Siachen and the Indian Khaki

by Nasim Zehra, (Tuesday May 16 2006)¬† “…to ensure that at least a beginning is made in the conflict’s resolution between the two countries ? which are in their third year of dialogue ? the Indian Prime Minister needs to take the army along.”
On May 23, Pakistan and India will enter a crucial round of negotiations on Siachen in Delhi. These talks are important because they represent an opportunity to actually resolve a long-standing dispute between the two nuclear neighbors and demonstrate to the critics of the dialogue progress that the process is achieving more than just normalization of relations.

Behind the scenes, the foreign secretaries have discreetly worked on the details of the deal. However, as Pakistani and Indian leadership attempt to forge a resolution of the Siachen dispute, the hurdles, especially in India, are evident. For an agreement to be reached, the onus on managing the army rests on the Indian Prime Minister.

A formidable hurdle is the Indian armed forces itself. In April, when public indications were made regarding the possibility for India and Pakistan to reach an agreement on Siachen, the Indian armed forces took a public position against complete withdrawal from Siachen. The Indian armed forces’ public opposition is exceptionally surprising for two reasons. First, because of the Indian armed forces’ commendable tradition to stay clear of politics and public diplomacy. Second, because the military’s constitutional mandate is to work under the civilian leadership.

It is interesting to track the posturing between the Indian armed forces and India’s civilian leadership about the possibility of a Pakistan-India Siachen agreement. The civilian leadership’s position became evident on April 19 when ‘The Asian Age’ first carried the story ‘PM to take Siachen plan to Pak’. The report claimed that “Dr Manmohan Singh is now almost certain to take with him back channel negotiated solutions to Siachen and possibly Sir Creek.” It also detailed the possible way out of dealing with the abiding hurdle ? the authentication dilemma.

Part of the debate between the civilian and military leadership in Delhi revolves around the necessity for Pakistan to authenticate the illegally occupied positions that its troops held in Siachen since 1984. Pakistan refuses to authenticate, arguing that its authentication of these illegally held positions could potentially be used to establish India’s legal jurisdiction of these positions. According to ‘The Asian Age’, a possible solution to this issue was that India’s current troop positions be annexed to the main text of an agreement. This ‘Asian Age’ story also reports strong reservations within the army on a possible Siachen agreement.

The former Indian Army Vice-Chief Vijay Oberoi maintained that without authentication, it means India is ‘climbing down’, which is unacceptable to the military. The Indian armed forces made their position known on April 20, in AFP’s lead story ‘Indian army against deal with Pakistan on Kashmir glacier’. According to AFP, the Indian Army Chief, J. J. Singh said at a Press conference “we should not call it demilitarization as it is a process, and the first step will be disengagement and the next will be demilitarization, but it is not immediately on the horizon as we see it.”

Furthermore, on May 10, the Indian Air Force’s Air Officer-in-Chief of the Western Command sent a strong, as if non-negotiable, message. He told the visiting Press corps in Leh that: “There is no question of shutting the Siachen airfield. Its importance is not only from the strategic point of view, but also as a lifeline to the civilians.” He added “If demilitarization takes place ? like everybody else I hope it does ? the role of the IAF will remain. A certain role will be played in maintaining the troops. Our role will certainly remain.”

Significantly, on May 11, in response to a question in Parliament, the Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said: “There is no decision taken at present to pull out troops from the Siachen Glacier.” Clearly, the Indian government must feel the heat of the Indian military establishment. But that is not entirely new where it comes to Siachen. Two earlier agreements, in 1989 and in 1992, were almost through but scuttled in Delhi at the last minute. At the moment, the Indian armed forces are objecting on four grounds.

First, that the Indian leadership is planning to make the Indian army give up a strategic gain. There is some thinking within the army and among India’s strategic establishment that in vacating Siachen, India will be favouring Pakistan, and therefore, it would be ill-advised. The assumption, in most comments by India’s defence personnel, is that Pakistan will try and re-capture Siachen. Clearly, the track record of both sides of the LoC has been one of ‘hit and claim’ whenever possible; whether Kargil (first India occupied during the 1971 war, and then Pakistan in 1999) or Chor Batla.

The second argument is that Siachen should be linked to the Kashmir solution and that India must demand a quid pro quo on Kashmir. Quoting a retired diplomat, ‘The Asian Age’ reported: “If we give up on Siachen, which is what this now amounts to, then we should be able to dictate some terms on Kashmir.”

The third position that the Indian defense establishment takes is that vacating Siachen would not be a prudent move. In case of a Pakistani occupation of Siachen, it would not be easy for India to regain control of it. They argue that the topographical advantages that accrue to Pakistan will make access many times more difficult for India.

According to Indian army sources quoted in the Indian Press: “It would take India six days to get to a point, while it would take Pakistan only four days.”

Finally, the fourth position is that complete withdrawal of the army and the air force will not be possible. The Indian Air Force must retain its base in Siachen. In Siachen at present, there are approximately 7,000 Indian army troops and about 4,000 Pakistani troops stationed at the 20,700-ft height. There, the cold is more of a killer than battle. It costs the Indian treasury about $223,000 a day to keep troops in Siachen.

Clearly, to ensure that at least a beginning is made in the conflict’s resolution between the two countries¬†‘ which are in their third year of dialogue¬†‘ the Indian Prime Minister needs to take the army along. Some contours of a possible agreement have almost been worked out as the foreign secretaries of the two countries have discreetly worked on it behind the scenes. But, unless the Indian civilian leadership can take the Indian Army along, the much-awaited Siachen agreement may yet again have a false start. Just like in 1989 and 1992.

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