It’s Time to Melt Frost in Siachen

The death of about 140 Pakistani army personnel in an avalanche at the battalion HQ at Gyari in the Siachen conflict zone has again brought to the fore the dangers of prolonged deployment on both sides of the actual ground position line, despite the fact that an informal ceasefire has been holding up quite well since November 25, 2003. In mid-March 2007, too, five Pakistani soldiers had perished in an avalanche.

Even at the peak of fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, maximum casualties on both the sides occurred because of the treacherous terrain, the super-high altitude - which affects the human body adversely, 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. Besides, prolonged deployment at such heights takes a heavy psychological toll. While these casualties are now better managed due to early evacuation, improvements in medical science and the establishment of forward medical facilities, they can never be completely eliminated.

The economic cost of maintaining an infantry brigade group at Siachen to guard the desolate mountain passes and approaches leading to them from the western slopes of the Saltoro Ridge has been estimated to range between Rs 3-3.5 crore per day - Rs 1,000-1,200 crore annually. The costs are high because the logistics tail is long, the only road ends at the base camp close to the snout of Nubra River where the almost 80-km glacier ends. A large number of infantry posts can be maintained only by helicopters that air-drop supplies with attendant losses, as recoveries are often less than 50%. 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.

Stephen Cohen, a well-known and respected Washington-based South Asia analyst, has described the Siachen conflict as a fight between two bald men over a comb. In his view, "Siachen... is not militarily important... They (Indian and Pakistani armies) are there for purely psychological reasons, testing each other's 'will'."

Both governments have been finding it difficult to overcome deeply entrenched mindsets and are unable to look for innovative and creative approaches. India insists that the present forward positions of both the 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 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 legitimising its illegal occupation through the demarcation of present positions.

After Pakistan's intrusions into Kargil in 1999, the Indian Army's advice to the government that the AGPL must be jointly verified and demarcated before demilitarisation begins, is operationally sound and pragmatic military advice. However, if Pakistan's military capacity to grab and hold on to vacated Indian positions after the demilitarisation agreement comes into effect is carefully analysed, it will be found that Pakistan is in no position to occupy any of the posts vacated by India.

At a recent India-Pak Track 2 meeting at Bangkok, organised by Ottawa University jointly with the Atlantic Council and the National Defence University, Washington, 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 demilitarisation process. While this falls short of the Indian demand for demarcation, it should be politically acceptable.

However, India should insist on building a clause into the demilitarisation 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 (LAC) with China should it ever become necessary.

The demilitarisation of Siachen will act as a confidence building measure of immense importance. For India, it is a low-risk option to test Pakistan's long-term intentions. It is, therefore, an idea whose time has come. Indian and Pakistani leaders need to find the political will necessary to accept ground realities. It is time the Indian government began the process of building a national consensus around this important confidence-building measure.