A massive avalanche at Ghyari early in the morning of 7 April swept away some 130 soldiers of the 6th Battalion of the Pakistani Army’s Northern Light Infantry. Located west of the Saltoro Ridge, nobody seems to have survived. Glory lies in fighting wars in defence of one’s country. Not in being buried under a mountain of snow while asleep in an unnecessary war. But, this incident also allows us to focus our attention once again on this desolate part of the sub-continent, where both countries continue to expend precious lives and boundless treasure to little purpose.
Nawaz Sharif talked of a possible unilateral Pakistani withdrawal while visiting the avalanche area on 16 April. Two days later General Kayani was reported to have said that, “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people……The decades of enmity between India and Pakistan should be resolved through negotiation.” This is a significant statement, coming as it does from a taciturn Army Chief in power for over four years. He or any other Pakistani General is not known to have made any such statement in the past and this should be acknowledged as a major departure. For India not to respond will make it appear churlish. It will also heighten Pakistan’s belief in India’s intransigence.
The time has come to seize the moment and respond positively. India should also recognize the stirrings of change in Islamabad in recent months regarding its relations with India. Resolving Siachen will not remove all obstacles to better relations between the two countries. But, it has the potential to be the first useful step allowing positive developments in other areas. The possibilities of greater trade, dealing cooperatively with a post 2014 Afghanistan, and the larger vision of a Southern Asian Silk Route or a revived Grand Trunk Road bring enticing new possibilities. This has genuine win-win potential for both countries rather than the normal zero-sum approach of the past.
The ‘Siachen’ problem still remains formidable. Over the years both India and Pakistan have built their respective narratives over their claims to the region, the origin and history of the conflict, and even its geography. There is little common ground between the two and it is futile at present even to attempt a reconciliation seeking change in attitudes. Without further ado we should accept the current reality for what it is and construct a solution that will be equally disagreeable to both sides, but acceptable to each because it will still provide substantive benefits to both. A resolution that will allow each side to claim victory and sell it successfully to its people. At least on two earlier occasions we came close to a resolution. Let us begin again determined to complete the process, irrespective of perceived petty gains to this side or the other.
This attempt has to start with demolishing some myths. Myth number one is that the conflict is about the ‘Siachen’ glacier. Actually, it is about occupation of the Saltoro Ridge. A glacier is by definition, ‘moving ice’, of sudden and deep crevasses and sharp rocky heights, where no troops can be deployed. Of the glaciers that abound in the Karakorum Range, Siachen at 77 km is the longest and lies to the east of the Saltoro Ridge. Saltoro is a sharp mountain ridge running north to south, large parts of which India occupied on 13 April 1984 and continues to hold till today. Fierce sub-unit attacks launched by both sides in these formidable altitudes over the years effected only minor changes till the cease-fire in November 2003 brought an end to fighting. Indian forces have to cross several treacherous routes across Siachen glacier to reach and sustain its defensive positions to the west on the Saltoro. Pakistani forces are mostly west of the Saltoro ridge on lower ground and have to climb sharply in order to approach the ridgeline. Ghyari was one such base on the side of a hill, over which the snowy mountain descended suddenly. An early self goal by India was not publicizing this reality effectively. As a result it is ‘Siachen’ that wrongfully symbolizes in both countries the contested battleground.
The second myth is that the region is of great strategic importance. This is an illusion. In practice, occupying the ridge provides no advantage to either side. The mistake arises when one looks at a flat map of the area spread on a table and imagines that either the Karakoram Pass on the Indian side, the Khunjerab Pass on the Gilgit Highway to Xinjiang, or the Shaksgam valley to the north near China can be reached. Any one who thinks so has not been to the area and cannot read a map. He should instead be shown a pictorial of the area with its perpetual snow covered ridges, glaciers and their crevasses and snowy mountain redoubts. Indeed if either side, or China, were to attempt to capture any area of significance on the other side, it will entirely avoid the Saltoro Ridge or the Siachen Glacier. The reality is that the terrain makes it impossible for any troop movement across it in either direction except by small groups of skilled mountaineers. It allows no domination or access to any area near by. In today’s era of continuous aerial or satellite observation deploying on the ridge does not contribute to visual domination. The importance of ‘High Ground’ to military strategy ended soon after the Second World War. Occupying the Saltoro Ridge serves no purpose other than claim occupation of the ridge-line and deny its possession to the other. This may have made some sense in New Delhi decades earlier as a means of preventing silent encroachment through cartographic aggression and denying access to foreign mountaineering expeditions from Pakistan. Today, this reasoning has lost all meaning.
The third myth is about ‘trust’. That it needs a certain level of trust between two sides in order to negotiate and sustain an agreement in this area, and till mutual trust is developed, a solution is not possible. This is a misperception. In a state of relations between India and Pakistan today where both continue to perceive the other as an ‘enemy’, there will be no trust for many years. A solution based on goodwill and trust can never last and must never be the basis for negotiations. An agreement is possible when both sides perceive an advantage in having one and see benefit in adhering to its terms. Penalties for non-observance can be built into the agreement. Or, provisions for punishment can be incorporated or implied in case the other side violates the agreement.
The fourth myth is that occupation of this remote mountain redoubt is relatively cost free. With a burgeoning economy India can easily afford whatever extra expenses are required for this operation and in any case, leakages of developmental expenditures and corruption are much more costly to the nation. But, in reality the cost of maintaining forces in these forbidding mountains has increased substantially over the years. A back of the envelope calculation would suggest that it is in the region of at least USD 750 million a year, depending on what expenses are actually included. For Pakistan it may be about a third of this amount. But, in terms of the percentage of overall GDP it would be about thrice as expensive as for India. Some in India consider this a good enough reason to continue the occupation as it bleeds Pakistan more. That in the end both patients may die does not apparently seem to matter. By all accounts this level of expenditure is better spent elsewhere, rather than in despoiling this pristine environment. Indeed the costs come at the expense of vital socio-economic spending, the absence of which is generating other insecurities in both countries.
The final myth is that if India were to withdraw from the Saltoro Ridge the Pakistan Army will promptly occupy it. The implication then is that the Indian political leadership will immediately ask the Indian Army to recapture the positions. This is seriously underestimating the political leadership, which knows that it has other options than committing soldiers to certain death. In today’s situation punitive actions can take many forms. Should counter measures be warranted they could be considered in another more favourable area, and where costs to the other side are higher. Another countermeasure, the real Kautilyan option, may be for the Indian forces to withdraw from the Saltoro Ridge in such a pre-planned manner as to ensure that Pakistani forces are compelled to occupy it. In which case, Pakistan will be inflicted with enormous financial and military costs for no practical advantage. Indian forces could then deploy short of the formidable Siachen glacier in comparative comfort. The additional costs imposed on Pakistan may perhaps even hasten an economic collapse.
Towards a solution
What then of a solution? Surprisingly, several possible options are available and have been discussed by both sides. In each case, a planned and systematic withdrawal is urgently warranted. The issue on which a solution has been stalled is on the modalities to bring this about. Should present positions be drawn on a map and signed, by one or both countries and/or by international observers/organizations? Should the Line of Control (LoC) be extended first beyond NJ 9842, based on present dispositions on the ground? Should such presence be merely ascertained unilaterally through satellite photographs?
Having done that, the entire area can be entirely vacated and declared a demilitarized zone under international acceptance and satellite supervision. There can be many variations to such an option and numerous options are available. Diplomats and strategists on both sides can use their ingenuity to adopt the least objectionable option. A certain flexibility will be required, based not on trust, but the minimum acceptable position for either side commensurate with its interests.
Another option would be to demilitarize the area and convert it into an international peace park for high altitude environmental exploration. Should this approach be accepted it will not compromise the fundamental interests of either side. Instead it could lead to many positive outcomes. Who knows, we may ultimately even develop mutual trust.
A first step may well be to construct a joint memorial to all the valiant soldiers of both countries who laid down their lives here, including those of the jawans of the Northern Light Infantry.