Si­achen Lacks Strate­gic Mil­i­tary Rel­e­vance

Southasia - - The Last Stop - By Anees Jil­lani Anees Jil­lani is an ad­vo­cate of the Supreme Court and a mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton, DC Bar. He has been writ­ing for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions for more than 20 years and has au­thored sev­eral books.

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

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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.

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