It's folly for India to flip for Pak's Catch-22 logic on Siachen

In his satirical war novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller uses his fictional character, Capt Yossarian, to bring home the absurdity of war and the utter cussedness of military bureaucracy. In the novel, which drips with black humour in every syllable, Yossarian tries desperately to avoid going on combat flying missions by pleading lunacy – but the very act of asking to be let off from combat duty certifies him – in the convoluted logic of war — as sane, and so he is required to fly.

Sometimes it appears that it needs another Yossarian-like mindbend to make sense of the circular logic of Pakistan’s strategy on Siachen Glacier over the years, and the reason why it is pushing for “demilitarisation” of the Glacier at today’s Defence Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in Islamabad.

In Heller’s absence, however, the Pakistani blogger Majorly Profound offers a fairly whacky account that offers a “layman’s guide to the Siachen problem”.

Pakistan’s claims in respect of Siachen Glacier rest on a Big Lie — a lie almost as tall as the 18,875-ft ice mountain. It claims to be occupying the commanding heights in the high Himalayas, whereas in fact despite repeated efforts on its part to wrest Siachen through cartographic aggression and then by military force, it is India that has held the post since April 1984.

Today, Siachen’s strategic significance has less to do with Pakistan and more to do with China. Surrendering Siachen would be a Himalayan blunder.

In that eventful year, the Indian Army under Indira Gandhi’s command pre-empted a move by Pakistani forces under Gen Zia ul-Haq to seize Siachen; since then, Pakistan has tried repeatedly to snatch Siachen by force – including in 1987 in an operation commanded by the then Brigadier-General Pervez Musharraf. (Years later, in 1999, Musharraf would yet again wage proxy war against India in Kargil in order to cut off its supply line to Siachen.)

For nearly two decades now, Siachen was the high peak that Pakistan always craved for, but could never get. Almost always it resorted to use of force, although it also entered into several rounds of negotiations to get India to back down. Now, having virtually admitted to defeat in its quest, Pakistan is looking to take the moral high ground, and pleading for Siachen to be converted into “a peace park”.

Virtually every Pakistani commentator today is looking to milk the recent tragedy involving over 100 Pakistani soldiers who perished in an avalanche to Pakistan’s strategic advantage. Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, during a visit to Skardu to oversee the rescue mission for the avalanche victims, made a case for “demilitarisation” of the Siachen Glacier, given the huge developmental needs of both India and Pakistan.

That theme was kept up by a stream of commentators, including former Army officials (for instance, here and here), who suddenly woke up to the folly of posting soldiers in the inhospital terrain of Siachen Glacier.

Some of these selfsame Army officers had, in their term served duty in the high Himalayas looking to displace Indian troops. But in the spirit of the fox in the Aesop Fable who reasoned dismissively that the grapes that were unattainable must have been sour, they are now damning Siachen for being this uninhabitable patch of mountain and ice over which two poverty-wracked nations are engaged in a costly standoff.

The rigours of holding the Indian position in Siachen, of course, extract a toll on the physical and mental well-being of Indian soldiers there. A New York Times report notes:

In outposts up to 22,000 feet above sea level, the temperature can plunge 58 below, and linger there for months. Patrolling soldiers tumble into yawning crevasses. Frostbite chews through unprotected flesh. Blizzards blow, weapons seize up and even simple body functions become intolerable.

Some soldiers go crazy and end up “staring into space”…. unhinged by the dazzling whiteness of rock, sun and snow. 

Fearing frostbite, most soldiers went to the bathroom – small outdoor huts cobbled together from mountain stones – once a day and bathed only every few months, the report noted. A Pakistan Army Major said his appetite vanished, causing him to shed 37 pounds in three months. “You feel you are a caveman, because that’s the way you live,” he said.

Yet, harsh as these rigours are, the claim that is repeatedly made – that India is losing hundreds of soldiers every year to the cold is vastly overstated, intended as part of the propaganda war that Pakistan wages. Even the economic burden of high Himalayan operations are less bothersome for India than for Pakistan. And contrary to Pakistani claims that it is the Indian Army that is the biggest obstacle to demilitarisation of Siachen, it is in fact Pakistan’s refusal to demarcate and authenticate the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) that stands in the way.

In fact, in November 1992, at the height of the Ayodhya Ram temple campaign, Pakistan and Indian officials were close to an agreement on the Siachen dispute. Pakistan had at that point agreed to record the existing troop positions in an annex to a draft agreement. But with the BJP–led Ayodhya at its peak (it would culminate barely weeks later in the demolition of the Babri Masjid), the PV Narasimha Rao government backed out, realising that it would stand accused of “selling out” to Pakistan.

For all the human and material toll it extracts on Indian Army, and for all the claims that holding Siachen Glacier has no strategic value, the Indian Army has thus far set its face against any attempts by the political establishment to “gift away” its advantage. Particularly with Manmohan Singh talking of converting Siachen into a "peace mountain" and looking to secure “peace at any cost” with Pakistan — the better to secure for himself a legacy — there is a case for eternal vigilance. It is this that compelled Defence Minister AK Antony to tamp down on expectations of a “dramatic announcement” at the ongoing talks.

Today, Siachen’s strategic significance has less to do with Pakistan and more to do with China, given the proximity of the Karakoram Pass, and the presence of Chinese troops in parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Surrendering Siachen would, as this strategic analyst noted, be a Himalayan blunder.

It is easy to understand Pakistan’s urgency to scale down its military expenditure in the high Himalayas, given the squeeze on its military budget in combating jihadi terrorists who are now biting the very hand that fed them all these years. But then, nothing inhibits Pakistan from drawing down unilaterally.

Such a move would help Pakistan break out of the Yossarian-like Catch-22 circular logic that compels it today to hold onto ground that it says it doesn’t need to, but over which it still nurses a secret lust.

As for India, the only risk today is of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – by surrendering a hard-won strategic advantage to a wholly untrustworthy adversary.