The 75-km long Siachen glacier sits astride two disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China and covers about 10,000 sq km uninhabited terrain. Along with other glaciers in this area, it is an important source of water to the Indus river which passes through Ladakh and Kargil, and into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Siachen is claimed by India on the basis of accession of J&K to India in October 1947 and the India-Pakistan Karachi Agreement of 1949 which described the ceasefire line beyond Point NJ 9842 on the map to be ‘thence north to the glaciers’.
Thirty years ago, an alert Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen M.L. Chibber, deployed troops to pre-empt Pakistan’s military occupation of Siachen and ensured against India ceding this territory by default. The Indian Army occupied the Soltoro Ridge, which runs northwards to secure the glacier and territory to its east.
The military significance of this deployment is that (a) it dominates Pakistani positions west of the Soltoro Ridge and blocks infiltration possibilities into the Shyok valley of Ladakh (b) it prevents Pakistani military adventurism in Turtuk and areas to its south, and (c) its northern-most position at Indira Col overlooks the Shaqsgam valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, ceded illegally by Pakistan to China in 1963, and denies Pakistan an access to Karakoram Pass. Since 1984, the line dividing the military forces of India and Pakistan in the area north of NJ 9842 has come to be known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).
Siachen has always been considered a military setback by Pakistan. That the Pakistan army is nowhere near the glacier is a fact never mentioned in public and serves as a psychological drain. When Pervez Musharraf commanded the Special Services Group in Gilgit-Baltistan, he made several futile attempts to capture Indian posts near Bilafond La and suffered casualties. One of the military objectives of the Pakistan army during the Kargil war was to recapture a part of Siachen and cut off our vital communication links to this area. It failed.
In the 1950s, China constructed a strategic road connecting Tibet to Xinjiang through Aksai Chin. The dispute over Aksai Chin became one of the triggers for the Sino-Indian war of 1962. In 1963, Pakistan and China signed a border agreement wherein Pakistan unilaterally ceded the Shaqsgam valley to China. This agreement described the eastern termination of the Sino-Pakistan boundary at the Karakoram Pass, ignoring “thence north to the glaciers” statement of the 1948 Karachi Agreement. This alignment and its demarcation were formalised through a protocol in 1987.
According to Senge H. Sering, a scholar from Gilgit-Baltistan, “China has a huge and long-term presence in Gilgit-Baltistan and is building extensive road, bridge and telecom networks to sustain it. The drivers compelling China to develop Karakoram Corridor are diverse and mainly pertain to its economic, strategic and political ambitions.” China’s control of Shaqsgam and other valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan enables it to connect them with the Karakoram highway and its military and industrial complexes of northwestern Tibet.
Notably, China has been willing to negotiate and settle the POK-China boundary with Pakistan. But they have refused to discuss the LAC or Chinese boundary with J&K on our side. Instead, they have repeatedly given several signals that Ladakh is a ‘disputed’ area ranging from issuing ‘stapled visas’ to visitors from J&K and refusing a visa to the GOC-in-C, Northern Command, who was to make an official visit to China as a part of the ongoing military level exchanges, to name a few.
The view among some in India that Siachen is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ amongst India-Pakistan disputes but the Indian Army does not allow it to be resolved is unjustified. Given the strategic importance of Siachen, three major factors that influence efforts to resolve the Siachen issue with Pakistan are: Indo-Pak trust level, the Sino-Pak nexus, and technological developments affecting its geography.
Decades ago, when India and Pakistan started discussions on demilitarization of Siachen, Pakistan’s demand was that India should withdraw its troops to the pre-1972 positions which were to the east of the line joining NJ 9842 and Karakoram Pass. Pakistan did not and has not till date agreed to authenticate and delineate the AGPL and existing troops’ locations. This was not acceptable as it would have given considerable geographical advantage to the Pakistan army to access the Saltoro Ridge and the glacier and also recognise the line joining NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass.
The lack of trust between India and Pakistan is well known. Without formal authentication of the AGPL, how does one detect any future encroachment into this area? It must be stated here that no amount of existing technology can have fool-proof surveillance/capability to detect small scale infiltration, sufficient to hold and defend a tactical feature in this terrain.
In 1997 when this issue came up for discussion, I pointed out the strategic and military pros and cons to the then Prime Minister. Someone asked what the Army could do if Pakistan violated the agreement any time later. I said that it would not be possible to re-capture the Soltoro Ridge. We would have no alternative other than to capture Pakistani territory somewhere else. This issue was not discussed thereafter.
In the initial stages, the occupation of Siachen, apart from a military effort of Herculean proportions, involved considerable financial drain. The sacrifices made by the Army and Air Force personnel on account of the harsh terrain and enemy actions can never be forgotten. However, over the years, with experience and ever improving technology, it has been possible to overcome terrain and sustenance problems substantially. Technological advancements in future can be expected to further offset these difficulties.
Should India forego its strategic advantage due to cost-benefit ratio analyses? Or, because not a blade of grass grows in the area? Certainly not. At the strategic level, one requires a long memory and a longer foresight and vision. We should look ahead and ask ourselves: (a) Can we trust Pakistan to the extent of foregoing authentication of the AGPL after what its army did across the formally delineated LoC in Kargil? (b) What long-term strategic advantages will accrue to the Sino-Pak nexus? How will it affect our political (Parliament’s) stand on Aksai Chin under China’s and Gilgit-Baltistan under Pakistan’s occupation? We must keep these factors in mind when discussing this subject.
The author, Gen VP Malik PVSM,
VSM (Retd) is a former COAS of the
Indian Army. This essay is courtesy
http:/ /www.tribuneindia.com where it
appeared on 21st April 2014.