Since 13 April 1984, Indian and Pakistani troops have confronted each other, eyeball to eyeball, for control of the Siachen Glacier and its approaches in the eastern Karakoram mountain range, adjacent to the borders of India, Pakistan and China. The conflict has resulted in hundreds of casualties, caused more by adverse climatic conditions and harsh terrain than the occasional military skirmish.
This is by far the longest-running armed conflict between two regular armies in the 20th century. However, this is not a declared war. India and Pakistan continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with each other, and have many other ties, including economic and academic. Neither is this a conventional conflict: although both armies are conventionally armed, weather, altitude, and terrain make this uninhabitable region an unlikely zone of armed strife.
The Siachen Glacier is one of the most inhospitable and glaciated regions in the world. Sliding down a valley in the Karakoram Range, the glacier is 76 km long and varies in width between 2 and 8 km. It receives 6 to 7 m of the annual total of 10 m of snow in winter alone. Blizzards can reach speeds up to 150 knots (nearly 300 km per hour). The temperature routinely drops to 40 degrees Celsius below zero, and even lower with the wind chill factor. For these reasons, the Siachen Glacier has been called the “Third Pole”.
This epithet, however, is misleading as it focuses solely on the adverse weather conditions and completely ignores the deleterious impact of altitude and terrain. The high altitude compounds the severity of the bitter climatic conditions. Base camp for Indian forces is 12,000 feet above sea level. The altitude of some Indian forward bases on the Saltoro Ridge ranges from Kumar (16,000 feet) and Bila Top (18,600 feet) to Pahalwan (20,000 feet) and Indira Col (22,000 feet). Because of the steep gradient of the Saltoro Range, the area is also prone to avalanches. These adverse conditions have direct consequences: since the war began, only 3 percent of the Indian casualties have been caused by hostile firing. The remaining 97 percent have fallen prey to the altitude, weather, and terrain.
Pakistani combat casualties are equally low because troops are dug in, artillery fire over mountain peaks is generally inaccurate (as winds are erratic and difficult to predict in such terrains), and infantry assaults are seldom made in the harsh climate and difficult terrain. As with the Indians, most Pakistani casualties occur because of the climate, terrain, and altitude. Pakistani positions are, for the most part, at altitudes lower than the Indian ones, ranging between 9000 and 15,000 feet, although some, such as Conway Saddle (17,200 feet), which controls ingress to the glacier, are much higher. On the other hand, glaciers at the Pakistani frontlines begin at 9440 feet and Pakistani troops are stationed on steep slopes, exposed to harsh weather.
The fight for the Siachen Glacier involves territory claimed by both states but controlled by neither until the mid-1980s. The origins of this armed conflict lie in the India-Pakistan dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1948, following an inconclusive war, the areas of the disputed state that fell under Pakistan comprised of the Northern Areas (Baltistan and Gilgit Agency) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, while India controlled two-thirds of the territory including Jammu, Ladakh, and the valley of Kashmir.
A cease-fire line (CFL) was established as a result of the 1949 India-Pakistan agreement that concluded the war in Kashmir. The CFL ran along the international India-Pakistan border and then north and northeast until map grid-point NJ 9842, located near the Shyok River at the base of the Saltoro mountain range. Because no Indian or Pakistani troops were present in the geographically inhospitable northeastern areas beyond NJ 9842, the CFL was not delineated as far as the Chinese border. Both sides agreed, in the vague language that lies at the root of the Siachen dispute, that the CFL extended to the terminal point, NJ 9842, and “thence north to the glaciers”.
After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Tashkent agreement resulted in troop withdrawals to positions along the 1949 CFL. No attempt was made to extend the CFL further. Following Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war, the Shimla Agreement of 1972 established a new Line of Control (LOC) as a result of the cease-fire of December 1971. The Siachen Glacier region, where no fighting had taken place, was left undelineated, and again nothing was done to clarify the position of the LOC beyond NJ 9842. The LOC was merely described as moving from Nerlin (inclusive to India), Brilman (inclusive to Pakistan), up to Chorbat La in the Turtok sector. “From there the line of control runs northeastwards to Thang (inclusive to India) thence eastwards joining the glaciers.”
Since the Siachen Glacier region falls within the undelineated territory beyond the last defined section of the LOC, map grid-point NJ 9842, Indian and Pakistani territorial claims are based on their respective interpretations of the vague language contained in the 1949 and 1972 agreements. Pakistan draws a straight line in a northeasterly direction from NJ 9842 up to the Karakoram Pass, while India’s line of claim moves north-northwest from NJ 9842 along the watershed line of the Saltoro Range, a southern offshoot of the Karakoram.
Eyeball to eyeball
Any attempt to analyse the Siachen dispute and identify potential opportunities and mechanisms for its resolution involves not only mapping the geographical dimension but also mapping the policy terrain of the two disputant states. A look at Indian and Pakistani perceptions is equally essential since these shape policies and preferences in both countries.
For India, the Siachen Glacier is the wedge of territory that separates “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” from Aksai Chin, that part of Kashmir claimed and occupied by China. Siachen’s geostrategic importance lies in the fact that its control would support India’s defence of Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir against Pakistani and/or Chinese threats. It would prevent the outflanking of Indian forces in the Leh and Kargil sectors and connecting the Aksai Chin highway with the Karakoram pass. Control over Siachen would enable India to keep watch over the Karakoram Highway and the Khunjerab Pass, while fortifying its position in border negotiations with China.
Controlling the commanding heights is crucial for India. Its significance stems from basic infantry strategy: height confers a tactical advantage. Except at Gyong La, Indian forces occupy and control the commanding heights, and Pakistani military efforts since 1984 have been aimed at dislodging them from these positions. This strategy puts Pakistan at a distinct disadvantage as Pakistani forces have to carry the assault up steep terrain to the Indians, who have the much easier military task of sitting tight and defending their positions.
But as long as Pakistan does not commit its forces to an offensive against the Indian positions, it is the Indians who are at the disadvantage of being deployed at much higher altitudes. The Pakistani military has easier land access to its posts as roads and tracks have been brought up to Pakistan’s lower base camps over the years. On the other hand, in order to block Pakistan’s access to the Siachen Glacier, India has no option but to maintain its hazardous posts on the Saltoro Ridge, thereby exposing its forces to dangerous altitudes, weather, and terrain. India’s strategy is also extremely expensive in financial terms: most of the Indian pickets and posts on the Saltoro Ridge are maintained by air. Personnel, weapons, ammunition, fuel, and food are usually flown in by helicopter, and occasionally para-dropped.
Despite India’s declared position on the Siachen dispute, there are different perspectives, concerns, and objectives in the Indian policy community. Three are readily discernible: a) maintaining the deployment on Siachen at all costs, b) negotiating a military disengagement with Pakistan, and c) withdrawing Indian forces from the glacier, unilaterally if necessary.
The advocates of a negotiated or unilateral Indian withdrawal base their position on several arguments. They argue that the disputed region is uninhabitable, and therefore has no strategic value. Some believe that a Siachen settlement could be the first step in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Others argue that the Kashmir and Siachen disputes can be unlinked, and that Siachen can be resolved without compromising on Kashmir. They hold that the Saltoro Range is a killing field and that the much higher altitude of the Indian posts exacerbates India’s problems. There is also the opinion that the financial costs of India’s Siachen operations represent a huge waste of much-needed resources. Most important of all is the feeling that the Siachen conflict is a cruel, costly, and unnecessary war that must be brought to an end.
Views like these are valid, but they do not represent the predominant Indian perspective on Siachen. Indeed, the very fact that the advocates of withdrawal are already convinced that a resolution of the conflict is desirable and possible makes them less important than that section of opinion that opposes withdrawal but would consider a compromise provided certain conditions are met.
Subtle distinctions are important among Indian analysts and policy-makers who oppose a withdrawal of Indian forces from their current deployment on the Saltoro Range. Some are convinced that India must hold on to Siachen at all costs. They argue that Pakistan is conducting a highly successful low-cost proxy war in Kashmir, at considerable cost to India. The only theatre in which India is able to pay Pakistan back in its own coin is on the Siachen Glacier itself, where India has a distinct tactical advantage. No matter what the cost, India must therefore stand firm. Any compromise on Siachen would relieve the pressure on Pakistan in the one place where it really hurts and would thus be tantamount to falling into a Pakistani trap.
Another hardline position is that India must not withdraw from Siachen because its occupation represents a major military victory for India. India won the race for the glacier, and now controls the commanding heights on the Saltoro Range. Over the last 14 years, Pakistan has tried innumerable times to displace the Indian forces, and has always had to withdraw with severe casualties. India has had to do nothing but sit tight and periodically repel a Pakistani assault. Any Indian withdrawal will leave Pakistan with an open door to the heights. Pakistan would gain in negotiation what it has been unable to obtain on the battlefield. Whatever the cost, India must therefore stand firm and maintain its current deployments.
The viewpoints articulated above may appear equally hawkish, with neither willing to countenance an Indian withdrawal from the Saltoro heights. However, a closer look reveals significant differences between them. No agreement with Pakistan that involves an Indian withdrawal would ever satisfy the policy makers and analysts for whom the real value of Siachen is that it is a bleeding ground for Pakistan. In contrast, a resolution can be devised to meet the principal concerns of Indian policy-makers and analysts opposed to a Pakistani occupation of the Saltoro heights and Siachen following an Indian withdrawal.
The latter group would back a negotiated Indian withdrawal provided it was convinced that India could, with adequate warning, forestall any Pakistani attempt to move into positions vacated by India.
The key to an agreement on the Indian side would lie in convincing as many hardliners as possible within the Indian policy-making community that an Indian withdrawal would not be tantamount to handing Siachen over to Pakistan. This implies that the Indian army would have a major say, virtually amounting to a veto, on any Siachen agreement. In terms of Indian policy-making, the Siachen issue is thus extremely unusual, because ordinarily military institutions in India are firmly subordinate to civilian authority. However, the memory of defeat at the hands of China in 1962 is very much alive in India, and no politician or bureaucrat is likely to interfere in matters of professional military judgment.
In Pakistan’s perceptions, the Siachen dispute is relevant to the dispute with India over Kashmir, albeit indirectly. Pakistan claims that the Siachen Glacier and its approaches fall within the Pakistani-controlled and administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir, more specifically in the Baltistan district in the Northern Areas. The claim that Siachen is a part of Pakistan’s Northern Areas is significant because Pakistan has, since independence, gradually incorporated the Northern Areas within the state, while maintaining that the Northern Areas were never under the direct jurisdiction of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in undivided India.
No steps have been taken, so far, to integrate the Northern Areas formally within Pakistan, but such a move cannot be ruled out in the future. The anomalous status of the Northern Areas provides Pakistan with the justification, when the need arises, to separate the Siachen conflict from the larger dispute over Kashmir. Siachen is thus portrayed as a regional issue by Pakistani officials as opposed to Kashmir, which, it is stressed, is an international issue.
Although the dispute over the Siachen region is recognised as a by-product of Partition, because the area was left undelineated, all Pakistani governments have claimed permanent administrative control over this “subdistrict” of Baltistan. They also claim that Pakistani administrative control has international recognition. For example, international mountaineering expeditions to the vicinity of the Siachen Glacier have obtained permission from Pakistani authorities since the 1950s. Cartographic international recognition for Pakistani territorial claims is also cited, including several international atlases that show the Siachen Glacier as lying well within the Pakistani-controlled portions of the LOC.
Pakistan admits, however, that its claims to administrative control did not translate into actual physical presence. No permanent posts were established due to the inhospitable terrain and harsh climatic conditions. Pakistan was willing to accept the territory as no-man’s land until India deployed its forces in the Siachen area in 1984. By Pakistani perceptions, this violated the spirit of the Shimla agreement, which specified neither side would resort to the use of force to resolve bilateral disputes.
The primary objective of Pakistan’s strategy has been to drive the cost of occupation high enough to force India to make concessions in any future settlement on Siachen. The declared policy in Pakistan is equally consistent. As the Siachen Glacier and its approaches are located within Baltistan, Pakistan will not accept the status quo on Siachen since it views India’s military presence on the glacier and its environs as illegal.
However, Pakistani policy-makers have demonstrated a certain flexibility on the Siachen issue, unlike in the India-Pakistani dialogue on the larger dispute of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s refusal to negotiate its basic demand for a plebiscite on Kashmir contrasts sharply with its willingness to consider measures ranging from redeployment to demilitarisation regarding the Siachen dispute—a recognition that the Siachen dispute involves territory of little strategic value, but which drains funds, manpower, and military hardware.
It is clear that a unilateral Pakistani withdrawal can be ruled out because Indian forces control most of the glacier’s territory, including the high ground on two of its three major passes. There are three policy options before Pakistani decision-makers: a) to continue the armed conflict, b) to sign an agreement limited to conflict containment, or c) to reach a comprehensive and permanent settlement with India. The adoption of any of these options depends on the perceptions, preferences, and bargaining power of various sections of Pakistan’s policy-making community.
Hardline elements, including influential segments within Pakistan’s military establishment and civil bureaucracy, favour a continuation of the conflict because India is perceived as the aggressor. For this segment of Pakistani opinion, a negotiated settlement is regarded as an unnecessary concession. The military stalemate is seen as favouring Pakistan because neither side can claim to have ousted the other from the disputed territory. A more important motive for continuing the conflict is the desire to avenge the initial Pakistani military reverses by seeing India bleed through its comparatively higher human and financial costs.
More moderate elements within the political leadership as well as in the civil-military bureaucracies favour a negotiated settlement. But even among them, there are concerns, based on a history of mistrust, that India would attempt to use a settlement to legitimise its claim over the disputed area. Any agreement that alters the territorial status of the Siachen region to Pakistan’s disadvantage would thus be opposed. This explains Pakistan’s rejection of Indian proposals for authentication of actual ground positions prior to a withdrawal or the delineation of the Line of Control beyond NJ 9842 along existing ground positions in the Siachen region. There would, moreover, be considerable internal opposition to any settlement without adequate safeguards—‘political and technological’—ensuring that the disputed region does not become vulnerable to Indian encroachments in the future.
Continuous negotiations have been held to contain and resolve the conflict ever since the outbreak of hostilities. As early as 1984 and 1985, flag meetings were held, with little success, between Indian and Pakistani sector commanders. Since January 1986, several high-level talks have been held between Indian and Pakistani defence and foreign secretaries as well as senior military personnel.
In 1989, an understanding to resolve the dispute was reached. According to the joint statement at the end of the defence secretary-level talks, “There was agreement by both sides to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chances of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area.”
The two countries also came close to a resolution in November 1992. At the sixth meeting of the series, an India-Pakistan agreement was reportedly reached that envisaged the mutual withdrawal of troops from key passes to new positions, and the creation of a “zone of complete disengagement” through troop disengagement and redeployment. The delineation of this area of “peace and tranquillity” would be “without prejudice” to the known position of either side. The agreement also reportedly included pledges by both states to refrain from reoccupying vacated positions.
No new positions would be occupied in the designated zone nor would any “activity”—”civilian or military”—be allowed within the designated zone. Time schedules for disengagement and redeployment were to be worked out to the “mutual satisfaction” of both sides, followed by the formation of a joint commission that would be responsible for “delineation of the Line of Control beyond NJ 9842”. Until the area was formally delineated, monitoring mechanisms would be devised to prevent the occurrence of violations. Apparently, either side could resort to “any means”, including the use of force, in the event of a violation of these commitments.
The two countries, however, not only failed to implement these tentative agreements, but one or the other side denied that any tangible agreement had been reached on either occasion. The difficulty in reaching or implementing any mutually agreeable proposal was due to a number of factors, ranging from domestic political constraints to differences over the determination of redeployment positions, the demarcation of the proposed demilitarised zone, and ensuring the inviolability of such a zone. The significance of the understandings reached in 1989 and 1992 cannot, however, be understated since they identify potential areas of agreement and discord in any future agreement of the Siachen dispute.
With the resumption of the India-Pakistani dialogue in 1997, the Siachen dispute is once again on the formal agenda of ongoing talks (see facing page). While the outcome of these negotiations depends on complex, intertwined, external and internal determinants, a future understanding of the dispute could take any of the following shapes: a) an accord to de-escalate hostilities, b) an understanding to disengage military forces, or c) an agreement to demilitarise the area.
This taxonomy does not imply that the three types of potential agreements would necessarily be reached in sequence or even in isolation from one another. Each type of agreement and its conflict management or conflict resolution features will depend on several broad principles or pre-conditions. Thus, levels of mutual trust and confidence and/or mutuality of interests will determine both the nature and the parameters of any potential agreement. Another important precondition is the degree of political will on the part of authoritative decision-makers to reach a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the dispute, including their demonstrated ability or desire to avoid intractable issues.
De-escalation. The primary objective of an accord to de-escalate would be to reduce the chances of conflict, while ending active hostilities in the Siachen Glacier region. Such an agreement would include several conflict-management mechanisms. The features of the accord could specifically include restrictions on any quantitative increases in weaponry, and an agreement to refrain from aggressive behaviour such as offensives to occupy new territory or to dislodge rival troops. The agreement could also prohibit either side from fortifying its presence in the disputed region by inducting new military units.
Disengagement. An agreement on military disengagement could incorporate many of the clauses of an agreement specifically aimed at de-escalating hostilities, including confidence-building measures such as prior notification of overflights and flag meetings between Indian and Pakistani sector commanders. Such an accord would, however, move from conflict management to conflict resolution since it would demonstrate the willingness of both parties to find a more comprehensive solution to the dispute. It could also serve as a continuum from cease-fire to demilitarisation should the political will exist.
Relocating troops to minimise the chance of conflict implies both a gradual reduction of forces in forward positions and an incremental dismantling of forward pickets and observation posts. Forces would then be redeployed and repositioned in agreed upon areas. Other measures could include a limitation on overflights. While artillery batteries at the various posts and positions could remain in place, an agreement for military disengagement could envisage gradually downgrading weapons systems, including removing sophisticated military systems such as surface-to-air missiles.
Demilitarisation. The demilitarisation option is the most comprehensive solution for the Siachen dispute. It would require, as essential preconditions, an immediate cessation of hostilities and the prevention of any potential re-occurrence of armed conflict. The creation of a demilitarised zone would cause the complete withdrawal of all military presence on and in the environs of the glacier. Such a withdrawal would be accompanied by the destruction of bases, pickets, and observation posts, the removal of all military hardware from the disputed area, and a prohibition on aerial patrolling and reconnaissance by either side.
The agreement would also include a commitment on both sides to refrain from reoccupying vacated positions. Another confidence building measure could be the use of hotlines between force commanders as well as senior personnel at military headquarters, including Directors-General of Military Operations. Above all, an appropriate regime of monitoring technologies and verification procedures would be identified and instituted to ensure the viability of the accord.
After years of hostilities, neither India nor Pakistan are any closer to achieving their stated objective of acquiring control over the disputed territory through the use of force. Policy-makers in both states have begun to examine the possibilities of a negotiated agreement, partly as a result of the military stalemate and partly because of the mounting costs of the conflict in terms of lives and money. The Siachen dispute covers territory of little strategic importance for either state, while it serves as yet another irritant in the uneasy relationship between India and Pakistan.
A peacefully negotiated settlement of the Siachen conflict appears especially logical since the glacier’s inhospitable terrain will continue to deter Indian and Pakistani attempts at acquiring military predominance. At the same time, an agreement on Siachen will not impinge, either militarily or politically, on the position of either side in the resolution of their other, more major differences. A settlement of the dispute would, however, reduce bilateral tensions, thereby improving the climate for future steps towards peace. Specifically in the context of the Siachen dispute, even a policy option that merely reduces hostilities would serve as a first step towards the conclusion of a more comprehensive agreement.
The latest round of talks between Indian and Pakistani defence officials held between 5 and 13 November 1998 in New Delhi faltered over the disputed Siachen Glacier even as both sides continued to trade artillery fire that claimed the lives of 13 soldiers from the two countries in the week leading up to the talks.
After three hours of heated negotiations. Pakistan´s defence secretary, LtGen (reld) Ifthikar Ali Khan, turned down his counterpart Ajit Kumars offer of a cease-fire on the Siachen, demanding instead the implementation, of a nine-year old proposal lor military disengagement and the re-deployment of military forces.
Kumar said Pakistan´s proposals were “strange and bizarre” as it wanted any cease-fine agreement monitored by a “third party”, a proposal New Delhi strongly rejects in what it has been insisting is a bilateral dispute. The defence secretary said India´s priority was to address the “existing ground reality” dominated by daily exchanges of fire and ambushes by Pakistani patrols on Indian pickets. He said India´s proposed cease-fire would defuse the “atmosphere of coulfontation´ and in lime could he Followed by talks on disengagement and troop re-deployment.
For its part. Pakistan said a cease-fire agreement would only “freeze” the current situation, not lead to peace or troop disengagement and would thereby provide India the opportunity to consolidate its position. “It is a very difficult and complex situation. It will take, time,” said Gen Khan.
Pakistani offficials also denied attacking Indian posts in Siachen nine times over the past month to gain tactical advantage ahead of the talks. They said “normal shooting´ may have taken place but no “unusual activity” took place at Siachen.
Meanwhile, Indian officials said their attempt in the talks was to “set the record straight” in what has “inaccurately” been referred to as the Siachen conflict. Their view is that India´s positions are on the Saltoro Ridge while the Siachen Glacier is further to the east. “The posts sited on Pakistani maps do not tally with those on Indian ones.” said one.
As a former brigade commander who served on the glacier said, “Siachen is way behind India´s front line.” According to him. India had been on the Salloro Ridge since l987 and Pakistan´s refusal to accept the ground position is behind the impasse in the peace talks.
Between 1986 and 1997, six round of talks on the Siachen have been held. the November meeting followed peace talks in the Islamabad in October, the first since both sides conducted nuclear tests in May. The seventh round, too proved inconclusive but the two neighbours have agreed to continue talking about the Siachen during the next round, the dales for which have yet to be announced.
– Rahul Bedi