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OP-ED: Siachen - The Other Cold War

Published Global Affairs / Jan 2017

A Pakistani theatre play offered some gallows humor where it peered into the future and foresaw the end of the Siachen conflict that will only be brought on by global warming when the glaciers melt and the currents take them all the way to Delhi & Islamabad respectively. And in that post apocalyptical scenario, the Capital’s famed Metro bus would be swapped for a Metro boat.

Siachen is yet another arena of disagreement between India and Pakistan. Both nations are currently engaged in what started as a low intensity conflict at the LOC (Line of Control) amid accusations of cross border terrorism and attacks on military installations. And they have many others to fall back upon when things cool down at the border.

This particular argument stems from the manner in which the demarcation of the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan took place post Partition that had indicated the area beyond NJ 9842 (coordinates) as ‘thence north to the glaciers’. The North in question was no man’s land that no man wanted; till India heard Pakistan had been taking expeditions to the Siachen glacier in the 1970’s, and decided it wanted it after all. Prior to this discovery, the terrain had been un-demarcated and uncontested, though some foreign maps of the time had been showing Siachen as part of Pakistan.

In April 1984, India, in what it described as a preemptive strike, occupied the heights in Operation Meghdoot. Pakistan followed suit and parked its soldiers west of the Saltoro ridge.
And the two have been there ever since. They came close to an agreement twice. A ceasefire was declared in 2003. But there is no end in sight.

Siachen Glacier is no trophy; far from it. This ‘75 km stretch of land’, that lies between the two nuclear armed nations is around 5400m to 6600m above sea level. It is supposed to be the ‘highest, costliest, coldest, deadliest battleground on earth.' It’s also valued at zero, strategically speaking. The advantage is reportedly ‘symbolic and not strategic’

This worthless strip of ice demands constant blood sacrifices from brave men from both sides of the divide. Where they face each other and battle with a common foe in the shape of Mother Nature and now Global Warming.

It costs India 4 Corer Indian Rupees / day. Pakistan reportedly loses 30 soldiers / year. It spends 15 Million Pakistani Rupees / day. Overall the loss of life has been estimated at 4,000 on both sides mostly to elements. The deadliest year was 2012, when 130 Pakistani soldiers perished in an avalanche. And in 2016 when 10 Indian soldiers suffered a similar fate, Pakistani military commanders reportedly extended help in the rescue efforts. They may be at war but on lonely mountain tops, they are comrades in arms.

Demilitarization should be on the cards now more than ever. Yet it remains unresolved to this day. The prerequisite for the demilitarization process, according to Indian Army officials includes recognition, demarcation and authentication of the Indian positions before they wrap up. They also see the unlikelihood of Pakistan legitimizing Indian occupation by agreeing to these terms.

Yet in 1992, both sides had agreed to a compromise and were willing to honor an amended version that advocated vacating posts and a withdrawal of troops. The plan fizzled out and while there is plenty of blame to go around, Wikileaks trusty cache of confidential diplomatic cables has attributed its failure to the Indian army.

It narrows down the brief window of opportunity that had opened in 1989 and 1993. "Each time the prime minister of the day was forced to back out by India's defense establishment, the Congress Party hardline, and opposition leaders. The Indian army is resistant to giving up this territory under any condition for a variety of reasons - strategic advantage over China, internal army corruption, distrust of Pakistan, and a desire to keep hold of advantageous territory that thousands of Indian soldiers have died protecting."

A piece ‘Siachen: an icy wasteland’ (2016) makes a case for the importance of holding on to a relic by India’s first chief of defense intelligence agency. He finds the idea of a retreat sacrilegious and deems calls for demilitarization from Pakistani side as ‘subterfuge’. He also adds something about CPEC (Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor under development in Gawadar), and the Chinese factor that make it imperative to keep Indian forces forever stationed on a melting block of ice. He is not alone in his assessment.

Other voices argue for an indefinite occupation because of Siachen’s purported military depth for India. The thought of withdrawal is seen as being tantamount to a betrayal of the countless sacrifices. The Indian side appears adamant on keeping the status quo, while Pakistan seeks for a way out of this impasse.

Experts fret about the combined carbon footprint left by 2 armies responsible for the early onset of climate change and find the immense scale of Indian military activity particularly worrisome for the rapid rate of deterioration. That climate change is now considered a national security threat should give one pause. The smog that enveloped Delhi and Lahore in November 2016 was a reminder of its debilitating side effects and indiscriminate nature.

In the midst of a bitter custody battle, Siachen’s potential for tourism is frequently offered up for consideration. Before 1984, mountaineering treks to the as yet undisputed glacier were a la mode only under the protection of the Pakistani Government. And monitored expeditions under the guidance of Indian army have been ongoing since 2007.

Though India now occupies the higher ground, access to the worlds’ second highest peak - K2 (Karakoram Range) and surrounding areas reportedly is through Pakistani controlled territory. Analysts can envision the glacier as a hub of activity in the capacity of a neutral zone, a bio reserve, a peace mountain open to the trekkers, eco-tourists, and thrill seekers on their way to the top.

Some also suggest a Science Centre home to engineers and scientists from both nations cozily ensconced in a high altitude research station. Or a ‘World Heritage Site’ home to endangered species; like the legendary ghost cat (snow leopards) for instance or brown bears. They propose a fresh start where a war weary glacier can finally hang up its combat gear and become a sanctuary.

They are also careful to point out that rethinking Siachen is not a recapitulation on Kashmir. On paper it sounds like a win-win. But all this would still be a hard-sell when battle lines have been drawn and old ceasefires violated.

The incoming Pak Army Chief (Qamar Javed Bajwa) who is reportedly experienced in all things related to Kashmir & the Northern Areas, & Indians (he once served with a former Indian Army Chief while on a UN Mission in Congo) may know a thing or two about breaking the ice. It would be in keeping with the new trajectory Pak military seems to be on, course correcting at every stage to avoid being labeled as aggressors in border conflicts.

Thus far it has kept pace with the changing times and shown remarkable restraint in dealing with an endless stream of Indian provocation, promotion of agent provocateurs, proxy wars and propaganda. Once the guns fall silent, and threats of hastening the Armageddon fade, perhaps Pakistan and India can then consider formulating a response for coping with the 21st century national security challenges and step away from the vicinity of a growing conflagration. This won’t be easy, and will include a review of Siachen, smog & Climate Change, and it will have to be on a collaborative scale. Preferably before hell freezes over and the glaciers melt.

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