On 11-12 June there are to be talks in Islamabad between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan about the Siachen catastrophe. But failure warnings went out early, with India’s defence minister AK Antony declaring that we should not “expect dramatic results. It is a complicated issue.”
Let’s get this straight, once and for all: it is NOT a complicated issue. It is a very simple matter, because the region was not delineated in 1972 by extension of the Line of Control that divides the regions of Kashmir administered by India and Pakistan. It was a useless, horrible icy waste without inhabitants or any sort of natural resources, and devoid of strategic utility.
It remains that way, save for one thing: it is occupied by soldiers of the armies of India and Pakistan, far too many of whom have died for nothing save the chauvinistic pride of national leaders who could have solved the problem with commonsense and the stroke of a pen if they had the moral courage to do so. It should now revert, as speedily as possible, to its former totally demilitarised state, accessed only by intrepid mountaineers.
I knew one of the Indian officers who helped draw the Line and he told me in Srinagar in 1982 that the 12 officers (six from each country) who were tasked with the demarcation ceased doing so at the beginning of the glacier country because “nobody in their right mind (or words to that effect) could possibly want any of the land between there and the Great Wall of China.”
As I wrote elsewhere, “Nobody, at that time, imagined that there might be military confrontation in the area. It would be futile to attempt to wage war at such heights, at the end of long lines of communication, with no strategic or even tactical aim, in an area in which mere existence (and no-one lived there) would involve great hazard in moving tiny distances. Who would send troops to occupy a terrifying wasteland where there was no threat of invasion or even territorial infringement?” The answer, alas, was Mrs Gandhi in 1984. Her flawed rationale for the Indian occupation continues, and the Indian press has been fed with reasons for India to refuse to vacate the area.
One of these, as reported by The Tribune in Chandigarh (a good newspaper with excellent military sources), is that Siachen is a “high-value strategic asset” which is, to put it kindly, utter nonsense. Another piece of claptrap is the claim that “Indian Army is at the strategic heights. Once vacated, these would become vulnerable.” And the assertion that “There are nearly 11,000 men of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Gilgit, Baltistan and other parts of the Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Some of them are very close to the glacier” is so mind-bogglingly preposterous as to make one doubt the sanity of the person who contrived it.
The Siachen tragedy has gone on for far too long, and the politicians and diplomats should follow the advice of General Kayani when he says that “This conflict should be resolved”. But the black rocks of phony national pride are just as dangerous as the icy crags of the northern wastes. The declaration by President Zardari at a PPP rally in April that “India is suffering more losses in Siachen than Pakistan,” was not only grotesquely insensitive, it is an indicator of what politicians in both countries believe to be important. And that isn’t soldiers’ lives.
Mankind is a territorial species, and occupation of ground is an imperative for human survival. It is therefore understandable that disputes are frequent between individuals, tribes and nations concerning ownership or entitlement to terrain that may or may seem to offer economic or political benefit. Nationalism and religion are powerful determinants of war, but in many conflicts the root cause has been and will continue to be the perception that control must be effected over stretches of land (or water) that might be dismally irrelevant to the well-being and development of inhabitants ? if any ? or in the interests of the wider population.
Such disputes can exercise lethal attraction for those in a position to direct that military action be taken to establish territorial ascendancy, and can lead to wider and disastrous conflict. There seems to be no limit to man’s appetite for confrontation, even when it is apparent that muscular bluster almost inevitably leads to the catastrophe of war.
New Delhi insists there be “Verification of Actual Ground Position Line” which is gibberish. Everyone knows to the last bunker exactly where the positions of both sides are located. And anyway this is irrelevant, because when both armies leave the region, which they should, ek dum, who cares where the bunkers were?
The region should be demilitarised, exactly as it was before Mrs Gandhi ordered her invasion, and as advocated by General Kayani. National and international surveillance systems can determine whether or not military vacation has taken place. The best solution would be third-party monitoring (which New Delhi abhors for reasons of mistaken national pride), but no matter what system is emplaced, both countries would benefit enormously from cessation of this bizarre standoff.
And if Dr Manmohan Singh and President Zardari really want to achieve a place in world history, with a joint Nobel Peace Prize, they would do well to get busy. They might even save some lives if they leave Siachen to the elements.
The writer is a South Asian affairs analyst. Website is www.beecluff.com