Demonstrating commitment at Siachen

India must climb down from the Saltoro ridge entirely on its own terms.

A reasonable argument can be made, in narrow military terms, that India has not much to lose by pulling back its troops from the heights in the vicinity of the Siachen glacier. Such a move would not only save money (between $0.3 million and $0.5 million a day) and lives (almost one casualty every two days). It would also be a concrete step forward in the peace process with Pakistan, for India will be conceding ground — not merely to Pakistan, but specifically to the Pakistani army — in a theatre where it holds a military advantage. So much has the peace process become synonymous with Indian handouts that it requires bigger and meatier doses of the latter merely to survive. Since, as many argue, the Siachen region has no military-strategic significance anyway, shouldn’t demilitarising Siachen be a no-brainer as far as India is concerned?

The argument about financial costs is largely an emotional one, a high-altitude version of the dubious guns vs butter argument. The opportunity cost of demilitarisation can be equally high. For example, in July 1999 one commentator in the Economic & Political Weekly argued that the $4 million India was spending per day in the early stages of the Kargil war “is simply the price the government of India wants the country to pay for militarily ‘reoccupying’ the heights ‘lost’ in the first place because of its own folly”. With regard to the anticipated agreement over Siachen, it is being argued that the prospect of becoming an international pariah will dissuade Pakistan from reneging on the deal. That is a double assumption: that Pakistan will become an international pariah and that it cares about such things. Relying on international moral or diplomatic opprobium to compel any state, not least Pakistan, is at best an uninsured course of action.

On the other hand, there is concrete historical evidence that Indian softness, especially of the military kind, has encouraged Pakistani military adventurism. India’s pussyfooted response to probing Pakistani attacks in the Rann of Kutch in early 1965 encouraged Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to launch Operation Gibraltar and the Indo-Pak war of 1965.

Pakistan knows that Siachen is costly for India. For that reason, it will see the decision to maintain its positions against all odds as a demonstration of commitment on the part of India to defend itself at all costs (pun unintended). Such a commitment forms the basis of conventional deterrence. In addition to modernisation of the armed forces, their doctrines and the reinforcement of defensive positions on the border and the Line of Control, it is the demonstration of the will to do the implausible and the irrational that gives teeth to the deterrence.

Najmuddin Shaikh, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, has held that the Pakistani position on Siachen is right on all counts because although the demarcation of the line beyond point NJ9842 was put down as “and thence north to the Glaciers” in the Karachi Agreement, ‘the interpretation Pakistan placed on North was “north-east”’. For a country given to such interpretations of even elementary geography, India’s decision to maintain a presence in the region was never a fool’s errand as it is sometimes made out to be.

Neither should demilitarisation of the Siachen region be taken lightly. Pakistan has not agreed to demarcate the Actual Ground Position Line, for doing so would reveal the lies its army has been feeding its own citizens (via Maverick). Despite having learnt that it never pays to rely on international observers to be impartial arbitrators in disputes with Pakistan, India is on the course to agreeing that it will accept physical verification of the respective positions by third-party defence attaches. Accepting Musharraf’s word without requisite collateral is a major risk that Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is taking (via Interested Onlooker). Despite the impatience of the tongawallahs of the peace-process, India should only climb down from the Saltoro range only when Pakistan is ready to accept its terms.