Pakistan, India hold talks on Siachen

May 29, 2011

Of  the many issues dividing India and Pakistan, resolving the conflict in Siachen has always been seen as potential game-changer. Compared to the big intractables like Kashmir and what India calls the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan, the Siachen conflict is easier to solve. 

But the conflict is also a big enough cause of tension that its resolution would give real momentum to the peace process revived by India and Pakistan this year. An agreement on Siachen, moreover, would allow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make a long-awaited visit to Pakistan, giving him something of substance to announce during his trip.

For those reasons, the talks on Siachen starting on Monday between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan have an importance beyond the conflict itself. No one is expecting an early resolution of the war which erupted in the Karakoram mountains above the Siachen glacier in 1984, and which has been both literally and figuratively frozen since a late 2003 cease-fire.  But the talks will help gauge how quickly India and Pakistan will move on what is for now a very slow but steady peace process.

The war over Siachen was one that neither India nor Pakistan meant to fight for so long. Lying in the undemarcated mountains and glaciers beyond the Line of Control (LoC), the ceasefire line which divides the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and ends at grid reference NJ9842, the Siachen region has no real strategic value.

But after the Indian army occupied the ridgeline above the Siachen glacier in 1984 — for what was meant to be only a summer stay of a few months — Pakistani troops hauled themselves up the mountains to fight them. That began years of fighting as soldiers from both sides spread out across the mountains, often above 18,000 feet, seeking to occupy the high positions on the world’s highest battlefield. 

India won control of most of the higher positions, and both countries had pretty much fought themselves to a stalemate by the late 1980s  - when they began their first serious talks to resolve the dispute. At issue was not whether India and Pakistan should withdraw – both wanted to bring their troops down from mountains so inhospitable that far more died from the impact of the environment than from fighting. But India insisted that having fought and won control of the higher positions, it wanted these recorded on a map. Pakistan refused to give India that acknowledgement. Diplomatic solutions were kicked around over the years – the most promising being that India and Pakistan would sign an agreement on a withdrawal, and the Indian positions would then be recorded on separate annex. 

That remains more or less where things stand today - with an agreement in principle to withdraw, awaiting the diplomatic form of words that would allow India to have its positions recorded, without Pakistan being required to acknowledge the legitimacy of those positions.  But if it were that simple, an agreement would have been reached years ago.  That this has not happened explains a lot about why Siachen is such an important dispute – so much so that in 2010 The Hindu newspaper reported it been a deal-breaker in attempts last year to get India-Pakistan peace talks up and running.

The deadlock is sometimes attributed to strains between the Indian army and the government on a withdrawal from Siachen. The army has told the government that if it wants its troops to withdraw, it must not expect them to go back up again if Pakistani soldiers move into the vacated positions – there is nothing harder than fighting in high mountains when the enemy occupies the higher positions.

But the reasons for the conflict dragging on for so long run deeper than that. Pakistan has always seen the Indian occupation of the mountains above Siachen in April 1984 as an act of Indian aggression – a breach of the 1972 Simla agreement under which both countries promised they would not try to change the Line of Control by force.  As the country usually presented as the trouble-maker in the region, Pakistan could point to Siachen and argue – with some but not total justification - that in this case, it was the aggrieved party.

Many years later, in 1999, Pakistan responded to that perceived aggression by occupying the mountains above the town of Kargil on the Line of Control, allowing it to train its artillery on the road used by India to bring supplies from Kashmir to Siachen. The idea of closing the supply routes to Siachen – rather than fighting hopeless battles with Indian troops on the mountains themselves - had been around since the 1980s. Yet by the time Pakistani troops occupied the mountains above Kargil, it was already too late in the day.

The Kargil war, coming only a year after India and Pakistan had announced they had tested nuclear weapons, so alarmed the world that the Pakistan army was forced into a humiliating withdrawal. Yet to this day, from the point of view of the Pakistan army, any deal on Siachen which legitimised the Indian positions while leaving it looking like the guilty party on Kargil would be nearly impossible to stomach.

From the point of view of the Indian army, however,  Pakistan’s occupation of the mountains above Kargil was an act of perfidy – breaching understandings about respecting the Line of Control. In the brief and intense conflict over Kargil — the first India-Pakistan conflict to be broadcast through television footage into middle-class living rooms across India – Indian soldiers were remembered for extreme acts of heroism.  As Pakistan had learned in Siachen, the Indian troops were fighting near impossible battles to dislodge the enemy for higher positions.

Since the Kargil conflict, the Indian army has been much more rigorous about posting troops throughout the year all the way along the Line of Control. They now form an unbroken chain with its soldiers in the Siachen region, stationed on what is known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). 

As a result, for geographical, logistical and emotional reasons, it has become very difficult to end the Siachen conflict in isolation. It needs to be part of a broader de-escalation on the Line of Control – or at least that part of it which snakes between Ladakh on the Indian side and Baltistan on the Pakistani side towards point NJ9842, and beyond it, Siachen.

Siachen is not, as sometimes argued, the “low-hanging fruit” of the India-Pakistan peace process. That does not mean that India and Pakistan will not, sooner or later, find a way to bring their troops back down from Siachen. It does mean, however, that when they do, it will be far more significant than the absurdity of fighting over the Siachen region itself would suggest.  It will be a catalyst for further peace-making and also a reflection of how far they have come.

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