Tragedies don’t end wars, even in Siachen

April 9, 2012

One of the most frequently cited misconceptions about the Siachen war – where 135 Pakistani soldiers and civilian staff were buried by an avalanche this weekend – is that it is somehow contained to a relatively small area, as though it were a mountain version of a 19th century battlefield.  The Indian and Pakistani troops, we are told in an oft-used and incorrect phrase, are “deployed on the Siachen Glacier at elevations as high as 22,000 feet.” From there, it becomes a relatively easy step to say, as many are saying after the tragedy, that India and Pakistan should end their futile conflict on the world’s highest battlefield. The argument has gathered momentum with a successful private-turned-state visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to India, generating expectations that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will in turn visit Pakistan this year.

Continue down this track and you overlap with another frequently made argument – that a meaningful and important agreement must be ready to be signed in order to give substance to Singh’s trip. Enter a deal on Siachen, where India and Pakistan have competed over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice high in the Karakoram mountains since 1984. Such an agreement, so the argument goes, would act as a major confidence building measure, building the momentum to reach a settlement of the festering Kashmir dispute and lasting peace between India and Pakistan.

But if tragedies could end wars, India and Pakistan would have made peace in 1947. And if Siachen were indeed an isolated and contained battlefield, contained on the Siachen glacier – which at 22,000 feet would have it floating improbably at the height of the mountains peaks above it – it too would have been settled long ago.  Far from being confined to the Siachen glacier – in fact Pakistan has no troops deployed on the glacier itself – the soldiers are spread across a wide area after fighting for control of the heights above before eventually agreeing a ceasefire in late 2003.

To fly over the region by helicopter, as I did on both the Indian and Pakistan sides while researching a book on the conflict, is to be awed by the sheer scale of the war zone. This is a vast region of towering craggy mountains, of chaotic rubble-strewn glaciers tumbling into valleys, of acres of seemingly endless white where the small and isolated Indian and Pakistani posts and gun positions look as though they might at any moment drown in the snow.

India began the war in April 1984 when, fearing Pakistan was about to occupy the area, it sent in troops to take control of the Bilafond-la, the main pass leading from Baltistan on the Pakistani side into the Siachen glacier. The region lies on the fringes of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan by a ceasefire line, or Line of Control (LoC).  But while India and Pakistan had demarcated the LoC, they had not considered it worth extending into the remote uninhabited Siachen region  saying only that that the line should continue “thence north to the glaciers”.  It was only after 1978, when India sent a military mountaineering expedition to explore Siachen, that they began to argue over exactly how that should be defined.

The Indian deployment on the Bilafond-la in 1984 was meant only as a show of force which would be limited to the summer months – nobody had ever spent the winter in Siachen. But such was the nature of the relationship between India and Pakistan that they both felt compelled to fight across an ever widening area, losing more men to the harshness of the environment and in accidents in avalanche-prone and crevassed terrain than to fighting. By the time I visited in late 2003 and 2004, India and Pakistan had long recognised the region had no strategic value whatsoever. But the troops posted there on both sides told me in near identical language that they had to stay to ensure that “not one inch of land” be ceded to the other side.

In the early years, the war was particularly cruel – men fighting agonising battles for control of high positions at altitudes where even walking was a strain and where the terrain meant it was impossible to amass large enough numbers of men to mount a serious offensive. The two armies managed to bring in artillery; they used anti-tank and even anti-aircraft guns in a chilling accumulation of firepower to be used against men manoeuvring awkwardly across thick snow.  An agreement was nearly reached in the late 1980s to withdraw, but fell foul of domestic politics, and the war dragged on.

Since the Indian troops occupied many of the higher positions it made no real sense for Pakistan to take them head on – rather it would be better to go around the mountains and cut off the Indian supply routes from behind. One Pakistani commander told me this idea had been discussed in the late 1980s – the aim, he said, was to occupy the mountains on the Line of Control overlooking the towns of Dras and Kargil and then use artillery to block the road used by India to bring in its supplies. Whether it was ever taken very seriously then, it was not put into practice. It resurfaced a decade later when then General Pervez Musharraf sent troops to occupy mountain positions above Dras and Kargil, leading to the brief and bitter Kargil war in 1999.

By then, however, it was too late to change the course of the Siachen conflict. But it probably ensured its continuation. The sprawling Siachen war zone had been linked up to the Line of Control, fusing it into the broader Kashmir conflict. It would no longer be easy to resolve it in isolation from the rest. Moreover, the Indian army, which felt it had been tricked by Pakistan in the Kargil war, became even more reluctant to withdraw from Siachen, fearing the Pakistan army might quickly occupy the high positions it had vacated.

As things stand today, India has been insisting that any Siachen withdrawal agreement must include a record of its posts on what is known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Pakistan, which has been keener than India to reach an agreement, has however refused to validate the AGPL, arguing that to do so would be to accept what it sees as an act of Indian aggression in 1984. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, struggling at home with corruption scandals and stalled economic reforms, does not have the political capital to push through a deal that offered Pakistan better terms. As it is, he already faced a battle to find the political space for peace moves with Pakistan without a resolution of a still burning issue in India – its demand for the prosecution of those it blames for the 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed 166 people and which it says were masterminded by Hafez Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

Saeed, now subject to a $10 million U.S. reward for evidence leading to his prosecution, denies involvement. But in Indian eyes, he has added insult to injury by taking a high-profile role in the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council, a coalition of Islamist groups campaigning against Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States and against better ties with India.

Meanwhile Pakistan’s civilian government does not have the authority to reach an agreement on Siachen without the backing of the military which dominates foreign and security policy. Indeed, it does not even have the authority to rein in the Difa-e-Pakistan, which the army’s critics see as an alliance backed by the military to keep the civilian government in check.

So the chances of an accord this year on Siachen – unless included in a much wider overall agreement – are slim. That does not mean that India and Pakistan peace talks will not continue to make progress – they have already come far further than many expected by focusing on building trade and economic ties and building relations gradually and carefully rather than seeking dramatic breakthroughs. Nor does it mean that Singh will not visit Pakistan – and given elections are due in Pakistan by March, it would likely have to be this year. But holding out hope of a Siachen deal that might open the door to a resolution of all other issues at best highly optimistic, at worst a dangerous illusion which could create a corrosive mismatch in expectations between the two countries.

None of that is to understate the scale of the avalanche disaster. I have particularly clear, and good, memories of visiting the battalion headquarters at Gyari, buried by the avalanche. They are set up on a small plateau at 13,039 feet, barricaded on one side by a huge vertical wall, and at the base of the Bilafond glacier that leads up to the Bilafond-la. Before the ceasefire the area had been heavily shelled, but now it was more relaxed. The wild Sia roses that gave Siachen its name were just starting to bud, and when I paused to admire them an officer cut one of the long blood-red stems and presented it to me. I still have it. Some other men bowled a few balls of cricket under the drizzling snow. A signpost had been put up reminding the troops how far away they were from home.  “Karachi 2,709 kms,” it said. “Lahore 1,415 kms.” It is appalling to think about the successors of the soldiers I met at Gyari buried under a huge avalanche. But tragedies do not end wars – not even as futile a conflict as that fought over Siachen.

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