All entries for Wednesday 07 September 2005

September 07, 2005

Siachen: Prospects for a Mutually Agreeable Settlement

Security Research Review Vol.1 Issue 4
August 2005

[Figure- Composite Satellite Picture of Siachen; Source- Ahmed & Sahni]


Though the “line of control [in Jammu & Kashmir]…continues to witness spurt(s) in infiltration”, the feel-good factor has never been greater in the Indo-Pak relationship. Nothing could more exemplify this than a report in The Hindu on July 21, which reported how Indian jawans in Siachen had helped their Pakistani counterpart recover the body of a fallen comrade. The report also included a line about a Pakistani civilian who had strayed into Indian territory by mistake being returned to his homeland. Prospects for the peace process, we are told, seem irreversibly bright.

So why the persisting deadlock over Siachen? 21 years have passed since Operation Meghadoot (1984), and “the world’s most absurd war” on the world’s highest battlefield continues, even though the current round of negotiations began more than a year ago in January 2004.

Current Progress

I see no need of venturing into great details about past propositions from both sides aimed at resolving the issue, since a lot of literature is already available on that matter. Instead, I place greater emphasis on the recent ‘roadmap of troop withdrawal’ drafted by India , currently under inspection by Islamabad . It agrees to a drawback of forces to the positions prior to the 1972 Simla Agreement. However, it has already run into a roadblock in the military and diplomatic circles in Pakistan , due to its attached conditionality of “authentication of current positions”. India insists on making the present Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) a permanent border between India and the planned “disengagement zone”. On its part, Pakistan argues that the borders should be re-drawn as per the Simla Agreement, which it claims India violated by launching its “invasion” in 1984. For India , Meghadoot was purely a pre-emptive move to torpedo a seemingly inevitable Pakistani incursion. To illustrate how fundamental this difference is to the problem, a Pakistani official was quoted by Gulf Times as saying, “ Pakistan is ready to withdraw troops only if India drops its insistence on the authentication of current positions being held by Pakistani and Indian troops”. This was as recent as July 2005. The newspaper argued that despite this ostensibly dead-end situation, the document was still being studied in Islamabad to devise a way where India would be able to accept the Pakistani position without losing face to the nationalist circles. In other words, the resolution process is at a cul-de-sac.

Why Siachen must be solved

India and Pakistan cannot turn away from attempting to settle the score over Siachen once and for all, because the arguments in favour of a de-militarised Siachen overwhelmingly outweigh the arguments against. India might disagree to the notion of” logic for change” on the glacier, but even it accepts that some sort of a solution is needed, albeit in the form of cementing the status quo.

First, the cost of the troop deployments, both in terms of greenbacks and human costs, are staggering. Lt. Gen. V R Raghavan (Retd.), in his Siachen: Conflict Without End puts it aptly- “No one has an accurate assessment, but everyone has a figure to quote”. Echoing his arguments, the Times of India stated that it costs nearly Rs.500 to supply a loaf of bread to a soldier in Siachen. Similarly, a range of astonishingly high amount of money is deducted from the Pakistani treasury towards this commitment. The total cost could be between $1 million and $3 million a day for the two countries. This entails that both countries have been and are incurring opportunity cost; the unseen benefits of re-investing this money in their economies, say in improving public services or infrastructure, offset the seen benefits of the continued troop maintenance.

And then there are the human casualties. Rising between 18,000 and 22,000 feet above sea level, temperatures in the region can drop to an alarming 60 degrees Celsius below freezing. Total casualties on Siachen since 1984 are estimated to be around 1,500, of which nearly all (97% to be precise) of the deaths have been due to a variance of weather related illness, fatigue or injuries.

Second, the region’s ecology demands that the troop and armament movements on the glacier stop right now. It has been calculated that the frozen river is melting at the rate of 2 inches a day during winter to a disquieting 10–20 feet a day during summer. Extrapolating from current trends, severe floods due to melting of almost the entire glacier is to occur around 2050. Moreover, continuous human habitation results in the creation of en masse waste, 1,000 kilograms of which are dumped into ravines and rivers daily. This waste flows into and pollutes the waters in the Nubra, Shylok and Indus rivers which then take this dirt en route their descend towards the valley.

Why Siachen will not be solved

Col. (Retd.) Anil Athale sums up the Indian perspective fittingly- ‘lack of trust’. As a discussion organized by the Observer Research Foundation found on May 4, there is a unanimous consensus among the Indian army and polity that “unless Pakistan recognizes the existing positions, India should not agree to demilitarization”. It is way too soon for the wounds of 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 to be healed. Persistent re-occupation of Point 13620 by Pakistani forces after every ceasefire seems to set a precedent for any future behavior on their part. India , on its part, has its own dubious precedent- that of the “no crossing the LoC” set during the Kargil conflict. Coupled with a dual lack of trust on its own politicians as well as the enemy, the Indian army is extremely suspicious of any proposed withdrawals. Moreover, amidst the continuing infiltration and terrorist attacks, presence of the terror infrastructure in Pakistan and the ‘trick’ of inviting Hurriyat leaders to Islamabad via the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service only adds to India’s impression that Pakistan may not yet be trustable.

There are strategic concerns for Pakistan too, albeit laden with myopic nationalist jingo. As a result of a recent dual re-endorsement of the Indian position by both the head of the Indian polity (PM Manmohan Singh) and the army (Gen. J J Singh), the Indian position seems entrenched. But there is no way Gen. Pervez Musharraf can sell this deal to the jihadi junta back home. Pakistan had lost the Soltoro Ridge and the erstwhile Quaid Post (now re-named Bana Post after Subedar Bana Singh) during Operation Meghadoot, and accepting the AGPL would entail it officially accepts that.

On India ’s part, there are fine nuances that need to be tuned. The border stretching from Sabha to point NJ9842 has been clearly demarcated under the 1972 Simla agreement. But disagreements remain over whether the line after this point travels northwards to include the entire region within India , or whether it travels northwestwards to give Pakistan access to the area. In two ways, India ’s position has already been compromised, as Pakistan controls the Gyong La pass overlooking Shylok and Nubra rivers, along with the road that links mainland India to Leh, and China ’s de facto hold over Aksai Chin. Therefore, leaving any leeway for adjustments in borders could lead to a threat looming over the forward posts near the Karakoram pass, Ladakh and virtually the entire northern part of the state. The glacier itself may not be strategically valuable, but it could be used by a determined foe to threaten the strategically advantageous position currently held by India .

India’s Options

The easiest option for India is to stay put. It hurts Pakistan more than India to maintain troops in the “unforgiving mountain terrain”- around $365 million a year forms a greater share of the former’s budgetary allowances vis-à-vis twice that amount does for India. Thanks to Meghadoot , India occupies the heights and most of the strategic positions on the glacier. The onus is therefore on Pakistan to make India budge from its position of relative advantage to chalk out a somewhat compromise. Focusing on improving logistics and providing better facilities to soldiers could reduce human and monetary costs in the long-term for India , and it has the short-term capital required for such an investment, something that is denied to Pakistan given its smaller economic prowess.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that India ’s strategic interests over Siachen are not really being hampered by the status quo. First, Pakistan ’s control over the Gyong La pass, which remains closed for 90% of the year anyway, has ceased to be a trump card. During the 80s, due to the weak support structures of the Indian army in the region, a serious threat could be mounted on the town of Dzingrulma from this area. Now, with improved joint operation capabilities, presence of air bases nearby and satellite technology allows India to- a) detect any major troop movements along the AGPL; and b) intercept the movements with pre-emptive air strikes on bases and supply lines to give lead time for the ground offensive.

Second, even if we assume for a moment that Pakistan is able to overwhelm the above-mentioned defense buffers (a very big “if”, one might add) and capture Dzingrulma, we can argue that its strategic objective has become irrelevant. The reason why in erstwhile times, the town would be of prime importance is that it was on the upper ridges of the Nubra Valley which opened into Zhoji La and Photu La passes lying National Highway 1A, which was the only road for delivering logistical support to troops on the India-China border in Leh. However, ever since Pakistan targeted this precise road during the infiltration in Kargil (1999), the Government of India has decided to spread its risks by building another road through Rohtang La for supplying troops in Leh. This road, albeit not complete entirely, is able to serve the army for the better part of the year. Thus, Pakistan ’s incentives for occupying Dzingrulma are much weaker.

A dubious second option is to concede to Pakistan ’s demands, which faces dual and vociferous opposition from the political as well as military circles. While the objections of the army have been mentioned above, the political argument is easy to see. It would be extremely difficult to sell any concessions to the electorate after PM Singh ruled out any redrawing of boundaries categorically. Moreover, agreeing to redefine the LoC would virtually entail India ’s acceptance of the “aggressive” nature of Operation Meghadoot, something long asserted by Pakistan .

An interesting third way of ‘Trust but Verify’ has been suggested by Ahmed and Sahni [see Bibliography]. A framework for data collection could be set up to try and monitor the progress of troop withdrawals and ecological issues in the region in the form of unilateral or bi-lateral data collection at the minimal or optimal levels. The authors suggest various practical means viz. aerial sensors, satellite monitoring, ground sensors, video and optical sensors, tags & seals and frequent inspections.

However, the obvious problem with such an approach comes with the notion of “permitted intrusiveness”. How can each party trust that the other would provide access to all the data, and verify whether the data is accurate? To varying degrees, this argument could be associated with each of the measures suggested by the authors. Whatever the supposedly overtly optimistic vibes one gets these days from the South Block, it is definitely premature to argue that India and Pakistan are ‘friendly’ nations. The situation on the ground remains much frostier and laden with ample mistrust.

Mao Zedong once remarked, “A single spark can start a prairie fire”. The joint monitoring system is doomed to failure because of two reasons. First, the system will be hard to coordinate with inevitable mud slinging from both sides about lack of access to each other’s information. Such a bogged down system hardly bodes credibility. Second, in case of a major breakdown of the system, say failure to intercept a major infiltration, India will naturally feel that Pakistan has deliberately withheld information to facilitate the incursion. Thus, these elaborate means are a no starter.

Epilogue: Wither the Mountain Rose?

The international community hopes that “sanity might prevail” this time, given the overall improvement in Indo-Pak relations. This author has argued otherwise, showing that although there remain persuasive arguments for solving the Siachen problem, there are stronger incentives working against it. The recent discovery of ancient rock art near the region will not stop the standoff, nor will the blatantly obvious degradation of the local environment. However “frank and candid” the discussions between the officials are, strategic concerns are above all when it comes to inking a settlement.

The failure of many rounds of talks in 1989, when India presented its 6-point plan to Pakistan, and 1992 denotes just that. Surprisingly, it has been India that has initiated most of the negotiation rounds when Pakistan stands to lose much more in the absence of a settlement, and has a greater incentive to push for change. Even in 1998, it was India that came up with the framework for the current ceasefire. It displays the flagrant lack of vision in the Pakistani leadership, and it shows no signs of waning.

PM Manmohan Singh’s “mountain of peace” is a distant dream.

[The author is based at the University of Warwick, UK and takes a deep interest in the political economy of the Indian sub-continent. He is originally from Kolkata, India]

September 2005

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