For nearly three decades, India and Pakistan have engaged in a maddening conflict over Siachen Glacier in the Himalyan peaks of the disputed Kashmir region. The “world’s highest battlefield” has claimed thousands of lives due to hostile weather conditions—frostbite, avalanches and blizzards—along with over a hundred soldiers killed in sporadic combat until 2003, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire across the Line of Control in Kashmir. The weather’s latest victims are 139 Pakistani soldiers who were buried deep in snow after an avalanche hit their Gyari battalion headquarters on April 7. Since then, the worsening weather has prevented the rescuers to gain access even to their dead bodies.
Sustaining a conflict for so long at an altitude of nearly 6,700 metres, where temperature plunges to -70 C, points to the virtual insanity on the part of its contestants. Problems such as the trust deficit between India and Pakistan and the egoistic outlook of respective security establishments have at least twice in the last 20 years prevented their leaders from putting signatures on an agreement meant to amicably resolve this unnecessary conflict over an inhospitable patch of terrain. The conflict’s human and financial cost for India and Pakistan has been enormous—more for India, as its forces occupy higher positions on the 78-kilometre-long glacier. Despite the ceasefire, 5,000 Indian and over 2,500 Pakistani soldiers remain deployed in the conflict zone.
However, despite suffering comparatively less in terms of loss in men and material, Pakistan has finally started to officially acknowledge the futility of waging a conflict in which mother nature, rather than enemy India, poses the key challenge. Already struggling against terrorist-insurgents in the north-western region of the country, Pakistan increasingly finds it difficult to remain militarily engaged in Siachen. Hence, both civilian and military leaders of the country have now forthrightly stated its support for an urgent settlement over Siachen. Army Chief Gen. Kayani hopes the Siachen issue should settle down so that both countries “don’t have to pay the cost” and Prime Minister Gilani wants to resolve it alongside other unresolved issues. Former Prime Minister Sharif has quite boldly stated that “the government should take the lead and withdraw its troops from the Siachen Glacier; let’s not make it a matter of ego. Pakistan should take the initiative”.
India has welcomed these statements, but without any substantive response on the issue of demilitarizing the region. Siachen has been one of the items on the agenda of Indo-Pak peace process, which has over the years produced viable confidence-building measures, despite repeatedly being bogged down over the issue of terrorism. Recent headway in expanding the volume of bilateral trade is a concrete manifestation of the growing spirit of dialogue between the two nations. Will their leaders now show the necessary political resolve to put the Himalayan rivalry behind them and move on to settle other outstanding bilateral issues (like Kashmir) for the sake of viable peace in South Asia? Assessing what has caused this conflict and what has so far been done to resolve it may provide the answer.
The Siachen conflict is essentially a by-product of the Kashmir dispute. The first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir soon after partition had concluded in 1949, with an agreement in Karachi. The agreement demarcated the Ceasefire Line, which ran along their international border, and then north and northeast until map grid-point NJ 9842, located at the southern end of the Siachen glacier. Because no Indian or Pakistani troops were present in the inhospitable northeastern areas beyond this point, the Ceasefire Line was not delineated as far as the Chinese border. Both sides agreed—in the vague language, which lies at the heart of the Siachen dispute—that the Ceasefire Line extends to the terminal point, NJ 9842, and “thence north to the glaciers.” The vagueness was not corrected by the 1972 Indo-Pak Simla Agreement, which renamed the Ceasefire Line as the Line of Control.
Since the Siachen glacier region falls within the un-delineated territory beyond the last defined section of the Line of Control—i.e.; map grid-point NJ 9842—Indian and Pakistani territorial claims are based on their interpretations of the vague language contained in the Karachi and Simla agreements. Pakistan draws a straight line in a north-easterly direction from NJ 9842 up to the Karakoram pass on its boundary with China. India draws a north-northwest line from NJ 9842 along the watershed line of the Saltoro range, a southern offshoot of the Karakoram range. India claims the glacier lies within the jurisdiction of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state. Pakistan claims the glacier is located in the northern areas of the disputed territory under its administration.
The Siachen conflict began when India captured the glacier in April 1984, forcing Pakistan to deploy its own forces in the area. By 1987, Indian and Pakistani troops were engaged in active combat in a wasteland where “even grass does not grow,” as former Pakistani military ruler General Ziaul Haq famously remarked about Siachen. By capturing the glacier, India violated the Simla agreement, which had specifically stated: “Neither side shall seek to alter it [Line of Control] unilaterally irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations. Both sides further should undertake to refrain from the threat or the use of force in violation of this line.” India’s justification for capturing the glacier was to pre-empt a similar move Pakistan was contemplating.
Yet the two countries showed willingness to talk. In 1986, their defence and foreign secretaries, along with senior military personnel, began negotiating a peace deal over Siachen. In the talks, India demanded that Pakistan ceased its unilateral attempt to extend the Line of Control from the agreed terminus at map reference point NJ 9842 to the Karokoram Pass on the border with China. Pakistan insisted that the deployment of Indian and Pakistani forces should be in mutually agreed positions that were held at the time of the ceasefire in 1971 (i.e., pre-Simla positions).
In June 1989, the fifth round of talks between their defence secretaries produced a breakthrough. The joint statement issued at their conclusion stated: “There was agreement by both sides to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chances of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area. The army authorities in both sides will determine these positions.” Foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan endorsed this statement. However, the very next day, a spokesman of the Indian External Ministry denied India had signed any agreement on troops withdrawal from Siachen.
The Way Forward
Since 1989, the two countries have continued exploring the modalities of peace settlement over Siachen—but without making any headway. In October 2006, Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri had even claimed that an agreement over Siachen was on the verge of conclusion, but the two countries subsequently remained stuck to their positions that have also hardened overtime. India currently wants Pakistan to authenticate the 110-kilometre Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) along the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro ridge in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, fearing Pakistan will move its soldiers forward in the event of an Indian pullout. Pakistan refuses to authenticate AGPL, fearing doing so will legitimize Indian occupation of the glacier. It insists on reverting back to pre-1984 positions, as agreed in the Simla agreement.
However, behind their unwillngness to compromise respective positions lie broader strategic motivations. Pakistan perceives Indian presence on the glacier as a threat to strategic Sino-Pakistani Karakoram Highway located 180 kilometres away. India fears the possibility of Siachen falling into the hands of Pakistan, which, in its view, will allow Pakistan access to the Karakoram pass and to link up with China, threatening the security of Ladakh region in the Indian-administered Kashmir. Thus, mutual suspicions appear to be the key hurdle in demilitarizing the glacier. During the 2001 round of Indo-Pak defense secretaries’ talks in New Delhi, Islamabad had handed over a “non-paper” envisaging a roadmap for Siachen resolution, with a proposal for immediate military disengagement by the two countries.
Pakistani security and political leadership’s recent overtures on the conflict also suggest demilitarization of the glacier as the most effective way out. Such an eventuality is possible at a time when the Indo-Pak dialogue has achieved noticeable progress in the long-neglected area of bilateral trade. India spends almost one million dollars a day on maintaining its privileged military position at Siachen. Pakistan is not economically strong enough to remain militarily engaged in the area forever. It has reportedly already lost some 5,500 troops, over 90 percent of them due to hazardous weather conditions. The climatic factor has claimed many times more Indian troop casualties. Many of those on both sides who survive death return home with amputated feet or legs. The rest, besides extreme climate, are agonized by utter isolation and consequent psychological disorders.
Current Indian and Pakistani positions on the modalities of Siachen conflict resolution are poles apart, and the two countries might be partly, if not wholly, right in maintaining respective fears about each other’s strategic motivations. However, in the case of a nonsensical conflict such as Siachen—where Indo-Pak security forces are together hostage to the wrath of nature—there comes a time when continuing it any longer is neither politically feasible, nor morally justifiable. This conflict was close to resolution long time ago, and it can be resolved anytime from now, provided there is no disruption in the Indo-Pak peace process and more intractable issues like Kashmir and terrorism do not come in its way.
The author is Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.