The utility of staying on at Siachen

Staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves extreme hardship and cost for a mere barren block of ice.

An avalanche buried 124 people, mostly soldiers but also some civilians at a Pakistani army camp at Gyari near Siachen. Even if the missing and the dead are soldiers who are lingering manifestations of an original invasion, repeated aggression and an long-drawn but still ongoing war against India, our humanity makes many of us lament the human toll.

The tragedy has triggered two understandable but misguided reactions among the public and in the media. The first blames the tragedy (and by extension, the costs, the injuries and loss of lives) on the rivalry between Pakistan and India, contending that both sides could avoid wasting blood and treasure if they were to avoid such futile confrontations, if not solve their all differences. The logical implication is that India is partly responsible for the loss at Gyari. Reasonable as it may appear to be, it is untenable. The Pakistani soldiers were deployed at Gyari on the orders of their military and government leaders. If the Pakistani leadership prized the lives of these soldiers than whatever they have at stake at Siachen then they could have ended the deployment. They can do so even today.

There is nothing to stop either side from unilaterally pulling their troops out of the ‘world’s highest battleground’. Ergo, the moral responsibility for whatever happens to their troops lies solely with the leadership that sent them there. This applies as much to India as it does to Pakistan.

The second reaction laments an expensive confrontation over a remote, barren and uninhabitable region and sees it as useless and futile. But staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves avoidable expense and extreme hardship for a huge block of ice. It essentially tells the other side “if we can go to such lengths to keep a big, useless block of ice, imagine what lengths we’d go to keep something more valuable.” Again, this applies to both sides. Both India and Pakistan signal their commitment by staying in the region. (For more details, see this post from April 2006.) The difference is that Pakistan is signalling its strategic commitment to an invasion it started in 1947 and India is signalling its strategic commitment to defending against the same.

This difference makes all the difference. It is morally perverse to preach the “futility of war” to the side that has been invaded. In fact, if potential aggressors do not believe your commitment to defend your territory as credible, they are less likely to accept the futility of war. They might calculate that the benefits of aggression will outweigh the costs—and like General Musharraf in 1999—decide to try their luck. After the Kargil war, Indian troops are stationed in the Dras area, in conditions similar or worse than those at Siachen. The expense of defending the Line of Control in winter and the hardship Indian soldiers go through deters another Kargil-like war.

So, showing commitment to defend is one of the best ways of persuading potential aggressors of the “futility of war”. Yes, this causes others to suspect aggressive intent and act in ways that would further appear threatening to us, causing us to strengthen our commitment and so on. This “security dilemma” sets off arms races that raise the proportion of national income allocated to defence. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished away. It must be managed.

None of this is to say that demilitarisation of the Siachen area is a bad idea. Rather, it is to debunk the notion that India is engaged in a unnecessary, wasteful or futile exercise over the glacier. If the conditions on the ground change such that it is no longer necessary to show this commitment, then the Indian army can descend to warmer climes. The real question everyone ought to ask is what might those conditions be.

, , , , , , ,

3 Responses to The utility of staying on at Siachen

  1. Harish Puri 9th April 2012 at 17:38 #

    What total bullshit! India should unilaterally withdraw all its troops from this icy hell hole – we are big enough and strong enough to blunt any misadventure undertaken by Pakistan – and we don’t have to lose lives needlessly to the elements just to prove that!

    • SV 11th April 2012 at 00:11 #

      You mean go to war with a country that has no no-first-use-of-nukes policy? According to the same logic, we could reclaim PoK anytime right? Also don’t forget that Pak is supported by the biggest power in the region(China).

      The best best for India is to stay put and hope Pak gives up on Siachen. We can expedite that by making our technology better and the economy bigger.

  2. pratyush 14th May 2012 at 09:56 #

    Hi,

    Upon reading your article, I was left with an impression that the Pakistani, leadership, is essentially telling India what Dhritrashtra told the pandavas. On the eve of Mahabharat. When he sent his emmessary to the hall of Ydhishtir.

    It is sad that the media of India and the so called Indian commentators have forgotten the lesson.

More in Foreign Affairs, Security (45 of 2681 articles)


We lose the middle when we debate the extremes Here's an excerpt from a report in The Hindu filed by ...