The issue that dominates the peace process pursued by the Indian and Pakistani governments on Kashmir since 2004 is about the control of the Siachen Glacier in the region, the world’s highest battlefield. Although a ceasefire has been in place since 2003, thousands of troops on both sides continue to eyeball each other across the extreme terrain. The Indian Army dominates the glaciers, occupying the high ground on the Saltoro ridge on the western edge of the glacier, restricting Pakistani forces to lower positions. The environment at the glacier is so harsh as to be snow and ice-bound through the year with forces necessarily stationed at the highest possible altitudes where temperatures drop 50 degrees Celsius below zero. In fact most of the several thousand casualties on both sides are victims of the unforgiving terrain and climate.
Even though both neighbors are in agreement on the importance of demilitarization of the glacier, they remain at loggerheads on the formula for demilitarization. New Delhi wants Pakistan to authenticate currently held positions on the Saltoro Ridge as a recognized acknowledgment of territory controlled and a guarantee against any future invasion, something the latter refuses to acquiesce to. The ghosts of the thousand of lives lost in the battles over the glacier and against the elements also contribute to hardened stands and prevent a compromise.
But this demilitarization is vital for a stable relationship between India and Pakistan even such a step also brings great risks. And although standing away from this dispute the United States stands to benefit indirectly from any compromise over Siachen.
The Dispute in Question
The uninhabited glacier became a point of conflict between the two countries only in the 1980s, when fearing its occupation by the other, both countries raced to take control in April 1984. The Indian Army won this race and managed to take key positions on the Saltoro Ridge while Pakistani forces were kept at bay at lower positions. Both armies set up stations at altitudes of 9,000 to 22,000 ft and have suffered 3,500-5,000 casualties since, continuing this face-off undeterred to this day.
The genesis of the dispute over Siachen is the 1948 Karachi ceasefire agreement, which ended India’s first war with Pakistan over Kashmir after Pakistan sent over irregulars to prevent Jammu and Kashmir from acceding and joining the Union of India. An ambiguity in the agreement relates to the Line of Control (LoC) that came up in place of the International Border, with Pakistan occupying part of Jammu and Kashmir, now known as Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). This agreement failed to clearly demarcate the dividing line between Pakistan and India in the north in Jammu and Kashmir, only saying it would continue “thence north to the glaciers.” Now India interprets this to mean the LoC proceeds strictly northward placing the glacier decisively within the Indian frontier. But Pakistan says the line runs northeast to the Karakoram Pass putting the glacier within the area occupied by it.
The five-year-old ceasefire in effect on the glacier has reinforced hopes for a permanent settlement, encouraging proponents of demilitarization about the potential of a top-down conflict resolution framework in facilitating a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. But repeated talks until April 2007 have so far had no result.
The basic disagreement over Siachen is the question of authentication and acceptance of the current ceasefire line there, the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). The historical mistrust and the fear of irreversible negative consequences in future have lead to this standoff at the negotiating table. India’s diplomacy over Siachen is based simply on the old US Cold War rule of thumb – trust, but verify, and seeks Pakistani authentication of its positions to prevent future incursions. Such authentication would make apparent the violation of the de facto international border to the international community in case of attempts to change the status quo.
It is no surprise the Indian Army has been consistently in its opposition to any agreement failing to authenticate, basing its argument on the virtual impossibility of retaking positions were Pakistan to renege on its word and occupy the glacier, including vacated Indian positions. Military experts are divided over the strategic value of the glacier, with some arguing the futility of combat in such an inhospitable environment in an area that they concede has no strategic value. Were India to withdraw from the glacier, in their view Pakistan would follow suit.
But there are others who consider Siachen crucial territory as it wedges between PoK and the Aksai Chin and constitutes India’s northernmost frontier with Pakistan and China. And since India has fought wars with both countries the threat of Pakistan and China to Ladakh and Kargil in northern Kashmir is not impossible to perceive. The Siachen glacier is also the fount for the Nubra River that flows into Indian territory.
But Pakistan continues to refuse authentication thinking India might use this as the basis of a legal claim on the glacier. The opinion in Islamabad is that such a step would also compromise Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue as a whole giving India a way to claim the glacier as well as consolidate its control over the Kashmir valley. As it is, the Siachen glacier tourism programme initiated by the Indian Army was not taken well by Pakistan, which took the step as a claim of sovereignty over the glacier.
Authentication would also imply the Pakistani Army’s position on the glacier is not one of strength and may hurt the Army’s morale and prestige, something Islamabad would not to admit to its own people. This would be unthinkable at a time when the people are beginning to rally behind the Army in Pakistan’s confrontation with India over the Mumbai attacks on November 26 this year.
Trust at a premium
So how do the two neighbours sort this out? There are two kinds of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Low-risk CBMs such as the setting up of establishment of passenger and cargo transportation links are easier to implement because the negative consequences of one side reneging on the deal can be dealt with (The other side simply ends the links). But CBMs such as demilitarizing Siachen are high-risk, since perfidy by one side could mean loss of territory for the other and be disastrous in terms of the actual security implications as well as the inevitable domestic upheavals that would follow. That is why there have to be greater incentives for both sides to cooperate with some degree of sincerity, like means of verification that are acceptable to both sides. Even with 26/11 in mind, there has been a general recognition in both India and Pakistan of the need to sort out issues that could give rise to military confrontation. CBMs like the Nuclear Risk Reduction Agreement of February 2007 are one example.
So if it comes down to a means of verification that both countries can trust, satellite technology can be of service to some degree. A satellite reconnaissance system that which would detect breaches of trust and agreement by either side may deter covert military intrusions. But nevertheless, if one side did manage to occupy the glacier again, dislodging it would be extremely difficult. Even in 1984, the Indian Army took the heights in the absence of Pakistani troops on Saltoro Ridge. Maintenance of control over current positions on the glacier is difficult enough — recapturing positions once lost would be even tougher.
While US foreign policy objectives of decreasing tensions between its allies India and Pakistan would be served by a settlement on Siachen, the Bush administration has not focused on it in terms of public statements or private pressure on both sides for what could be several reasons.
Even though the subcontinent has been an area of concern to the US because of terrorism and the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the administration has been distracted by more pressing apprehensions from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.
Also, knowing that any public pronouncements would stir up domestic opposition in both countries to any perceived concessions that may be part of the deal, the US has so far kept quiet on the issue. This is because both countries have constituencies that resent perceived US interference in what they consider their own affairs. Pakistan has a long list of resentments against the US. US pressure to crack down on militant networks, the US desire to directly interview nuclear salesman and Pakistani scientist A Q Khan, moves to declare prominent former Pakistanis including Lt General Hamid Gul, the former Director General of the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and now again pressure to crack down on terrorism directed at India.
India too has elements opposed to Indian engagement with the US, notably the communist parties and old Cold Warriors who opposed the nuclear agreement as well as joint military exercises with the US and the nationalist right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party who’s resistance to the nuclear agreement was perceived to be purely a result of opposition politics, but which has in the past opposed entry of western big business into India.
So any initiative taken by India on this front with US involvement would have its detractors. Although, the sputtering security cooperation between India and the US (and other countries as well) in the aftermath of 26/11 may go some way in changing perceptions, attitudes and relative opposition to security engagements with the US.
Also, since India and Pakistan have been talking about a resolution of the Siachen issue anyway, the US would find itself hard-pressed to give a reason for pushing both countries to talk about it.
But the US could play a role in the implementation of any resolution, subject to agreement by both sides. The US could conceivably provide neutral satellite reconnaissance facilities to monitor continued implementation of an agreement. Needless to say this would first require overcoming of the trust deficit by both sides to make a deal.
To top up this deficit, the two sides could come together and agree on a different but related issue. One issue that could be an example of this would be joint work on the degrading environment on the glacier. Recent studies have shown Himalayan glaciers to have been shrinking at the alarming rate of as much as 20% between 1962 and 2001.
There was a recent proposal for both countries to work together to clean up the glacier which has accumulated a large amount of waste over the years. The aim is to transform the Siachen area into a “mountain of peace.” Non-governmental groups have argued for a “Siachen Peace Park” to check the degradation of the glacier, while the Indian Army has initiated clean-up moves under the “Green-Siachen Clean Siachen” plan. Such moves could go a long way in reducing mistrust between the two countries and act as a vehicle for meaningful moves towards a settlement on the Kashmir dispute.
But ideas like these for cooperation on environmental protection can work out only if there are also moves to demilitarize the glacier. Failing which, Siachen will remain a victim of the trust deficit between the two countries, as a CBM.
Dr. Sharad Joshi is a Research Associate at the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program (MonTREP) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Previously, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the James Martine Center for Nonproliferation Studies from Sept. 2006 to Oct. 2008. He holds a PhD from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on security issues in South Asia, especially nuclear proliferation and terrorism.