June Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 7 years ago

“It’s a big strain for both India and Pakistan. It will not be possible [for them] to claim each other’s territory even in the next 5,000 years,” says Lt General (retd) Ayaz Ahmed, who served at Siachen as commander for two-and-a half years. “Nobody lasts that long,” he remarks about himself.

At 74, Lt General Ayaz is going against current wisdom over Siachen. “Putting a flag over something doesn’t mean anything. We have a gentler slope, they have sharp vertical peaks. There is no end to peaks. Even if we put one person on each of the peaks, this war will not end. When I was out-posted, I left a letter for the incoming Commander of the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) on his table. I wrote, ‘Whatever was possible has been done by us, any further movement will be counter-productive,” Lt General Ayaz explained further, “You see we had no business being there in the first place.”

Referring to the Pak-China Accord of 1963 that defined a boundary line between Pakistan and China in the Karakoram range and laid the foundation of Indian insecurity vis-a-vis the Siachen region, he believes that India and Pakistan must resolve the issue and pull back. If not for the country, then certainly for their soldiers.

Lt General Ayaz is adamant in his belief that no amount of additional money or troops in the region can help either side make new territorial gains. “If India had the capability, they would have come down to our posts by now. If it was militarily possible or feasible, we would have gone up. We destroyed a post of theirs in the Gyon Sector and took it over once. After a while, we left it, for who could afford to ‘nurture’ a problem. They came back and set up post again. We have been in Siachen since 1984. They say on television that not a round has been fired for 10 years. Why are we there? It’s not worth it.”

The worthiness of the cause is a matter of opinion and much debate. Soldiers of Siachen command respect because of the very nature of the two-pronged battle they fight on a daily basis. The expense of the sacrifice is strategically unquantifiable but can be gauged monetarily. No civilian or military leader would want to give the message that the loss of life has been in vain, even though that may well be true.

“The important thing to remember is that it was India that violated the Simla Agreement Space Plan and occupied Siachen. The occuption is 100% illegal. It all boils down to this: Does a nation of 180 million want to legitimise and recognise an illegitimate action of India?” asks Riaz Khokhar bluntly. The seasoned bureaucrat has served as ambassador to India (1992-97), U.S.A. (1997-99) and China (1999-02), and as former foreign secretary (2002-05). He also sat in on the second round of talks between India and Pakistan in 1986 as DG, South Asia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He spoke to Newsline over the phone from Islamabad on the pros and cons of a pull-out from the region. “The army’s position is that they would not like to withdraw. As for the impact of war on our defence budget, look, either you don’t defend yourself or you do.”

Lt General (retd) Talat Masood is of the view that the input of the army in the matter is of extreme importance. “Back in the late ’80s, when our army was willing to accept a mutual withdrawal, the Indian army forced their democratic government to veto the move, saying it was not wise to vacate the region. So both sides have to show flexibility, but if you ask as to who will be the decision-maker, then you are going to the very heart of the civil-military relationship. The question is: Who determines India-Pakistan relations?”

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Photo: Courtesty AFP

“We are living in the shadow of giants. We don’t have the choice of picking our own neighbourhood,” says Brigadier (retd) Bilal, sitting in his office in Rawalpindi. “Traditionally, the army made foreign affairs decisions in relation to security. Now the decision metrics are being redefined. The civil leadership consists of the president and prime minister. This is not an either/or situation. But in the world of politics, there is idealism and then there are realities. Idealism is that Kashmir belongs to Pakistan; the reality is that India will never agree to it and the US will never help Pakistan.” Brig Bilal warns that if there was a unilateral pull-out by Pakistan, the Indians would move in further.

Lt General (retd) Shuaib warns of the dangers of being too flexible. “Those glaciers are a source of water for us and we have some control over it. But if we leave, the Indians will take it over.”

Journalist Imtiaz Gul opts for the road less travelled — he wants peace and a civilian leadership that calls the shots on the issue. A few days earlier he had held a roundtable discussion on Siachen with intellectuals, retired army officers and journalists under the aegis of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. “The situation has changed now,” he says. The army has done a lot more bad than good. So what has happened is that the army, in the last two years, has allowed the civilians a position to take a decision.”

Throwing the ball in the court of politicians is easy, but are the politicians really in a position to call the shots? Gul rejects any notion that civilians are powerless in the matter. “Civilians cry all the time that the army does not let them take decisions. Well, when you have to get the 18th Amendment passed by parliament, you can and you do do it! But when the question of what status to give FATA comes up, you simply say, ‘Let’s see what happens post-2014 after the US withdrawal.’ No army in the world will say that we are vacating this place. The army has a garrison mentality. It sees the world as black and white — but when civilians say that their hands are tied, well that’s another story. When you need contracts approved, then your hands are not tied,” says Gul vehemently.

“The advice of military experts cannot be rejected by the government. Our army has not come from another place. It is the army of this country,” says Lt General Shuaib vociferously. “If Zardari can command an army, well, then why doesn’t he take the place of Kayani? The civilians haven’t spent a minute in Siachen.”

Three prime ministers — Mohammed Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — travelled to Siachen and stayed there for half an hour or so and at least two of them fainted while they were there. “Benazir was told not to rush when she alighted at Siachen but she never listened to anyone. After stepping out of the helicopter, she took three steps and fell down unconscious,” says Lt General Ayaz. “I had already made counter-preparations and we had medical staff for emergencies. We put an oxygen mask on her, she came round and asked ‘What happened?’ Without replying I started the presentation.” The general had heard that Nawaz Sharif did not fare any better. Reportedly, he fell unconscious on his first step on Siachen ice. After the Gayari sector tragedy, Sharif flew to Skardu and sent his wishes to Gayari from there. President Zardari flew to the battalion headquarter at Goma but no further.

Though the Indian civilian leadership has its naysayers as well, it goes to the credit of that country that its bureaucrats visit the region irrespective of whether a tragedy has struck or not. The same cannot be said for its prime ministers. Manmohan Singh was there in June 2005 and he was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Siachen. Filmstar Aishwarya Rai went to rally the troops in April 2008.

Nazar Muhammad Gondal, a senior PPP politician and a federal minister for the Capital Administration and Development Division, rejects the civil-military divide on the matter and explains that the problem lies with Indian leadership. “The 18th Amendment is a local matter,” he contends. “Siachen is a matter with a foreign independent country. When Gayari occurred, there was talk on our side that a dialogue should take place and proposals should be considered to end the conflict. What happened? The Indian government simply said that they will not withdraw first. We won’t withdraw first, either! We want a mutual withdrawal and Indians are against that.”

India has more or less trumped Pakistan on every battleground they have fought in— except Siachen. India thought that getting Siachen would be a piece of cake. It was — they beat Pakistan by a week to the place. But just like Napoleon misjudged Waterloo as a ‘quick and easy gain,’ India soon found itself stuck on the peaks with nowhere to go. They could not move forward, they could not go back. Pakistan gained the lower peaks to its own misfortune. They did not choose this place (unlike their wars with India in parts of Kashmir) and like Napoleon they had to fight uphill to gain ground — which they never did — just like Napoleon. In a sense, Siachen has proved to be a Waterloo for both countries. Losing great soldiers to the cause, who could have been used to fight better wars, depleting national resources which could have been used to fight more urgent causes (like militancy and illiteracy) — it all boils down to perceivable risks. The military does not survive on the unsure. And, hence, a whole brigade of self-assured propaganda machines have developed on both sides of the border that talk more about the mistrust, miscommunication and ill-conceived judgments that exist on the other side rather than their own.

Many fruitless rounds of talks have taken place between the two countries in the last three decades. Pakistan and India are set for yet another round of talks on the Siachen conflict this June (11-12). Representatives from the two sides will meet for the first time since the Gayari sector tragedy. The Indian premier Manmohan Singh wants a resolution of the Siachen conflict during his tenure as part of his legacy. “Absolutely. He has not been able to achieve much in the domestic arena, so he is keen to push Indo-Pak relations towards normalcy,” wrote Vinod Mehta, editorial chairman for Outlook India, via email. However, Singh’s defence minister does not want to raise anyone’s hopes about the meeting. Congress just lost key seats in the recent state elections and probably is not in good shape to make concessions to Pakistan, post the Mumbai attacks.

The mood of the general public in India can best be gauged from India Today’s cover story of the May 2012 issue that asks, ‘Could the PM gift away to Pakistan what the army has won?’ The authors do not dole out any sympathy on the massive Gayari death toll and go on to mention the perceived deceit of the Pakistani side, time and time again. And though the army chief, Kayani, is all for a resolution of the conflict, the article alleges that his Indian counterpart V. K. Singh (currently unpopular among Congress members) is against any such attempt. The new army chief-designate, Bikramjit Singh, is said to be sympathetic to the prime minister’s ambition.

The problem is further complicated by the perception that one side will gain advantages on the shoulders of the other side. For example, India fears a Pak-China offensive against it to take over Kashmir, while Pakistan fears a Soviet-Indian operation to occupy the Northern Areas. This would allow India direct access to Central Asian markets. How realistic these fears are is anybody’s guess. After all, India is shaking hands with China while keeping an eye on its regional manoeuvres. Why can’t it do the same with Pakistan?

Pakistan has its own apprehensions. Brig Bilal fears that the US has its sights on the area for surveillance over China. Pakistan has refused to accept the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) since it would mean accepting the fact that it does not really occupy either the Siachen glacier or the famed Quaid post (renamed ‘Bana Post’ by India). India refuses to acknowledge a fairly simple Pakistani demarcation that links NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass from the north-east, because they already hold the north-northwest portion along the Saltoro Range. So why give up what was gamely gained? Plus, there is always a chance that Pakistan may seek yet another Kargil type of adventure. Pakistan wants the territory as it was before 1984 — when it was recognised as existing in Pakistani space yet under non-military control. All this can be best described as going round and round in circles — till perpetuity.

To date no government, no army chief and no secretary has been able to come up with a plan to ‘solve’ the crisis. The situation is slightly different this year, following the Gayari sector tragedy that took place in April. General Kayani has publicly endorsed a move towards a resolution of the conflict — without unilateral withdrawal. It seems that even Mamnomhan Singh is ready to grant Pakistan’s wish by vacating his troops first — to show the world, not Pakistan, that India can handle ego with grace and resolve issues with arch enemies for bigger goals like international respect and personal legacy. “Well, he and President Musharraf almost reached an agreement on the basis of no-change-of-maps and self-rule. I think we should pursue that approach. In fact Sir Creek is easier, so we should start with that,” continues Vinod Mehta via email.

So how can this be best done? In Siachen: Conflict without End (2002), V. R. Raghavan, the former Commanding General of the Siachen sector and the Chief of Staff of the Northern Command, who was present in the second, third and fourth round of talks with Pakistan, lays out a roadmap for lasting peace: a) Ceasefire b) Monitoring of the ceasefire for two years or more to build trust c) Getting advice from developed countries on best technical means of surveillance d) Troop reduction in specific sectors or across the Saltoro Range e) An agreement to not use military force, simultaneously recognising each party’s territorial claims f) After the final force pull-out, the Saltoro Range should be left to its own device g) Fifty years should pass to undo the damage done to the area by military battles/exercises.

Lt General Shuaib has a similar perspective. “The forces can be asked to undertake a gradual withdrawal instead of an instant one. We can monitor if they go back two metres or not. The maps are now up-to-date and we know the area well enough due to satellite topography and personal knowledge. The post areas can be marked on the maps. The troops can be called back, and debate and discussion can continue on paper and maps. Mark my words, the day the political leadership of this country wants a withdrawal, it will happen.”

This article was originally published in the June issue under the headline “Our Collective Waterloo.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.