The Indo-Pak standoff over Siachen makes little sense. At 20,000-ft above sea level and with the temperature dipping below minus 50 degrees for most parts of the year, the glacier is one of the most inhospitable terrains for human habitation. Yet, both the countries have turned it into the world’s highest battlefield with 150 manned outposts on each side and about 3,000 troops on permanent alert.
Both sides have lost more than 4,000 personnel not to actual war but frostbites and avalanches since 1984. The cost of maintaining the vigil is too heavy on both India and Pakistan. Two wars have already been fought — once in 1984 and the again in 1987 without any notable gains on either side.
While both have realised the futility of their continuing presence on the glacier, neither is willing to let go of the perceived strategic advantage and withdraw first. There have been 11 rounds of defence secretary-level talks over demilitarising the glacier since 1985, but the yield has been close to zilch.
Pakistan has been insisting on the pre-1972 troops position as agreed in the Simla Agreement while India wants to hold on to the advantages of the 1984 war, where it captured most of the dominating posts along the Saltoro Ridge. The location of the 110-km long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) which passes through the Soltoro Ridge and the Siachen glacier is a key element in the dispute.
As the defence secretaries of both the countries — Lt General (Retd) Syed Ather Ali heads the Pakistani side and Pradeep Kumar heads the Indian delegation — meet in New Delhi for the 12-rounds of talks today after a hiatus of three years, they will be eager to thrash out a solution.
But the importance of this particular meet is not so much about the Siachen glacier. It should be seen in the broader perspective of the Indo-Pak relations which had nose-dived after the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Bilateral talks, a crucial factor in the communication link and continuing engagement between the countries, had broken down after the incident with a lot of acrimonious exchanges between the sides.
While Pakistan stands exposed before the international community on its double-talk over terrorism, especially after the Al Qadea chief Osama bin Laden’s killing in its garrison town Abbottabad by US commandoes and the stunning revelations of David Coleman Headley on the ISI’s involvement in the 26/11 attacks and with anti-India terrorist groups, India does not stand to gain much out of these developments, particularly in terms of bilateral issues. Its only advantage right now is it now stands on superior moral high ground and can leverage Pakistan’s embarrassment in its favour, to some extent.
Good sense prevailed at the meeting of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani during the Thimpu meet last year. Both the leaders decided to break the post-26/11 chill and resume bilateral talks. It was a definite positive step forward and a reassertion that the South Asian neighbours can talk sense despite mutual animosity and distrust.
The defence secretary-level talks may not end up in anything significant but it’s crucial given the circumstances in the sub-continent. It offers scope for the countries to stay engaged.