Demilitarizing Siachen: Trading Strategic Advantage for Brownie Points
Maj Gen S G Vombatkere
The troubled India-Pakistan relationship has been punctuated by four military conflicts and decades-long military face-off across the IB and LOC, the most recent starting in 1984 on Siachen glacier in Ladakh. The illegal ceding of areas of north Ladakh by Pakistan to China, and China’s occupation of the Aksai Chin area in east Ladakh make Siachen glacier a regional strategic flash-point.
While over the past few months, the Siachen glacier (hereinafter referred to as “Siachen”) has been in the news, recently there has been a flurry of correspondence within the Indian strategic community on its demilitarization, some arguing for and others against it. There is a lobby favouring demilitarization, especially of Siachen, and meetings to discuss it have been held by an India-Pakistan group, the so-called Track-II team, comprising retired military officers and retired diplomats of both countries. Siachen-experienced retired Indian army officers are strongly opposed to demilitarizing Siachen for strategic and tactical reasons. There are no two opinions within Pakistan on this issue, because Pakistan only gains politically, economically and militarily by demilitarizing Siachen. This article examines demilitarization of Siachen without prejudice to demilitarization elsewhere or CBMs between the two countries.
a recent diplomatically-savvy initiative, Pakistan army chief General A.P.Kayani “advocated peaceful coexistence with India, adding that the civil and military leaderships of the two countries should discuss ways to resolve the issue” [of] “demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier” [Ref.1]. This initiative, triggered by the loss of 139 Pakistani soldiers killed in an avalanche at Gayari in April, is said to be driven by the need to cover up the long-standing lie sold to the Pakistani public that their soldiers were dying on Siachen facing Indian troops. The fact is that Gayari is in the Siachen region and not on Siachen itself, and there are no Pakistani troops on Siachen because Indian troops occupy Siachen and its commanding heights.
“Peaceful co-existence” is a strange phrase coming from a Pakistan army chief. Peaceful co-existence can very easily be achieved if the General would order his troops not to violate the ceasefire as is continually occurring, not violate the LOC as Pakistan did stealthily in 1999 around Kargil, and stop training and infiltrating terrorists across the LOC. But what is beyond being strange is that some eminent Indians took up the cue and recommended immediately settling the Siachen dispute by demilitarization. Such a recommendation is innocent of the fact that demilitarizing Siachen clearly involves India losing both strategic and tactical advantage, while for Pakistan it is a definite strategic gain traded off against an insignificant tactical loss. The strangeness does not end there. A former Indian army brigadier even suggested that demilitarizing Siachen was “a low-risk option to test [the] Pak[istan] army’s sincerity” [Ref.2]. The wisdom of taking the “low-risk option” of giving the key of one’s house to a thief to test his self-professed honesty, if at all it is an option, is questionable. Nor would it be an unduly harsh reflection on the Pakistani establishment, sometimes civilian, sometimes military, but always with antipathy towards India. This officer is part of the Track-II team that has agreed upon the modalities of demilitarizing Siachen.
India has consistently maintained in international fora that Jammu & Kashmir, including Siachen, is a part of India. Hence Indian troops abandoning their posts on and around Siachen and vacating Indian territory to satisfy “peace” initiatives by Pakistan, amounts to India surrendering its sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir, with repercussions on other parts of the LOC.
Besides, successive army chiefs including the present incumbent Gen Bikram Singh, have spoken strongly against demilitarizing Siachen because it would be strategic and tactical folly of the highest order. Notwithstanding, on April 30, 2012, Defence Minister A.K. Antony informed Parliament that government was holding meaningful dialogue with Pakistan to demilitarize Siachen [Ref.3]. Did Government of India (GoI) respond with unseemly alacrity to the Pakistan army chief’s call to demilitarize Siachen, even going through the procedural formality of informing Parliament? It is a fair bet that most MPs do not know where Siachen is, or what are the national sovereignty and security implications of its demilitarization. Perhaps GoI considers that informing Parliament is concurrence to proceed with talks, even demilitarization.
In early 2005, Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh was preparing for strategic cooperation with USA starting with the Framework Agreement on civilian nuclear energy and the Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture. International agreements are always finalized with wide-ranging preparatory discussions between the governments that are entering into agreement. Thus, it can safely be surmised that geopolitical strategic matters would have been discussed between USA and India in the preparatory stages. Perhaps demilitarizing Siachen was discussed at that time, because on June 13, 2005, the Prime Minister told troops at Siachen Base Camp that Siachen would be “converted from a point of conflict to a zone of peace”.
When governments negotiate, officials of both sides, with clear instructions from their respective governments, meet to work on the nitty-gritty of the negotiations, while the decision makers handle the policy and macro aspects. However, the media reports [Ref.4] that GoI has permitted Track-II negotiations on demilitarizing Siachen “through questionable intermediaries with close ties to Pakistan”. The “questionable intermediaries” are the retired Indian military officers and diplomats who formed the Indian side of the so-called Track-II discussions held in September 2012 at Lahore [Note 1]. The Indian side could not have operated without the knowledge of the Indian government, but it did so without mandate, even signing an agreement regarding the “how” of demilitarizing Siachen without the Indian government’s “whether” and “when” of demilitarization [Ref.5]. Obviously the Pakistani establishment has no trouble at all on “whether”, and “when” is clearly ASAP.
The mainstream print media has brought out articles that press for demilitarizing Siachen, some even arguing for it “now”, notably by A.G.Noorani [Ref.7]. An immediate riposte to it was not published by any newspaper, but fortunately did get published in niche journals, including one the same day [Ref.8]. This perhaps substantiates the view that “National dailies have refused to publish articles highlighting the enormous strategic disadvantage of withdrawing from Siachen. Similarly, this issue has not been debated on national television. There are rumors that the media is muffling any discussion on Siachen on the instructions of the government” [Ref.4].
One wonders why the Indian government would want the public to read about the “advantages” of demilitarizing Siachen, without allowing arguments that it may not be in the national interest. This, particularly when demilitarizing Siachen is against the advice of India’s army chief and such an issue of national importance with long-term strategic repercussions has not been discussed in Parliament. This undemocratic and politically devious approach by Government of India has surely set the rumour mills in motion, including one concerning a Nobel Peace Prize[b]
[b]Government of India is already engaged in dialogue with Pakistan on demilitarizing Siachen. If the decision to demilitarize Siachen has already been secretly taken, the present dialogue is to decide when to demilitarize. Pulling back troops from Siachen can only commence after written orders are issued by the Cabinet to the army chief. Actually pulling back troops depends upon the military situation, the time of year, preparation of positions to which to pull back, surveillance arrangements, and other operational and logistic arrangements. Only the Indian army can work out the modalities of demilitarization. Therefore the agenda of the Track-II team is meaningless and ACM Tyagi’s statement that the Track-II team has worked out a way to demilitarize Siachen “should the two sides ever agree to demilitarize”, is hollow. Indeed, it leads one to wonder whether the Track-II initiative is meant to force the hand of legitimate decision makers.
Those who oppose demilitarizing Siachen have questioned the competence of the Indian Track-II members to discuss demilitarization because of not having even visited Siachen. There are also conjectures of personal gain for its members. Words like “treasonable” have been used. Even if true, none of these can be proved at present, and probably never. Therefore it is best to confine the discussion to examining the arguments concerning demilitarization of Siachen in terms of regional and global geopolitics, noting that India’s over-riding considerations regarding Siachen are military and not civilian.
According to media reports, 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.9]. This includes the area Pakistani troops now occupy, facing Indian defensive positions on Siachen. If Indian troops pull out of Siachen, Pakistani or Chinese troops can easily defeat surveillance, as any soldier who has experienced Siachen will confirm, and infiltrate into tactically superior former Indian posts to gain strategic advantage. Re-occupation of these posts by Indian forces will be almost impossible. Chinese presence in Baltistan sets Siachen as a new frontier and possible flashpoint for hostilities between India and China. In the context of China having deployed missile units in Tibet within easy strike range of New Delhi. In this changed geopolitical situation, India pulling back from Siachen would be monumental strategic folly.
Strategist Gurmeet Kanwal, a member of the Track-II team, suggested an India-Pakistan Siachen demilitarization agreement including a clause that allows either side to take military action in case of violation by the other side [Ref.10]. If Pakistan or its Lessee, China, infiltrates into the demilitarized zone, India will “be at liberty” to take military action to vacate the encroachment. Thus, the “peace” agreement envisages violation, but suggests the remedy of re-opening armed hostilities that end peace! The inescapable fact is that demilitarizing Siachen will gift huge strategic advantage to Pakistan and China at India’s strategic cost, make a strategic coup for Pakistan. Would India consider demilitarizing disputed areas of Arunachal Pradesh to China for the sake of peace?
India’s strategic alignment with USA following the India-US nuclear deal signed between Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and U.S President George W. Bush dates back to 2005. The 123-Agreement was over-shadowed by the provisions of the U.S Hyde Act which is India-specific, and visualizes India adopting foreign policy “congruent with” USA’s.
NATO, a U.S-dominated military alliance, concerns the North Atlantic, but it has spread its area of policy and military influence into Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO is now influencing policy further eastward. Simultaneously, the Atlantic Council, a non-profit policy organization headquartered in USA and founded in 1961 to encourage cooperation between North America and Europe, has expanded its area of interest into the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Although it has close connections to influential policy makers within USA it is, by charter, independent of USA as well as NATO. But its activities include consideration of “global challenges [including] NATO’s future” [Ref.11]. Its South Asia Center “provides a forum for countries in greater South Asia to engage with one another on sustainable stability and economic growth in our quest to “wage peace” in the region, and develop links and better understanding among them and members of the Atlantic community”.
The Track-II talks on demilitarizing Siachen were sponsored and funded by the Atlantic Council. Thus, the Atlantic Council, which has reach to and is influenced by the policy-making mandarins of NATO (including the Pentagon) and the U.S administration, chose the Indian and Pakistani Track-II team members. The averment that the Indian Track-II members have nothing to do with the Indian government raises the question whether Pakistan’s initiative for demilitarizing Siachen has USA’s backing through the Atlantic Council, to persuade India to acquiesce against its national strategic best interests. That could explain the Indian government’s apparent eagerness to demilitarize Siachen and earn brownie points with its senior strategic partner, thus scoring a self-goal with unacceptable and irretrievable strategic costs.
Article 73 of the Constitution of India empowers the Prime Minister, as the country’s chief executive, to enter into a treaty or agreement with a foreign power. Thus, in 2005, the government went ahead with signing a strategic agreement with USA, without prior discussion in Parliament. Apprehensions that the present government, beset by accusations of weakness, indecisiveness and monumental corruption, may sign an agreement with Pakistan to demilitarize Siachen to divert public attention, may not be unfounded.
While diplomatic engagement for peace with Pakistan is necessary, compromising national sovereignty and security or territorial integrity is unacceptable. Therefore, it is vital that Parliamentarians carefully consider arguments for and against demilitarizing Siachen without prejudice to CBMs or demilitarization in any other sector, and ensure discussion on the matter before any agreement is signed. If Indian troops are ordered to vacate posts on Saltoro ridge and Siachen that were won at the cost of the lives and limbs of many soldiers, it would amount to devaluing their sacrifices and their families’ pain and suffering, besides being strategic folly.