Pakistan’s recent loss of 138 military and civilian personnel, buried by an avalanche in the Siachen Glacier area, is a tragedy. Apart from the obvious loss of life, this disaster is tragic because of the futility of Indian and Pakistani forces “fighting” on a remote glacier that is 6,000 metres (or 20,000 feet) above sea level.
These forces do little actual fighting, chiefly because the high and rarefied altitude makes that difficult at the best of times. Add in snow, fog, inclement weather, freezing conditions and remoteness, and a posting on Siachen is more about surviving harsh conditions, loneliness and boredom, than about slaying the enemy. Not surprisingly, most soldiers from either nation die from exposure, altitude sickness and associated illnesses, or from natural calamities, such as avalanches. Few die from actual fighting.
Nevertheless, India and Pakistan continue to post forces to this wasteland – as they have done since about 1984. They do so for reasons of national pride, because of the doctrine that dominates the political and military thinking of both nations of “not giving an inch” of territory to the enemy, and for strategic reasons.
Siachen Glacier is located in an area of the disputed former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where the ceasefire line, later renamed the Line of Control (LOC), was never delimited. This was because no one envisaged that anyone would want to station forces in this high, barren and inhospitable area beyond map point NJ980420, where the LOC officially ends. Apart from waterways that rise in the area, the glacier is close to the strategic Karakoram Pass that links J&K with China (not be confused with the Karakoram Highway that enters J&K from China via the Kunjerab Pass, much further north). Even though any conventional, land-based invasion by Chinese troops into J&K would require a massive capability, given the strength of China-Pakistan relations, India wants to control this area to prevent any such possibility.
A further reason that India and Pakistan are on Siachen is to do with territory. The ceasefire line/LOC talks of the undelimited LOC heading ‘north to the [J&K-China] border’. New Delhi takes this as being north-west; for Islamabad, it is north-east. Both are making a naked grab for more land – albeit remote and inhospitable.
A further tragedy is that few powerbrokers in India or Pakistan seem to feel much urgency to end the very costly – not to mention inhumane – exercise of posting troops on Siachen. Soldiers usually spend about three months on the glacier, with equivalent times either side acclimatising, then declimatising. A few years ago, the cost for India was some US$3 million per day. With shorter supply lines, it costs Pakistan less, although, relatively speaking, given that India’s economy is getting stronger while Pakistan’s flounders, the cost for India is less.
Since January 1986, India and Pakistan have sought to demilitarise Siachen Glacier. The issue was also one of the eight items considered by India and Pakistan in their now-stalled Composite Dialogue. Some progress was apparently made, although the sticking point was, is, and will remain, the fact that India and Pakistan don’t trust one another. Analysts call this the “trust deficit”, an appropriate term in relation to Siachen, as evidenced by the Indian Army. Usually impeccably apolitical, senior Indian army officers have in the past unusually used the Indian media to “play politics” on the issue of demilitarising the glacier. These officers distrust the Pakistani Army’s fidelity. On more than one occasion, Indian generals have called for “cast-iron”, internationally-enforceable guarantees from Pakistan that its army would not violate the demarcated – and tactically superior – position of the Indian Army on Siachen Glacier, should Indian forces ever withdraw.
There are a number of reasons why the Indians don’t trust the Pakistanis, although limited space here does not allow me to expand. Equally, and not surprisingly, however, the Pakistanis don’t trust the Indians. The issue of mistrust is arguably the major reason why India and Pakistan have not been able to demilitarise Siachen Glacier. It also explains why they have poor-to-parlous relations and why they are unable to solve the Kashmir dispute. If they could resolve the tragedy that is Siachen, then they may be able to move forward on their other disputes and issues.
Dr Christopher Snedden
About the Author: Dr Christopher Snedden is Dean/Head of College at the Navitas College of Public Safety, Melbourne, and Director of ASIA CALLING, a consultancy that undertakes work on South Asia. His latest publication is The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir, published by Hurst and Co., London, and Columbia University Press, New York.