A tragedy at a Pakistani military outpost in the Himalayan region close to the Indian border has brought the world’s highest battleground – the Siachen glacier - back into the spotlight. On April 7, an avalanche buried over 120 Pakistani soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region. Amidst rescue efforts, it was time to yet again mull over the apparent futile exercise of controlling an inhospitable strip of land. The Line of Control (LoC) demarcates the boundary between India and Pakistan in the disputed region of Kashmir. This de facto boundary is clearly defined up to a point known as NJ 9842 beyond which the demarcation remains vague. Both the 1949 Karachi agreement (which established a cease-fire line to be monitored by observers from the United Nations) and the 1972 Simla Agreement (signed after the 1971 war) presumed the region north of the NJ9842 was infeasible for human habitation. For 35 years since independence, both India and Pakistan felt no compulsions to position troops in what was essentially no man’s land. That changed in 1984. From the beginning of the 1970s, the Pakistani government authorized mountaineering expeditions on the glacier. When the Indians discovered this movement (‘Time’ magazine reported that the news reached the Indians through their mountaineering gear manufacturer which also supplied Pakistan), they reciprocated by sending expedition teams. In April 1984, India preempted Pakistan’s plans by launching Operation Meghdoot and the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force went into the glacier. Pakistan retaliated by deploying troops as well. It is important to note that the Pakistani side of the glacier is lower ground while the Indians control the heights providing them the tactical advantage. Since 1984 both sides continued to launch small-scale efforts to displace each other. The Kargil War in 1999 has also been popularly seen as an extension of this standoff. Even Pakistan’s military head and architect of the Kargil War, General Pervez Musharraf, repeatedly sought to justify his actions in Kargil by alluding to Siachen. Up until the 2003 cease fire, these mountaineering expeditions continued to provoke conflict.
According to Indian estimates, sustaining deployment at Siachen had cost India over Rs. 50 billion and almost 2,000 personnel casualties till 1997. Only 3 percent of casualties on the Indian side can be attributed to hostile firing. The remaining 97 percent succumbed to extreme terrain and weather conditions. The Pakistanis, being positioned at a lower altitude, face avalanches among other treacherous conditions. Over 1,300 Pakistani soldiers died on Siachen between 1984 and 1999. Here again combat casualties are a relatively minuscule proportion. With the recent avalanche on the Pakistani side, there are growing calls for both nations to end deployments to these elevations (some as high as 22,000 feet). The designation of the entire Siachen region as a Siachen Peace Park to prevent further environmental degradation is one such proposal that has even been touted as a confidence building measure between India and Pakistan. Another suggestion has been the use of cooperative aerial monitoring to help de-militarize the region which, with its inhospitable conditions, lacks significant strategic value. Since Kashmir dispute is also intrinsically tied to the Siachen sector, demilitarizing the glacier could also become a crucial step towards its resolution.
The above proposals face strong opposition from policymakers on both sides. Indian hardliners believe Siachen remains a key strategic asset. It physically separates India from it key regional adversaries of China and Pakistan. The extremely high trust deficit as a result of past experience (including Kargil) makes it highly unlikely that the Indians would give demilitarization a second thought. The military establishment views the 1984 "victory" over Pakistan as a major achievement and would not dream of parting with Siachen. The Pakistanis do not want to let go as any withdrawal might add legitimacy to India’s claim on Kashmir. Another key motivation is Pakistan’s fascination with low-intensity conflict and Siachen remains a front where it can bleed the Indian military. The avalanche may have once again raked up the issue of futile hostilities, but, as has always been the norm with India and Pakistan, tragedies have had little impact in defusing this enduring rivalry.
Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is an editorial assistant for the online section of the Georgetown Journal and a student in the MA in Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.