Getting real on Siachen
April 18, 2012
By now all of us know MJ9842, the actual ground position line (AGPL) on the Saltoro Ridge, and the three passes that flow downwards from Saltoro to Pakistanís northern areas merging into the erstwhile combined territories of AJK &NA. We know the history of this conflict and its current state; also the respective positions that both India and Pakistan hold on the way forward and the divergence in those views which when stated plainly makes any resolution a non-starter unless one side gives in.
The recent interring of 139 Pakistani troops and their battalion headquarters, however, has brought the spotlight back on the utility of such senseless deployment on both sides. I also have on record a statement of some retired, and still responsible, senior Indian military officers who have categorically declared Siachen without any strategic value to India. The Pakistanis too make the same point having been on the receiving end of a 28 year old war which hasnít seen a bullet fired in anger since 2003. Yet 8000 have lost their lives on both sides of Saltoro Ridge.
This is why? The Siachen Glacier as the 90 km long and about 50 km wide snow-mass sits between the Karakoram in the north and the Hindu Kush in the west. It juts out from within these physical boundaries through the various passes that saddle the divide along Saltoro. The farthest of these along this ridge is the Indra Kol. The eastern most point on the Karakorams is the Karakoram Pass where the three countries, India, China and Pakistan meet before the terrain moves further east into Tibet from that point.
Almost a subtended centre of this northern base is the demarcated point MJ9842. This makes this bounded region an inverted triangle whose apex sits at 9842, while its base runs along the Pak-China border between Indra Koli and the Karakoram Pass. With India having occupied the Saltoro Ridge in 1984 in a pre-emptive move, this entire triangle now is under its occupation.
The Indian stance, when negotiating on Siachen, is to disregard the 3500 square kilometres area bounded by the triangle and instead focuses on the AGPL alone which contains their deployed positions on the Saltoro Ridge. Similar to the Simla Agreement they seek the conversion of the AGPL into a LoC extending from its present position at MJ9842 to their current line of holding. Pakistan, however, seeks to declare the entire area within the inverted triangle as the contested region just as the Kashmir dispute stands formulated despite an LoC that demarcates the two parts of Kashmir under the control of the two nations. India only grants the ridge as the line of conflict, disregarding the area behind while Pakistan seeks settlement of the entire region enclosed within the triangle.
Pakistan, though, is willing to settle for any interim solution in Siachen without prejudicing the claims of either side. Both sides will do well to emphasise that any interim solution that they Ďmayí reach will not prejudice their respective claims till a final settlement is reached. But I get too far ahead of me, though it is an important point to register. That explains the intractability of the Siachen issue.
Letís now move to the evolving grander design. To anyone who looks at the map it will become abundantly clear that the terrain slopes down the Saltoro Ridge into the northern areas of Pakistan and thence to the adjoining Kashmir region under the control of Pakistan. The snow-mass that submerged the Pakistani positions last fortnight drifted down along these slopes.
It remains the impassability of the terrain which has kept India from moving down the slopes in a grand encirclement manoeuvre, at least in the theoretical sense, along the Northern Areas of Pakistan to envelop the Pakistani controlled territories of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. That explains the strategic potential, though the force and the terrain needed to execute this would be almost impossible in quantum, capacity and capability with a terribly long logistic chain. Who says that isnít strategically significant for a nation whose strategic vision is still evolving?
Next, by sitting across at the Karakoram if the triangle is ceded to India Ė as she desires by recognising and recording her current position along the AGPL Ė she sits on the door between China and Pakistan and also on the western gate to Tibet. Keep in mind that China has linked its Western Sinkiang Province to Tibet through a network of highways and planned railroads that will sit just across the Indian position on the Karakoram. It doesnít get more strategic than that for all sides. India also assumes that China has made a steady foray into the bordering regions of India in Pakistanís Northern Areas in the garb of developmental works such as the Karakoram Road Project and the Neelum-Jhelum Power project and is happy to have driven a wedge of sorts in a physical sense.
The strategic relevance thus exists if indeed terrain alone was the issue. The more we peel the core off its trappings, paradoxically the more complex it becomes. The other way is to take the altruistic view and relate to the undo-ability of this entire grand scheme and instead invest in protection, preservation and sustenance of a common resource which Siachen is to both India and Pakistan. It feeds two rivers, Nubra and Shyok, of which Shyok then feeds into the Indus. The Indus water system remains eternally dependent on what happens to these glaciers and to their life over the coming centuries.
If under the weight of external defacement by troop presence and associated activity, the river sources dry, the entire civilisational system of the Indus valley will be disrupted. Dependent on water as the source of life and thus in its absence facing certain extinction hordes, nay civilisations, will migrate into adjoining regions causing chaos and disruption never experienced before. If that doesnít endanger life, regional and global stability, what else will?
Siachen has gotten more warped in countless complexities with time. What may have just begun as a pre-emptive up-man-ship between the two competitive neighbours has now developed a life of its own, difficult to shed and difficult to untangle. The only strategic significance thus that needs to be played in the issue of Siachen is the tenuous civilisational future in South Asia. The loss of the 139 soldiers in the Gayari sector of Siachen and the 8000 others that have been lost mostly to elements cry for rectifying a serious strategic miscalculation. It must be righted forthwith. The short term geo-strategic interest may only prove to be some dastardly distraction. Avoid it!
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff. Email: shhzdchdhry @yahoo.com