The military conflict over the Siachen glacier began 25 years ago, catapulting it to the world’s highest battle zone and demonstrating the limits to which human endurance and military ingenuity can be pushed. The strategic consequences of the conflict, like the slow but relentless movement of the glacier, have been irreversible.
But first, the origin of the dispute. Pakistan had linked with China not only with the road over the Khunjerab Pass but also with cartographic intrusion by unilaterally joining the lac (Line of Actual Control) in j&k with the Karakoram Pass on the India-China border. China was clearly complicit by insisting with India that the area was disputed. Pakistan had also commenced permitting foreign mountaineering expeditions into Siachen. This was confirmed by Indian military mountaineers sent to the area, leading to military teams going up the Saltoro mountain range to deny the passes for entry into Siachen. Pakistan initiated a major military venture to occupy these passes, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wouldn’t countenance this. The Indian army pre-empted Pakistani plans by a daring operation, and the rest is history.
What started as a small-scale military action became a permanent military occupation, having lasting consequences on both countries. For one, the Indian occupation of Siachen was tantamount to another humiliation for the Pakistani military. Benazir Bhutto rubbed this in by her scathing criticism of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, which became a rallying point of her rise to power in Pakistan. The Pakistani military was forced in the many rounds of Siachen talks with India to insist on one point—seek an Indian withdrawal.
When that didn’t work, Pakistan started planning military moves to evict Indian forces. Its attempts were roundly defeated, and Bana Post and Sia La became permanent fixtures in our military folklore. It then planned the ambitious venture to cut the Srinagar-Leh road in the Kargil sector, a plan mooted by Gen Pervez Musharraf, the then dgmo. Prime minister Benazir rebuffed him. Not willing to relent, Musharraf, as army chief, put the aborted plan into action, with long-term consequences for himself and Pakistan’s political future. Then followed the attack on Indian Parliament with a military mobilisation by both countries. These strategic blunders of raising the stakes for war, and the A.Q. Khan episode, seriously damaged Pakistan’s credibility as a nuclear power. Siachen was thus the starting point of the negative strategic outcomes Pakistan has incurred.
Islamabad wants to negotiate the Siachen issue only to seek an Indian withdrawal. This is necessary for the military to reinforce the dissimulation in Pakistan that it’s present on the Siachen glacier when, in fact, it’s nowhere near it. And secondly, to show it has imposed heavy costs on the Indian military and forced it to withdraw. On the Indian side, negotiations are linked to demilitarising the area as one amongst many steps towards a lasting peace. This doesn’t suit Pakistani interests which are best served by the continuing military standoff along the lac.
Over the years, public opinion in India has evolved into taking tremendous pride in its military achievements in Siachen, thus making it difficult for its political leadership to act on a settlement which would be seen as a concession to Pakistan. This reality is often ignored by major powers which have more than once suggested to India that a concession on Siachen can strengthen the Pakistan’s hand in making progress on j&k. When the Indian military leadership took public positions against such concessions, the political establishment quickly left the matter alone.
Defence minister A.K. Antony has clearly said there can be no withdrawal from Siachen, reiterating the military view that current ground positions should be authenticated before other steps can be examined. Above all, New Delhi doesn’t know who will deliver on a Siachen agreement—while the weak Pakistani political leadership definitely can’t, its military command shows no signs of new thinking. Siachen, thus, remains one amongst many crucial elements that explain Pakistan’s journey on the slippery strategic road.
(The author is director, Delhi Policy Group. He was the commanding general in Siachen and the author of Siachen: Conflict Without End.)