Monday, May 14, 2012

Why A Siachen Agreement Should Be A Non Starter

Satish Chandra
Distinguished Fellow,VIF

Following Zardari’s recent visit to India a reciprocal visit to Pakistan by Dr Manmohan Singh in the next few months is a strong probability. In order to make the visit a “success” a clutch of agreements would need to be signed of which the one on Siachen is likely to be the centerpiece.

PM’s visit to Pakistan and the conclusion of agreements with it, particularly on issues as sensitive as Siachen, would be unwise until it gives us satisfaction on terror and abandons its inimical approach towards India.

Siachen had no military presence from either side till 1984 when India prempting a Pakistani move by 48 hours occupied the high ground in the area constituted by the Saltoro ridge on the western wall of the 76 Km long glacier. The imperatives of terrain make it impossible for the other side to dislodge whoever is in occupation of the Saltoro ridge through direct assault.

Though the delineation of the 1949 Karachi Agreement Ceasefire Line and later the 1972 Simla Agreement Line of Control (LOC) stopped short of the Siachen area at point NJ9842, the definition of the Line clearly placed this area on the Indian side of the alignment by use of the words “thence north to the glaciers” through NJ9842. Pakistan projects the LOC as moving not north to the glaciers but north east to the Karakorum pass.

Both India and Pakistan have, since the late eighties, been exploring the possibility of a demilitarization of the area and withdrawal of forces to specified agreed positions. An agreement has, however, proved elusive as Pakistan has been unwilling to authenticate the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) which would detail the existing location of the forces of the two sides in the area. Given Pakistan’s proclivity to violate its understandings with India it would be imprudent for us to give up our insistence on Pakistan’s authentication of the AGPL. Indeed, some Indians have argued that apart from authentication, stringent safeguards, punitive clauses and guarantees must also be included to obviate the possibility of Pakistani perfidy. There is sound logic for this approach as Pakistan locational advantage in the area would enable its forces to seize a demilitarized Saltoro ridge in just 48 hours while this would take over a week for Indian forces.

There is also a compelling case that the changed circumstances of the day demand that we abandon the quest for an accord on Siachen. In this context, it may be recalled that when such an agreement was originally mooted in the late 1980’s we were taking many casualties in the area which is no longer the case due to vastly improved logistics. Furthermore, while we could, at that time, have addressed Pakistan’s occupation of the Saltoro ridge in violation of an understanding with us, by bringing to bear our superiority in conventional arms elsewhere the prevailing nuclearised environment makes this far more difficult today.

Above all, the strategic importance of the Saltoro ridge should not be underestimated and demands that we continue to occupy it. Failure to do so will prevent us from dominating the Northern Areas and the Shaksgam valley. Should Pakistan occupy the Saltoro ridge it would lead to Sino Pak link ups northwards towards the Shaksgam Valley and eastwards towards the Karakorum Pass as well as place in grave jeopardy our defence of the Shyok and Nubra valleys.

In these circumstances, reports that our Army Chief designate is expected to endorse Dr Manmohan Singh’s inclination to concede to Pakistan’s demands on Siachen are worrisome.

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