General Kayani has finally got it right. Speaking to reporters, he said, “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people.” The somber setting for this wise statement was Gyari, the unfortunate snowy grave of 138 of his comrades.
It is worth pondering if his observations are restricted to the circumstance at hand or have wider implications. From the point of view of resolving Siachen, there can be no doubt that the Gyari incident has potential to prove a turning point, especially since the diplomatic spadework has already been extensive. As for the wider import, here too it can prove portentous, but only if India was to seize the moment.
With respect to Siachen, it is fairly evident that with expanding military budgets, an ongoing ceasefire and the standard operating procedures streamlined, India is perfectly at ease with the status quo. The opportunities for challenging soldiering having diminished with counter-insurgency at low ebb across the country, Siachen, with its better amenities, provides an outlet for soldierly ambition. It also serves to condition Indians to high altitudes, preparing in a sense for a prospective Tibetan battlefield. The also gives the military a self-image boost, public information advantages and helps it in bureaucratic fights.
Contrast this with the Pakistani approach. Gyari has driven home to Pakistan the futility of Operation Ababeel. While earlier Pakistan had reckoned to tie India down in holding on to Siachen, thereby tying down India’s spending and troops, the effort over time has proven counter-productive. With Pakistan pressured on multiple fronts, it cannot afford to expend its slimmer resource cake in terms of both money and manpower on avoidable tasks. Since Pakistan can be complacent that the Siachen approach is not militarily feasible for India to exploit, it can easily consider realigning its defences there. The monies saved can then be used for development. There will be no challenge to this position since Mian Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, also arrived at the same conclusion on his earlier visit to Gyari. This explains a minimalist reading of Kayani’s observations.
That resolving Siachen can serve as a bridgehead in unlocking the Indo-Pak status quo is widely acknowledged. This is why the two countries have come close to resolving the issue at least thrice since 1989. An agreement on the creation of a peace park in the area would make the visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Pakistan useful, but not complete.
For the visit to be worthy as a turning point, Kayani needs to be held to his words: “Ultimately the security of a country is not only that you secure boundaries and borders but it is when people that live in the country feel happy, their needs are being met. Only in that case will a country be truly safe.”
That Pakistani people will ‘feel happy’ if development is furthered is unexceptionable. India is critical to this aspiration since its economy has been described as a ‘rising tide that can lift all boats’. The movement in relations between the two states pursuant to the first round of talks since 26/11 has been most purposeful on the commercial front. The visa regime is set to relax its rules for businessmen. An integrated check post has come up at Attari. The negative list is to be shortened by Pakistan. India has rightly held out the carrot.
Even so, the debate in India would be on whether Kayani can be trusted. After all, he was at the helm of the Army during 26/11 and was once ISI chief. Unless this question is satisfactorily answered, India would not be able to prevail on its own Pakistan skeptics.
The Kayani statement lends weight to the understanding of the Zardari visit that the Pakistani Army, that makes Pakistan’s India policy, is on board. This reinforces Dr Manmohan Singh’s impression from his meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Gilani, at the SAARC summit in Male, that, “The sense I got was that after a long time, Pakistan’s armed forces are fully on board.”
The situation now is therefore one of exercise of political will by India’s prime minister, known for his intention to ‘write a new chapter’ in India-Pakistan relations. Low hanging fruit in the form of operationalizing his idea of a peace park dating to 2006 must be seized. This would require getting India’s own army hierarchy alongside in principle. Once Kayani exhibits he means business by following through on the detail, the prime minister can venture boldly for a broad-front approach.
Both sides would require working on their respective skeptics. This means that the multi-sectoral peace lobbies of both states need to get into high gear over the summer.
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