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Turn Siachen into Peace Park


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, April 13,2012

The nature delivered yet another bitter reminder to India and Pakistan when it struck at 22,000 feet high altitude on April 7, 2012, burying 135 soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) of Pakistani Army - the latest toll that the Indo-Pak dispute over this forbidding glaciated region has taken on human lives. This means in one go, the nature deprived 135 families of their near and dear ones in a region where no living creatures can survive. 

It certainly is not the fault of nature, but a direct consequence of national egos in New Delhi and Islamabad/Rawalpindi. Both nations continue to stick to their stated positions, thereby prolonging a conflict that, we believe, was close to resolution in 1989 as a result of foreign secretary talks in Islamabad. 

The genesis of the Siachen conflict lies in the formulation of the cease-fire line (CFL) defined in the 29 July 1949 Karachi Agreement following the first India-Pakistan war. At the time of finalizing this agreement, parties did not pay much attention to this very mountainous region now called the Siachen glacier. This unfinished work eventually led to the current conflict that began in 1984.

Both states interpret the 1949 agreement according to their own understanding. The Indians think the line of control (LOC) should run northeasterly from NJ 9842 along the Saltoro Range to the Chinese border. The Pakistani interpretation is that the LOC should run from NJ 9842 straight to the Karakoram Pass (KKP) on the India-China border. In order to enforce its understanding and take control of the territory, India sent forces to the glacier in 1984 (code-named Operation Meghdoot was carried out to gain control of the glacier). 

Pakistani military responded to this unilateral Indian advance by moving up to its current position. 

There have been frequent skirmishes on the toughest battlefield of the world until 2003 when an informal ceasefire came into effect, followed by discussions under the bilateral Composite Dialogue framework initiated in January 2004. 

Analysts believe that the region has trivial strategic importance as compared to the whopping cost paid by the warring states. Prominent South Asian expert, Dr. Stephen Cohen, of the Brookings Institute accuses both India and Pakistan of using “Siachen to wage a propaganda war as well as a shooting war, and characterizes the war as “a conflict unending caused by states unbending.” Moreover, Lt. General M. L. Chibber (retd.) of Indian military, who planned the occupation of Siachen in 1984, made it eloquently clear in an interview in December 2004, saying “Siachen does not have strategic significance.”

Who Will Take High Moral Ground?

Circumstances suggest that the overwhelming number of casualties in the Siachen region has resulted from the extremely adverse conditions (hypothermia, avalanches, falling into crevasses, high-altitude illnesses, and accidents) than from combat. According to unofficial figures, quoted by a national daily, over 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives on the bloody Siachen Glacier between April 1984 and April 2012 as against over 5,000 Indian casualties. At present, there are approximately 7,000 Indian Army troops and about 4,000 Pakistani troops stationed at the Siachen Glacier. And we don’t have the exact figures about soldiers who lost their precious body limbs to frostbite and deadly lungs infections.

The latest tragedy dictates that both states should address this issue on an urgent basis for a win-win situation by agreeing to demilitarize the region in the larger interest of 1.5 billion inhabitants of South Asia.

In the current circumstances, Pakistan can perhaps take lead in approaching the issue from an environmental point of view. It can, perhaps, demand that the entire region be declared a Peace Park after both militaries disengage, or at least retreat to their 1984 positions. It can refer to the Principle 19 of the 14 June 1992 Rio de Janeiro Declaration on Environment and Development adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which binds member states to be cognizant of the impact of their actions on neighboring states. Glacial melt, for instance, impacts low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Maldives, so both India and Pakistan must act to protect these countries from adverse affects of their conflict.

(Principle 19 :States shall provide prior and timely notification and

relevant information to potentially affected States on activities that

may have a significant adverse trans-boundary environmental effect and

shall consult with those States at an early stage and in good faith)

This way Pakistan can also underscore its commitment to the challenges arising out of the global climate change. An amicable solution to the Siachen conflict can provide both states with a huge confidence building measure which can create an enabling environment for taking on tougher issues like Kashmir and water resources.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk