Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Siachen: a costly war for Pakistan and India

It is of paramount importance that both the countries must find an immediate solution to the problem, which must not be less than an unconditional withdrawal from Siachen Glacier by both.


Siachen Glacier, first discovered in 1907, is the world’s longest glacier outside the polar regions, measuring 47 miles in length and three miles in width while rising to about 23,272 feet until Indrakoli Pass (Turkistan la). The glacier emanates from here near the Indrakoli Pass on the Pakistan-China border, 37 aerial miles southeast of K-2, the second highest mountain in the world. It then runs along the Saltoro Range in southeasterly direction until its snout turns into the Nubra River near Dzingrulma in Indian-held Kashmir. The glacier is flanked by the Saltoro Range in the west and can be approached from the Balti town of Khapalu, Pakistan. The only other access to the glacier is along Nubra River, ascending from south to northwest in Indian-occupied Ladakh. The Saltoro Range inside Pakistan provides access to Siachen through its five passes, Sia la (23,960 feet), Bilafond la (20,210 feet), Gyong la (18,500 feet), Yarma la (20,000 feet) and Chulung la (19,000 feet). It is on these perennially snowbound heights and passes that the Indian and Pakistani armies are entrenched.

On July 27, 1949, Pakistan and India signed the Karachi Agreement (also known as the Ceasefire Agreement), which established a ceasefire line running through the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. By this time, India controlled and occupied over two-thirds of Kashmir. This ceasefire line was established by experts from the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) as well as the Indian and Pakistani armed forces, and drawn up according to the countries’ military positions at the time of the ceasefire. The line started from a point near Chamb in Jammu and ran north in a rough arc for 497 miles, then headed northeastward to a point called NJ 9842 (map reference point). The point is located about 12 miles north of Shyok River in the Saltoro Range of the Karakoram Mountains. From this point north to the Chinese border, the area was left undemarcated because of its physical inaccessibility and the fact that neither country had military troops stationed there. The costly Siachen conflict is over this undemarcated, approximately 50-mile stretch of icy wasteland in the disputed territory of northern Kashmir.

India insists that, according to the agreement, the ceasefire line beyond NJ 9842 runs northward to the Chinese border through the glaciated region, putting Siachen Glacier under its control. Pakistan disagrees, claiming that the 1949 Karachi Agreement contained no reference to a border ceasefire line beyond NJ 9842. In fact, India has violated both the 1972 Simla Agreement and the 1949 Karachi Agreement by unilaterally crossing the line of control and occupying Siachen Glacier in 1984. The Indians occupied the heights and the key northern passes of Sia la and Bilafond la on the Saltoro Range and later towards the south to Chullung la.

It has been 28 years since both the Indians and Pakistanis are entrenched at Siachen facing each other. Throughout the conflict, India has claimed the right to control all of Kashmir, including Siachen, regardless of the Karachi agreement. In fact, the Siachen Glacier is part of the Northern Areas of Pakistan in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir and has been under its administrative control from 1947 to 1984. Many mountaineering and trekking expeditions were sent to the area during this period, authorised by the Pakistan government. As early as 1957, the Imperial College of London asked the Pakistan authorities for permission to send an expedition to Siachen. Many other international expeditions, including one by an Austrian team (in 1961) and three by Japanese groups (in 1962, 1975 and 1976), sought Pakistani authorisation to visit Siachen’s nearby mountain peaks and glaciers. In addition, many international mountaineering, trekking journals and guide books refer to Pakistan as the governmental authority in the Siachen area like Britannica Atlas, the National Geographic Society’s Atlas of the World, The Times Atlas of the World and the University of Chicago’s A Historical Atlas of South Asia. They all place Siachen Glacier and the surrounding territory within the borders of Pakistan.

For the last 28 years, countless lives from both the sides have been lost more due to the hard climate and rugged glaciated terrain than firefights and skirmishes. Both the countries are developing; have poor economies, and the majority of the population of both are deprived of the basic amenities of life, yet both are spending millions of dollars out of their defence budget in maintaining and sustaining the troops at Siachen. The recent episode of Gayari Sector in which the complete battalion headquarters of the Pakistan army was crushed when an overhanging glacier broke loose in the shape of a massive avalanche and buried 145 soldiers alive, calls for an immediate solution to the problem. Human lives — whether Pakistani or Indian — are precious and especially when they are being lost for such a useless icy wasteland. This then raises serious questions for the rulers of both the countries. Pakistan and India have emerging economies and both the nations need to do a lot to improve the lives and general condition of their civilian population where many live below the poverty line.

India is spending much more as compared to Pakistan on the Siachen Glacier and its side of the logistics route. It needs mostly air transportation by helicopters to sustain its frontline troops, which entails a very heavy cost on its defence budget. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that both the countries sit at the table to find an immediate solution to the problem, which must not be less than an unconditional withdrawal from Siachen Glacier by both. It shall help relieve their ailing economies and more so shall save precious human lives. Such a withdrawal by both countries shall protect the natural environment of the glacier (which is a main source of water for both). It is high time now that Pakistan and India resolve all their outstanding issues including Kashmir, Sir Creek, Siachen, distribution of water as per the Indus Water Treaty as well as both sides learning to respect each other’s sovereignty. The goodwill between both the countries shall ultimately benefit the masses in terms of peace, progress and prosperity.

The writer is a former officer of the elite Armoured Corps Regiment, Staff Captain (A) of an Independent Armoured Brigade Group during escalation with India in 2001-02, commander of an armour squadron on an internal security operation at Sui-Dera Bugti in 2003-06 and General Staff Officers Operations of two Corps of Pakistan Rangers (Punjab). He is also a former national level hockey player and holds an Army gold in the 33rd Para Central Meet-2005 

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