Siachen: Thaw on the highest battleground on Earth?

On April 13, 1984, India had captured the 76.4-km glacier on the Saltoro ridge, a bleak and glaciated wedge between the territory occupied by Pakistan and China.

indian army
The horrendous economic and human cost of occupying Siachen has been a constant. (Photo source: The Indian Army: Siachen Glacier FB page)

Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)

The recent announcement by COAS General Mohan Mukund Naravane that India was not averse to demilitarising Siachen is a fresh attempt to nudge the status quo on the highest battlefield on earth. The outline offer is not without preconditions – Pakistan has first to recognise the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).

On April 13, 1984, India had captured the 76.4-km glacier on the Saltoro ridge, a bleak and glaciated wedge between the territory occupied by Pakistan and China. The operation, codenamed Operation Meghdoot aimed to pre-empt Pakistan’s push to occupy it. It ignited a conflict that neither side had envisioned, an instructive tale of how operations can spiral out far beyond the initial intent of the opposing armies.

Before 1984, Pakistan used to permit foreign mountaineers to explore the area; India would send its climbers to ensure that nothing mischievous was afoot. Gradually, the civilian mountaineering expeditions changed into army patrols. India sensed that Pakistan planned to induct military forces to capture the Saltoro ridge. Thus began Operation Meghdoot, and the ongoing artillery war on glaciated terrain at heights up to 21,000 feet claimed over 800 Indian lives, mainly due to weather.

The current demilitarising offer is not the first such move.

On December 17, 1985, Rajiv Gandhi and Zia-ul-Haq had agreed to begin talks on Siachen at the level of defence secretaries. In 1989, after the fifth round of these talks, the two sides explicitly spoke of an “agreement” that would aim at redeployment of dispositions and avoidance of the use of force. The future deployments were to be determined by the two armies. In the discussions that ensued, the Indian Army insisted on identifying existing positions (AGPL), a stance India has retained since the first day. Still, in November 1992, the two sides managed to cobble together an agreement, but Prime Minister Narasimha Rao refused to ratify the deal. By then, the originators of these parleys – Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Zia ul Haq – had both perished in tragic circumstances.

In 2006, the two countries – then led by Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf – had even agreed to remove the one stumbling block of authenticating the ground positions of the two armies’ dispositions. Draft deals were approved in principle by the stakeholders. But then, as per the former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, the idea was scrapped when the NSA and the COAS opposed it in a CCS meeting on the grounds of trust deficit vis a vis Pakistan. Understandably, the ghost of Kargil would have cast a shadow on these confabulations. Interestingly, in 2015, the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson denied that the two sides had ever reached an agreement.

In April 2012, another call for demilitarisation came from Pakistan’s Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The incentive for this peace offering was a tragedy; earlier that month, an avalanche in Gayari at Siachen had buried 124 soldiers of the 6 Northern Light Infantry and 11 civilians. General Kayani had lamented that Pakistan was not manning those treacherous heights out of choice and that India and Pakistan should negotiate to pull back. Almost immediately, Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju responded by welcoming the statement. But there was no follow-through from either side.

The current offer by General Naravane is thus a renewal of a sequence of past efforts. Does it stand a better chance of succeeding than the previous attempts?

The first element to examine is – what has changed for both sides to consider the offer?

The horrendous economic and human cost of occupying Siachen has been a constant. Last month, two Pakistani pilots were killed when their Ecureuil helicopter crashed in Siachen, an incident that represents a tiny tragic blip on a map of a series of losses of lives on both sides. The economic and logistic bleeding has driven the two countries to the table even in the past. Given Pakistan’s increasingly parlous economy, merely on financial grounds, the motivation to resume dialogue couldn’t be more robust.

But what of the ‘strategic importance’ of Siachen? Have imperatives that rushed both the Armies into this icy hole in the first place become less relevant? We have seldom moved beyond the oft-repeated pronouncements that the Saltoro Ridge is preventing the direct linking of PoK with China, it serves as a ‘watchtower’ for India to keep a deep watch on Gilgit and Baltistan regions of Pakistan, and it dominates the routes leading to Leh. 

Indeed, only two years ago, while speaking on the Army Day, General Naravane had flagged the clear and present danger of possible collusion between China and Pakistan, particularly in the areas near the Siachen glacier and Shaksgam Valley. Has that perception changed, and the threat of the Pakistan-China nexus in the area receded?

Purely in operational terms, identifying Actual Ground Positions is possible, even if the process may stretch into months. However, the key to an agreement will be a fool-proof verification regime that obviates another Kargil-type blindsiding. Verification will involve technology, of course, but more importantly, an ungrudging willingness of the two sides to make concessions such as overflight of drones and conventional aircraft for surveillance. This part of the agreement may be a long haul but is far less problematic than the strategic issues.

Are we sure that the other strategic concerns that have kept us on Siachen now somehow stand resolved? Many military thinkers have believed that the arguments that Siachen helps us ‘dominate’ the road to Leh or gives us eyes into the Karakoram highway and Gilgit-Baltistan are thin. If we even partly agree with these views, a trade-off to save enormous costs in money and lives makes perfect sense.

But what of the growing threat from China? The standoff in Eastern Ladakh and the massive build-up by PLA in sub-sector North is hardly conducive to a near-future pull-out from Siachen.

Descaling from Siachen will free our resources to bolster troops arrayed against the escalating Northern threat. Therefore, it is axiomatic that it is in China’s interests to prevent such a de-escalation for that precise reason. Will the Chinese allow their ‘all-weather friends’ Pakistan to reach an agreement that strengthens India’s hand against them in the long run?

For decades, Pakistan’s relations with China have been robust. However, at this juncture, Pakistan is on the defensive and even more indebted to China.

Pakistan’s inability to repay loans and the Chinese reluctance to reschedule payments has strained the relations publically. Fissures are visible over terms of payment on projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); China has demanded $38 million in compensation as a precondition to resume the work on the stalled Dasu Hydropower Project.

China has also termed Pakistan’s internal security condition as ‘severe’. Last year in July, militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed nine Chinese nationals working on the Dasu Hydropower Project. Next month, a suicide bomber targeted a convoy carrying Chinese personnel working on the East-Bay Expressway project in Gwadar. Several anti-Chinese demonstrations at Gwadar have not made things any easier.

Given that the US is no longer giving Pakistan the slightest of free-passes – President Biden has so far refused to speak to Prime Minister Imran Khan –Pakistan will continue to be under implicit Chinese influence. The Chinese will dictate Pakistan’s moves for years to come – and therein lies the doubt over a possible handshake over Siachen.

Even if the Chinese were to stay away from pulling Pakistan back ostensibly, we need to examine if we should embark on demilitarisation in the current environment vis a vis the Chinese. Cast iron guarantees and verification regimes will be a sine qua non, but so will be cooling of temperatures with China.

Till then, alas, our soldiers must continue to stand vigil on this strategic lump of ice physically.   

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran and is the founder-CEO of Leadscape Advisors. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

Get live Stock Prices from BSE, NSE, US Market and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, Check out latest IPO News, Best Performing IPOs, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Financial Express Telegram Financial Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with the latest Biz news and updates.