On 7 April, 120 Pakistani soldiers perished after an avalanche hit their base at Gayari near the Siachen glacier. On a visit to the area, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, pointed to the futility of occupying those forbidding heights. Soon enough, liberal opinion in both countries latched on his statement and mounted pressure to “demilitarize” that area. Next month, India and Pakistan are to hold talks on the subject. In the meantime, Islamabad has postponed discussions on another contentious subject—the Sir Creek dispute (on the Kutch-Sindh border between the two countries). Siachen—or the Rose Garden, as it is known locally—many expect is a “doable” idea. It hardly is.
India established its troops in the Siachen glacier (and also key passes on the Saltoro ridge to the west of Siachen glacier) in 1984 after Pakistan indulged in what can only be described as “cartographic aggression”. Since then, India has held the high ground, making it difficult for Pakistan to seize area and initiative there. This, however, has not prevented military adventures by ambitious Pakistani soldiers. India has lost thousands of soldiers in the world’s highest battleground. The cost—men, material and treasure—has been formidable. If it withdraws now, these will be in waste.
In this 18 April 2012 file photo, Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani talks with reporters after visiting a Siachen area at Skardu, Pakistan. AP
Operational reasons apart, India has to contend with Pakistan’s diplomatic and military strategy which, for obvious reasons, is geared at securing the area for itself. Roughly, Islamabad’s idea of a “solution” includes the following elements. First, it wants redeployment away from the glacier/zone of contention. This is to be followed by noting of redeployed positions and creation of mechanisms/procedures for monitoring, etc, by experts. Finally, the Line of Control (LoC) beyond point NJ9842—the last map reference point till which the LoC is demarcated—is to be demarcated by an agreed process.
The problem is: this is hardly a solution. India wants the existing positions of the two countries in that area recorded. If this is not done and the procedure listed above is followed, it will fritter away its only advantage: its physical occupation of the Saltoro ridge. Pakistan rejects any demarcation of existing positions as it feels this will bestow a “legal” right on India to claim this territory. The farthest it has gone towards agreeing with India is agree to record the ground positions on a map—to be included as an annexure in an agreement—while the text of the agreement continues to spell extant claims.
There is danger in undertaking such a course of action. Even if India agrees to withdraw, there is no guarantee that Pakistan will not take over those heights after India vacates what it currently occupies. If anything, the military situation points to alarming possibilities.
Siachen and the Saltoro ridge, from the Pakistani side, are under the command of the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) based in Gilgit, which in turn is controlled by X Corps based in Rawalpindi. Most Pakistani military adventures at gaining advantage in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) owe their origins to the peculiar “strategic culture” of this military formation. Two examples illustrate this point. In 1992, FCNA launched a daring mission to counter India, and hopefully, recover positions in the Siachen area. The operation failed, but just so. Then, in the spring of 1999, when one could smell détente in the air, an ambitious and rash military operation was launched to seize strategic advantage in J&K, this time in Kargil. Once again, the FCNA and X Corps leadership was intimately involved.
Scholarly opinion in Pakistan and elsewhere affirms this state of affairs. Three experts—Peter Lavoy, Feroz Hassan Khan and Christopher Clary—state that “in particular, no existing explanation adequately explores the crucial driver of conflict: the unique strategic culture of the Pakistan army, in general, and the X Corps and FCNA, in particular”. They add, “The X Corps and FCNA were particularly embarrassed by the loss of the Siachen Glacier, which was undemarcated and unoccupied until 1984 when India launched Operation Meghdoot to capture it… Regardless of the actual circumstances, FCNA was held responsible for the loss of Siachen and other significant Indian incursions on the Pakistani side of the LoC… Officers posted to FCNA are quickly socialized to remember the past and at all costs defend their area of responsibility. They would rather be reprimanded for over-aggressiveness than leave a perceived vulnerability unprotected.” (“Pakistan’s motivations and calculations for the Kargil conflict”, pages 66-67 in Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict edited by Peter Lavoy, Cambridge University Press, 2009). Clearly, these soldiers will do whatever they can to recover territory, honour and prestige.
Seen thus, there is a tight fit between Pakistan’s political objectives and its military outlook. Its legal position—no agreement to demarcate the existing ground position—is suited for exploiting military opportunities should they arise at a later date, as they surely will, if India withdraws.
When seen in the light of these factors, withdrawal from the heights it occupies will be foolhardy for India. Given a recurring pattern of ambitious generals and “visible opportunities”, coupled with Pakistan’s woefully inadequate political oversight over its armed forces, it is a given that Islamabad will try and snatch what is currently under Indian control. History has proved that twice.
Comment at email@example.com
Siddharth Singh,is Editor (Views) at Mint.