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Mainstream, VOL L, No 26, June 16, 2012

The Siachen Imbroglio

Wednesday 20 June 2012, by S G Vombatkere

Immediacy for Peace

The title and contents of A.G. Noorani’s article “Settle the Siachen dispute now“ [Ref. 1] strongly suggests peace-by-demilitarisation of Siachen on an immediate basis. His quest for peace is unexceptionable. Every Army jawan and most officers would not dispute this aim for, after all, they bear the brunt of military operations on Siachen. The huge amounts of money spent on these military operations are amounts that would be better spent on roti-kapda-makan for 80 per cent Indians who live (or rather, survive) on less than $ 1 per day. But this argument, while valid in principle, is not convincing with regard to the immediacy that it insists upon. Another writer on strategic matters, Gurmeet Kanwal, also pitches strongly for early demili-tarisation. [Ref. 2]

The arguments for immediacy in settlement of the Siachen dispute cannot be delinked from the fact that it stems from Pakistan Army Chief General A.P. Kayani’s initiative, which in turn stems from the loss of 139 Pakistani troops in an avalanche at Gayari. We need to understand that General Kayani’s initiative is not the initia-tive of the Government of Pakistan (GoP). The Government of India (GoI) reacting, that too with unbecoming alacrity, to the Pakistan Army Chief’s “peace” initiative obliquely legitimises Army control of Pakistan’s establishment. It has been suggested that General Kayani’s “peace” initiative is driven by his urgent need to cover up the long-standing lie sold to the Pakistani people that their soldiers are dying on Siachen Glacier while facing Indian troops. Gayari is merely in the Siachen region and not on the Siachen Glacier, while Indian troops occupy the glacier and its commanding heights. Demilitari-sation involves India losing both strategic and tactical advantage, while for Pakistan it is a strategic gain traded off against a small tactical loss. Indian strategists should not neglect this fact that Pakistan chooses to gloss over.

Pakistan’s Peace Song?

GENERAL KAYANI’S, not Pakistan’s, “peace” initiative is, on the face of it, a sincere peace offer to get both Pakistani and Indian troops off the Siachen Glacier. But it can also be seen as a move to reduce Pakistan’s tactical disadvan-tage when Indian troops pull back. Whether or not demarcation of the present ground positions is done, demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier (which is at the core of what is being broadly referred to as the Siachen region or simply Siachen) at the present juncture calls for hard-nosed reconsideration.

It would be unwise for Government of India (GoI) to delink Siachen from other places in the region in which Pakistan does not speak of peace. Taking this call for “peaceful co-existence” from a Pakistan Army Chief at face value would be a strategic folly. The Pakistani establishment—sometimes civilian, sometimes military, but always anti-India—has gone back on its word more than once, making a mockery of India’s several initiatives for genuine peace. It is true that India wants peace, but it would be impru-dent to buy that peace at any cost.
All that General Kayani needs to do for peaceful co-existence without immediately demi-litarising Siachen is to order his Army not to open fire without provocation as frequently happens at Siachen and many other places on the LoC, and not to repeat Kargil-like adven-tures. In view of Pakistan’s unstated anti-India policy and track record concerning peace with India, we need to look at reasons for being wary of its present moves to demilitarise Siachen, and not jump into what could be a strategic trap. Moves for immediacy with respect to demi-litarising Siachen can be at best from strategic gullibility, naivete or ignorance.

Unseen Factors

ACCORDING to reports in the open media, Pakistan is negotiating or has already negotiated leasing the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), to China for 50 years. [Ref. 3] This includes the area now occupied by Pakistan, facing us at Siachen. If India pulls out of Siachen, re-occupation of the posts will be almost impossible especially if China sneaks into the commanding heights vacated by Indian troops. A Chinese military commander with the least bit of initiative would move his troops into forward posts presently occupied by Pakistani troops. In such a circumstance, hostilities will be between India and China, which is not a party to any “peace” agreements between India and Pakistan. In the context of China having moved several divisions of troops into its Tibetan border with India including missile units within easy missile strike range of New Delhi, hostilities on Siachen could trigger unacceptable military response from China. Also noteworthy is that this October marks 50 years since China humiliated India; with their sense of history, they may contemplate a repeat performance. Demilitarising Siachen at this stage would be strategically and militarily suicidal.
Though in the long run, demilitarisation of Siachen may be desirable, it should not be done now when India is not in a position of strategic advantage. Today and in the near future, India will be on the backfoot [Ref. 4] because of the growing security liability in Afghanistan (prin-cipally due to the impending NATO pull-out), having been sucked into the region because of our strategic alignment with the USA following the India-US nuclear deal and Hyde Act which assumes “congruence” in foreign policy matters. Intrusion onto the Siachen Glacier by Pakistani or Chinese troops sneaking into tactically strong posts vacated by India after demilitarisation will lead to loss of the Shyok and Nubra valleys and permit a Pakistan-China link-up between Gilgit area and the Aksai Chin area already under Chinese control and areas illegally ceded to China by Pakistan. Their sneaking in cannot be ruled out, whether or not a binding inter-national treaty exists. Occupation is nine-tenths of the law.

Also pressing for early agreement to demilitarise Siachen, strategist Gurmeet Kanwal suggests an India-Pakistan demilitarisation agreement including a clause that allows either side to take military action in case of violation by the other side. Thus if Pakistan (or its Lessee, China) encroaches into the Zone Of Disengagement (ZOD). India will “be at liberty” to take military action to win back the high ground all over again. Thus, while the agreement envisages violation, it suggests the remedy of re-opening hostilities! It cannot be over-emphasised that an India-Pakistan agreement does not include China. Whichever way one looks at it, demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier now will make Pakistan or China the gainer and India the loser. Strategic negotiation should always be from a position of strength and never from ignorance of history or naivete regarding ground realities.
Further, Kanwal argues that air and electronic surveillance will suffice to detect small intrusions which can be attacked from the air. The difficulty of spotting small groups of troops in that high-altitude wilderness is immense, and our aging helicopters which are already working above their altitude limit (flight time and fuel load are a delicate daily compromise, ask any Army pilot who has operated in Siachen) cannot detect and engage such groups. Kanwal’s suggestion is unworkable. Detection will have to be followed by a full-scale military operation that can and will spread to other zones. But let us turn our attention to Noorani’s pitch for settling the Siachen dispute by demilitarisation now.

Noorani’s Arguments

NOORANI begins with saying that a “virtually done deal” for demilitarising the glacier was scuttled 20 years ago. The use of the word “glacier” is very important, as in the foregoing discussion. But apart from that, we need to recall that much has happened between Pakistan and India since 1992. For example, Kargil happened in 1999 and Mumbai happened in 2006, and then there was the attack on India’s Parliament House, to name just the serious issues. If the deal had gone through in 1992, would it have obviated these breaches of peace by Pakistan? That is, would such an agreement have made Pakistan look at India with less animosity? Why is India attempting to grasp the bait of “peaceful coexistence” suggested by, of all persons, Pakistan’s Army Chief?

Next, Noorani approvingly writes that in 1992, Pakistan did not press its claim that the “delineated LoC (from point NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass) must end up at the Karakoram Pass”. Are we to give credit to Pakistani negotiators for not pressing what is plainly an unreasonable and illegal claim? He goes on to argue that “Pakistan’s revised proposal fully met India’s insistence on authentication of existing positions“, and “surely to specify existing points to be vacated and record them in an annex is to ’authenticate’ them“. In his eagerness to argue for peace-by-demilitarisation “now”, Noorani appears to slip into arguing Pakistan’s point! The point made in the 1992 negotiations regarding surveillance by helicopter was impractical then even as it is now, as argued above.

Let us give some credit to India’s Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for understanding the prevailing circumstances when he “scuttled the deal” in 1992. It is noteworthy that soon after (1994), Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto “denied the agreement”. True, the “agreement” had not been signed, but denial by Ms Bhutto dis-played the mindset of the Pakistani establish-ment then. Its mindset has not changed with respect to India in any substantial way, except that show of military force is not possible any more and so they are resorting to guile by donning dove’s wings of peace.

The 1972 Simla Agreement says: “Pending the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries, neither side shall unilaterally alter this position.” Noorani argues that by occupying the Siachen Glacier (in 1984), India violated the Simla Agreement. Would it be unfair to ask whether Pakistan, violating the same Simla Agreement by sending its military-cum-moun-taineering expeditions to Karakoram Pass pre-dating India’s occupation of the Siachen Glacier, was not the provocation for Indian occupation?

Here we come to two very important points argued by Noorani. One, he writes: “Trust is a political decision for the highest leadership to take, based inter alia on military advice. No government can allow a veto to the Army.” It is true that trust in international relations is a political decision. But when the military is not involved in national decision-making by carefully being excluded from the National Security Council in favour of a bureaucrat as the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, can it be said that the military advice has been sought except perfunc-torily? In a democracy like ours, the military must necessarily be ruled by the Cabinet, but omission of the military from the nation’s highest security decision-making body, and trusting Pakistan’s “peace” overtures over India’s own military advice may not be in India’s strategic best interest.

Two, Noorani approvingly writes: “General Kayani hinted at much more than a Siachen settlement. He said that ‘peaceful coexistence is necessary for both countries. There is no doubt about that’.” It is strange that an Indian with the standing of Noorani should fall for General A.P. Kayani’s “peace” speil and brush off Indian military advice by disallowing it a veto that it never had. Why did it take five years for General Kayani (he took charge as the Army Chief in 2007 and has earlier commanded Pakistan’s ISI) to discover that “peaceful coexistence is necessary for both countries”? Is he talking “peace” because he is in trouble? Are there also other factors at play, like Pakistan’s recent antipathy to the USA and its need to cement stronger ties with China?

On Trusting General Kayani

PROPONENTS of immediate or very early demilitarisation of Siachen to settle the Siachen dispute “now” need to re-think the matter. The Indian Defence Secretary, in this writer’s humble view, needs to work in tandem with India’s Army Chief when negotiating the Siachen imbroglio. India may make a very serious mistake by agreeing to demilitarising Siachen at the present juncture, even though in the long term, peace between India Pakistan is desirable for both countries. Noorani concludes with Demosthenes’ advice that “In important transactions, opportunities are fleeting; once missed they cannot be recovered”. That is true, but equally true is Aesop’s advice in his Fox and the Goat fable: “Never trust the advice (in this case General Kayani’s peace offer) of a man in difficulties.”

Finally, the sub-title of Gurmeet Kanwal’s article [Ref. 2], namely, “A low-risk option to test Pak Army’s sincerity” betrays acceptance of “low-risk” of Indian troops withdrawing from the Siachen heights to test the Pakistan Army’s sincerity. Which military man with first-hand knowledge of Siachen would play down Indian troops’ huge sacrifice of life and limb to weather, avalanche and Pakistan military action? In another article [Ref. 5] Kanwal writes: “Trust begets trust and it will be well worth taking a political and military risk to give peace a chance.” He neglects the strategic risk and the fact that India’s trust of Pakistan has been repeatedly betrayed. For a trusting Kanwal, George Santayana’s quote is appropriate: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

1. A.G. Noorani, “Settle the Siachen dispute now“, Edit page, The Hindu, June 11, 2012.
2. Gurmeet Kanwal, “Siachen demilitarisation: A low-risk option to test Pak Army’s sincerity”, The Tribune, Chandigarh, June 1, 2012; <>
3. “Pakistan considering proposal to lease Gilgit-Baltistan to China: US think-tank”; The Economic Times, February 11, 2012; <http://articles.economictimes.india...>
4. S.G.Vombatkere, “Nine Years On: India’s Strategic Hot Potato”, Defence Watch, Dehra Dun, Vol X No 2, October 2010, pp. 33-36.
5. Gurmeet Kanwal, “Demilitarisatiion of the Siachen Conflict Zone: Challenges and Prospects”, The New Atlanticist Policy and Analysis Blog, April 17, 2012;

S.G. Vombatkere retired as a Major General after 35 years in the Indian military, from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ, New Delhi.

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