Nawaz Sharif’s call for Pakistan to take the lead and withdraw troops from Siachen glacier is nothing more than a political statement— remember his feigning ignorance when battalion after battalion of Northern Light Infantry created massive intrusions astride Kargil and wily Musharraf insisted Nawaz was fully briefed? Then came Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani’s call to resolve the dispute saying his country follows “the doctrine of peaceful co-existence with its neighbours especially India”, which would put the slyest of foxes to shame. Surely Indians need no proof of ‘how peaceful’ Pakistan’s policy is towards India. Post this buttered preamble, Kayani called for demilitarisation of Siachen— a statement welcomed by India despite Pakistani foreign ministry rushing to add, “Let this be clear, there is no change in Pakistan's position on Siachen.”
Pakistani participants in Indian TV debates keep harping on “let us not look at the past”, but can we really ignore Pakistan’s hallmark deceits when our land strategy should be based on past lessons?
Notwithstanding Pakistani treachery on Kargil in 1999, a brief summary of the "Siachin dispute" beginning in the 1980s is necessary. Frankly, despite its assertions, Paistan is mainly concerned with the deployment of its troops on the massif of the Saltoro Range running west of the Siachin glacier. By a lucky chance, India discovered Pakistani troops camping west of the Saltoro Range in a bid to occupy it, acted with alacrity, and occupied the range in a daring helicopter operation in 1984. Pakistan rushed to gain control of the range, with both Indian and Pakistani forces arriving simultaneously at Gyong La. A flag meeting was held and an agreement reached that both parties withdraw. Indians did, but the Pakistanis re-enacted their back-stabbing legacy and occupied the pass in clear violation of the agreement made hours ago. That is the only significant foothold Pakistan has on the Saltoro Range, and any forward movement by them faces highly treacherous glaciated patches as well as our troops.
The second significant foothold was of Pakistan’s Qaid-e-Azam (renamed Bana Post after India snatched it from Pakistan) post on the highest point (over 22,143 feet) in the Northern portion of the Saltoro Range. Pakistan to date does not acknowledge the loss of this Qaid-e-Azam post. Reportedly, one Pakistani Army Captain was court-martialled for leaking the truth to the media, and their propaganda is that the post is still held by Pakistan.
Pakistan’s new found urgency to demilitarise Siachen needs to be viewed in following backdrop:
- Save Gyong La, India dominates entire Saltoro Ridge with Pakistan holding Gyong and Bilafond glaciers on lower ground to the West. As of today, Pakistan is at great disadvantage.
- Pakistan’s disregard of Shia dominated Baltistan, enforced demographic changes, subtle but deliberate conversions to Sunni form of Islam and state sponsored Shia massacres is turning the situation in Baltistan explosive that can threaten sustenance of Pakistani troops in Siachen.
- USA’s Middle East Media Research Institute reports a Pakistani move to lease the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region to China for 50 years based on vernacular media in Pakistan.
- Shaksgam Valley (Indian territory) north of Siachen and extending eastwards was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963.
- Aksai Chin in the east is under Chinese occupation connected to and providing depth to the Western Highway.
- Since late 1990s, Pakistan’s ISI has been nurturing Shia terrorist organizations including Tehreek-e-Jaferia (TJP) and its many sub groups with an eye on Ladakh and Zanskar Range south of it.
And now we come to the question of the 127 soldiers reportedly buried in an avalanche recently. Is the Pakistani military moved by this reported loss? What about the Kargil conflict when Pakistan ignored their own dead and many a Pakistani dead had to be buried by Indian troops— who did it with full honours in Muslim tradition. The Dawn, published in Karachi, brought out some 500 bodies of dead Northern Light Infantry soldiers being unceremoniously dumped in the dead of night at their next of kin’s doorstep. Don’t we remember Musharraf as President of Pakistan, telling international media, “There is not a single terrorist on Pakistani soil” and then again, “Even if the Kashmir issue is resolved, Jihad against India will continue”?
How do you trust such a country where the actual control is with the ISI-Military? Ironically, as India-Pakistan want to discuss Siachen, 40 terrorist training camps are running full swing in POK, details of which are with the Indian Parliament.
To our dewy-eyed journos going poetic about demilitarisation under hallucinations of white doves hovering atop Siachen glacier, it would be prudent to consider the following:
- In comparison to the Saltoro Ridge, we have many times more troops deployed on the Ladakh and Pir Panjal mountain ranges in Kashmir, some of them holding equally, if not more, tenacious posts including some in glaciated terrain.
- Equally dangerous avalanches occur periodically in areas held by our troops in Kashmir other than in Siachen area resulting in loss of lives.
- Pakistan tried to establish a post at unoccupied Point 5770 in Southern Glacier during Operation Vijay but lost the race to Indian troops. Though the guns have fallen silent since the last India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement, weather casualties need to be braved. Yet, there have been units who have done a full tenure in the glacier without losing a single man to weather. Yoga and religiously following precautions taught during pre-induction training saves precious lives.
- The Saltoro Range has great strategic significance. Should Pakistan double cross us post de-militarisation and occupy the Saltoro Range, our next line of defence would possibly be Ladakh Range and Leh will be within enemy artillery range and defence of Sub Sector North (SSN) area immediate south of Karakoram Pass may become untenable.
- What is the guarantee that Pakistan will not cede the demilitarized Siachen-Saltoro to China akin to Shaksgam?
- Implications of the above are entire region of Aksai Chin, Gilgit-Baltistan, Siachen-Saltoro and SSN becoming expanded springboard of combined China-Pakistan threat.
- There is much talk of verifiable international checks and balances post demilitarization, but the million dollar question is: Have Pakistan and China ever bothered about world opinion? Will their expanding nexus, with US thinout from Afghanistan, make Pakistan more uppity?
Lacks of strategic forethought and political unilateralism have been typical to India resulting in such mistakes as:
- Arbitrary ceasefire post 1947-48 operations with Pakistanis retreating and even without capturing the strategic Wakhan Corridor that would have forced China to look at India differently.
- Ignoring military advice as also advice of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel of Chinese intentions in Tibet and against India.
- Gifting Coco Island to Myanmar that is now a Chinese listening post.
- Giving up the strategic peak of Hajipir Pass post 1965 ceasefire with Pakistan.
- Despite 93,000 Pakistani prisoners in 1971 (highest number after World war II), not resolving Kashmir imbroglio, not even straightening the Siliguri Corridor.
It is being bandied about that the army generals should be kept out and that the politicians should take the call on demiliarisation. Fair enough, that is the way it should be in a democracy. But unlike possible peace-prizes, real peace demands hard work. A smart leadership should avail of the best military advice it can get before making a decision. It would be prudent for the civilian leadership to ask the military for inputs after studying the following:
- Wargame possible re-occupation of the Saltoro Range by Pakistan (under garb of freedom fighters) and / or China post demilitarisation.
- Evaluate force levels, resources, their placement and time frame required for recapture of Saltoro Range if the above happens.
- Sustenance of Sub-Sector North (SSN) in the event of demilitarisation from Saltoro, and susceptibility of sabotage along sustenance routes.
- Study effect of demilitarisation on population in the area considering army provides livelihood to most.
- Next defence line post-demilitarisation; quantum of troops required (on face value, it may be many times more than current one Brigade), time frame, tenability, expenditure for new defences (posts, bunkers, gun positions, helipads, administrative echelons etc), maintenance and recurring expenses, new communications infrastructure required etc.
Additionally, India would do well not to look at Siachen in isolation but holistically review the entire Kashmir issue, the increasing combined threat from China-Pakistan, increasing radicalisation in Pakistan and Chinese aggressive posture, particularly in light of the continuing great game in the west, with US troops preparing to leave Afghanistan.
Without adequate thought, and foresight, signing on the dotted line of demilitarisation otherwise will amount to a tryst with deceit— another strategic blunder with grave consequences. The Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) and posts held by both sides must be duly delineated on ground and map. Even with promised safeguards from Pakistan, given their history of deceit, it would be prudent to continue holding the Saltoro Ridge albeit thinly than what it is today with reciprocal reduction of troops on the Pakistani side. As part of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), dismantling of anti-terrorist infrastructure by Pakistan and bringing the perpetrators of 26/11 to book should precede any peace talks.
Lt Gen Prakash C Katoch (Retd) is a Special Forces veteran of the Indian army who commanded the Siachen Brigade