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.

The Italian militants in Waziristan

Managing cognitive dissonance, the Rawalpindi way

In Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia’s chronicles her journey from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province to its source in Tibet. It is part-travelogue, part-history book, part-commentary on contemporary society and completely readable. Here she is on the Pakistani side, trying to get close to the Line of Control.

Engaged to be married, (the soldier) is being sent to Siachen once he has returned me to Skardu. The tone in which he utters that name betrays his dread. All the soldiers hate it: the glacier where nothing else lives, the high altitude, the inhuman living conditions. They shave off their heads before they go, then slam on their caps and do not remove them until they get back to Skardu, such is the danger of frostbite. In Baltistan, Siachen is known cynically as the army’s Kuwait: ‘the soldiers are paid double, they get very rich,’ a jealous resident of Skardu tells me. But the shiny-cheeked officer protests at the unfairness of this statement: ‘We spend all our extra pay just on rations to make life bearable.’ he says.

‘What is the point?’ I ask. ‘Why are you doing it?’ He looks shaken, and hesitates before answering: ‘To serve my country.’

(Ever since their first foray into the valley of Kashmir in 1947, the army has been labelling the incursions of its own soldiers ‘militant activity’). In 1999, the army once again called the soldiers ‘Mujahideen’, but in Skardu, I meet a man who was employed during the war to cross the border and collect these dead ‘martyrs’. ‘That’s when we Baltis knew there was a war going on,’ he says: ‘wen we saw the bodies of our relatives.’ Even after India captured some of the ‘Mujahideen’, and proved that they were army soldiers, Pakistan continued to insist that the men were not ‘regular army recruits’. This was semi-true: most of those sent to die in Kargil were soldiers local to the disputed Northern Areas, and thus not part of a standard regiment. Forbidden to wear uniforms, disguised instead in tracksuits as militants, the soldiers were ill-equipped for war.

Then there was the ordeal of fighting their co-religionists. The Northern Areas is predominantly Shia—as is Kargil in India. ‘Wo bhi kafir hain [They too are unbelievers],’ a Sunni officer was rumoured to have shouted at a reluctant Shia soldier.’Shoot’.

The Punjabi officers threat Shias as Kafirs, and lies are peddled to young recruits, to make killing fellow Muslims bearable. During the journey from Skardu to Hamzigon, my shiny-cheeked escort draws a parallel with army operations in Waziristan: ‘Ninety-nine percent of the militants killed there by the Pakistan Army were non-Muslim,’ he says. ‘So?’ I ask, amazed. ‘They were Russian, Spanish, Italian,’ he says; ‘internal army reports have confirmed this.’ [Alice Alibinia/Empires of the Indus pp248-250]

Related Links: The book’s official website; and Jai Arjun Singh interviews Ms Albinia over at Jabberwock