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Mountains and molehills


By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, April 20,2012

The conflict on and around Siachen glacier symbolizes the scourge of overbearing militarism that has hurt both India and Pakistan. 

Inflated national egos, largely shaped by mutual mistrust, continue to prevent a settlement of a dispute that has cost the two countries more than 8,000 lives. The 135 casualties in the Gyari sector are the latest price Pakistan has paid for holding on to a position that it says is a matter of principle.

India demands the authentication of an Agreed Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the map and on the ground because it believes doing so would provide legal and diplomatic safeguards against possible Pakistani incursions into the Saltoro ridge. This flows from the Indian interpretation of the 1949 Karachi Accord. That means the line of control (LOC) should run northeasterly from NJ 9842 - the last demarcated point on the LoC - along the Saltoro Range to the Chinese border. This interpretation is grounded in the strategic advantage that India gets on the Chinese border and permanent control of heights overlooking Gilgit and Baltistan.

Pakistan believes the LOC should run from NJ 9842 straight to the Karakoram Pass (KKP) on the India China border. It also wants immediate implementation of the 1989 understanding. It also rejects authentication which it fears would amount to legitimizing an illegal act (the 1984 Indian occupation of the heights). 

Because of these positions, the two countries have been locked in an atrocious and completely futile warfare - losing precious human lives and financial resources every day. The positions taken by either country may be legitimate, but this legitimacy defies rationale and runs against the universally acknowledged principles of human and nature preservation. 

In this context, former premier Nawaz Sharif's call for Pakistan and India to withdraw their troops from the Siachen region is a welcome move. He appealed to both sides to work for the resolution of the dispute so the billions being spent on the war could be directed towards prosperity. 

The statement offers an opportunity to the civil society in both countries to start a cross-border movement for immediate demilitarization of the region. There might be opposition by hardliners in the military establishments and conservative and ultra-nationalist political groups, but the civil society and the media must highlight the ecological, economic and humanitarian costs of the entrenched positions.

Former military and civilian officials from India and Pakistan who have been part of the past negotiations and military planning can also contribute by educating the public about the cost and benefit of this protracted conflict, thus making possible a face-saving way out for both the countries.

Although under pressure and stretched because of challenges from religious and ethnic militants from the north to the southwest, the Pakistani government and military can make a bold declaration that they are ready to turn the Siachen glacier region into a neutral 'peace park'. In order to counter the argument against demilitarization embedded in legal jargon, it should raise the issue of legitimacy. 

While this argument could, theoretically, carry weight for important economic lifelines and densely inhabited regions, India and Pakistan should not apply it to the forbidding and uninhabitable Siachen. 

Why should the current and future generations of Pakistan continue to remain hostage to the history and principles behind unviable positions, while its adversaries continue to march on the road to prosperity? Great leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions for a better future for their nations. Agreeing to demilitarize Siachen might be a tough decision militarily, but it will certainly benefit the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the subcontinent.

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