Siachen no ice-breaker

It is held that if India pulled back from Siachen, Pakistan would easily occupy the vaca- ted positions. This is a dubious proposition.

The latest round of India-Pakistan talks on Siachen held earlier this month ended without a breakthrough. Thirteen rounds of talks have been held over 27 years, yet an agreement on demilitarisation of the glacier remains elusive.

The seeming intractability of this dispute would be easily understood if the two countries had important interests at stake. The glacier, however, is of no strategic advantage to either side.
A number of specious arguments have been aired in India (by opponents of demilitarisation) about the ostensible importance of occupying the glacier. For one thing, it is claimed that occupation of the glacier is vital to the defence of Ladakh, including Leh. On the contrary, Siachen is hardly suited to being a launch pad for a major Pakistani offensive into Ladakh. It would be a logistical and operational nightmare to attempt such an attack. Besides, the Pakistanis have many more suitable places from which to undertake such an offensive.
For another, it is asserted that India’s presence on the glacier is critical to “keep a watch” on Gilgit and Baltistan. This is particularly important given reports of increasing Chinese presence in these parts. On the contrary, climatic conditions on the glacier make it rather unsuitable as a watch-tower in the region. Besides, India has much more sophisticated technology to monitor activities in these areas.
Finally, it is held that if India pulled back from the glacier, Pakistan would easily occupy the vacated positions. On the contrary, Pakistan’s ability to occupy areas currently held by India is rather dubious. Besides, India has enough surveillance and monitoring capability to ensure that a demilitarisation agreement is not violated.
The flip side of this lack of strategic utility is the cost being borne by India in holding on to its positions on the glacier. The Indian Army’s presence on the glacier costs `1,000-1,200 crore a year. Add to this the physical and psychological toll of operating in such inhospitable conditions. It is not surprising that Indian and Pakistani leaders have periodically called for demilitarisation. To understand why the two sides have failed to reach an agreement, we need to consider the historical and institutional dynamics at work.
The Ceasefire Line (CFL) in Kashmir agreed by India and Pakistan in 1949 was delineated on the map only up to grid-point NJ9842. However, the summary description stated that the CFL moved from its last described physical location “thence north to the glaciers”. The Line of Control (LoC) agreement of 1972 repeated this discrepancy. On the map, the LoC was marked only till NJ9842. But the summary description mentioned the glaciers. It said that the LoC “runs north-eastward towards Thang (inclusive to India) thence eastward joining the glacier”. The agreements of 1949 and 1972, then, were vague in their description of where the LoC ran beyond NJ9842. On both these occasions it was expected that the glacier, devoid of strategic utility, would keep the two sides out of the area.
When the dispute came to the fore in the mid-1980s, the two sides had very different notions of how the LoC stretched beyond NJ9842. India held that it should run north along the Saltoro Ridge all the way to the border with China. This would put the glacier squarely on the Indian side of the LoC. Pakistan insisted that it should take a north-easterly course up to the Karakoram Pass. This would place the glacier on Pakistan’s side of the LoC.
Given the yawning gap between their positions, the two countries sensibly decided to focus on demilitarisation of the glacier. The main sticking point has been the question of recording the current troop deployments prior to withdrawal: authenticating the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), to use the official jargon. Since the late 1980s, India has insisted that such authentication is critical to any agreement on demilitarisation. Pakistan has been reluctant to do so, as it thinks this would prejudice its claims by legitimising India’s occupation of the glacier and amount to rewarding Indian “aggression”.
New Delhi’s stance on authenticating the AGPL reflects the fact that the Indian Army regards this as an essential hedge against the possibility of Pakistani perfidy. The Army insists that a withdrawal from Siachen must be preceded by demarcating the AGPL on the ground.
The Indian political leadership, however, is unwilling to overrule the Army’s advice. In fact, the Army brass has even gone public with its opposition in order to bring pressure to bear on the government. The Army has also expressed its position through leaks to the media. Most recently, the India Today quoted an officer in the Army headquarters saying, “There is no reason for withdrawal from Siachen at this stage”. He added that the Army Chief, who was already at loggerheads with the government, would “not
let national interest be compromised at the altar of political gamesmanship”.
The assumption that the Army can or should define the national interest is deeply problematic. The chain of accountability is clear: the military is responsible to the political leadership who, in turn, is answerable to the people. If in disregarding military advice, politicians jeopardise national security, it is for the people to take them to task by voting them out of office. In a democracy, politicians have a right to be wrong.
The military, moreover, is competent only to assess risks. It is the politicians who must judge them, and decide what chances are worth taking. It is up to the political leadership to consider whether the dubious risks attached to a withdrawal without demarcation outweigh the decided benefits of improved relations with Pakistan. At a time when India-Pakistan ties are improving, especially on the economic front, an agreement on demilitarisation of Siachen will undoubtedly impart greater confidence and stability to the relationship.
Political developments in Pakistan over the last few days underline the fact that the present window of opportunity may not be open forever. Indian political leadership cannot afford to be immobilised by imagined insecurities.

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