The death of 124 Pakistani soldiers and 14 civilians in an avalanche in the Siachen conflict zone has once again brought to the fore the dangers of the continued deployment by India and Pakistan to safeguard the Actual Ground Position Line, despite the fact that an informal cease-fire has been holding up quite well since 2003.
Even at the peak of fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, maximum casualties on both sides occurred because of the treacherous terrain, the super high altitude, and the extreme weather. The lack of oxygen at heights between 18,000 and 20,000 feet and prolonged periods of isolation are a lethal combination and result in pulmonary oedema, frostbite, and other serious complications. Prolonged deployment at such heights also takes a heavy psychological toll. While these casualties are now better managed due to early evacuation, improvements in medical science and the establishment of medical facilities near the deployment zone, they can never be completely eliminated. As a result, some 3000 Pakistani soldiers have died at Siachen since 1984.
The economic cost of maintaining an infantry brigade group has been estimated to range between 30 to 35 million rupees (roughly $330,000 to $385,000) per day and 10 to 12 billion rupees ($110-132 million) annually. The costs of deploying troops here are high because the logistics supply route is long. The only road to this area ends at the Base Camp close to the snout of the Nubra river, where the almost 80 kilometer glacier ends, and a large number of infantry posts can be maintained only by light helicopters that air-drop supplies with attendant losses. Recoveries are often less than 50 percent. The frequent turnover of troops adds to the costs as a battalion can be stationed at the Saltoro Ridge for a maximum of six months.
Dr. Stephen Cohen, a respected South Asia analyst at Brookings, has described the Siachen conflict as a fight between two bald men over a comb. In his view, Siachen “is not militarily important” and the Indian and Pakistani armies “are there for purely psychological reasons, testing each other’s will.”
Both sides have been finding it difficult to overcome deeply entrenched negotiation mindsets and are unable to look for innovative and creative approaches. India insists that the present forward positions of both armies on the Saltoro Range along the AGPL should be demarcated after a joint survey so that there is a reference point in case a dispute arises in the future. Pakistan’s position is that by suddenly occupying the Saltoro Range west of the Siachen Glacier, India violated the 1972 Shimla Agreement and must, therefore, undo its “aggression” without insisting on legitimizing its illegal occupation through the demarcation of present positions.
After Pakistan’s infiltration to the Indian side of the line in Kargil in 1999, the Indian army’s advice to the government that the AGPL must be jointly verified and demarcated before demilitarization begins is operationally sound, balanced, and pragmatic military advice. However, if Pakistan’s military capacity to grab and hold on to vacated Indian positions after the demilitarization agreement comes into effect is carefully analyzed, it will be found that Pakistan is in no position to occupy any of the posts vacated by India.
At a recent India-Pakistan Track 2 meeting at Bangkok, organized by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center jointly with the University of Ottawa, it was agreed by both sides that the present military positions should be “jointly recorded and the records exchanged” as a prelude to the disengagement and demilitarization process. While this falls short of the Indian demand for demarcation, it is workable via media and should be acceptable.
However, India should insist on building a clause into the demilitarization agreement that in case the agreement is violated, both sides reserve the right to take whatever action they deem fit, including offensive military measures. Simultaneously, with the withdrawal of its troops from the glacial heights, India should create and maintain suitably structured reserves for counter-action across the LoC at a point of its choosing. These reserves would also be handy for intervention on the Line of Actual Control on the border with China, should it ever become necessary.
On the completion of the demilitarization process, an international “Science Park” could be established at Siachen Glacier to promote the study of Himalayan glaciers and to take regular measurements for monitoring climate change. Dr. Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont, the originator of the ides of the Karakoram Peace Park Initiative, has done some seminal work in this regard and both governments could benefit from his writing and activism. The Siachen Glacier zone could also be opened up for international mountaineering expeditions in a step-by-step manner as both the militaries gain confidence in monitoring and verification. International help would be necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by almost three decades of conflict and the dumping and disposal of garbage and used military supplies in the area.
The demilitarization of the Siachen conflict zone could act as a confidence building measure of immense importance. For India, it is a low-risk option to test Pakistan’s long-term intentions for peace. It is, therefore, an idea whose time has come. Indian and Pakistani leaders need to find the political will necessary to accept ground realities. Trust begets trust and it will be well worth taking a political and military risk to give peace a chance. It is time the Indian government began the process of building a national consensus around this important bilateral measure.
Gurmeet Kanwal, a Delhi-based defense analyst and former director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, participated in the India-Pakistan Track 2 military dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the University of Ottawa. Photo credit: AP Photo.