a war in Siachen. He took a hawkish line and eventually got irritated and asked me to resolve the issue with the Indians if I could. I told him that he was the Army Chief and I was nobody and the initiative had to come from him.
Following the April 7 sad debacle in Gayari, resulting in the unexpected death of 140 persons by an avalanche, former premier Nawaz Sharif has taken an even more belligerent stance and has suggested a unilateral withdrawal by Pakistan. He said that Pakistan and India were spending billions of rupees on defense, which could be diverted for the prosperity of the people. General Kayani then had to intervene by calling for a negotiated end to the confrontation and agreeing that demilitarization was an ideal option but it must be mutual.
The accumulated tab for the Siachen conflict now exceeds $5 billion, which is the equivalent of Pakistan’s entire annual defense budget. The casualty figure for each side is estimated at around 4,000 soldiers; the total casualty count for Pakistan in the 1965 war was 3,800.
This pointless war has been going on for the past 28 years; until 1984, India and Pakistan never attached any strategic significance to the 70 km long Siachen Glacier. The dispute started when on April 13, 1984, the Indian Army launched an operation to capture the Saltoro Ridge high ground.
More soldiers have died on both sides from frostbite than actual fighting since then but the impasse continues. An agreement appeared possible when Rajiv Gandhi visited Islamabad in 1989 and indicated his willingness to agree to demilitarization. However, his government’s downfall gave a chance to the Indian military to raise technical objections. There have been several rounds of negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad since then and the plans for the next talks in Pakistan at the defense secretary level now seem like a real possibility.
Pakistan has made several proposals under the Siachen dialogue process, including the redeployment of forces in
the talks. The two sides have repeatedly come ‘very close’ to an agreement on the Siachen issue; once in 1989, and again (less so) in 1993.
The lurking issue is India’s insistence, and this was pointed out to me by the Army Chief as well, that its actual ground position should be recognized before a withdrawal can be considered.
According to a Wikileak cable of September 2008, one MEA Joint Secretary (Pakistan) “reported that the Indian army has drawn a line with its political leadership. It has told the government of India that withdrawal was tantamount to ceding the area to Pakistan due to the difficulty of retaking it should Pakistan occupy it.”
The cable also noted that this position on the issue “is reflected in the Foreign Ministry as well.” India would not make a deal on demilitarization without Pakistan signing a map laying out Indian and Pakistani troop positions before withdrawal. The primary purpose of this would be to justify action if Pakistan reneged on the withdrawal agreement. PM Manmohan Singh also told President Musharraf during the Havana meeting that his military advisers are apprehensive that Pakistan would re-occupy the heights, including Indian posts, were the sides to withdraw from their current lines.
But why is the Indian army resistant to giving up this territory? Some explain it as strategic advantage over China. Other argue in favor of internal army corruption, the distrust of Pakistan and a strong desire to keep hold of advantageous territory that thousands of Indian soldiers have died protecting.
The international community however disagrees with the Indian assessment and is of the opinion that “this remote region lacks military strategic relevance.” In the meantime, 140 Pakistanis continue to lie buried under tons of snow while their compatriots look for them in freezing temperatures.