Siachen: folly or tragedy?
April 23, 2012
Last Tuesday, ten days after a battalion headquarters of the Pakistani army in the Gyari sector of Siachen was engulfed by a massive landslide, Nawaz Sharif became the country’s first political leader to visit the area. Zardari followed the next day, when he left the presidential bunker for a few hours to make the obligatory journey. Both of them viewed the avalanche site from their helicopters. Neither of them undertook the jeep ride-admittedly not very comfortable-to the place of the disaster.
After his aerial tour, Zardari expressed appreciation for the efforts being made by the army in the search-and-rescue operation and-through a press release of the government – ”paid glowing tributes to the valiant soldiers.” But, inexplicably, he did not personally utter a single word to express sympathy for those who lie buried under a mountain of rock and ice, and for their families.
The government and the political parties have also failed in other ways to give expression to the sentiments of the public over this calamity. The business of government cannot be stopped, but a countrywide dua could have been held for those who have been separated from us while protecting the country from foreign incursion. For their part, our political parties could have called a truce in the mutual mudslinging that passes for politics in our country.
Some of our private TV channels have followed the same business-as-usual attitude. They could at least have suspended their entertainment programmes for the duration of the search-and-rescue operation. Our “civil society,” quite well-rehearsed in holding vigils when people of their own class are victims, has also not bestirred itself into action over Gayari.
Nawaz Sharif became the first, and so far only, national political figure to have visited the families of the Gayari victims to offer his sympathies. But much of what he said to the media at Skardu that day on the Siachen dispute betrays a poor knowledge of the facts and an even poorer understanding of the dynamics of the problem.
Nawaz again harped on his talks with Vajpayee in 1999 at the Lahore Summit and called upon governments in both countries to follow up on the dialogue on Siachen that he had launched at the time. Nawaz does not seem to know that Siachen remains a fixed item on the agenda of the bilateral dialogue. The 12th session of this series was held last May and the next round is due in Islamabad shortly.
The two countries reached an understanding on demilitarisation of the glacier in 1989 but the finalisation of an agreement was scuttled by Indian hawks. India has since then been inflexible in its demand that demilitarisation should be preceded by delineation of the AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) and the authentication of the military positions on the map. Naturally, this condition is not acceptable to Pakistan as it would amount to legitimising India’s incursion into Siachen in violation of the Simla Agreement.
In an editorial last Thursday, a Karachi newspaper famous for its pro-India proclivities suggested that Pakistan should agree to the Indian demand for recording the current ground positions on a map, as a way of getting the Indians to climb down from the heights that they have occupied. However, such a concession by Pakistan is unlikely to be acceptable to mainstream public opinion in the country.
Some sections of our press have carried reports saying that India has welcomed Kayani’s call for demilitarisation of Siachen. This is not quite true. All that Indian minister of state for defence Pallam Raju said was that he was glad Pakistan also “realised the challenges and the economic problems of maintaining troops on the Siachen Glacier.”
There is in fact little ground for any optimism that Delhi would moderate its stance on Siachen after the Gayari tragedy, or in response to the peace overtures of Pakistan’s political and military leadership. On the contrary, the expectation among many Indian experts is that Pakistan will now become more amenable to the Indian demand for authentication of ground positions prior to demilitarisation and withdrawal of troops.
This viewpoint would no doubt gain weight from the dovish noises made by Nawaz and by a few of our “liberal” commentators. That, in turn, could induce Indian policymakers to further dig in their heels, making a mutual accommodation between the two sides on the Siachen dispute even less likely.
As regards the impact of Kayani’s demilitarisation call on future bilateral negotiations on Siachen, The Times of India reported last week that a breakthrough is regarded by the Indian establishment as “elusive” unless Islamabad agrees to authenticate the ground positions of the troops. In other words, there would be no change in the Indian stance. After Kargil, the newspaper went on, the Indian army is even more wary of Pakistani intentions.
A fresh justification being advanced by India now for its refusal to honour the bilateral understanding on troop redeployment reached in 1989 is the alleged presence of Chinese construction and engineering teams in Gilgit-Baltistan. One Indian “security analyst” writes that any ultimate agreement on Siachen has to be part of an overall package that would address not only India’s concerns relating to the “increasing Chinese presence” in the area but also the “suppression of the Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan who have ethnic links with the Shias of (Indian-occupied) Jammu and Kashmir.”
In his meeting with the press last week in Skardu, Nawaz was reported to have called for the unilateral withdrawal of Pakistani troops from Siachen. He has since denied having made this proposal. But he still maintains his belief that “if we withdraw the army from Siachen, India would definitely withdraw too.” “Considering my political career as two-time prime minister,” he said, “everyone should trust my opinion.” He still does not seem to know how little the people of Pakistan trust his “opinion” after his two failed terms as prime minister.
Besides calling for troop withdrawal from Siachen, Nawaz also demanded that the money spent on the troops should instead be used to improve the lot of the common man. It is true, as Kayani said a day later, that the country cannot “keep spending on defence alone and forget about development.” But economic development requires an atmosphere of internal and external security. And security comes with a price tag. That price has to be paid by the soldiers with their blood and their lives and by the citizens with the payment of taxes.
While Nawaz called for diverting funds from defence to development, he did not say anything about the payment of taxes. Because our ruling classes cheat on their taxes, Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio is just 10.2 percent. That ratio is 15.3 percent in Sri Lanka and 17.7 percent in India. If we reach the tax rate of Sri Lanka, we would generate nearly $10 billion in additional revenue per year, or nearly twice our current defence expenditure; and if we attain the same ratio as India, we would have additional revenue of $15 billion.
As regards our defence budget, it is doubtful that we can cut it down drastically, given our security environment. According to figures on global military spending released by SIPRI last Monday, Pakistan spent $5.685 billion on defence in 2011. This compares with $44.282 billion spent by India, 7.8 times that of Pakistan. Pakistan’s defence expenditure as a share of GDP was 2.8 percent, while that of India was 2.7 percent of its GDP.
We definitely need to spend far more on our economic and social development, but without compromising our defences. The money for development should come instead from the pockets of members of our ruling classes who do not pay their taxes and who siphon way national wealth through rampant corruption.