The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
The loss of 139 soldiers and civilians in the recent tragedy in Siachen has led to much debate in the country about the human and financial cost of the military deployment and the purpose of maintaining forces in such inhospitable environs.
The debate prompted rare public remarks from Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani when he visited the Gayari sector of the glacier last week. Recalling that Pakistan did not initiate the dispute, he stressed the need for demilitarisation of the glacier, saying that “peaceful coexistence” and resolution of all issues between the two neighbours was important so that both could focus on the well-being of their people.
The Indian response to General Kayani’s comments was decidedly guarded. Welcoming his statement, the minister of state for defence, Pallam Raju said: “I am glad that Pakistan is also realising the challenges and the economic problems of maintaining troops on the Siachen Glacier”. Missing was any substantive comment on the need or urgency to resolve the dispute. The Indian media was similarly cautious. One newspaper called General Kayani’s remarks a “political opening” to build on. Others struck a sceptical note.
Meanwhile the debate in Pakistan saw some commentators urge unilateral withdrawal by Islamabad, arguing that this would oblige the Indians to match the step. Others equated the diplomatic stance of the two countries, suggesting rigidities on both sides and implying that serious efforts aimed at demilitarisation had been lacking on Pakistan’s part.
Calls for Islamabad to take the diplomatic initiative overlooked the fact that this is precisely what it has tried to do over the years after Indian forces moved in to occupy Siachen’s Saltoro range in 1984. Pakistan’s readiness to find a solution and show necessary flexibility is supported by the history of diplomatic efforts. It was in this spirit that Pakistan offered a ceasefire in Siachen in 2003, which is still holding.
A review of the negotiations especially the last round of talks on May 30-31, 2011 will help put Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts in perspective. Before describing the twelfth round a recap of previous rounds is necessary, some of which I summarised in last week’s column. Five years after the conflict began talks between the two countries were able to agree on the main elements of a settlement. The breakthrough came in the fifth round in June 1989. It was agreed that a comprehensive settlement would be based on the following points:
• redeployment of forces
• avoidance of the use of force
• determination of future positions on the ground in conformity with the Simla Agreement.
Negotiations then stalled on conflicting interpretations of the June 17, 1989 joint statement. The statement’s language may have lent itself to differing interpretations. But there was no mistaking the statement’s operative part, which obliged the two sides to undertake redeployment, disengagement and determination of future positions. There was no mention of “present” positions.
In the 1992 and 1994 rounds of talks India refused to withdraw troops until Pakistan committed to authenticate “existing” positions. Pakistan was not prepared to do this and provide India the basis for a legal claim to the disputed area in talks later to demarcate the Line of Control beyond map coordinate NJ 9842. But in 1992 and after Pakistan offered to record “present” positions on an annexure subject to the caveat stated in the main text that this would not be grounds for a legal claim later to the area. India rejected this and demanded verification of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the ground and on the map before demilitarisation.
Even the improved bilateral climate between 2004 and 2008 failed to break this deadlock. Pakistani participants of talks in that period recount that while the environment was conducive for progress towards an amicable solution, which they vigorously pushed for, the Indian side pressed a single point – that Pakistan authenticate the AGPL. Pakistan rejected this as a pre-condition to demilitarisation.
Did Pakistan offer any constructive ideas to overcome the impasse? Proposals Islamabad put forward in the May 2011, twelfth round provide an answer. Pakistan first reiterated the principles for a settlement, which broadly echoed the 1989 agreement. This included:
• Redeployment outside the zone of conflict and disengagement.
• Redeployed positions, modalities of verification and mechanism for monitoring to be determined by military experts of the two sides.
• Demarcation of the Line of Control beyond NJ 9842 to be subsequently undertaken in an agreed process.
Based on these principles, Pakistan, in order to find a way forward, proposed that once a schedule of withdrawal was evolved this could consist of lists of both “present” and “future” positions subject to two stipulations. One, that the lists be titled as “lists of present positions occupied in 1984 after the Simla Agreement and future redeployment positions”. The second proviso was that the lists should indicate that these were exclusively for monitoring purposes and not to stake any moral or legal claim at the time of the final settlement of Siachen’s disputed area.
Pakistanis interlocutors also sought at that time to define a triangular zone of disengagement bounded by Indira Koli Pass in the west and the Karakorum Pass in the east, with both joining up at NJ 9842. Redeployments were proposed to Gyong, NJ 9842 and Warshi. These were concrete suggestions that Pakistan hoped would be reciprocated.
The position taken by the Indian side reversed the sequence of steps to be taken. Delhi called for delineation of the line beyond NJ 9842 before disengagement and redeployment. Demilitarisation in other words would have to await and follow what would most certainly be prolonged and complicated talks on demarcation of the LOC beyond NJ 9842.
Pakistan read this as a hardening of Delhi’s position, raising the question whether the authentication issue had become a way for the Indian military to resist giving up control of the heights. The outcome of the 2011 talks was far from encouraging amid indications that India’s notion of normalising relations with Pakistan rested on promoting trade and people-to-people contacts, not resolution of outstanding disputes.
Interestingly in his annual Congressional testimony on worldwide threats in January 2012, James Clapper, the US director of National Intelligence, assessed that India would maintain a “go slow” approach in negotiations on the “difficult border issues of Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek”.
This “go glow” posture is underpinned by the Indian security establishment’s apparent opposition to giving up “advantageous” positions on the Saltoro ridge. Behind this lies the strategic calculation reiterated in a recent article by the former head of RAW, Vikram Sood, that invokes “the China factor”. Like many Indian defence analysts he sets out the rationale to deny China and Pakistan access to each other through the Karakorum Pass leading to Tibet, which according to him, is assured by India’s present position in Siachen.
These strategic reasons serve to justify – and explain – the lack of flexibility shown by India in the talks. The protracted impasse has encouraged ‘Track Two’ efforts to explore ways to address this. A recent conference in Bangkok in which former Indian and Pakistani military officers participated threw up ideas for simultaneous actions by the two sides. An integrated approach was suggested, as a prelude to a resolution of the Siachen dispute and without prejudice to the claims of each country. This involved withdrawal from the conflict area and agreement on a package of integrated stipulations. They included disengagement and demilitarisation in accordance with an agreed timeframe, cooperative monitoring of these activities, and joint recording of present ground positions.
With the next round of talks between the defence secretaries due next month the question is whether they will go beyond the usual restatement of positions and bring a solution any nearer.
Islamabad regards a Siachen resolution as an important milestone in the road to sustainable peace between the two countries. Will India match Pakistan’s willingness to reach a settlement and ensure that the diplomatic ice melts on Siachen?