Put Siachen on table last, not first

As the United States gets into an Arab quagmire without extricating itself from the AfPak theatre there must also be pressure to find a foreign policy success in Washington D.C., with election year approaching. Consequently, the discourse on AfPak has begun to change. The good and necessary war has become unnecessary and futile as it drains the US treasury and America suffers 500 casualties annually.

Western experts and media now describe how unstable the situation in Pakistan has become and how radicalised that country is today. There is also grudging admission that Pakistan’s rulers have been following a dual if not a multilayered policy on hunting with the US in the effort in Afghanistan and supping with the terrorists of various hues simultaneously both on the western and eastern frontiers. Simultaneously, the subscript is getting more pronounced.

This subscript says that Pakistan is unable to fully cooperate because of its apprehension about Indian designs on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Almost all of the recent writings from the US or the UK end up with the same final recommendation. India and Pakistan must sort themselves out on issues like Kashmir to enable Pakistan to stabilise and become a true ally of the US. The kind of gentle persuasion that was alluded to in the Wikileaks cables must surely be continuing. India-Pakistan talks have recommenced: another dramatic but eventually pointless gesture to inconsequential entities has been made.

Recent writings from Pakistan suggest that among the issues that are considered easily solvable is the Saltoro Ridge (commonly referred to as the Siachen Glacier) and the UN is being inveigled into this. This is not so and anyone who sees the map of the region will understand this. Undoubtedly peace with Pakistan is desirable. However, to try and attain it through magnanimity will only trump realism.

The reality is that the India-Pakistan level of distrust remains very high despite the efforts of some dream merchants. Pakistan has not called an unequivocal and permanent end to using its jihadist weapon in India and it never will; its prevarication on issues related to investigation in the Mumbai 2008 terrorist attack is the sum and substance of this attitude.

The Indian Army climbed to the Saltoro Ridge in 1984 to cut off Pakistan’s plans to access beyond Saltoro to the Karakoram pass. This would have enabled Pakistan access to Tibet and also threaten Ladakh. Pakistan and China would have access to each other through the Khunjerab pass on the Karakoram highway via Xinjiang and to Tibet through the Karakoram pass. The Saltoro Ridge provided Indian forces with strategic heights looking into Pak-occupied Gilgit and Baltistan. Such an advantage must not be given up for some obscure short-term political gain without a document to establish one’s credentials.

Pakistan’s unwillingness to sign any document that authenticates the Agreed Ground Position Line (AGPL) could only mean that it would seek to break it at first dawn. There is neither a change of heart nor intentions. Kargil 1999 was the latest, and probably not the last, military attempt to alter the ground position in Kashmir in an effort to negate the advantage India had in Saltoro.

In recent years the geopolitical situation has changed. There is greater Chinese presence in Gilgit and Baltistan where apart from building other facilities the Chinese have been upgrading the Karakoram highway since 2005. It is estimated that last August about 11,000 Chinese were involved in infrastructure projects like the construction of dams, roads and bridges, dozens of tunnels and a high-speed rail link. This would ultimately link with the Chinese-aided port project at Gwadar shortening China’s route to the Persian Gulf from four weeks to 48 hours Simultaneously, the Chinese have been upgrading their own infrastructure in Xinjiang and Tibet north of the Himalayas.

India has repeatedly given up strategic advantages and conceded on the negotiating table what was won on the battlefield. In 1948, when the Pakistani forces were retreating, we did not secure Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Kotli or Skardu. In 1966, we gave up Haji Pir, through which infiltrators keep coming into the Kashmir Valley even today. In 1972, we gave up territory and 93,000 prisoners of war for an agreement that Pakistan never intended to observe. And now Pakistan continues to drag its feet on the Mumbai 2008 issue.

The only way it would not be perceived as a retreat would be if the Pakistanis first agreed to delineate the AGPL in the Siachen sector, which is a part of the large Saltoro Ridge, authenticate this on maps that would then be signed and exchanged by commanders of the two countries. Pakistan would then project the AGPL in all its maps, making the AGPL an extension of the line of control from Point NJ-9842 that does not go towards the Karakoram pass but due north along the Saltoro Ridge. After this, the two countries would work out the ground rules for demilitarisation. Only after this has been worked out should there be discussion on redeployment and demilitarisation of this sector. Anything short of this will be a sellout.

The issue is far too important to be decided furtively or in a hurry. It is only fair that if we are to retreat, the people should know that this pullback is in the national interest. Siachen has to be last issue on the table and not the first one.

Vikram Sood is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency


Excellent analysis

Excellent analysis

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