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Despite Track-2 efforts, India and Pakistan find it hard to untie the Siachen knot

By Syed Nazakat

It was code named Operation Meghdoot. On April 13, 1984 the Indian Army in a secret airborne operation scaled the heights around the Siachen Glacier before Pakistan could move its troops into the area. That temporary summer operation to prevent Pakistan from capturing the Siachen ultimately turned into a long-drawn-out saga, with both armies remaining entrenched in the world’s highest battlefield, in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. A large number of soldiers have lost their lives because of Siachen’s extreme weather conditions. More than 140 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an avalanche in April last year and another avalanche, on December 16, claimed the lives of six Indian soldiers. The human toll of the Siachen conflict has led to a renewed debate on how to end the deadlock and demilitarise the glacier.

The initiative is led by military veterans of the two countries who are engaged in a Track-2 initiative for the past 12 months. The delegates had meetings in Dubai, Bangkok and Lahore. Smaller meetings in Chiang Mai (Thailand) and Palo Alto (California) have also featured in the back-channel process. What makes the initiative noteworthy is its composition. The Pakistani team is led by former army chief Gen. Jehangir Karamat, and he is aided by former generals, admirals, air chiefs and seasoned diplomats. Former defence secretary, Lt-Gen. (retd) Tariq Ghazi, who was in charge of a series of Indo-Pak negotiations under President Pervez Musharraf, is also in the Pakistan team. The Indian side is led by former Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi. Among the retired officers assisting him are Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal, Lt-Gen. B.S. Pawar, Lt-Gen. Aditya Singh, Lt-Gen. Arvind Singh Lamba and Vice Admiral A.K. Singh. They were brought together by the Washington-based think-tank Atlantic Council and the University of Ottawa.

“It is a very important initiative,” said Kanwal. “The question before us is whether we want continuous military confrontation with Pakistan. We want to resolve the differences and conflicts, and we want to have peace in our neighbourhood. That is why it is important that we sit together and narrow down the differences so that we are able to demilitarise the glacier.”

Since 1984, there have been repeated efforts by India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict. But despite 13 rounds of talks, there has been no breakthrough. Pakistan does not agree to the authentication of the border line, known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), where troops from both countries are deployed. India has insisted that Pakistan should officially acknowledge India’s higher positions in Siachen and mark them on a map before any withdrawal. New Delhi believes that without the authentication there is no guarantee that Pakistan will not move its troops into the glacier after India’s withdrawal. The fact that India has established control over the entire 70km-long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge, has led many experts to question the wisdom of withdrawal and demilitarisation.

“I don’t know why there is so much fuss over Siachen,” said Lt-Gen. (retd) Prakash Katoch. “We have sacrificed enough to protect that strategically important area. Why should we pull out from our own area and that, too, when we are in a better position to deal with the logistics?” He said a withdrawal from Siachen would only weaken India’s position on Kashmir.

Pakistan insists that there should be no authentication of ground positions. Maleeha Lodhi, a Pakistani diplomat, who is part of the Track-2 initiative, said Pakistan’s reluctance to authenticate the border was mainly due to two reasons. “For Islamabad, authentication means legitimising India’s claim over Jammu and Kashmir [of which Siachen is a part]. Second, it believes that authentication will provide India the basis for a legal claim in negotiations later to delineate the area beyond NJ 9842 [the northernmost point of the Line of Control],” said Lodhi. “Authentication has, over the years, served as an alibi for the Indian Army to resist military disengagement.”

Since the authentication has become a sticking point, a Track-2 report submitted to the prime minister’s office late last year has recommended that both countries should establish a joint commission to delineate the line beyond NJ 9842. “Notwithstanding the claims of each country, both sides should agree to withdraw from the conflict area, while retaining the option of punitive action should the other side renege on the commitments,” reads the Track-2 report. In the first phase, according to the report, both countries will withdraw medium artillery located near the base camps [Camp Dzingrulma for India and Camp Gyari for Pakistan] followed by withdrawal of troops and field artillery from northern, central, and southern battalion sub-sectors of Siachen, followed by the forward posts, and, finally, from the base camps.

According to the proposal, present military positions can 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 is workable and should be acceptable,” said Kanwal. He said if both sides agreed on joint monitoring, the re-occupation of positions within the demilitarised zone was most unlikely because of logistics. “The small-scale intrusions will be neither significant nor sustainable.”

With India already in control of most of the high positions, Pakistan has never looked so weak. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, mooted the idea of troops pullout from Siachen after the deadly avalanche in April. In India, many believe that Pakistan has lobbied for the intervention of the Atlantic Council, which is facilitating and funding the Track-2 negotiations. However, that has not stopped India from being a part of the process. Sources in the ministry of defence said the government had endorsed the talks. Prior to the talks, the Indian delegation sought and received briefings from the foreign ministry as well the Army. That an influential delegation which included generals, diplomats and a former senior official of the R&AW was allowed to join the talks underlines the government’s desire to end the stalemate. “If the government did not want the Track-2 negotiations, it would have not given any briefing to the Indian delegation,” said a senior defence ministry official.

Top military commanders, in private, agree on the futility of confrontation in Siachen, which has cost many precious lives and huge amounts of money. Most of the deaths have been because of extreme weather and not actual combat. While Pakistan refuses to disclose its casualties, Defence Minister A.K. Antony told Parliament last year that India had lost 846 soldiers and hundreds had been amputated in 28 years of the Siachen conflict. Manmohan Singh, who was the first Prime Minister to visit Siachen, is keen to resolve the dispute. The glacier, in his own words, should be turned into a “peace mountain”. Army chief Gen. Bikram Singh has briefed the government about the Army’s stand on the issue. Unlike his predecessor, Gen. Singh is not vehemently opposed to the pullout. He, however, feels that no decision should be made in a hurry and that India should make its decision from a point of strength.

Box

Divergent positions

India

Wants Pakistan to acknowledge India’s higher positions and mark them on a map before any withdrawal.

Without the authentication, India fears Pakistan could send its troops into the glacier after the pullout.

Since India controls most of the area in Siachen, there is also some opposition to pullout and demilitarisation.

Pakistan

Accuses India of illegally occupying the Siachen Glacier by violating the 1972 Shimla agreement.

Wants India to withdraw without insisting on authentication of ground positions.

Opposes authentication as it means legitimising India’s claim over J&K.

 Track-2 proposals

A joint commission will be established to delineate the line beyond NJ 9842.

Instead of authentication, present ground positions will be jointly recorded and records exchanged.

Both countries will retain the option of punitive action if the other side reneges.

Withdrawal of troops will start with the removal of medium artillery located at base camps followed by withdrawal of troops and field artillery from forward positions.

Base camps will be removed and monitoring and verification of the demilitarisation will be completed during the establishment of the demilitarised zone.

 (January 6, 2013, THE WEEK)

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