Tug of War at Siachen – In search of simpler solutions for the stalemate

April 13th 

The twenty-eighth anniversary of a stubborn, unnecessary and futile dispute over Siachen was celebrated with the loss of 138 Pakistani soldiers buried under an avalanche.

With an area of approximately 700 square kilometers and a height of over 20000 feet, Siachen is the world’s highest and most brutal battleground. Temperatures average -40 degree Celsius and with blizzards of 160 km/hr make this region impossible to support any human life. Some vegetation and wild roses grow there, from which Siachen gets its name.

The glacier was uninhabited except for the rare mountaineering expeditions which would acquire consent from Islamabad. Fearful of Pakistan’s ulterior motives, India launched Operation Meghdoot in 1984 and illegally besieged the glacier. It currently occupies two-thirds of it and proclaims it to be the rightful territory of India.

Pakistan strongly responded to this occupation but India had had a head start. The situation became most violent at the time of the Kargil attack when the public feared a full blown nuclear war. Pakistani forces tried to occupy Indian posts across the LOC hoping that India would pull back from Siachen so that Pakistan could vacate their posts.  This was a poor decision on Pakistan’s part which sent diplomatic efforts backwards.  Delhi was now convinced that Pakistan could not be trusted. Finally in 2003, both countries agreed to a ceasefire that continues till the present day.

The Siachen dispute has been a great burden for its two contenders. Military operations have always demanded heavy investment but the inhospitable conditions of Siachen have escalated these costs. India especially designed the world’s highest helipad at Point Sonam and acquired Mi-17V-5 helicopters from Russia under a $1.3bn  deal to facilitate its forces in Siachen. Soldiers must have protective living quarters and attire without which they would be at risk of severe frostbites, cerebral or pulmonary oedema. Even daily functions like eating, using the washroom and breathing are an ordeal up there. Soldiers have to learn to acclimatize themselves to the low air pressure and must return to lower altitudes after every 3 months.

The rigorous environment more than often takes a toll on the soldiers’ health. Their isolated surroundings with limited activities, bare minimum living quarters and monotonous routines in sub-zero temperatures have negative effects on their emotional health.  The fact that they are meant to be prepared for combat at anytime could be a significant source of stress. Many soldiers exhibit signs of depression, anxiety, hallucinations and hostile behavior after their service in Siachen. In fact reports have shown that more deaths occur as a result of the harsh weather than from active combat. Pakistan has lost 1227 lives since 1984 out of which only 163 people have died in combat. India has incurred an even heavier loss of human lives, 4000 deaths to be exact.

Reliable sources ascertain that maintaining healthy and active troops in Siachen cost $60 million per annum and $990 million per annum to Pakistan and India respectively. A significant amount of these costs is attributed to the difficult logistics inherent to the region. Road network ends well before the glacier because of which supplies and troops have to be either airlifted or transported by foot.   A single piece of bread which would cost about Rs.2 costs Rs.10,000 by the time it reaches Siachen. It is appalling that two countries where thousands of people are starving to death can allocate so many funds to a futile war especially one that is maintaining a ceasefire for the past 9 years.

Soldiers in Siachen give a unique perspective to the conflict. Up in the icy mountains, the boundaries are more fluid and the animosity less serious. For both sides, the real opponent is not either country’s army but the weather itself. Soldiers have been reported celebrating Eid and Diwali with each other. An Indian soldier even offered his Pakistani counterpart the use of his mobile phone to call home.

If the soldiers up north can befriend each other, why has it been so hard for the two governments to reconcile? The vague terms of the 1949 UN Ceasefire (or popularly known as the Line of Control (LOC) after the 1972 Simla Agreement) has been unfair to both countries. But it is also remarkable that India reacted to this anomaly after 37 years of independence. India contests its terminology which draws a border between the two countries till a point known as NJ9842 after which the LOC would continue “thence north to the glaciers”’. India interprets the agreement literally while Pakistan believes it to mean north-east such that the border extends to the Karakorum pass bringing the glacier in its territory.

India’s occupation of the glacier is certainly a violation of the 1949 and 1972 agreements it signed with Pakistan. However, they argue that a fear of Pakistani forces occupying their rightful territory provoked them to react in such a manner.

Some analysts think India’s stance is also motivated by Chinese interest in the region and its relationship with Pakistan. Although India and China have taken steps to improve their relationship, their hostile past is not to be easily forgotten. Controlling the glacier would give India a strategic position that overlooks Pakistan’s northern areas and the Chinese Shaksgam Valley. It would also cut Pakistan’s access to the China through the Khunjrab Pass in the Karakoram Range. Intelligence reports have even shown India’s plans to take over the Baltoro glacier which includes the world’s second highest peak, K2.

The two nations are interested in resolving the issue and have often come quite close to a resolution. The most prominent one involved talks that were held between Bhutto and Gandhi in 1989. Unfortunately the agreement did not see the light of day. Gandhi was assassinated and the Indians decided to include Pakistan’s acceptance of their troops’ ground positions before redeployment which Pakistan refused to do. Several other attempts were made afterwards, including the one made last year. Sadly every time there appears to be an actual chance for reconciliation, the deal falls apart.

Alternatives to military presence have also been offered. Pakistanis suggested converting the undemarcated areas under the 1972 Simla Agreement into zones of disengagement. The idea of a peace park was suggested in 1994 to control environmental degradation from military operations. It could save the countries millions of dollars on the upkeep of troops and avoid the feeling of a “sell out” to their enemy.  Along similar lines, the establishment of a Siachen Science Centre was also proposed.

But for these ideas to materialize, it is necessary to first address the real issue behind this conflict. Disagreement has persisted over two issues namely the redeployment of troops and the position of the Line of Contact after NJ9842. Should redeployment proceed or succeed the resolution over the disputed Line of Contact?  India wants Pakistan to recognize the actual ground positions of its troops before redeployment can take place in order to have a legal safeguard in case Pakistan backtracks on its commitment. Pakistan disagrees because it would legitimize India’s illegal occupation and this authentication might be used as a legal claim to demarcate the region.

As Myra MacDonald purports, tragedies are not enough to make peace. The two nations have to work out an agreement in the course of which they will both have to compromise and negotiate. Hoping that one of these nations would come off its high horse and agree with the other is like hoping for rain in a drought. The 28 year stalemate attests to this fact.

There are several ideas that are worth being voiced from the civilian audience that perhaps the military and political strategists have failed to fathom. One way to reconcile these polar demands is to carry out both actions simultaneously as part of a joint package. This way both parties can be appeased. The package could include a joint recording of the ground positions of the armies,  a suitable duration for the redeployment and demilitarization to occur and methods to monitor activities until a demilitarized zone is achieved.

This situation must be resolved in order for peace to prevail and for the two countries to take a step past their tumultuous history together. If not for the sake of all the lives that have been lost in this tug of war, maybe for the sake of all the lives that will be at stake if this continues.

Spearhead Analysis – 23.04.12

By Nida Afaque
Research Analyst
Spearhead Research