‘Failed’ Siachen Talks
Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva (Retd)
India and Pakistan have, as expected, failed to make any headway in ending the military standoff on Siachen. The two sides stuck to their stated positions, merely committed themselves to “serious, sustained and result-oriented efforts” for an amicable settlement of the issue and “acknowledged that the ceasefire (in Siachen) was holding since 2003.” Thus, at the end of the talks in Islamabad, the usual joint statement was released, followed by an agreement to hold the next secretary level talks in Delhi on a mutually convenient date.
It is no secret that both the countries have held many rounds of discussions on demilitarising the glacier, known as the world’s highest battlefield, where Indian and Pakistani troops face each other at elevations between 3,600 m and 5,700 m in sub-zero temperatures. The subject has also been part of peace talks between the two nations since the 80s after India captured vantage positions in the area.
Emerging from the recent talks with her Indian counterpart Shashikant Sharma, Pakistan’s Defence Secretary Nargis Sethi had stated that Islamabad wanted both sides to simultaneously pull out troops from Siachen to 1984 positions. The deployment of troops, it was contended was affecting the environment and talks should be speeded.
New Delhi, stung by the occupation of the strategic heights in the Kargil sector in 1999, has called on Islamabad to authenticate and demarcate the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the Siachen glacier. It fears that a troop pullback “would set a troubling precedent and put pressure on New Delhi to resolve the festering dispute of Jammu and Kashmir”. The move is aimed at thwarting the possible re-induction of troops by Pakistan after any demilitarisation of the glacier. India has made it amply clear that any settlement must include the authentication and demarcation of the current military positions on Siachen.
While both sides continue to hold their positions, Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani did at least put the focus on the issue, when in a rare statement in April he stated that the conflict should be resolved. He did so at Skardu, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, soon after visiting Gyari, the site of an avalanche in Siachen that buried 124 soldiers of Pakistan’s 6 Northern Light Infantry and 11 civilians.
There is no denying the fact that every army jawan and most officers would eagerly look forward to a peaceful settlement of Siachen for after all, they bear the brunt of military operations in the most extreme hostile weather conditions. Additionally, the whopping amount of money spent on the military operation would be better spent on roti-kapda-makan (food, clothing and house) for India’s 80% of the population which lives, rather, survives on less than $1 per day. But this argument, while valid in principle, hits the hurdle of there can be no compromise with national security issues.
However, the question about the genuineness of Gen Kayani’s “peace” initiative is under cloud. Apparently, it seems to be driven by his urgent need to cover up the long-standing lie sold to the Pakistani people that their soldiers are dying on the Siachen glacier while facing Indian troops. However, Gayari is merely in the Siachen region and not on the glacier, where Indian troops hold guard on the commanding heights. Demilitarisation involves India losing both strategic and tactical advantage, whereas for Pakistan it is a strategic gain traded off against a small tactical loss.
It would be unwise for New Delhi to delink Siachen from other issues such as cross border terrorism etc. Taking this call for “peaceful co-existence” from a Pakistan Army Chief at face value would be a strategic folly. The Pakistani establishment be it civilian/military, has always been anti-India and gone back on its word more than once, thus making mockery of New Delhi’s several initiatives for genuine peace. It is true that India wants peace, but it would be imprudent to buy that peace at major security risks. Gen Kayani cannot and should not be trusted because unprovoked firing continues on the LoC and Siachen.
Notably, as per reports, Islamabad is talking or has already negotiated leasing the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), to China for 50 years. This includes the area now occupied by Pakistan, facing us at Siachen. If India pulls out of Siachen, re-occupation of the posts will be almost impossible, especially if China sneaks into the commanding heights vacated by the Indian troops. A Chinese military commander with the least bit of initiative would move his troops into forward posts presently occupied by Pakistani troops.
In such a situation, there is bound to be hostility between India and China, which is not a party to any “peace” agreements between New Delhi and Islamabad. In the context of China having moved several divisions of troops into its Tibetan border with India including missile units within easy missile strike range of New Delhi, hostilities on Siachen could trigger unacceptable military response from Beijing.
In the long run, demilitarisation of Siachen may be desirable, but this is not the time, when New Delhi is not in a position of strategic advantage. Today and in the near future, India will be on the back foot because of growing security liability in Afghanistan (principally due to the impending NATO pull-out), having been sucked into the region because of our strategic alignment with the US following the India-US nuclear deal and the Hyde Act, which assumes “congruence” in foreign policy matters.
Intrusion onto Siachen glacier by Pakistani or Chinese troops sneaking into tactically strong posts vacated by India after demilitarisation will lead to loss of the Shyok and Nubra valleys and permit a Pakistan-China link-up between Gilgit area and Aksai Chin area under Chinese control and areas illegally ceded to China by Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the military is not directly involved in decision-making at the top-most level, the National Security Council. A bureaucrat heads it as National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and wonder whether it can be said that the military advice has been sought except perfunctorily? In a democracy like ours, the omission of the military from the nation’s highest security decision-making body must necessarily rue the military, and trusting Pakistan’s “peace” overtures over India’s own military advice may not be in India’s strategic best interest.
Conclusively an early demilitarisation of Siachen to settle the dispute “now” needs clear and realistic rethinking. The political and bureaucratic leadership needs to work in tandem with the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) when negotiating the Siachen imbroglio. New Delhi may commit a very serious mistake by agreeing to demilitarising Siachen at present, even though in the long term, peace between the two is unquestionably desirable.
Islamabad needs therefore to come forward to instil faith and confidence for a lasting peace with India. For starters, it must demolish its well-established 48 terrorist camps in PoK that are carrying out cross border terrorism on the Indian territory. Then only can New Delhi consider its sincerity. (INFA)