The Siachen Tangle: No solution in sight as yet

21 Nov, 1998    ·   155

Ashutosh Misra argues that if India can be assured that the positions vacated by it in Siachen would not be re-occupied by Pakistani troops, it may consider the option of withdrawing from the glacier owing to reasons of high human and financial costs

The highest battlefield in the world, the Siachen glacier has witnessed conflict between India and Pakistan , for over 13 years. A never ceasing conflict has resulted in hundreds of casualties, caused by the harsh terrain and adverse climatic conditions rather than bullets or shells. The fight continued even when the peace talks were under way in New Delhi .The dispute was put on the list along with other issues for negotiations during the nine-day talks from November 5,1998. During the talks the two sides were expected to discuss ways to ensure "peace and tranquility" in the Siachen area.



India favoured incremental progress revolving around a set of confidence building measures.According to the 1989 formulations, (which was denied by India ) a Zone of Disengagement (ZOD) was to be created. Indian troops were to withdraw from the ridge line running along Indira Col. , Sia Kangri, Sia La, Sherpa Kangri, Bilafond La, Pt. 7248, Pt 6150, and NJ 9842 to "positions east and generally north of Zingrulama". Pakistan was to withdraw to a line west and running generally along Gasherbrum I, Baltoro Kangri, Pt. 3917, Kurma Ding, Goma and NJ 9842.



During the talks in New Delhi India proposed a package of confidence building measures which would lead to a "comprehensive cease-fire in the "Saltoro range region." It also sought a "freeze" on ground positions of troops from both sides to "immediately defuse tension in the atmosphere of confrontation in the area". But Pakistan rejected this proposal saying that the two sides should first address the question of disengagement in the area. India had proposed that once the cease-fire had been agreed to, both sides could establish a bilateral monitoring mechanism. This would include flag meetings, periodic meeting with the formation commanders and the establishment of a hotline between divisional commanders.



Dr.Samina Ahmad and Varun Sahni in a recent study entitled "Freezing the Fighting: Military Disengagement on the Siachen Glacier" conducted at the Sandia Research Laboratories, New Mexico, identified the most appropriate verification and monitoring technologies to assist policy-makers in ensuring agreement stability and compliance. Though India has rejected the "international monitoring mechanism" to supervise the cease-fire in the Siachen area, it can make use of this study to devise some form of bilateral monitoring arrangements.



After the failure of the recent talks to break the ice, any solution to the problem in the near-term future seems a distant possibility. On the question of troops withdrawal the policy makers and analysts are having diverse views. One group holds that India must stand firm and not relieve Pakistan of the pressure in the one place it really hurts. The other group points out that Siachen represents a major military victory for India . They see considerable strategic advantage in positioning Indian troops on the Saltoro ridge. By holding on to higher ground, they  say India is in a position to target segments of the  Karakoram highway, a possible corridor for joint military forays by Pakistan and China . The hard-liners in Pakistan hold India to be the aggressor and want to avenge their earlier reverses by seeing India 'bleed' because of the higher human and financial costs. The moderates within the political leadership as well as in the civil-military bureaucracy favour a negotiated settlement.



At present, with both sides content with with their present occupied positions, it seems that any future agreement on resolving the dispute will depend largely on the political will of the two leaderships. Adequate appropriate verification and monitoring mechanism will enhance their ability to reach a durable accord. The chances of reaching a solution will be strengthened by an understanding of the complex inter-relationship between negotiated terms and verification methodology. The old phrase 'trust but verify' is the key to the whole dispute. If India can be assured that the vacated positions would not be re-occupied by  Pakistani troops, it may consider the option of withdrawing from the ridge owing to reasons of high human and financial costs.